Origins of a Game Developer

Origins of a Game Developer

Growing up in Kentucky, I fell in love with video games, one coin at a time, in arcades. There were so many great games that inspired me. Early on it was Space Invaders, Asteroids and Galaxian. I was hooked by the relentless pursuit of a new high score.

I turned over my first million points on Galaga, a game that would become a favorite, not too long after its arrival in our little town.

I was so into arcade games that, after being hired to paint the logo of our new local arcade (that’s me, on the left), every quarter earned from the job found its way back to the arcade within weeks. Of course, the owner of the arcade already knew that’s what would happen.

That jet-fueled teenage competitive streak transformed into a much richer gaming experience by way of D&D. I was already lost to story and plot, improvisation and character when, wet behind my elf ears, I started college. I majored in art and theatre, but spent more time playing D&D and fiddling with computers and coding than in class or acting in plays. I enjoyed being a DM — but I absolutely loved battling wits with other DMs as a player.

I began to think about how I might blend the excitement of twitchy arcade mechanics with something like world-building in D&D, and that deceptively simple thought was what began a life-long relationship with creating and programming video games, starting with the humble TRS-80. The TRS-80, by today’s standards, was an exceedingly modest machine, and perhaps not all that well-suited to video games. But I managed to pound out my first adventure game on it, complete with battle mechanics and stat bonuses, in BASIC. The programming constraints were unimaginable by today’s standards.

I left college with a year to go, dreaming of working in video games. I moved to Indianapolis, Indiana and looked for companies making games, a futile quest at the time. I decided to keep making games on my own while working various other odd jobs for a few years, then went to college again, this time to study mathematics and creative writing. It was an unusual combo — I’m pretty sure I was the only student there doing it, and my advisers didn’t quite know what to think. I’d been a math and puzzle geek since my first algebra class in 7th grade, which was profound and revelatory, almost a religious experience; on the other hand I loved to write, mostly short fiction, and had some talent for it.

I TA’d my last two semesters, including a new calculus class where the professor would use Mathematica in the lab four days a week, while I would work through problems with chalk in hand every Friday from 9 am to noon. I thought it would be a cakewalk — who would want to work problems on the board on a Friday morning? I couldn’t have been more wrong — not only did most of the class show up, half the students from the same course in two other time slots started coming. It turned out that learning advanced calculus on a computer was not an easy thing, and the prof was so focused on the shiny goodness of graphing and playing with equations in software, there was never any time to practice.

After graduation I took a job at one of the biggest tech-like companies in Indy, Macmillan Publishing, developing reference books on programming, networking, and the newest technology on the block, the Internet.

I kept tinkering with games and graphics in my spare time, mainly on Windows. I can’t tell you the number of little games I wrote and programmed, though in all honesty most of them were more like tech demos. But with each new idea, OS version and language/compiler iteration (mostly C), I became more and more interested in graphics, eventually spending as much or more time finding ways to optimize rendering as programming game logic. I became obsessively interested in tools and 3D authoring and rendering, including a brief descent into the magnificent rabbit hole that was the Amiga (which, by then, was no longer even a supported platform).

At work, I moved up, and found myself producing video games in Macmillan’s small software division. We did mid-range and value PC titles and add-ons, and we had some real hits (and plenty of duds, too). I worked on some of the first early 3D games for the lower end of the PC market. I went to my first GDC, my first E3, then back again each year with a half-dozen programming/platform conferences in between. I got to meet stars like John Carmack and Sid Meier. I began to understand how the industry was evolving, what players valued, the different genres, game mechanics, gameplay.

I also played a ton of games on PC and consoles, and from Meridian 59 onward, was hooked on MMOs. A lot was going on both in gaming and with the Internet. Macmillan was willing to take some chances on new business models, and I was in the right place at the right time. We started a new business for distributing add-on levels for popular PC games; RealmX was a highly ambitious, very early attempt at a form of DLC, something now commonplace, but it failed spectacularly. We then created an even more ambitious web product called InformIT, which was arguably the first online collection of  professional technical books on the Internet, including books on games. It survives to this day. I’ll never forget the weeks it took us to finalize the first-cut of the data model. By the time we were finished, we had hundreds of sheets of whiteboard paper wrapping every wall in the office.

But by then it was 1999, and I was ready to up my game.

My first job in Silicon Valley had nothing to do with games, but it was a foot in the door. I was hired to help relaunch a large hotel reservations website, both the content system and the server framework. Back then there was no Google infrastructure or AWS like there is today — you had to roll your own on top of other, relatively nascent, software. One of most important things we did was to switch the back-end from Microsoft’s IIS to Apache — a decision prompted by the reality that two full-time, on-call engineers, whose primary job was to reboot the server every four hours, was utterly absurd.

In six months we were done, and by that time I had turned back toward gaming, to a startup in Mountain View. Staccato Systems developed an audio subsystem for the PC that replaced a $27 wavetable chip on sound cards and also was used to create unique audio effects in PC games. I came in with a focus on helping the games side of the business and wound up coding applications to make the core technology accessible and usable by game developers including EA, Lucas and a few others. It was remarkable tech — physically-modeled, logically-controlled audio at a granular level. The engineers I worked with there were absolute geniuses (and there was no shortage of egos), although it never failed to amuse me that, at the end of the day, they were mostly hard-working hackers, like most people who do anything authentically novel in software. Staccato’s technology was first licensed by AC97 Codec manufacturers SigmaTel and then Analog Devices. It was sold to Analog Devices for $30M in 2001.

Around the same time as the acquisition, a whole new game market was starting to make waves — mobile games. I started programming feature phone games and eventually moved into smartphones, around 2007 when the iPhone landed. Companies I worked for, and helped lead, won awards. We brought dozens of titles to market, including high-profile mobile games like Guitar Hero Mobile, Duke Nukem Mobile and Prey Invasion. I started to get a little recognition. I spoke at GDC a couple of times. I was a gameplay programmer, a senior software engineer and engine architect, then a VP of Production, then a CTO. Through it all I was continually amazed by the talent and dedication in the industry, an industry that was going places it had never been!

These days I’m still working on games and tools, but I get to hop around a bit more from project to project. Not long ago I helped bring a wonderful children’s game to Unity/HTML5 and before that spent over a year working on a mobile casino game, right after a couple of years engineering a large framework for performing, essentially, extensive mobile CAD functions in Unity.

There’s almost always something new and exciting to do (right now it’s VR/AR/MR/XR — yes, the acronyms never end!), though there’s nothing like a great new stealth project, or prototype, or a new take on an old shader, or a fresh API. So much to do, so little time! I’m still in love, and I’m comforted by the thought that my best game projects are ahead of me.