Video-Game Programmer: Making a Passion Profitable

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Video games are, by definition, fun. They’ve been a flashy, alluring pastime for the nearly four decades of their existence. For the lucky few, however, video games have become a job. These guys are game programmers, and industry demand for them is swelling.

According to a recent Variety article, the video game sector was up 13 percent in January, tipping the scales at $1.3 billion. Software sales themselves were up 10 percent.

“When I started out making PC games for my first job, we were on three- or four-person teams, and the whole team making the game — the designers, art and everything — was like 10 people,” said Noel Llopis, an independent game programmer. “By the time I’d done my last game at High Moon, which was the ‘Bourne Identity’ game for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, we had a team of almost 200 people. So it really changed a lot in 10 years.”

Paid for Their Passion

For most students, video games are a distraction from studies. For a fledgling professional video-game programmer, the situation is somewhat the opposite. A programmer needs a solid grasp of C++, the main programming language for game development, as well as fairly high-level math skills, Llopis said.

“They need a good grasp of linear algebra because computer games are all about linear algebra — matrices, vectors, rotations and translations and all that — and really good grasp of basic algorithms — being comfortable with things like sorting, trees and data structures,” he said. “Those are all key things.”

One new development in education for game programming is that in recent years, universities and colleges have begun offering degrees fully dedicated to game development. Llopis dubs these a mixed bag. He said they have potential but can date-stamp a student’s skills to the present day instead of providing them with an overall education that will allow them to grow and adapt as the market changes.

“They can be really good and concentrate on what you really need, but the flipside of that is they can become more like a vocational school,” he said. “You learn skills that you need right now, and two years from now a new generation of consoles comes out and you lose those skills.”

Llopis started out with a computer systems engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, after which he moved on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to pursue a doctorate. Game programming, while his passion, was only a hobby at this point; his long-term plan was to become a professor.

Eventually, however, Llopis thought to himself, “Wouldn’t it be funny if someone actually paid me to do [what] I’m doing all the time on my own?”

So Llopis began a concentrated job search and was able to secure work as a game programmer, “sometimes specializing more on graphics, sometimes more networking.”

“I really touched all areas of game development,” he said. “I became a lead after a few years, actually leading the program inside of the game [and] managing other programmers.”

He’s also worked on research and development teams, researching future technical challenges and opportunities.

“We were looking at PlayStation 3 multithreading and photorealistic renderings and how can we use that,” he said.

In the past decade, he’s passed through a number of companies and now is on his second start-up.

A Day in the Life

As you might expect, a typical day for a game programmer is more relaxed than at most office jobs. For one thing, it involves much more flexible work hours.

“Usually there isn’t something like, ‘OK, everybody has to be here by 8 a.m.,’” Llopis said. “It’s more like, ‘You can come in here anytime you want but no later than this time’ because they want to make sure that everybody overlaps at the office for a few hours so they can have meetings.”

This does not mean the programmers are barely ever in the office. Long hours can be common, but they’re generally by choice.

“In some places, people work a lot of hours because they’re really excited and motivated,” Llopis said.

While programmers certainly spend a great deal of time by themselves concentrating on writing code, the job also is characterized by a lot of interaction in the form of meetings and ongoing consultation within a team.

“There’s usually at least one meeting a day with your programmers or some artists and designers to think about future features,” Llopis said. “But even when you’re not in meetings there’s a lot of communication with other programmers,” as programmers seek advice and assist each other with tasks.

This is where the game programmer job role has changed the most: in the need for good communication skills. Llopis said 10-15 years ago, such soft skills were not needed “because with the really tiny teams of three people or maybe even just one, they could just sit in an office and be the stereotypical mad scientist programmer by himself coming up with this genius thing.”

In the game programming world today, higher-level soft skills are needed for a programmer to get anything accomplished and grow as a professional.

“When you have 200 people on a team and you have 30 or 40 programmers, the day-to-day thing is interaction, so being a good communicator is very important,” Llopis said. “[As a programmer, you should] both be able to express your ideas to other people, get them approved and get feedback, but also be able to listen to other people and give feedback in ways that are constructive.”

Programmers also have become increasingly specialized in the game-play tasks they address on a day-to-day basis.

“A programmer may program just one particular thing,” Llopis said. “It’s not unheard of that one programmer might spend one whole month making the rain look better.”

Digital Flowers

Surveying the current state of the video-game market, it seems likely that programmers will be more and more in demand in years to come. Gaming platforms such as the PlayStation and Xbox are increasingly robust, while the Nintendo Wii is expanding the appeal of video games to previously untapped markets, such as seniors and fitness enthusiasts. It also holds an appeal as a social tool, removing the stigma of video games as an antisocial activity.

Further, video games are moving beyond console and PC to new platforms, including the Web, iPhone and other cell phones. This is where Llopis has decided to dedicate himself for the time being. In October 2008, he started “Snappy Touch,” an application for the iPhone in which users grow digital flowers, unlocking different flowers as game play progresses. The game allows users to cut the flowers, arrange them in bouquets and send them to others with notes attached.

“I wanted to do something a little different,” he said. “I didn’t want to do the usual shooting and destroying things. I wanted to do something where people will be creating instead of destroying, something that would engage people at a different level. At the same time, I wanted something that people would be able to share with each other, which is nice [and] also has a certain viral component, so helps spread the word of the game.”

While the main thrust of what Llopis is doing remains game programming, in starting “Snappy Touch” he’s moving beyond that role, discovering the full process of launching a game.

“One of the things I’ve learned from doing a start-up is there’s a lot more than writing code,” he said. “When I was a programmer — even a lead — my time was programming or directly managing other programmers and doing things on my own. [Now] there are all these other things, which include getting the word out, sending copies to review sites, updating the Web site.”

The only task Llopis is not handling is art design, but he says this is minimal.

“The art doesn’t even include the flowers because they’re procedurally generated,” he said. “It’s DNA-like structuring code that makes them grow, so there’s no art that goes into the flowers. It’s mostly the flower pot and the texture playground and some background and stuff like that.”

While Llopis sees development of iPhone-based applications as the biggest growth industry in gaming at present, he noted that the computer-generated imagery of gaming dovetails with Hollywood’s appetite for special effects. As video games become big business, the game programmers of today may be the movie-makers of tomorrow. 

Daniel Margolis is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill. He has extensive experience covering information technology topics. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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