I recently circulated a few questions to some veteran video game developers I know about their experience and their insight into video game development. The 1st response I received is from Stuart Harrison who has been programming games since 1995. Stuart is currently a Lead Programmer at Sony Computer Entertainment and continues to be a top game developer.
I’d like to thank Stuart for his contribution and please read on to find out what Stuart had to say…
What inspired you to start developing games?
Doom! In fact, I think it was Doom’s vast (and probably unintended) 3rd party editing utilities that got me hooked. I was even credited with discovering (by trial and error) the full functionality of some of the triggers.
How did you get to where you are today (university course? Trial and error? Etc)
I went to Birmingham University to study Chemical Engineering (after some duff careers advice) and only when I was there did I discover there was such a thing as “Software Engineering”. I’d been programming on the ZX Spectrum since I was 10 and never believed you could actually make a career out of it. After the degree I applied to lots of local games companies, including Rare and Codemasters (both of whom interviewed me but ultimately turned me down - in retrospect I can fully understand why, but at the time I knew they were missing out), before eventually getting a job as an AI programmer (and then only just) at a company called NMS Software, in Aldridge. Within 3 months of starting there I’d made such an impression I’d been given two pay rises and been promoted to Lead Programmer. From there it’s been a rocky, but mostly upwards progression!
What qualities – apart from decent gaming designing – and factors should you have and consider when deciding to make a game (from an independent point of view)
If I knew I’d be doing it!
What’s the most frustrating thing when developing a game?
I’ve been doing it so long it’s no longer a frustrating experience (I prefer “challenging”) - but the most challenging aspects are trying to “find the fun”. It’s annoying, but just part of the process, when you develop a section of gameplay then find out it just isn’t fun and isn’t fixable and has to be scrapped entirely. I’m sure the same is true of all creative industries - think of all the film footage that must end up on the cutting room floor…
What’s the most satisfying thing when you’ve finished developing a game (or even during)?
Seeing it on a shelf in a store - I will sometimes pop in to Game (or whatever) and see what kinds of people will pick it up off a shelf and look at it. By far the most satisfying experience was when I met up with my step-brother (who I don’t get along with especially well) at a family gathering for Christmas one year. He mentioned a new game that he and his family had been playing recently and having fun with, and it turned out to be Buzz Sports. I mentioned that I was lead programmer on that and had a big smile on the inside. Incredibly satisfying.
Where do you tend to get your ideas from?
The most unusual places. I think it’s important to try and be as close to an old-school polymath as possible in this business as a broad base of knowledge and experience serves well when it comes to problem solving when your back is against the wall. Inspiration can come from the most obscure angle, but (I’m guessing) only if you’ve been there before.
Are there times when your finished version of a game is different to what you initially planned? Is this necessarily a bad thing?
I don’t think the finished version has ever been how I imagined it and it’s never a bad thing. I think that’s part of the creative process. If people could design games on paper, it would not be a fun industry to be in. The fact that it’s not possible to design things on paper (other than broad brush-strokes of an idea) make it interesting and challenging and something that fires you out of bed on a morning. You need constant assessment and evaluation and belief that it’s all going to come good in the end.
Do you tend to change your ideas based on reaction from people or do you stick to what you had in mind?
Well that depends a lot on circumstances. In some ways it’s good to stick to your guns if you know something is right, but it’s always important to accept constructive criticism. In some ways, shows like E3 are a double-edged sword. You generally get positive or neutral response from the press (I guess because they don’t want big heavy publishers pulling advertising revenues if they say negative things), but the forums are often full of negative comments. It can be worth reading between the lines on the negative comments and extracting the core of the message and perhaps changing the game design to suit. But then again, it’s just as easy to let the tide wash over you and continue unabated. I’d say a measured response is best - if you trust the opinion and position of the person making the comment, be prepared to back down; if you don’t, file the comment and move on.
What factors help in making an independent game a success and stand out?
I guess the most important aspect is that it’s widely known and talked about. This implies it needs to be the sort of game that is played by the “facebook generation” who are tapped into disseminating information. I think it would stand the best chance if it appeals to a wide audience, both male and female, of all ages (but mainly younger). Again, this is one of those questions that if I knew the formula for, I’d be out there doing it…
Have you ever had any projects that you cancelled? If so, why?
No. I’ve been on projects that I thought should be cancelled and they never were. I’ve been on projects where I practically pleaded for the opportunity to complete and they were cancelled anyway. Sometimes there seems to be no logic to this. Fortunately I’ve never been put in the situation of having to make that (oftentimes) illogical decision.
Have you had your projects altered in anyway due to circumstances (e.g. financial troubles)
There have been a couple of projects where that has happened, but to be honest, it happens with every project to a greater or lesser degree. We’re not all Peter Molyneux with unlimited budgets and imaginations. We have to do the best with the time and the money we’re given and sometimes features that you were hoping to get in have to be cut at the last minute… c’est la vie.
What genre of games (or styles like demakes for example) would you like to see being developed more?
I personally love strategy games and while there is a lot of choice out there, not all of it is to my personal taste. A lot of development effort appears to go into releasing the same game every year - just look at how many releases PES or FIFA have had and racing games aren’t far behind. It’s nice to play games (like flOw a few years ago) that are unique in what they bring to the world of gaming - and I’d like to see more of that too.
Do you think the independent community scene is thriving, diminishing or at the same level as it has been for years?
It’s both thriving and diminishing at the same time. I can’t remember a time in the past that has seen so many large independent studios closed, but at the same time, everyone and their brother appear to be trying to make iPhone games nowadays. I think the games industry is still remarkably immature, even after being around for perhaps 30 years, with decisions being made as a matter of heart, not of head. A lot of money is wasted on pointless projects while at the same time there are dozens of great little independents crying out for a slice of the pie. All part of the cycle of life…
Do you think projects like the XNA Creators Club Online is a good way to boost awareness to the independent scene?
I’m not very familiar with that, but anything that lowers the entry bar to people getting into the industry has got to be a good thing. The UK is currently struggling to get decent staff to fill games vacancies and I think part of that reason is that times have changed to a degree. When I was growing up it was dead easy to write your own programs, type them in from magazines, or just edit existing ones. It’s not quite so easy on a modern games console, so I applaud every effort made in this direction.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out making games?
Get a real job! No, seriously .. it’s hard to break in. I think there’s a lot of distrust within the industry about the quality of some of the “games” degrees that are being offered at present and perhaps some of the better (more enthusiastic) people are being enticed to take on these degrees when a broader degree (not focussed on games) would give them a wider selection of skills. In my position as a recruiter I’m far more likely to look at someone with a Computer Science / Software Engineering / Maths and CS / .. degree than someone with a “Computer Games Technology” degree.
How do you think you’ve survived this long developing games when so many people leave or get jaded?
I am jaded! And I have considered leaving. It’s so hard to find the right job these days (in the right part of the country) that this is a question that repeated comes back to me. I ask myself whether we’re likely to see 55 year old computer games programmers in 10-15 years time and I think the answer might be yes, but it could so easily be no. Where would they all go then? Honestly I’m not sure. Mostly I’ve survived by being flexible and moving to where the work was, but the older I get the more difficult that becomes as you start a family and want to settle down. Unless you’re lucky enough to plant your roots in one of the crucibles of games development in this country (Brighton, London, Surrey, Leamington, Liverpool/Manchester, Cambridge), the future is looking dim.
What are you most looking forwards to in the next 12 months?
Finding a real job! Ha, no, just kidding… I’m looking forward to seeing how Kinect and Move work out. It’s a bold experiment by both Microsoft and Sony, both of whom felt they needed to moving into the space occupied by Nintendo, who, undoubtedly, are going to play another trump card in the next 18 months or so that will shatter everything. I’d like to believe Microsoft when they say they have no plans to iterate on Xbox360, it would be great to have some stability in the platform arena for a decade or so. We shall see…
Do you have any other comments?
Yeah, ask fewer questions next time!