interview

An archive of posts tagged interview.

Interview with a Veteran Video Game Developer #1

9 min read

I recently circulated a few questions to some veteran video gamedevelopers I know about their experience and their insight into videogame development. The 1st response I received is from StuartHarrison 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 findout what Stuart had to say…#### Join InIf you've been making video games for more than 5 yrs simply [send meyour answers](http://game-linchpin/contact) to the questions below along with a little bio and I'll happily post good responses. I look forward to hearing from youWhat inspired you to start developing games?Doom! In fact, I think it was Doom’s vast (and probably unintended) 3rdparty editing utilities that got me hooked. I was even credited withdiscovering (by trial and error) the full functionality of some of thetriggers.How did you get to where you are today (university course? Trial and error? Etc)I went to Birmingham University to study Chemical Engineering (aftersome duff careers advice) and only when I was there did I discover therewas such a thing as “Software Engineering”. I’d been programming on theZX Spectrum since I was 10 and never believed you could actually make acareer out of it. After the degree I applied to lots of local gamescompanies, including Rare and Codemasters (both of whom interviewed mebut ultimately turned me down - in retrospect I can fully understandwhy, but at the time I knew they were missing out), before eventuallygetting a job as an AI programmer (and then only just) at a companycalled NMS Software, in Aldridge. Within 3 months of starting there I’dmade such an impression I’d been given two pay rises and been promotedto Lead Programmer. From there it’s been a rocky, but mostly upwardsprogression!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 (Iprefer “challenging”) - but the most challenging aspects are trying to“find the fun”. It’s annoying, but just part of the process, when youdevelop a section of gameplay then find out it just isn’t fun and isn’tfixable and has to be scrapped entirely. I’m sure the same is true ofall creative industries - think of all the film footage that must end upon 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 (orwhatever) and see what kinds of people will pick it up off a shelf andlook at it. By far the most satisfying experience was when I met up withmy step-brother (who I don’t get along with especially well) at a familygathering for Christmas one year. He mentioned a new game that he andhis family had been playing recently and having fun with, and it turnedout to be Buzz Sports. I mentioned that I was lead programmer on thatand 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 closeto an old-school polymath as possible in this business as a broad baseof knowledge and experience serves well when it comes to problem solvingwhen your back is against the wall. Inspiration can come from the mostobscure 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 andit’s never a bad thing. I think that’s part of the creative process. Ifpeople could design games on paper, it would not be a fun industry to bein. The fact that it’s not possible to design things on paper (otherthan broad brush-strokes of an idea) make it interesting and challengingand something that fires you out of bed on a morning. You need constantassessment and evaluation and belief that it’s all going to come good inthe 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 tostick to your guns if you know something is right, but it’s alwaysimportant to accept constructive criticism. In some ways, shows like E3are a double-edged sword. You generally get positive or neutral responsefrom the press (I guess because they don’t want big heavy publisherspulling advertising revenues if they say negative things), but theforums are often full of negative comments. It can be worth readingbetween the lines on the negative comments and extracting the core ofthe message and perhaps changing the game design to suit. But thenagain, it’s just as easy to let the tide wash over you and continueunabated. I’d say a measured response is best - if you trust the opinionand 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 talkedabout. This implies it needs to be the sort of game that is played bythe “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 isone of those questions that if I knew the formula for, I’d be out theredoing 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 theynever were. I’ve been on projects where I practically pleaded for theopportunity to complete and they were cancelled anyway. Sometimes thereseems to be no logic to this. Fortunately I’ve never been put in thesituation 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 behonest, it happens with every project to a greater or lesser degree.We’re not all Peter Molyneux with unlimited budgets and imaginations. Wehave to do the best with the time and the money we’re given andsometimes features that you were hoping to get in have to be cut at thelast 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 outthere, not all of it is to my personal taste. A lot of developmenteffort appears to go into releasing the same game every year - just lookat how many releases PES or FIFA have had and racing games aren’t farbehind. It’s nice to play games (like flOw a few years ago) that areunique in what they bring to the world of gaming - and I’d like to seemore 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 atime 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 tomake iPhone games nowadays. I think the games industry is stillremarkably immature, even after being around for perhaps 30 years, withdecisions being made as a matter of heart, not of head. A lot of moneyis wasted on pointless projects while at the same time there are dozensof great little independents crying out for a slice of the pie. All partof 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 barto people getting into the industry has got to be a good thing. The UKis currently struggling to get decent staff to fill games vacancies andI think part of that reason is that times have changed to a degree. WhenI was growing up it was dead easy to write your own programs, type themin from magazines, or just edit existing ones. It’s not quite so easy ona modern games console, so I applaud every effort made in thisdirection.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’sa lot of distrust within the industry about the quality of some of the“games” degrees that are being offered at present and perhaps some ofthe better (more enthusiastic) people are being enticed to take on thesedegrees when a broader degree (not focussed on games) would give them awider selection of skills. In my position as a recruiter I’m far morelikely to look at someone with a Computer Science / Software Engineering/ Maths and CS / .. degree than someone with a “Computer GamesTechnology” 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 theright job these days (in the right part of the country) that this is aquestion that repeated comes back to me. I ask myself whether we’relikely to see 55 year old computer games programmers in 10-15 years timeand I think the answer might be yes, but it could so easily be no. Wherewould they all go then? Honestly I’m not sure. Mostly I’ve survived bybeing flexible and moving to where the work was, but the older I get themore difficult that becomes as you start a family and want to settledown. Unless you’re lucky enough to plant your roots in one of thecrucibles of games development in this country (Brighton, London,Surrey, Leamington, Liverpool/Manchester, Cambridge), the future islooking 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 toseeing how Kinect and Move work out. It’s a bold experiment by bothMicrosoft and Sony, both of whom felt they needed to moving into thespace occupied by Nintendo, who, undoubtedly, are going to play anothertrump card in the next 18 months or so that will shatter everything. I’dlike to believe Microsoft when they say they have no plans to iterate onXbox360, it would be great to have some stability in the platform arenafor a decade or so. We shall see…Do you have any other comments?Yeah, ask fewer questions next time!