We talk about a lot of different things on GO30. It’s time to let someone else do the talking. A few months ago I set out with a goal to interview a video game developer. After several discussions, drafts, and emails, I bring you the completed work.
I have the pleasure of introducing you to John. John was gracious enough to spend some time answering our questions and putting up with multiple revisions of the interview. In order to protect John’s anonymity (and the company he works for), his real name and work location will not be revealed. The goal of the interview was to gain insight into the reality of being a video game developer. While John’s experience is personal to him, it nonetheless should take the veil off what it’s really like making games for a living.
Hi John. Thank you for taking the time to give us some insight on the industry. Can you give us a general overview of your position and what happens in a “typical” day?
“Thanks for taking an interest! My official title is Engine Programmer, but I think generalist is a more accurate description for my position. With the current project, I’m mostly working on the user interface elements of the game and the tools associated with these components. I’ve also worked in a variety of areas during the bug fix cycle as the project nears release.
I would say a typical day usually starts off with grabbing the latest source and game data from the server repository and kicking off a fresh build (also a good time to grab complimentary breakfast items 🙂 . Then it really depends on where the project is in the cycle. I might be working on a new feature, enhancing an existing feature, or fixing bugs. Towards the end of the project we’re pretty much entirely focused on fixing as many bugs as possible for the various submissions up to and including release.”
Our Take: This is probably as “normal” as it gets for software development. Every day is a little bit different. John works on a lot of different components and it’s likely hard to predict exactly what is going to happen one day to the next. Game development requires flexibility and John appears to confirm that as true. Also confirmed as true: Bug fixes never stop.
What would you say is the biggest difference between what the general public assumes you do versus what you really do? Is there anything you found surprising when you took the position?
“Well, I can’t claim to know what the general public thinks about people who work in the game industry. Most people find it intriguing when I mention my occupation in the game industry. They usually ask what games I am working on (which of course I can’t reveal)…then the conversation usually leads to the other person talking about games they’ve played or are currently playing. I find it encouraging that regardless of background or preferred platform, just about everyone I talk to has some experience with video games and has a positive response when the topic is brought up.
I can honestly say that I haven’t been met with too many surprises yet, but that is likely due to years of previous experience working on other software projects and already having a good idea what to expect going in. Having worked in other software industries for a number of years, I met several engineers that had previously worked in the game industry. They shared their stories and encouraged me to follow my dream of working in the industry as it was a good experience for them. They also spoke of the long hours and potential disagreements between management and development, especially when it comes to following best practices vs. just getting it done with whatever hacks that can be thrown at it. This is a common situation in any software industry and is something I had experienced in prior roles.
At the end of the day, one constant remains: the game must ship. It is absolutely critical that a game project hits its milestones up to and including release. Gamers don’t care what the code looks like, only that the game gets released, it works, and it’s fun to play.”
Our Take: John’s response reveals that video game development goes through the same challenge that most people working in the general software industry will face: doing the job “right” vs. getting it done. I have personally experienced it myself and it is a struggle as old as computers. Deadlines can be extended to some degree but at some point the video game, or software, must ship. John’s response is also very telling in regards to recent high profile flops in the industry (e.g. Mass Effect Andromeda). When development and management get too far behind schedule, the game is going to ship anyway, bugs and all. Lastly, if they have to do a hack-job to get something done, they will. John is right; Gamers don’t care if the underlying design is elegant or not, just as long as it works.
Is crunch time as bad as they say? We’ve all heard the stories surrounding the industry. Does it really involve developers/programmers/testers working 12 or more hours a day for weeks or months at a time?
“I can only speak from my own experience during my relatively short time in the industry so far. As with any task that requires a large time commitment and deadlines, it can be stressful. For starters, twelve or more hours a day is accurate, and crunch periods can span from a few weeks to months depending on how far behind the project is. As far as quality of life, I suppose it really depends on how accommodating the company is as well as individual time management. The company I work for provides daily meals for those in crunch mode and is also flexible in terms of how individuals choose to arrange their working hours.”
Our Take: Crunch time is real. A person working in this industry has to have a high tolerance for long work days and off-beat scheduling during the end of a project. When I went into this interview I had suspected that crunch time was an event that varied from studio to studio but I am coming around to seeing it as it is: a consistent event all across the industry.
When you play games, whether it be on PC or console, do you find yourself picking it apart or “judging” the way it was built?
“As with most gamers, I tend to be critical of overall performance, network latency, balance, and stability. At times I might draw inspiration from certain aspects of the game’s features. For example, I might see an interesting particle effect or object behavior that I want to incorporate in my own projects. That being said, most of the time my focus is on the challenges of the game itself, especially when facing other players online. In that environment there’s little to no time to stop and analyze engineering details! I save the analysis and critique for the games I’m currently working on or when comparing older titles and engines to modern ones.”
Our Take: This is more of a personal question so there isn’t a lot of analysis to be done. It’s nice to see games are still enjoyable for John even though he spends most of his time making them. As noted, they can be a source for inspiration as well.
Do you have any advice for anyone that is looking for a job in the industry? Is there anything that you recommend in terms of skills (technical or personal)?
“The best advice I can give for those seeking to break into the game industry is never quit trying and get in as soon as possible. It took me more than a decade of applying to a number of studios before I finally landed a developer position. Granted, I worked for a number of years at other software companies in the meantime. There were years that I wasn’t as aggressive with my applying as I could have been, mostly because I was enjoying the work I was doing and gaining experience. While I was employed outside of the game industry I worked on personal game projects in my spare time. I believe this is important for any aspiring game developer as it shows initiative and that you are passionate about creating as much as playing games.
Game development is one of the most challenging industries to be in as a software developer and the barrier to entry is a large one. While I’ve long disagreed with the antiquated, “traditional” interview methods for game developer positions, they are still employed by most companies nonetheless. Expect the usual computer science topics to be discussed in an interview. Know your data structures. Be prepared for at least one problem involving recursion. If you list a popular language such as C++ or C# on your resume, be prepared to talk about it. If you’re coming from another industry you may have to accept a lower engineering level and salary than your previous role. On this last point it is important to keep in mind that a lot of people do not get into the game industry for the money, but because they are passionate about games and want to work on exciting projects (although I suppose some people find database software enthralling).
The game industry is like no other with a work hard, play hard motto. It’s also laced with nerd culture. You are likely to meet people who are gamers just like you and many have their own hobby projects in development on the side. Aside from games, you’ll meet people who are into sci-fi movies, board games, a variety of beverages, the latest tech, cars, sports, music, meditation, and much more – this is a very culturally and technologically rich industry! It is also a very rewarding feeling the first time you see your name in the credits of an AAA title or hold the box in your hand. The game industry has been a great experience for me so far and I am very grateful to be a part of it!”
Out Take: John ends the interview with some great advice for anyone looking to get into the industry. There is some very specific information in there that might not be apparent to anyone who hasn’t applied for a role as a developer. My biggest takeaway is that it takes a passionate and skilled individual to make it in what can be an unforgiving industry (at times). A person’s ability to deal with deadlines and multiple roles will also be a big part of their success.
A big thank you to John for taking the time out of his day to answer our questions and thank you (the reader) for stopping by to take a look. If this is content you would like to see more of, please let us know here or on Twitter.