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Interviewing with two game console dev support teams

by on Jul.27, 2010, under Graphics, Programming

Some time ago I interviewed at Sony based on the recommendations of a friend who had joined their R&D department and was really loving his new job.  Their R&D department at the time only need a hard core graphics specialist but they had some other positions that they wanted to interview me for.  So I took a day and went to see what things were all about at Sony.  Most of their jobs were doing some sort of lead tech support for other developers so I expected I would get grilled on:

  • Tech & coding skills
  • Customer support
  • Documentation
  • Time management skills

After an entire day of interviews I had not had any questions on anything that was not tech & coding.  In fact many of the questions were so esoteric that I do not believe they were really looking for a programmer but a PS3 manual with a better personality.

eg. Interviewer:   How many instructions would this take on the cell processor

float temp = (bool) 0;

Me:  Not sure, why would you ever cast a bool to a float?

Interviewer:  You wouldn’t, but if you did how many instructions would it be?

Me:  Not sure, on the PS2 they had an Zero register so it would have been 1 instruction but since your asking I am sure that is no longer the case.

Interviewer:  See he does not know.

This in my mind clears up a lot of stuff, if they do not value customer support, documentation or coding samples to even ask about it in a interview then it is no wonder they are so badly know for the poorest developer support in the industry.

Contrast that to the interviews at Microsoft I recently went through for similar positions.  The first half of the day was all about tech and coding but they asked relevant questions about algorithms, error checking, comments and architecture.  Second part of the day was all about dealing with customers, creating white papers, writing good sample code and other tasks.  Last part of the interview was about what makes great games and user experiences, tech trends and how it will shape the games of the future and last how to communicate and let people know how to take advantage of it.

Perfectly clear why in one generation Microsoft has taken over the console market, they understand what is real dev support is and know that supporting the dev teams has to be the one of the core’s pillars in getting the best games.

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Red Dead Redemption should have been on the Wii

by on Jul.06, 2010, under Development, Graphics

Someone recently asked me how I would make Red Dead Redemption a better game and take advantage of more online elements.  True the game could do more with some online elements that would make it a better, ie allow you to own farms, build a ranching empire and start land wars with your neighbors online ( complete with hangings ).

The more I thought about it though it becomes clear the best thing they could do is port it to the Wii.  Although the designers did an amazing job of mapping the complex controls needed to pull off all the different gameplay systems to the controller.  The result is still kind of clunky and often times frustrating.

Just think of it:

  • how much faster and better dueling would have been with the Wii remote were you really have to pull it up and aim when they say draw.
  • roping a horse would have been a lot more fun and less frustrating.
  • they would not needed such a over whelming auto targeting system and shooting would be fun instead of just tapping the targeting trigger over and over again.
  • they had to put in a slow mode system for shoot outs that would not have been needed if you could just aim.  Their systems works but looses some of its intensity since it is all happening in slow mode.
  • hog tie up things could be an interactive event instead of just a cinematic.
  • knife fights could be skill based instead of just button mashing.
  • wiping your horse to run faster would be interactive instead of just button pressing against a meter.
  • most of the mini games including tossing flaming bottles, horse shoes could be motion based.
  • skinning animals could be way more detailed and a mini game :)

One could go on and on…

New things they could add with a Wii Remote:

  • knife throwing
  • hand to hand combat while riding horses to knock them off
  • axe combat

Again one could go on and on…

It would be hard to reduce its graphics enough to get it running on the Wii but I think the gameplay would be even better if someone did.

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Nvidia 3D Vision is very promising

by on Nov.10, 2009, under Graphics, Industry

At work we started playing with NVidia’s 3D vision system on our PC version of the game.  I am blown away at how well it works out of the box and your first impression is things really pop out at you and it does looks amazing.  But shortly after you get past the initial wow factor there you realize there is still a lot of work to do to make game work and look truly amazing using this technology.

  1. Since your hud has no depth information when rendered it is floating in the middle of level and becomes confusing and annoying.  If ever there was a reason to go hud less it is so you do not have to try and figure out what to do with the HUD in a 3D world, up close it looks like a picture frame, offset in the world and it makes you mad because it is now looks like something things could hide behind.
  2. Normal mapping looses its effect and just looks bad, the shading is not enough to trick the eye any more and you need real z-buffer displacement values for it to look right.  With DirectX 11 where it can hardware subdivision based on the displacement map this might not be an issue.
  3. With the default camera settings you would use in a normal version of the game the character looks like it is outside the screen and it does not seem like you can aim at anything.  Also in general movement seemed a lot harder at first but I think that was just the brain getting use to things really looking like they are coming at you.

It is very cool stuff but kicking out a 3D game is not just a simple port to make it happen.

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My time at Secret Level, The big publisher era

by on Mar.25, 2009, under Graphics, Industry, Interviews, Lessons, Programming, Start ups

One of the big problems with working at a port houses is there is typically not just not enough extra funds in port projects to sustain the company in a dry spell.  So not only do they have to have signed  projects at all times they need a couple in the wings in case anything goes wrong.  That is a hard balance to keep right, you do not want to string to many companies along as you will eventually piss them off.  So typically you end up taking on to much and then ruin your reputation as you only half do all your projects.

So with our reputation being pretty good at the moment but at risk of being over stretched we started trying to get in with bigger publishers and longer projects.  We started an MMO with Lucas Arts but it got shut down when they realized that anything not in the Star Wars IP would never sell.  Then we got to do a our first non port project with Wizards of the coast that resulted in Magic the Gathering for xBox; got critical acclaim but did not sell well.  Then we got our biggest chance yet, EA partners needed someone to do a port of Odd World’s Stranger from the xBox to the PS2.

Microsoft had finally dropped them as their publisher and EA was interested in picking up the IP but needed PS2 numbers to make it work.  Getting in good with EA Partners would indeed lead to many other fat projects and untold wealth.  I think everyone had this on the mind to much as we went to check out the project and see if we could help.  Other companies had turned them down and said it could not be done.  Warning sign #1 we ignored.  It looked hard, there was no doubt about that.  But nothing is truly impossible so we decided to get involved and see were it lead.

This was the closest I came to quitting as things went from just plain bad to crazy in < 1 month.  EA needed to ship the two projects at the same time, they were going to hold the xBox version for the PS2 one, but they did not want to hold it for long.  So porting was going to start on a still rapidly evolving game and code base.  We did not know the Microsoft had been sending them engineers to help optimize their game for months as it had been unplayable slow.  It took two weeks just to get the code base to compile on the PS2.  I found a blog post from their lead programmer about how he hated designing for porting and actively worked against it.  EA would not accept any schedule and kept stopping us to consider ways to make it faster and kept trying to bring in even more companies to help. I had seen this play out before and I was pretty sure our reward for failing EA in any way would be the end of the company.  Most companies that got a EA injection imploded hard after they left.  It was during this crunch I totaled my first vehicle while driving my 2 hour commute home late one night.

As things looked more and more dire we finally had a meeting to voted on going forward with this project and all the programmers were thumbs down.  Amazingly Jeremy and Reeve took it ok, they were initially pretty sad but suddenly the sequel to Magic the gathering fell through and they moved on to sign us up to do and XBox and PS2 port of America’s Army with Ubi-Soft.  Ubi-Soft also another big publisher that we had supported before in the unreal days was a good opportunity.  Sadly this project was not and it came really close to killing the company.  Somehow it ran for till almost till Alpha without ever having a real schedule.

I was just finishing up another failed investigation; this time to do Robotica with Sony Studio’s.  Yet another really big publisher that it would have been nice to work with.  Interesting problem with big publishers we were finding is they have lots of money and time so they do not have to commit to anything in any hurry.  This can be hell on your budget and often you can not wait until they get their act together.

About this time Ubi-Soft looked in and realized how screwed up Army was, then sent three producers to live on site and verify every detail.   About this time the lead programmer decided to leave and I got pulled on to finish it up.  Well with producers on site and changing their mind in every meeting, things got even harder and only a ton of late nights and Crown Royal saved the xBox version of that project.  It was during this crunch I totaled my second vehicle while driving home late one night after several days of min sleep before Beta.    Sadly we still had a PS2 version to ship and people were all ready burnt out, we finally give them a PS2 first submission disk and that day they officially cancel the project.  Dam that was another 6 months of crunch for nothing…

That may have killed us right there but lucky just before this another company had been looking to acquire some US studio’s and our living paycheck to paycheck days were over.

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My time at 3DO, Sailing foward on a sinking ship

by on Mar.21, 2009, under Graphics, Industry, Interviews, Programming

I interviewed at 3DO and it seemed like the answer to my needs as I would be porting an N64 engine to the PS2 and then shipping a game on it.  Everyone there working on the target platform directly so I would be getting plenty of PS2 experience.  Plus they would be giving me full benefits so I would have dental again and could stop making outragous COBRA  payments.  I interviewed with a very smart french lead programmer named Olivia ?.  We discussed line and plane detection algorithms and kind of hit it off right away.  So I did the obligatory interview with Trip Halkin the CEO and was ready to get porting.

As I was about to learn in the game industry, do not count on any plan to hard, it is very likely to change out from under you.  I get there and first day it is decided that the old engine will no longer be ported, it is just to old school for the PS2.  Instead 3DO had taken all their lead programmers and asked them to write a engine modual for the new company wide tools & tech re-use program.  Instead of porting I was now taking a rendering, collision and math library and building a engine around it for our game.  So I spend a week and wrote a basic collision engine, loading system, entity and animation system.  At this point I have a lot of code down and was going fast when my lead programmer gets demoted and a new one gets put in.  This guy did not understand or like C++ at first did not believe my code compiled as checked in.  He calls me into his area to start bitching me out for breaking the build and I had to show him it all worked.  He had all the classic excuses why C++ was bad and made me convert all my code back down to C.

2 weeks in and I was a little pissed, now force to work in a dead language and instead of learning from others I was getting to make all my own mistakes by writing everything from scratch.  Things were going a little slower than wanted so I discussed my frustration with my Engineering manager ( Russel Shiffer ) and he said he would look into getting me a mentor.  3DO had is share of legendary notables around, Todd Frye who ported Miss Packman to the Atari and made over 1 million in royalties.  When asked about it he does not remember the time following his first royalty check except somehow he blew all the money and crashed a Ferrari at some point.  Must have been one hell of a party.   We also had Howard Warsaw, he made ET for the Atari and became famous when that game single handedly brought the crash of the console industry in the 80’s.

I got lucky and Russel Shiffer found me a Bill Budge to work with once and week on any topic I wanted.  Bill Budge started at Apple and convinced Steve Jobs to make a Joy Stick for the apple so he could release games on it.   He is most famous for “Pinball Construction Set 3D”,  the first game with a user interface and user generated content.  Sadly given 3DO’s amazingly short schedules I did not get to take as much advantage of such a resource as I wanted to.

I also meet Paul Forest during this time, an truly amazingly art lead and Yung Kao another crazy programmer.  Since quickly into this project I knew things were going to get ugly so I brought in my beer fridge and keep it stocked with Moose Head.  Paul would come over, we would crack a beer and discuss all that was going wrong, if anything could be done about it and what was coming down the road.  Bets would be made on our predictions of how we would get screwed over next.  Overwhelmed with our situation we would track down Yung who had introduced us to “San Fransisco Rush 2049” and kill each other in battle mode.  After an hour of drinking and driving, trash talk, and side bets we would be calmed down enough to work till midnight and get kick out yet another Army Man game for 3DO marketing machine.  We were like drunken pirates on a sinking ship, things were grim but we were just happy to be making games.

It was during this time 3DO release Hero’s of Might and Magic IV, a game that had once been a source of joy dating back from my college days had been sold to 3DO and they had slaughtered it so bad I wanted to kill myself just trying to play it.  If they can take a perfectly working franchise and screw it up to the point were it does not make money, then they have very little hope of ever doing anything right.  Given that they were all ready loosing money and stock was falling fast it was time to start looking around for a replacement gig as soon as my project was done.  We shipped Portal Runner on Sept 11, 2001 and our game sat grounded for 1.5 weeks as there was no air traffic allowed.  Nothing more frustrating that finally shipping a game but not being able to see it on store shelves.  It was just a bad ending to a frustrating experience in general.

Time to try again, I still wanted to work on a good engine and tool pipeline, so I told the recruiter to find me a company working with the Id or Unreal engine.  Next day they asked me if I had heard of Secret Level, I had not so I ask Adrian Longland and he said they were smart people that I should go work with.  Thus my time came to a close with 3DO, I would not get to work on the ill fated 4 Horseman project or be there as they went under and stuck everyone for 2 weeks pay.

Life was about to get a lot more interesting…

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