FEATURE INDEX: SCIENTISTS IN COMPUTER GAMING


Hittites. I can sum up my regard for Ensemble Studios with that one word. In a genre of computer games where orcs, tanks, and space marines are the norm, I found it endearing that Ensemble would allow game enthusiasts to play such wonderfully obscure characters as the Hittites (those chariot-riding foes of the ancient Egyptians) in the breakout hit Age of Empires. I was already a fan of the Hittites, Ensemble, and Age of Empires when I saw a little online want ad for game designers, no experience necessary.

Of course, I never imagined that I would be a part of this world. After all, I had gone through too many years of college trying to become a marine scientist. Although typically tedious and even painful, graduate school found me doing all those things that I thought marine biologists were supposed to do: spending time out in the ocean, teaching classes knee-deep in a salt marsh, living on the beach. I succeeded exactly the way marine biologists are supposed to, but suddenly found myself as an assistant professor, spending all day in front of a computer screen, banging out grant proposals.

I never saw students, or marine life, and barely saw my own lab. I found myself trying to explain to my fiancée how we should feel honored if I even made the short list of job applicants for some remote college in one of the square states. Sure, I pined for a decent paycheck, but I craved stability and creativity even more.

I have always been told that you should not go into science unless (1) you cannot imagine yourself doing anything else, and (2) the process of scientific inquiry alone is enough to motivate you (i.e., you aren't going to be financially rewarded for your endeavors). I find that statement to be cynical, perhaps even horrible ... and true. I have the utmost respect for those who can endure academia, but I don't identify with them anymore. I cannot say whether it is just misplaced priorities on the part of our society or government or whether academia has truly become an anachronism. My graduate adviser surprised me by saying "No one is going to give you a hard time for leaving academia, because the secret truth is that academia is not that much fun." Not a single colleague challenged my decision. The feeling of having made it out of academia was ironically similar to that of being accepted to grad school or being offered a postdoc in the first place.

I had expected game development studios to be run like any product-oriented business: cutthroat, marketing-driven, and focused on promoting the upper tier of management at the expense of the worker bees. Therefore, I was simply blown away by the "corporate" atmosphere of Ensemble Studios. It is the most democratic workplace imaginable: Every employee contributes to the design process and has a say on everything from new hires to the features in our next game. Despite competition among game companies, I am still amazed at the camaraderie among supposed rival development studios; in the end, we are all gamers first. Sure, there are long hours sometimes, but the company is generous in providing us with a well-stocked kitchen, an arcade full of games, and a penthouse view of the Dallas skyline. I could not imagine a world further from my windowless office in academia.

Am I living happily ever after? I think so. As long as I keep contributing to best-selling games, I have a great deal of job stability and a future in a growing industry. I correspond with hundreds of fans and even sign the occasional autograph. My first published paper in grad school probably reached several dozen people. My first game sold in the millions. I have seen my product in Japanese and Norwegian newspapers, read about it in Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and ironically, I was asked to contribute to this very periodical, one I likely never would have penetrated as a scientist.

So, how does someone with no experience get a job making games? First, realize that getting into computer game development is (as I used to say in science) nontrivial. The industry is as competitive as any. There are three basic career tracks: programming the code, digitally rendering the artwork, and designing the features and game play. I will carelessly brush aside the programming and artistic routes, because they require a great deal of education and talent, which most scientists probably do not have because they spent all of their credits pursuing other curricula.

Game design can mean anything from assembling levels, scenarios, or maps, to figuring out the user interface, to writing scripts or manuals, to doing historical research, to deciding how fast a Hittite chariot should move. Designers are champions of game play. Artists make the game look pretty and programmers make the game run fast, but it is up to designers to make the game fun. Game design, unfortunately, is a difficult talent to prove. There really is no required skill set, although it helps to be a good writer and a voracious reader. You must be able to support your ideas without insulting anyone else, for unlike academia, you can't promote yourself at the expense of your colleagues. Above all, you must be familiar with the industry.

You must know the major magazines and Web sites, be familiar with the big names, and know which games sell millions and which ones have died in the discount bins. The biggest mistake that former scientists make when interviewing at Ensemble Studios is projecting the belief that they can obviously do anything, because they made it through graduate school. In the end, as with any career change, you may need to accept a less prestigious job in order to get your foot in the door. Some game designers are promoted from within the ranks of testers, quality assurance, or network wranglers. Try to become a beta tester--a volunteer who plays early versions of a game searching for bugs. Literate, experienced testers sometimes get the nod. Pick up a copy of Next Generation or Game Developer magazine and check out industry Web sites. As with any profession, you need to learn the field before you can be a player.

That's the proverbial bad news. The good news is that the industry is growing quickly. Ever notice that computer games are sold in supermarkets now? Hollywood-level budgets (and one hopes eventually Hollywood-level production values) are now the norm for game development. There are going to be more and more openings in the industry, and as we reach the inevitable glut of technical folks, it will likely be the creative types in the highest demand.

The industry has changed dramatically from the days when a few guys in a garage could make a top-tier game. The bar for what players expect in terms of graphics, software stability, and out-of-the-box multiplayer support has caused game-development budgets to soar into the millions. In this business, you cannot afford not to take business realities seriously. You are making a product; sometimes you make a winning product and sometimes someone better, smarter, quicker, or luckier beats you to it. All in all, I think this maturing of the industry is good. We may lose some of the coziness and casualness that made the game profession fun in the early years, but in return we will be taken more seriously by the mainstream, who still considers gaming on par with model airplane building: as a fringe hobby. In order for the industry to endure and evolve, we need to be perceived, not unlike those in the movie or music industries, as creators of a valid and popular form of entertainment with a successful business model. And, just between you and me, it is still a lot of fun.

Greg Street is a game designer at Ensemble Studios, best known for the Age of Empires series. He received his Ph.D. in marine science at the University of Texas, Austin, in 1996 and did a postdoc at the University of South Carolina before abandoning caution to the wind and joining a game company.