FEATURE INDEX: SCIENTISTS IN COMPUTER GAMING

How would you like to spend your professional life doing nothing but playing computer games? Does building empires, slaughtering trolls with a broadsword, and winning aerial dogfights with the Red Baron in the Berlin skies appeal to you? And what if I threw in job security, a high salary with stock options, and regular hours? If these are the things that you want out of your work, let me give you one piece of advice: DON'T dump your research career for a job in the rough-and-tumble world of computer game design.

Despite what you may have read in the Wall Street Journal about the incredible profits generated by hit games like Doom, there are no sure things in the computer game industry. The potential payoff of a hit game is huge, but the professional risks are correspondingly high. "There are rapid unexpected endings, rapid turnover, very high pressure, time deadlines, companies are understaffed, and everything is on the line always," says Shirley Pepke, who ended a brief career as a games programmer when the company she worked for closed. To survive "you have got to live, eat, and breathe games," warns MathEngine programmer Michael Skolones.

Still interested? Then I may have some good news for you: science, particularly physics, is in. Adding realistic physics to computer games is "the biggest frontier right now," says PseudoInteractive's David Wu. "We are seeing an exponential growth in the number of [science-related] articles in game development magazines." This growth has led to an increased demand for people who can combine creativity and an understanding of science with solid computer programming skills.

But don't worry if your degree isn't in physics. NextWave found successful game designers and programmers trained in virtually all scientific fields from astronomy to zoology. At the beginning of their careers, they only shared one characteristic: a curiosity about how to make a fun and saleable computer game. "We are looking for intelligence first and foremost," says Alan Milosevic, who has hired several research scientists for his company MathEngine, "and since we can't just solve the fluid dynamics equations in real time, they have to be able to improvise and imagine."

And as you will read in the following essays, finding a job in the games industry will take some improvisation; there are no well-worn career paths in computer game design. But if you are willing to take a few risks and work a few extra hours, an exciting career might await you.