FEATURE INDEX: SCIENTISTS IN COMPUTER GAMING

It was easy for me to find work in the computer game industry, given my math and physics background. At the time (1995), I was a postdoc at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in physics, studying quantum wells. Quantum wells are semiconductor devices, "grown" one atomic layer at a time. This fine control over the material allows the designer to confine electrons within the device in an extremely narrow region (the "well"). The confinement region is so small that quantum effects dominate. My work focused on the modeling of these devices: predicting their electrical and optical properties.

I could have remained in that position for another 2 years and then taken the research/professorship route that some in my department were taking. Unfortunately, the job market was very poor for new physics Ph.D.s in those days. People I knew would apply for literally several dozens of positions and perhaps get accepted to one. This gave us almost no choice as to where we would end up. Postdoctoral couples like Shirley Pepke and me would have to take positions in different parts of the country, planning to apply later for positions that would allow them to live together again.

When Shirley got a postdoctoral position in San Francisco, I decided to dust off my computer and try a career change. I had always loved to program, even in grad school. I knew C++, and I had heard of a booming industry in the Bay Area, so I spent some time brushing up on my programming skills and then applied to several game companies when we moved there. The reason I chose games was that I was fascinated by 3D graphics and thought that I could contribute a lot with my math skills. Also, it seemed to me that a job in games could give me a chance to be very creative in my work. Looking back, that was correct. My first job (which was in fact the first place I applied to) was at Rocket Science Games. I wrote the "3D engine" for our game, which included the physics, collision detection, and animation of the characters in their virtual world. I was able to contribute significantly, while learning much from seasoned programmers. It was a lot of fun (and work), until Rocket Science folded. We never got to ship our game.

This was frustrating, and I was determined to work on a product that would ship. I was able to do that at my next job, Postlinear Entertainment. I worked on the game Vigilance, where once more I wrote the 3D engine, plus the artificial intelligence and camera/character control code. Again, it was a lot of fun and even more work, especially near the end of the project. I chuckle when I think of my advisor telling me, "you know, one thing about industry work: It is 9 to 5." By which he meant to say it was easier than grad school. This certainly wasn't the case in either of my "industrial" jobs. Twelve-hour days and weekend work was common, and that wasn't even "crunch mode" when a deadline was pending. Deadlines seemed more real to me, because missing them could mean that your project would be cut.

Probably the best thing to come out of all this was the experience of teamwork. Producers, artists, designers, programmers, testers, and more all had to work to support each other. "We don't cross the finish line until we all cross," our producer told us. And to make progress at all, we had to rely on our teammates holding up their part of the project. We all felt incredibly exhausted and proud when we shipped the game. After we shipped, though, I rethought my life path. I was satisfied for the moment, but the bottom line was, I didn't want this to be my career.

I missed working a little "closer to the source," that is, doing research and having the time to solve more involved problems. And I may want to get back into academia some day, probably as a teacher. In order to do all this, I'd have to step away from the game industry. One thing I'm feeling in my experiences in the job world is "career momentum." This of course is true inside or outside of academia--organizations hire you for your experience, which tends to make it easier for you to find jobs most like your last one. In order to change careers, I'd either need to train myself for the new one (much like the home-computer training I did in grad school) or change gears slowly.

This led me to my present job at MathEngine, which matched my skill set at the time quite well. This company is creating a general-purpose physics toolkit for applications that require realistic behaviors in a simulated world. It's quite an order to fill, but there are dozens of Ph.D. mathematicians and physicists here. Some are fresh out of academia, giving the workplace the feel of "grad school with money." It's a great environment, combining science and programming to make something really amazing. So far I've met some incredible people through MathEngine, and I've decided to settle in for a spell. I may have a long career path ahead, but for now I'm enjoying the journey.

BRYAN GALDRIKIAN received his Ph.D. in physics in 1995, did a postdoc, and then followed Shirley Pepke to San Francisco, where he found a niche writing code for MathEngine.