FEATURE INDEX: SCIENTISTS IN COMPUTER GAMING

Evin Levey recently lived through every engineer's worst nightmare. While Levey was taking a test drive across a suspension bridge he had designed and built, gale-force winds struck. The bridge began to sway dangerously, threatening to dump Levey and a few thousand tons of heavy equipment into the water below. But through it all, Levey grinned like a kid on a roller coaster. After all, he was in no danger; his bridge existed only in the virtual world of a computer game.

But just because it was a virtual bridge doesn't mean it wasn't a realistic bridge. Levey, a game dynamics engineer at the Dublin-based game dynamics development company Telekinesys, is one of many scientists across Europe who have migrated from academia into the computer gaming industry. Because the game market in Europe is growing so rapidly, all these companies are desperate for talent. And computer game designers are now willing to pay serious money to companies who can supply robust physics-based software to handle the complicated motions in their games. The challenge faced by game developers is to use enough physics to allow the game to respond realistically to the player's actions, but not so much that it overtaxes the computer's resources. But deciding how to choose and implement realistic approximations to the exact physics equations is far beyond the expertise of the average game designer. "Game developers are gasping for help," says mathematician Alan Milosevic--help that Milosevic and his Oxford-based company Math Engine are more than happy to provide.

The demand for Milosevic and his group has been huge--so huge that Will Osborn, a theoretical physicist and the director of Math Engine's research group, has lost count of their employees. "Two and a half years ago, we had four employees," says Osborn; "now we have between 70 and 90." In the process Math Engine has outgrown its original Oxford offices and moved into new digs in addition to opening offices in San Francisco and Montreal.

But as exciting as it may sound, making the transition into game design is not easy. It takes more than just a Ph.D. "Good games people are creative problem solvers, thinkers, and visionaries who can communicate well, understand difficult concepts, and apply them to real and fantasy scenarios," says Steve Collins, a computer scientist and founder of Telekinesys. "You have to have exceptional analytical abilities." Osborn agrees, but modestly adds, "We are just general geeks whose parents told them to go get a degree."

Game development is not only a career path for physicists and mathematicians. Today's game designers come from backgrounds ranging from astronomy to zoology. "My group has physicists, chemists, and an aerodynamics guy," says Osborn. And the research and development team at Telekinesys includes a biologist/geneticist in addition to two mathematicians and a handful of computer engineers. Although computer skills are important, one doesn't need to be a superstar programmer. "We can hire the best programmers," says Milosevic, "and then we make teams of scientists and programmers."

Surprisingly, this strategy works. Fusing the very different industry and academic cultures into cohesive design teams has not been a problem for any of the companies Next Wave spoke with. Although he isn't sure why, Collins suspects it is because the people who are drawn to game design are extraordinarily committed to games, regardless of their background. In this industry, a high level of commitment is essential for success. As Michael Skolones, one of Math Engine's stable of Ph.D. physicists, puts it, "You have to live, eat, and breathe games." Collins concurs. "We have a lot to offer young science graduates," he says, "but it extracts a lot from them too."

But if you have what it takes, the games industry is a great place to be. Besides not having to worry about where your next year's research funding is coming from, "it's a lot less restrictive, more fun, and you meet nicer people than in academia," says Osborn. "And you get the immediate satisfaction of seeing your work up on the screen." For his part, Levey is having a blast. He's getting to try things that he would otherwise never experience in the real world. Now that he's completed his test drive across the suspension bridge, "I'm currently working on creating an earthquake for a Japanese games company," he says happily.