As a boy growing up in France, Ronan Marchalot commonly spent several hours playing video games. Like many parents, his mum and dad got concerned and "tried to take me away from the computer," Marchalot says. They were not successful. Today, the 30-year-old computer scientist dedicates most of his waking hours to video games, producing them for Paris-based video game developer Quantic Dream.
When Marchalot joined the company in 2000, Quantic Dream had just started work on Fahrenheit (better known to North Americans as Indigo Prophecy), an adventure game that became an international bestseller after its release in 2005. As that developed, so did Marchalot's career. When he started as a junior programmer, says Brandon Smith, his current boss, he "came across as very articulate, but shy," Smith writes in an e-mail. "I could see he was educated, but I wondered how he would handle managing people, where it takes a lot of extroverted energy."
But Marchalot proved his potential--both technical and managerial--and recently took charge of a team including eight other coders. In addition to a solid foundation of skills, a passion for his job, and an unusual gift for explaining complex programming concepts, Marchalot "has a personal confidence that gives him the strength and energy to function in a lead [engine programmer] capacity with credibility."
A crystallising idea
Marchalot got his first computer at the age of 8, discovered video games when they were in their infancy, and witnessed their evolution over the years. At first, he planned a career in mathematics, but as he studied maths, physics, and computer science for his first degree, he discovered a knack for writing computer programmes. So he opted for a master's degree in computer science at the University of West Brittany followed by a professional diploma in multimedia computer science from Bordeaux University.
The Bordeaux programme had a 6-month internship requirement, and Marchalot served his at Microids, a French video game development company. There, he wrote "collision detection" algorithms--which make characters and other elements in the game look as though they follow physics laws--for a PlayStation video game called Monster Racer. He knew the science already, he says, but applying it to video games was still a challenge. The experience gave him a lot of confidence for his next step.
Making his dream Quantic
By the time he finished his studies in 2000, Quantic Dream had released Omikron: The Nomad Soul, a video game that quickly became popular in France. "It was the company where everybody wanted to go," Marchalot says. He got a tip from a former classmate that the company was looking for a junior programmer. Marchalot applied and got the job.
At that point, Quantic Dream had just started working on Fahrenheit, and Marchalot joined a team that was working on its three-dimensional (3D) game engine, a software package containing all the core technologies that would be necessary to develop the graphics for Fahrenheit and possibly future games. "You really want to get two to three titles from one engine to pay for the investment to create it," Smith says. For the programmers, this means planning and executing a technology strategy a few years before all of the games will be released. Being forward-looking enough in their approach for the technology not to look outdated by then "is a real challenge."
A couple of years later, the 3D engine ready, a new phase commenced in the game's production--and Marchalot's career. "During the next 2 to 3 years, we were working exclusively on [creating] the game with the technology we had developed," says Marchalot, who was promoted to senior programmer at about that time. Together with his colleagues, he worked with artists and designers to produce the game's 3D graphics and, later, to optimise the code to make it quicker, more stable, and bug-free. In 2004, the game was adapted to various interface platforms. Marchalot became lead programmer for the PC and Xbox versions, supervising three other programmers.
Taking the lead
Since the release of Fahrenheit, Quantic Dream has started a new production cycle for a new PlayStation 3 game, Heavy Rain. This time, Marchalot started as lead programmer, supervising eight others. The game's new 3D engine is ready, but it wasn't easy, because all the core technology needed rewriting to suit the new-generation game console. "We had to learn what was a PlayStation 3," Marchalot says.
"To be a lead [programmer] is hard because you have to be one of the team and also the head of your department," Smith says. "It can be a lonely role stuck between the code pool and the management and therefore requires a level of confidence in oneself."
To lead a team of programmers, one needs technical abilities that are wide and deep. "Education [and] experience in the sector are key because without a sound knowledge base, how can a lead mentor ... help his team with code issues?" Smith asks hypothetically. Also key are a global vision and good people skills to coordinate efforts so that the team achieves the company's targets on time.
Marchalot's new role also requires him to liaise effectively with the rest of the company, including noncoders. It's his job to make sure that the project leader and company director "fully understand what are the objectives of the team ... and where they spend their money," Marchalot says. For this, Smith says, Marchalot has a natural gift. "I've worked with some coders in the past who would become very frustrated and agitated because a noncoder wouldn't understand what they were talking about. Ronan has the ability to simplify and explain complex subjects in ... a way that is informative without being patronising." Still, "moving forward, because he's not naturally extroverted, [Marchalot] will always have to be aware of how to reach out to communicate with people," Smith says. "But this is an area where he has improved and continues to do so."
Smith praises Marchalot's deep commitment. "He was the first lead in the studio to ever give me his phone number to contact him whilst he was on holiday. ... This kind of dedication ... makes him easy to work with."
Hot facts on the video game industry
From a March 2007 report from the French Ministry for the Economy, Finances, and Industry.
A volatile job market
"Job opportunities are growing as teams grow and technology demands more staff to make the most use of the hardware," Smith says. Yet a job in the video game industry is often insecure. A company must have backing to pay its operating expenses for the full development time of the game, typically about 2 years. Then, "if the game fails at the end with bad sales, it can be very easy" for the company to go belly up. Companies--and programmers--are also vulnerable to the release of new consoles, which require a lot of programming modifications. That means more work for programmers but also more uncertainty: "Many [companies] will fail" to make the transition to a new platform, Marchalot says. So employment in the industry runs in cycles--there are some "dark periods," he says, when it is more difficult to land a job.
The video game employment market also has become more competitive. "The industry has become less geeky, ... and so the number of applicants wanting to enter the business has also increased," Smith says. Computer scientists wanting to break in should "have a genuine interest in technology and its application to game development and engage in a quality degree," Smith says, adding that people considering entering the sector should "also be open-minded to the realities of commerce" because "the environment of a games team is quite often entrepreneurial and fast-paced." Marchalot adds that one of the best ways to demonstrate your skill is to bring a demo to your job interview.
"A good, solid coder will find reward in the creation of clean, operational code," and "a solid base of skills will ensure a future of exciting, well-funded projects," Smith says. To be successful in the industry, "you have to do beautiful things, but you have to be clever," Marchalot says, to work within the limits of existing technology.
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.
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Photo courtesy of Ronan Marchalot