Monday, December 25, 2006

Wii wish you a Merry Christmas

It’s a rule. You’re not allowed to make any kind of Wii related article, without having some kind of pun in the title.

I’ve had a couple of goes on a Wii now. I’ve played Excite Truck, Wii Sports, a Monkey Ball mini game, and I’ve had a go at creating a Mii. I’ve also seen one connect to the internet and visit a regular website. Here are a few impressions:
  • Wii Sports is fun. It has about five main game types, of which some offer limited longevity (boxing), but some of the others, such as golf and tennis are worth coming back to.
  • It’s really cool that it connects wirelessly to the internet and gives you a proper web browser (Opera based). As a test, we connected to YouTube and watched a video. It all works, but due to the limited resolution, you generally need to zoom in and scroll around the page to read it. For text entry a virtual keyboard appears, which you type on by aiming the Wiimote at the screen and shooting the letters sort of like a light gun. I’m sure a third party hardware manufacturer will do a keyboard before long.
  • When the Wiimote is used to point at the screen like a light gun / mouse, it’s very nice. The pointer is nice and steady and easy to control. One fun thing is that the pointer icon on the screen rotates if you twist the remote. In Excite Truck I noticed the pointer jittering. I’m going to take a guess that when the pointer position is smooth, the application is doing some averaging out of the position to hide the jitter. If this is the case, then there might be a slight lag in how well the pointer follows your actions, but I didn’t notice a problem.
  • Monkey Ball has something like 50 mini games, which each find different uses for the controller. I didn’t play it much, but this would very likely be a good game to get for Wii, as the original was good.
  • I find the Mii creation to be great fun. You personalize a little 3D person to look like yourself (or whoever) and then games can give you the option to play as your Mii. In Wii Sports, the little character who’s doing the sport can be the Mii you created. You can configure multiple Mii’s on one box, and I believe that when you see which of your friends are online, you see their Mii’s. Very cool. It’s quite reminiscent of the south park character creator.

  • The controller works well.
  • It’s great fun for everyone, even people who never play games.
  • Free online service (as opposed to monthly payments for things like Xbox Live).
  • Nice and small.
  • $250.
  • The limited resolution is going to detract from the usefulness of the browser (I think).
  • The CPU and GPU aren’t the best, but then that’s not the selling point.

Overall I’m greatly impressed. I’ll be picking on up as soon as the drought is over.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

My Life Story (abridged)

Oh come on, it’s my blog, I can be self-absorbed.

I was born in England at a young age.

When I was about 8, we got a ZX Spectrum computer (similar power level to the Commodore 64). This came with a version of basic pre-installed, and it was at this point that I started trying to code. I also decided that ‘when I grew up’ I was going to be a games programmer (as well as an artist and an author – two areas in which I’m no more skilled than I was when I was 8).

Ten years on, I still wanted to be a games programmer, but really, my skills were pretty poor. I went to Sheffield University to study Software Engineering, and then managed to land a job at Gremlin Interactive. I’d done some 3D graphics in my dissertation but hadn’t done much C coding.

I worked there for two years. It was the time when 3D accelerators were starting to appear, and everyone on PC was moving to DirectX 3. After my two years there, I’d become somewhat disillusioned. We’d spend a year or more slogging our brains out to make a game, which then has a shelf life of two weeks and sinks without trace (which happens for a lot of games). I wanted to work on something with more meaning!!!

So I packed that in and went to work for a company that made software for call centers! I learned Java, beans, server stuff, COM, JSP, ASP and a ton of other stuff I have almost no recollection of. It was fun for a couple of years, but then I came to the realization that, short of joining/forming programmers without borders, there wasn’t a lot of meaning to be had, and that I was finding serious software, seriously boring.

At this point, my old workmate from Gremlin called to invite me to a new studio that ‘Rage’ started. It didn’t take much deliberation. I was back in games, and I enjoyed it more than ever.

I planned on staying at Rage for a long time, but after a couple of years the company folded. We were all allowed to spend our last days of work time applying for other jobs, and someone mentioned to me that experienced people could get jobs in America. I applied to a few companies, and after a few months secured my position at Heavy Iron.

At first I did some porting of games to Xbox, then I was lead programmer on a couple of games, and now I manage the programming department. I’m glad to say that I’ve been at Heavy Iron for four years so far.

Without this turning into an Oscar speech, I really appreciate the cards I’ve been dealt so far. Having a job that allows me to work overseas is great. I find living abroad to be a wonderful experience. Also working in games is inherently interesting to me, and presents constant new challenges to be overcome.

Yay life!

Bad news for coders...

It turns out that the free coke is bad for you. Whatever next?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Work/Life Balance

Working hard, for long hours, is pretty common in the games industry, especially for programmers. In this post, I’ll not go into whether this over-working is a good thing or how we could move away from it, we’ll just accept that it’s the way it currently is at many games companies.

It’s very common for programmers to spend a long time at work. Some do it for the love of coding, some as a show of how macho they are at working hard, and some to show how much they’re being a martyr for the good of the game. And for the most part, it works OK. The programmers have some fun, spend time with other dedicated individuals, the oh-so important deadline gets met, the company gets its game on time, and everyone’s happy.

The point where this falls down is when you scale it up to, let’s say, 20 years. If you’re not careful, you could quickly flit by the whole 20 years in a blur of deadlines, the snack cupboard, pizza, cola, high-stress, and shabby living.

You can pay a high price for all the years of bad posture, no exercise and no ‘life’, from not prioritizing people outside of work, and for not exploring hobbies and interests away from the computer. You could find yourself looking back at a string of AAA titles, but find little solace in it. Worse still your health could suffer, tales of work-a-holics having heart-attacks before their time are not uncommon, and unfortunately they can hit anyone. Carpul tunnel, repetitive strain injury, neck and back problems also have a high likelihood.

My aim here isn’t to depress you though. It’s a not-so-gentle reminder that you need to look after yourself and live a balanced life. If you’re too ‘one sided’, coding all the time, then in the long run you’ll suffer. It means doing tricky things like exercising and forcing yourself to get out and socialize in the real world, but it’s hugely worth doing.

Aren’t I shooting myself in the foot here, scaring off new recruits? Not at all. Happy balanced workers get sick less often, will hopefully never ‘burn out’, will work as well or better than the stressed ones, and make the work environment a better place to be.

So there we have it. Exercise, have hobbies, socialize, get away from computers, and be aware of when you need to take a break. You’ll live and code for longer, and enjoy life more.

Oh, and always wear sunscreen.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


THQ has now announced that our studio (Heavy Iron) is working on the game of Ratatouille (the next Pixar movie).

Here's a video of an early proof of concept... ;)

(Not my video, just one found on youtube)

Friday, December 01, 2006

How to get a job as a Game Designer

Being a game designer can be a very creative pursuit. Spending time thinking about how to engage the player, building it, and then getting feedback from players is great fun.

So what’s a good way of going about getting a job as a games designer?

  • There’s no standard academic route in, like programming and art, though a degree in something wouldn’t hurt.
  • One, not uncommon, route is to work as a games tester, and to work on getting promoted up. If you show an interest, someone will hopefully get you set up with the tools, so you can learn them and show off what you can do.
  • Similar to my recommendations for programmers, doing demos is a great way in. Download free editors for PC games. Design and build your level. Publish it on the internet for others to play, and then check out the feedback.
  • From your demo work you should be able to show paper maps, screen shots of the editor and game, and links to your published level and its feedback.
  • You can put all your demo work on a website to show off your work. Also, putting it on a website will demonstrate important skills of technical literacy and good presentation.
  • Doing several demos, to cover different game genres, is a good idea.
  • Play lots of games, and think analytically about them. Why are they fun? How could they be better? How do they handle a range of skill levels? What editor tools would have been needed to create the game.
  • Play lots of different games. The more the better. Don’t just play good games, play bad ones, and play random ones so you can make your own mind up without the suggestions of others.
  • There are also plenty of books on game design now. You may benefit from reading a good book on the subject.

I can’t guarantee it, but if you do all the above with some dedication, then you shouldn’t have too much difficulty getting your foot in the door. In fact, some companies who release editors will actively recruit from the pool of hobbyists who are already building levels with their software.