Game On

 

Working in the computer games industry sounds like a dream job – but what do they do all day? CIAN TRAYNORfinds out

STEPPING INTO the offices of PopCap, a Dublin-based computer game developer and publisher, it’s hard to miss the multi-coloured fuzzballs strewn everywhere, the pictures of zombies plastered on the walls and the mugs decorated with frogs and “diamonds”. These are all characters from such games as Bejeweled, Chuzzle and Zuma, which have been downloaded a combined 1.5 billion times worldwide.

PopCap’s presence in Ireland reflects an exciting time for game development, an industry currently employing about 3,000 people here. The recent arrivals of multinationals such as EA (FIFA, Rock Band) and Zynga (FarmVille, Mafia Wars) have brought opportunities in everything from support to storyboarding, while an increasing number of university courses in game development bodes well for the next generation of talent hoping to get into the industry.

Everybody at PopCap, no matter what their job, gets to have their say on the way games are developed. There’s always a vote on how a character should look or what it should be named and every three months, all employees are invited to design their own game from scratch.

“You don’t have to be an engineer or a games designer to come up with a concept and get it running,” says Riana McKeith, associate artist at PopCap. “You could be working in reception and create a game.”

McKeith, 25, warms up for her working day by doodling. It’s her job to bring the game designers’ ideas to life. “A lot of people at home just draw a character without thinking about how it needs to fit into a world. It might look great on my screen, but what’s it going to look like on an iPhone? How do you frame the character’s reactions in animation?”

McKeith graduated from the Irish School of Animation but credits Leaving Cert physics, chemistry and applied maths with preparing her for the world of computer games.

“Some people think if they’re studying art, they don’t need anything else, but you need to understand the language game developers are working with and what they want from you,” she says.

That language, programming code, represents the other aspect most teenage computer buffs are drawn towards. It can be through studying engineering, mathematics, computer science, even astrophysics. But before any of that, says John Halloran, PopCap’s engineering manager, the important thing is to figure out whether programming games is for you.

“If you’re in fifth year and you’ve got the summer off, set yourself a goal of making a simple game that already exists, like Tetris or Bejeweled,” he says. “All the tutorials are on the internet and it’s free. But you’ll start noticing there are hundreds of little things going on. A lot of time goes into the way these things fit and flow together and, as programmers, it’s all about polishing those effects that people don’t really notice.”

Havok specialises in powering the parts of computer games that people aren’t necessarily aware of – developing the tools that equip makers of such games as Call of Duty with cutting-edge features.

In its new office on Dublin’s Suffolk Street, a member of the Havok art team is tweaking the way one of its “digital puppets” walks while elsewhere in the room a special computer, which is heavily encrypted and not plugged into the network, is loaded with the code of a secret new game.

“It could be a sequel to a game that fans have been asking about for years,” says Nick Gray, Havok’s European developer relations manager. “A client might say, ‘We need to blow up this house’ and we tell them how to do that but, secretly, they want to blow up a hundred houses and that requires a completely different solution that hasn’t been done before.”

It all starts with a blank page. Computers are stupid, Gray explains. They only do exactly what you tell them to do. If you code your instructions exactly right, the computer will do it perfectly a million times in half a second. You can go back, improve it, multiply it by a hundred – but the tools consist of the same computer language. It’s never been easier for small, independent game developers with limited experience to put it to use.

“You can sit in your bedroom over the weekend and write a game from scratch,” Gray says. “You can download example code, learn from game developers’ blogs, then put your little game out there for 99c on the iTunes app store.”

Coming to programming late shouldnt be seen as a hurdle, Gray says. He only picked it up towards the end of university, yet you can spot his name in the credits of Halo 2. All the fundamentals, he says, come from maths.

“What we learn in mathematics is quite abstract,” he says. “I don’t apply most of it in day-to-day life. But as soon as I used the same problem-solving skills to create computer graphics, I could show them to people. I couldn’t show them a theorem I learned. No one’s going to say, ‘That’s beautiful code’. But they will look at the results and see that it’s fun. Those are the skills you’re picking up, without even realising it, just by doing maths. That’s why you don’t just get marks for giving the right answer; you get marks for how you got there.”

From Architect to Games Designer:

Phil Campbell went from designing pubs and restaurants in his hometown of Portrush, Co Down, to working on Legoland and EuroDisney before being headhunted to become a creative director for computer games.

His architecture background meant he could visualise expansive worlds and design them with computer models.

The elements of physics, structure, sociology and psychology he picked up from his studies then led him to specialise in interactive narrative – telling stories from multiple viewpoints, which can be altered along the way. Here are some of his career highlights:

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

“For five years I looked after the PC side of the franchise, which included three editions and a toolkit where you could make your own level,” says Campbell. This involved creating a world where players make intelligent decisions about the direction Croft had to go in, be it through “maximum visibility” landscapes where the user felt clever or “instant death” pitfalls where they learned the hard way.

The Godfather

As EA’s creative director, Campbell didn’t want simply to create a game version of the classic 1972 film, but a “living” Godfather world in which the events of the movie play out interactively. “I’m a concept guy,” says Campbell. “So I was responsible for creating the mission designs, new characters, world map, building layouts – even all the dialogue for Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall.”

James Bond

As creative director for 007: Everything or Nothing, Campbell “switched Bond from a first-person shooter to third-person adventure”, mapping out his initial vision by creating a concept based on a classic Bond adventure, complete with title sequence and plenty of car-chases, in one day. “It’s not all about art and engineering,” he says. “In fact it’s hard to teach game design because there are so many ways in.”

Omikron: The Nomad Soul

Released on the PC in 1999 and the Dreamcast in 2000, Omikron was a precursor to Grand Theft Autoin being the first game to offer total freedom of movement in a real-time 3D environment. “This is the one I’m most proud of,” says Campbell.

“It wasn’t a hit but it had a cult following. I was the senior designer and I got David Bowie to come on board. He loved the concept and we ended up hiring a flat in Paris where we’d brainstorm ideas for his character and songs. That was a dream.”