Playable Profile: Brian
Welcome to our first Playable Profile of 2022! We’re chatting with Brian, a Senior Client Engineer, who has been in the gaming industry for over 30 years! He has a wide breadth of knowledge to share with us today!
Before we start, a little fun fact: we have 4 Brians at Playable Worlds - 10% of the company! And 3 of the 4 Brians are engineers! We’re always looking for more Brians, if you know anyone 😉
Read on to meet this Brian, also known as Brian III!
VioletLight: Let’s get started, why don't you introduce yourself?
Brian: Sure! My name is Brian and I am a Senior Client Engineer.
V: For those who may not know, what exactly is a client engineer?
B: Ostensibly, there are four types of engineers: client engineers, server engineers, scripting engineers, and quality assurance engineers.. All of them work on different parts of the game. Client engineers, like me, generally work on the portion of the game that’s visible to the player, like what’s on screen and the behaviors of their characters. Game logic is usually in the background in the script and server side. QA engineers build the testing framework necessary to test everything.
I am a client engineer, but I've actually done very little on the client so far. I've been more involved in developing tools, given my extensive history of tools development.
V: What kind of tools have you been working on?
B: Internal tools for our developers. I've worked with our Senior Tools Engineer, Glen, to make the world generation tools. He built the tool itself, and I built the library of algorithms to do all of the background number crunching.
V: That’s super cool!
What got you interested in engineering and programming? How long have you been doing this?
B: I started with an Apple II back in the very early 80s. In high school, I realized the potential of having a machine you could write different programs on, and I worked on them as a hobby. When I went to college, I actually went for an electronics engineer degree. I was planning on going into electronic music, building synthesizers or something. I really never saw computers as a career option. Then a bunch of odd factors came into play, and my college career path changed radically. I found myself in a position where I needed to choose another major fast, and data processing came up. That introduced me to the concept of using computers in the real world, and I was pretty much hooked.
V: Do you have any favorite projects you've worked on at other companies?
B: Almost every project I've worked on has been a favorite project. I've been rather lucky that way. I started out at Sierra Online back in the late 80s, and worked on some of their classics like Quest for Glory II, Space Quest IV, and Leisure Suit Larry 5. From then on, I got into the MMO world by accident, and the game we’re working on at Playable Worlds is now the ninth MMO I've been involved with.
Along with games, I spent a number of years working for an audio company building audio recording software, which was a lot of fun. I poured a lot into those products as well. I was also in cybersecurity, working on a top-rated antivirus program. I get invested in what I'm doing and everything becomes a great project.
V: What is your favorite part of working on games versus other products you've done?
B: When you release a game, there are hordes of eager fans ready to play it. And they play the hell out of it ( hopefully for a very long while), and you get their feedback. It's both good and bad (hopefully mostly good.) But regardless, the players are interested, they're playing, and they're giving you feedback. Seeing their desire to be immersed in our world, and having a hand in making that world better is a lot of fun. It’s why we all work in games, I think.
In addition, as a tools programmer, my “customers'' are basically the other folks working at Playable Worlds. The gratification is a lot more instant, because I can put a tool out and get feedback in a matter of minutes, from QA or folks using the tools. I can get an instant loop back on what works, what doesn't work, and what helps them out. You don't get that so much with other industries.
When I was in the recording industry, for example, when we would put software out, our users weren’t very vocal. They wouldn’t really provide feedback about what worked or what didn't work. They would just buy the product, use it, and most of the time, we would never hear from them again. Same thing happens in cybersecurity. If you're doing your job right, and making a good product, you’ll never hear from your customers. And that's what you want, but it’s not quite as satisfying.
V: Yeah, it can be crazy how invested players get in a game they love, and it feels so good to be a part of that.
Can you dig into how your role differs from other game dev engineers? Each engineer has their own specialties within their position, right?
B: Right. We're still a small company, so a lot of roles overlap, and there are a few pivotal people who have their fingers in a lot of pies. But for the most part, we work in our little silos. Probably the biggest difference between what I do and what other engineers do is in the languages we use and the types of code we write. The client is tied to Unity (the development platform we use), and we work within that framework. Scripting folks use their own scripting language, the server, of course, is written mostly in C# and also I think there's some C++ in there.
There are different technologies involved in each of these areas, and you become very immersed in the technology for your area. Unless you're one of the pivotal people I mentioned, you don't get immersed in the technologies other people on the team use. If I transferred to the server group tomorrow, I’d have a pretty hefty ramp up. I know the programming language, but it would be a ramp up to get me involved in the tools they use and the technologies they require.
V: What is a rewarding or challenging experience you’ve had during your career?
B: One of the most rewarding things was when I was at Sierra Online. I was working with a small group to invent new technology on game UI. It became the “icon bar,” where you choose a symbol like the eye or the feet or whatever, then click on an object in the game. That would create a noun verb messaging system handled by the game code. It was totally new and we invented it - I have a patent! It was a big accomplishment for me that’s now totally obsolete, but still, it was cool at the time.
V: That’s honestly really cool, even if it isn’t used anymore!
B: Yeah! The most challenging time was when I worked as a server programmer. My server lead quit quite suddenly, and I was pushed into his role. Then our CEO left and they brought in a president pro tem, who came in and said “I'll see this product through to its release, but I really don't have the time or the desire to manage this studio on a day to day basis. So Brian, you're gonna do it!” and I said “Okay!”
It actually wasn't quite that easy, but I did end up volunteering, and I ended up taking over the studio. I filled the role through the release of the product and it was exceedingly challenging, yet also very satisfying. It was both a good time and a bad time.
V: Yeah, I can imagine!
Let's talk about your hobbies. What do you like doing outside of work?
B: My wife and I like to travel, and we’ve been really lucky to be able to go to some really cool, fantastic places around the world. Once this pandemic thing sorts itself out, we'll be doing that again. It doesn't even have to be anything really fantastic, we'll just get a jeep, drive up a mountain, and find someplace new we haven’t been to. I'm also a musician, and I have a recording studio in my house, which has been inactive for a while, mostly because pandemics tend to really stifle my sense of creativity.
V: What kind of genre or instruments do you play?
B: I play mostly guitars and bass. I've tried drums and someone's gonna lose an eye if I continue. I play a little bit of keyboard, but most of my stuff is on the rock and metal side. Porcupine Tree, Pink Floydish stuff. It's one of those things like, I don't care if nobody ever listens to it. The fun is building it.
V: Do you have any games you're playing right now?
B: It's kind of funny. I've been in the games industry for 33 years, and I'm not really a game player. I try to keep up on the game news, and what games are out, and what the general feeling is about them. But I really don't play them. I have a few old strategy games I play for 15 or 20 minute mind breaks. But nothing that’s like, “oh, I’ve got to play this.” I was actually on the launch team for the Sega Dreamcast and I have a first edition series Dreamcast, but I never really put much time into it.
V: Dreamcast was my favorite console, I’m going to have to pick your brain sometime!
One more question to round out our chat! What advice would you give to someone trying to get into the game industry?
B: So, back in the 80s, if you wanted to get into the game industry, all you needed to do was show up. If you had no life, didn't mind sleeping on your desk, working 20 hour days, you were great fodder for game companies. There weren't any quality college or degree programs focused on games. There was computer science, but there was no game design, no class on how to do 8-bit art, nothing like that. All of the people who worked for game companies in the early 80s were winging it. They were inventors, they were creative; they were putting stuff together and learning as they went, and the industry learned from them.
It's not crazy like that anymore. The people coming into games are better educated, and have a lot more experience in terms of schooling. You can have the same drive to make things good, but there are a lot more boundaries now about how things are done. We have actual scrum teams, we plan things, we have milestone schedules. It's not just winging it anymore. It's still a tough industry - companies come and go constantly, they overdesign, they underfund, and then boom, they're out.
My advice to people coming into the industry or wanting to get into the industry would be to envision a solid path of where you want to be and where you want to go, and try to stick to that path. However, you also have to be fluid enough to roll with the changes if a company goes under, or they completely shift their focus. You need to be quick on your feet and recover. It's also important to realize that the odds of getting rich writing games is practically zero, so your motivation really needs to be about the craft itself, not the pot of gold. If you come into the industry thinking you’re going to make the best game ever, then you're going to go far. If you come in with the idea that you’re going to be a rockstar game designer? Well, you probably won't be, or at least, not for long.
I can't say go to college and get a degree, because I didn't do that, and a lot of people I work with didn't do that. A degree is not an automatic gateway. The automatic gateway (and I've seen it with our junior engineers at Playable Worlds) is the desire to do whatever it takes to get the job done. That affinity with your craft, and the attitude of “ I need to learn how to do this, and I'm open to learning everything I possibly can,” that's what's making these people great game industry professionals.
V: That’s great advice! Thanks for chatting with me, Brian!
We hope that you enjoyed this interview and learned more about what a client engineer actually does!
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