Writing games and writing platforms..

Much like my love of fiction books, I have been a gamer for basically as long as I’ve been able to be. I have no idea where it started, but the first time I really I remember playing games was at a pizza place back in Saint Louis called Pantera’s. I played all kinds of games back there, although I remember wasting way too many quarters in Rastan. Before that there was Spy Hunter and if we go back far enough, even Pole Position. I’m sure there was probably others before that, but we’re edging back to the limits of my memory, I’m not *that* old after all.

At the time I was playing these though, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that there were people who actually created these wonderful things. Sure, it seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time I was a young kid, I probably would have believed that unicorns and fairies made the games I loved. I knew there was some kind of a computer in there, and that’s what I wanted, but we were quite poor at the time and couldn’t afford one.

Luckily, my mother saved up for a year and she was quite excited to finally give me a computer for Christmas one year, and boy was I excited to get it. It was an amazing piece of hardware called the TRS-80 (that has a nickname now of “trash 80″, but I didn’t care, it was a real computer). Looking back at that now, it’s kind of funny, the very first thing it said when you turned it on was Microsoft (MS did the BASIC for the system). Who would have thought that 15 years later I would actually be *working* at Microsoft, the computer had given me an inspiration I didn’t even realize.

The system came with the BASIC mentioned above and it was fascinating to me. I could type things and stuff would happen. I devoured the few “tutorials” in the book that came with the system and was anxious to find anything more I could. I started out probably the way many kids back then did, by copying huge chunks of text out of a magazine, not necessarily understanding what was going on, but being amazed by the results. Well, after running it the first time, realizing it was broken and then spending hours painstakingly trying to find the single spot I had messed up typing.

With that I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I would write games, and despite not even being a teenager yet, I was going to write the best game the world had ever seen. It was here that I learned a very powerful lesson; that being that writing a game was hard. I wasn’t even remotely qualified to do this.

I spent the next several years learning how to be a developer in general, always thinking of games in the background, but learning the basics. I learned new languages, being fascinated by the power of Pascal before migrating to C, and then discovering Visual Basic and realizing that as a development language, this was the beginning of a boon to developers everywhere. It had a low barrier to entry and could explode at any time.

Now, I still wanted to be a game developer, and I still didn’t think I was qualified to be one, so it was then that I decided what better way to become qualified than by opening up game development to the masses and help *everyone* become qualified. By now, I was already working at Microsoft and migrated over to the DirectX team and began a project that intended to bring the power of DirectX to Visual Basic. I’ve told this story many times, so I’m sure everyone knows by now that DirectX for Visual Basic turned into DirectX.NET which turned into Managed DirectX which turned into XNA. By the time I looked up I realized that I had been writing platforms for an entire decade, and still not writing games.

That’s when I switched. I moved over to Microsoft Studios (then Microsoft Games Studios) and started making games. So here we are now, a year and a half later. What have I discovered?

Despite both of them being writing code, and actually, even somewhat related code, the two activities are so very far apart. There are so many things you need to take care of for a platform (such as robust parameter validation) that you simply don’t need to worry about in a game. On the flip side, writing games has extra constraints you just don’t see on the platform side such as game designers. Ok, sure, you could argue that program managers help define the “mechanics” of APIs much like a game designer helps define the “mechanics” of the game, but once the program manager has defined the mechanics, she is done. The game designer must also make those mechanics fun.

There’s so much more creativity required when writing games as well. Sure, there is some creativity in designing API’s and functionality and feature set on a platform, but it’s not nearly the same magnitude. Actually, I suppose that isn’t fair, there is a lot of creativity in developing a platform, just not the type of creativity that excites me the way writing a game does; coming up with narrative, etc.

It’s also taught me that despite spending a decade making game development easier to do, I still have so much to learn. I would feel comfortable developing a platform completely on my own (hell, I have done it before), while I’m not sure I could say the same thing about writing a game. The work game designers do (and the way in which they think about things) is a skill I need to learn, and I’m thankful I have the opportunity to learn from a group of people who are amazing at what they do. Some of my coworkers have done design work on some of my favorite games of all time such as Command and Conquer; Gears of War; Alan Wake; Dungeon Siege; the list goes on and on.

That isn’t to say that I worked with less amazing people before (I’m sure everyone knows who Shawn is, which would disprove that), it’s just a different type of awesome. Developing a platform, the cool things we normally get to see could best be described as tech demos, and while they’re amazing in their own right, you normally have to wait for your customers to write something awesome to fully realize your initial vision.

If there was one thing I missed about being on the platform team it was the intimate knowledge of what was coming next. I just don’t have that anymore, and it is frustrating. I wish someone would say something about XNA and Windows 8 just like everyone else does. However, for where I was in my career and my life, making the transition to making games was definitely the right move for me. I can flex my creative juices and expand in the areas I am weak in.

It’s nice to realize that your dream job at eleven can still be your dream job at thirty six.

  1. Kool stuff :-) I was able to read it all & understood most of it :-) I forgot all about Pantera’s till just now & if I remember right I think they had some pretty good pizza too :-) I’m really proud of you son – always have been – always will be :-)
    LOL = Lots of Love :-D <3

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