Monday, May 10, 2010

Reflections of a Five Year Vet

Five years ago I started a journey that I had been anticipating for quite some time. I was finally going to work in the industry. The video game industry. The industry I had wanted to work in since I was 15 years old. By “wanted to work in”, I don't mean that I thought it would be fun to work in the video game industry, like so many young people I meet who inquire about getting a job. I mean, I was actively working to learn programming, making games in my spare time, and absorbing as much knowledge as possible. I knew I wanted to someday be a creative director or lead designer, but that game design wasn't something people hired new talent into. So I embarked on a journey to learn how to make video games on my own.

Seven years later I had a degree in Computer Science from Virginia Tech, an understanding of the industry, contacts that would help me get a foot in the door, and an immense passion to succeed. I've been a driven person my entire life. I'm rarely content with my standing and always looking to do better. I judge myself harshly and push myself hard. It's this drive which got me into the industry.

I was confident
I was scared

Year One
And so, in May of 2005, I accepted my first job in the video game industry as a programming intern at Big Huge Games, on the real-time strategy title Rise of Legends. I started shortly after E3 finished up that year, where the team had just announced their follow-up to the acclaimed Rise of Nations. A talented, passionate bunch led by legendary designer Brian Reynolds, Big Huge Games was a AAA studio near my hometown of Rockville, MD that was willing to give me a chance. I immediately felt like a fish out of water. People were having intelligent conversations in the hallways about games in ways I had never thought about them. I was in awe, each and every day, and ecstatic to be working in the industry. I had greatly disliked the world of academia; the structure and requirements never suited me well. I felt that, finally, after embarking on the journey at the age of 15, I had made it.

What I hadn't considered was that the real journey was just starting. A month after starting at Big Huge Games, Raven Software decided they wanted to hire me full-time. While I felt awful for leaving Big Huge Games so soon after starting, Raven was a studio that I not only had known for a long time but that also offered a full-time gameplay programming position, instead of an internship. This meant, instead of writing code for save/load systems like I was at Big Huge Games, Raven would let me write game systems for weapons, vehicles, inventory, controls, and all of the other design oriented tasks that I was interested and suited for. I took the plunge, accepted the offer, and moved up to Madison, Wisconsin.

I was excited
I was scared

I was immediately put onto Wolfenstein during its early stages of development. When I got to Raven at the end of June, 2005 we were in a transitory period. Raven had just moved into a new swank set of offices, was set to launch X-Men Legends II: Rise of the Apocalypse and Quake 4 that fall, with the latter being one of the first launch titles for the Xbox 360. Raven was expanding its staff, on a new console generation for the first time, and in a new set of offices all at the same time. It was hitting the same problems many studios hit around this time too; the staffing issue. It used to be 20-30 people could make a AAA game. Now you need over 70 to make a good game. That's why they took chances on guys like me, to come in and make a difference.

The first few months were great. I was just excited to have a job and be working on what I considered one of the great game franchises in Wolfenstein. After the initial honeymoon period wore off, I started to see the seedy underbelly of game development. Quake 4 shipped and didn't exactly light up the charts. In fact, in a press release id Software's Todd Hollenshead stated that “On October 18, QUAKE is dialing it up to 4.0 on the Richter Scale with this new chapter in Earth's war against the Strogg.“ That a 4.0 on the Richter Scale is considered a “light earthquake” his words may have been more poignant than anyone actually realized at the time.

Hatred is not the opposite of love; apathy is. Hatred requires passion, it's a deeply emotional state. Apathy is the lack of any emotion. So when Quake 4 was met with apathy by both critics and consumers, the toll that took on much of that development team was significant. Many of those team members were brought onto Wolfenstein. They saw many of the same problems on Wolfenstein which they felt held Quake 4 back from being a superior product. And so, misery turned into frustrations, frustrations turned into anger, and anger turned into resignations. Over the next 18 months at Raven, a very large number of people left. Many of them were my friends. Some stayed in the industry, others left the business forever. I had, for the first time, started to experience the dark side of development. The part that chews people up and spits them out.

The anger of my colleagues and the mass resignations made me realize how unhappy I was. I didn't want to get up and go to work in the morning. I didn't like my job. I didn't believe in the game. I didn't like that every week someone new would leave. I was in a dark place, brooding everyday, drinking more and more. My only friends were people I worked with, leading to drunken evenings where we would sit around and bitch forever.

I was hopeful
I was frustrated

Year Two
Sometimes, when you least expect it, life tosses you curveball. I was drinking a lot around this time. Frequently in times of stress and misery I have turned to alcohol as a way of coping, and this time was no different. This night, however, wasn't about drinking my sorrows away. My best friend from Maryland was in town visiting me, and we were out having a great time, reminiscing. I never could have anticipated what was going to happen that night and how it would change my life forever.

Sitting at the bar, talking with my friend, I noticed a beautiful woman walk up and order a drink. Knowing that I only had one shot to make a good impression, I did the only thing that made sense at the time; I made a racial joke about Indians. She too was Indian and laughed. Soon we began to talk and flirt and I quickly realized that this woman was actually intelligent, witty, and charming and not like most of the girls I met. To everyone's surprise, I didn't scare her off and soon we began to date. My first real relationship in quite some time, not counting the countless philandering one does in college, I was immediately smitten with her.

I was angry
I was in love

This love affair started at just the right time. I was starting to think about quitting and going to a new studio, even though I hadn't shipped a game yet. I was angry that things weren't going better at work. This was my dream job and it wasn't going as planned. This new relationship gave me a reprieve from my own dark thoughts and tendencies.

I've been a loner my whole life; as a child, I'd often play by myself instead of needing other kids to keep me entertained. Being alone, however, during dark periods means that you have nothing to distract you from yourself. TV, video games, and movies all only work temporarily. As soon as your head hits the pillow, it's just you and your own mind. And so, every night I would lie down and not fall asleep as my brain spun at 100 MPH about all the issues with the game, the people, who was leaving, and anything else that wasn't going well in my life. This manifestation of insomnia literally started to kill me. I was getting four hours of sleep a night and usually drinking myself to sleep to turn my brain off. I would come into work a zombie, not put forth the effort that got me here in the first place, and go home a zombie, continuing the cycle of alcohol abuse and insomnia.

This new relationship gave me something to think about other than how miserable I was. For the first time in my life, I truly cared about someone other than myself. I thought about how much I loved spending time with her. I thought about all the fun conversations we had and the movies and TV shows we would share. I no longer was suffering from insomnia. I'd fall asleep just fine every night next to her. I'd wake up at 6:00 every morning while she got ready for school. I did all of this without any problems, because I had something I had been missing for quite sometime: something other than work to focus on.

But, as they say, all good things come to an end. As she was in her final year of med school, very early on I knew there was a strong chance she would be moving elsewhere to start residency. In fact, she didn't want to be in Madison anymore, as much as she loved being with me. And so, our relationship was on a timer from day one and eventually, just over a year after we met, time ran out. No matter how much I knew it was going to happen, nothing prepared me for the feelings that would ensue.

I was heartbroken
I was heartbroken

Year Three
Breakups are tough, and I had been through my share, but this one hurt more. Work was still going poorly, though I hadn't noticed as much since I had the distraction of a girl for a year. But there I was, stuck in my own head, drinking myself to sleep as the end of a relationship and realizations of the industry begun to weigh down on me once again.

Life, once again, decided to lend a helping hand and hope started to arrive. Some new creative decision makers were brought in at work and where it felt like there was no hope, at least opened up to become a glimmer of hope. After being angry and miserable for a month after she left, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. I knew that I needed to distract myself to stop from being miserable. And so, I decided to take all my anger and channel it into something useful. I decided to funnel it all into the game.

I've always been a person with a chip on his shoulder. I've always felt like I have something to prove. When I haven't had something to prove, I've found myself inventing perceived slights to get myself worked up. When I take this anger and channel it into something positive, amazing results occur. It is the drive for success. I will outwork anyone, if I talk myself into it. I will not accept failure from myself and I will work myself to death to avoid failure. Undirected, however, this energy sends me spiraling into loops of self-destructive behavior. Compulsive drinking and eating are the usual starts. I knew I couldn't let this energy go undirected and manifest in self-destruction.

And so, all that energy got funneled into not getting mad about the game, but rather being constructive with the new leadership about how to fix the game. I was still a gameplay programmer at the time, and I started writing up documents on all the major systems. I'd identify their flaws, state what works and doesn't work, and list recommendations to fix the problem. I would do this regularly, so regularly in-fact that the new creative director set up a weekly meeting to go over my issues with the game.

Feeling like someone was listening and that I could make a difference, a feeling I hadn't had in some time, I began to speak up to the rest of the disgruntled staff. I told them it was our jobs to stand up for our game and fight for what's right. I told them we can't accept the status quo when we know it's not good enough. Others stood up beside me and said the same thing. And so, an internal revolution was born. A revolution, for me at least, born out of my need to be distracted from the biggest heartbreak of my life.

I was a revolutionary
I was heartbroken

Soon, the creative direction of the game started to sway in a more positive direction due to the hard work of all the team members and the new leadership. Scrapping many of the more outlandish game ideas for more traditional ones, we refocused the project. I refocused myself to my job, instead of just accepting bad design. I was doing many things that weren't specific to my job title, but with no one else doing them on the team I felt someone had to step up and ask the tough questions.

And so, a few months later the creative director asked me if I wanted to be a game designer instead of a gameplay programmer. I jumped at the opportunity; sure, programmers made more money but I only learned to program so I could design. Raven didn't have game designers, just level designers and encounter designers, so the thought of someone overseeing more of the systems, tweaking balance, and having a bigger picture of the game in mind was not only something that was desperately needed, but something I was incredibly interested in.

The new position brought new responsibilities. With that increased responsibility came increased workload. Still sad in my personal life from the loss of love, I was keeping my energy focused in work. The more and harder that I worked, the less I remember the pain I had. I knew I wanted to avoid the self-destructive behaviors that I'm capable of, so I vowed to put every ounce of energy into making Wolfenstein the best game it could be in the time we had left.

I was ecstatic
I was heartbroken

Year Four
There was a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it in. When you care so much about the game, you are willing to do anything it takes to succeed. There are no excuses; players don't care if you worked 10 hours or 100 hours. They only care if what they play is awesome. This is where another deep, dirty side of the industry reared its ugly face. In the three years I had been at Raven, rarely I crunched. But now we were a year out from shipping a game, a game we just effectively restarted.

The team was committed to putting out the best game we could. We worked our asses off. We worked long, brutal hours to make the game better. No one would have to ask; everyone knew what their job was and wanted the best quality possible.

The problem with loving what you do is that you will let your passion take over. At least I will. My passion is in creating. It's in letting people have new experiences. And so, if I work 40 hours a week and a game ships and there is something that I could have fixed had I worked a couple extra hours that ended up in the game, I'm going to be furious at myself. I will know that I had the power to make it better and I didn't.

So, like many people, I end up pushing myself hard. No one told me to. No one asked me to. I knew I had to work harder, but no one meant to the extent that I did. No, I did this because I wanted to. Because I wanted the game to be better. Because I knew we were running out of time. Because I knew, if I didn't, I would have to deal with the fact that inside I was still damaged.

I was focused
I was hurt

The human body and mind can't work that hard for that long without consequences. What's more interesting, is that you know you are working at an unsustainable pace as you are doing it, yet refuse to stop. You sacrifice long-term health for short-term goals. It's unhealthy, and yet what I did for nearly a year on Wolfenstein.

In August, 2009 the game finally shipped. After four years of hard work, I finally shipped my first title. It would be no exaggeration to say that it was possibly the happiest day of my life. I never experienced a single day or moment of such happiness. This was a volcanic rush of joy, the feeling of a creation you worked on so hard with a team of dedicated people finally being released to the public, ready for their consumption. I was and still am so incredibly proud of the effort the team put in to make that game what it was. It was a flawed game, and we knew it, but we also knew that we put so much love and effort into that game that people would still get enjoyment out of it, even if it wasn't destined to be a 90+ rated game.

I was elated
I was exhausted

Year Five
The highs of launch lasted for a bit, but were quickly followed by lows. Wolfenstein, like Quake 4 before it, didn't tear up the sales charts. Our reviews were decent, but not as high as we wanted. So, frustrations set in again. Except this time, I knew to channel them into something positive.

Determined to fix things for the next game, I started to plan for how to do things better. Wolfenstein didn't have a formal design department nor did we have a lead designer. This was one of the flaws of the team. With a lack of leadership, as well as me being a strong leader and having what I felt was a good design sense, I pushed those in charge to give me a shot as a lead designer on the next title. I was incredibly fortunate that a trusting group of people all said yes and gave me a shot, even though I was only four years into my career in the industry at this point. And so in August 2009, I became the lead designer on an unannounced title.

I was scared
I was excited

The excitement of that time was quickly reduced when I found out we had to let people go, for the first time in Raven's history. As a new manager, I had to help with this situation. Having to look someone in the eye who busted their ass to make a game, who has a family to feed, who has been loyal to the studio for quite some time and let them know that their position is untenable is one of the most unpleasant experiences in my life. I knew it had to happen and was for the ultimate good, but that doesn't make a difference when you have to deliver that news.

Worse, for me personally, was the exhaustion I was suffering from. For over a year I had been neglecting my blog, not reading as much, going home and just sleeping and then coming to work. I was becoming a zombie again. I didn't play games for almost a year at one point. I worked myself so hard that I burned myself out. I was tired, exhausted, but I was also a new lead which meant I had a lot of work to do. I started drinking more heavily again. There were some good things I was doing; I was training for my first ever marathon which I ran in October of that year. But that didn't overcome all the negative, self-destructive behaviors I was once again engaging in. I burned myself out, because I sacrificed the long-term for the short-term.

As we started to amass a new team, regroup, and fix the mistakes of the past I had to work extra hard to keep up. There was no lead designer before me, so I had to turn to other peers in the industry often for guidance. I just wanted to take six months off to recover, but I knew to be an effective leader I had to lead by example. And so I helped rebuild the design department, a department that now is doing better than ever. I am fortunate enough to work with a talented group of people who make me love my job. They push me and inspire me to excel everyday and I hope I do the same back.

What the last five years has taught me, more than anything, is that I am capable of love. I loved a woman and she became my passion and meant the world to me. What I didn't realize was that when she was gone I didn't stop loving. I began to truly love my job for the first time. When I started in the industry it was just lust; it was new, it was sexy, it was fun. But that got squashed early when the realities of this industry set in. It took her to show me true love and leave me for me to realize I could apply that energy elsewhere. She showed me how to focus myself and my energies, and for that I thank her forever.

I've also realized, however, that there may only be so much room in my heart. Since I've started loving my job, I've found no time or energy to love anyone else. I've had meaningless relationships and flings, but nothing lasting. I don't have the time or energy for it. I am putting so much of myself into my job, that I don't wish to spend that time on a relationship. In fact, I don't know how I could possibly love someone and love my job at the same time. I can't balance my personal and professional life when I love only one, I cannot imagine what will happen if I love both. I am again sacrificing the long-term health for short-term goals.

I love myself
I hate myself

I've done some amazing things in my career. If you told me I'd be a lead designer on a high-profile game five years into my career I would have called you a nut job. If you told me I'd be speaking at high-profile conferences like GDC and DICE, I would say you have no idea what you are talking about. If you told me that I would learn what it is to love and how to apply that to the rest of my life, I would have shook my head and said that love was for the romantics not the computer scientists. I've met and been inspired by people who made the games I played when I was a kid. I've gotten into discussions on life, the universe, and everything with some of the smartest people in the world.

I've made many mistakes as well. I've been a poor son at times to my wonderful parents. I've been an even worse brother. I've pushed those close to me away to protect myself from being hurt again. I've abused alcohol and food and gotten myself into trouble as a result of both. I've isolated myself from others at times. I've come to the realization that the amount of work it will take to succeed at the levels I expect from myself may require destruction of all other parts of my being. I've come to the realization that, I may be okay with that. That is a scary thought and not one I thought I was capable of.

See, the fallacy of ambition is that those who are the most ambitious are also the least capable of appreciating success. Ambition is a moving mark, that gets higher and higher as you progress. You can never succeed enough, if you are truly ambitious. And so, instead of being happy or content, you are tortured, wanting to better and capable of loathing yourself. That's how I feel. I've succeeded, yet I've not done enough. I worry that if I keep going down this path, that I will die alone and miserable. But I also worry that if I don't go down this path, I will die unsatisfied by life and knowing that I could have done better.

My career is a failure
My career is a success

I have felt the good and the bad at the same time throughout my career. I am Schrodinger's Designer, simultaneously in a state of negative and positive emotions. At any given moment you may observe me to only be in one of those two states, but know deep inside that it's far more complex. You only see the outer-shell, the face I put on for the world, the mask I wear.

That's because, deep down, I am actually a romantic. I want to be in love. I look for love. I am in love with this industry, with this job, with video games. Love has its ups and downs. Love hurts at times, forces you to confront who you really are. Love can send you spiraling down into a self-destructive path just as easily as it can lift you up and save you. Love is both positive and negative at the same time. It's all encompassing and all consuming.

Love, it turns out, is the one thing I was missing in my life five years ago that I now have. I may struggle with how to manage my life, how to balance the personal and the professional, but I will never regret the decisions I've made. Every single decision I've made to this point has been the right one, even if it hurt and seemed wrong in the immediacy. Because, in the end I followed what I love and love is never wrong. It just is.

I love my life