Written by Craig Will, puffkix Wednesday, 27 April 2011 05:00
As a final project for one my classes this term we were to interview a professional in the field we want to get into. Through the power of Twitter I got a phone interview with Lead Programmer Chad Dawson over at Double Fine Productions (he worked on the amazing Stacking). Here is a transcription of our conversation:
Me: What is your title?
Chad Dawson: Lead Programmer
Me: What are your responsibilities?
CD: As a lead programmer, I manage a team of other programmers and interface with other departments to make sure the technical side of the game gets done on time and is of high quality. Having a small team means that we work on design while focusing on core technologies for new games. Having small teams means that everybody really does some of everything.
Me: What kinds of skills do you need to perform your job?
CD: A little background: I have a bachelor's in Computer Science and Mathematics and a master's in Human Computer Interaction. Basically I designed interfaces for computers and technology, how to make iPods, VCRs, TiVo, etc. easy and intuitive to use. It's more important to make a game fun, not necessarily easy, but you still have try to make it accessible. It's important to have a strong technical background, I didn't start as a programming lead, I started with more general programming. The most important thing though is to have a real passion for games. You have to have that personal commitment to stay late and do what you can to set the bar high for yourself.
Me: Describe what you do during a typical day.
CD: Depends on the phase of project, but typically:
1 - Get in 9 or 10 and stay pretty late .
2 - Heads Up meeting (10 people) give 15 second update on what you did the day before and what the plan for today is.
3 - Meeting with people, sending emails; it's important to meet with people face to face to find what areas need help.
4 - Looking for bugs. Basically prioritizing, if you do it right the day ends before you know it.
Me: What other jobs have you held that might have helped prepare you for this position?
CD: My first real programming job was research oriented with my university. I worked on an AI neural network software - very technical. I shifted to games for the creativity they offered instead of being focused on just technical skills. I was in the US Army - Officer - and that really helped develop my leadership skills.
Me: Do you have people who work for you, and what do they do?
CD: As lead programmer for a recent project, I oversee a few people. Our organizational structure has shifted from the large team we had on Brutal Legend as our focus changed to smaller scale games. The leadership hierarchy shifts around based on needs. Our small team of gameplay programmers has to interface with the core programming team, the ones responsible for graphics, file structure, and other non-gameplay elements such as the internal tools the artists use to make the textures and ones the sound guys use to get audio files into the right format.
Me: What is one of the most challenging things about the work you do?
CD: Double Fine as a game company is challenging. It's a creative company, the games are kind of way out there, but it's super inspiring though difficult from a technical standpoint which is where a lot of the challenge comes from. You know, Tim [Schaffer] or a design guy will come up with an awesome idea and we try to wrap the technology around the idea instead of the other way around like most other studios. It can be very challenging but always fun.
Me: What time management tips could you suggest?
CD: Try to focus on what's most important but still remain flexible. Prioroties can shift. Try to find what needs to be done *now*. Take a step back and see what needs to be done and make sure the whole team is aware of that one focus.
Me: How do you balance your family, job, work, and leisure time?
CD: That is the hardest part of the game industry. I'm currently single but the industry is getting increasingly harder to work in for married people. Passion for the work can get in the way of leisure time. Some days you have to tell yourself to just stop and go home, hit the gym, spend time with your family, or whatever. If you're lucky enough to get into the industry it's definitely something you have to struggle with. It is possible to be too passionate sometimes.
Me: What advice would you give to someone interested in this career?
CD: Best advice I can give - It's good to get a degree and all, but it's better to write a game. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece, just a simple game like Pac-Man or Space Invaders. Write it, you'll find out what you don't know and then learn it. It forces you to get your head into what it takes to make thousands of parts work together properly. Even if it's a dumb little game, it shows that you think like a game desinger. Also, analyze other games and learn from them: what does this game do right, what works, what doesn't.
Fun Facts about Chad:
Chad Dawson has worked at Double Fine for 5 years though he's been in the industry for 12. His early career was in Robotics and AI research. He also revealed that his first computer job was at a sticky paper factory doing database stuff like converting personnel records from paper to computer.
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