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Playing the game

Catherine Goode describes how a degree in physics and a childhood passion for computer and video games led her to a career in game design.

Catherine Goode: physicist
Sophia Coney

When I was younger, my hobbies were drawing, playing with electronics and chemistry sets, and watching documentaries about space. But the activity I was exceptionally passionate about was playing video games. I enjoyed classics such as Mario and Sonic, and my absolute favourite was Dungeon Keeper, but I also spent lots of time playing PC Sim and "god games" such as Black & White and Theme Park.

When it came to choosing my career path, though, I had a problem. The standard advice is "do what you are passionate about", but it was not at all clear how I should prepare for a career in games. The only computing courses offered by my school were geared towards giving students a basic understanding of Microsoft Office products, so they were no help. On the other hand, I knew that going down a purely artistic path would limit my ability to work in game engineering and design. I thought about doing a games-related course at university level, but none of the ones I found seemed suitable: either they were not academic enough, or they left me with few alternatives if my preferred option did not work out.

Fortunately, I was still very interested in science, so I decided to concentrate on the most interesting and core science: physics. The physics degree at Birmingham University offered exactly what I was looking for: experience in creating space technology, a solid understanding of how to program in C++ and plenty of contact with the practical side of physics. I loved learning about real-world applications such as medical imaging and spacecraft design, and I particularly liked labwork, where I could take what I had learned, use it to devise a way to achieve a result, consider all possible outcomes and finally write up my findings to explain them to someone else.

Then, when I was in my final year of university, I attended a careers fair for scientists and engineers. The company that caught my immediate attention was Frontier Developments, a Cambridge firm that is best known for creating the games Elite, Lostwinds and Kinectimals. Their representatives at the careers fair seemed to pick up on my passion for games, and they invited me along for a studio tour. At the time, I still wanted to become either an artist or a programmer – but when they explained the role of designer, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Building a game world
At Frontier, my primary role was "level design", which involves taking a game where the basic story outline and theme have already been worked out and then filling in the details of individual levels. In a way, this role seems similar to being a director of a film: you have a rough script prepared, but it is up to you to keep it interesting and bring it to the big screen.

The first step in designing levels for a new game is to create a document that describes each level in detail. For example, you start by filling out the story with action and puzzles, and then you move on to modelling the level maps using 3D tools to determine where each of the enemies would be, where players would be allowed to save their progress and so on. Obviously, the tips I had picked up through years of playing games myself were very useful in this role, but I was also using the analytic writing skills I had gained from my degree.

Once the studio's artists returned the artwork for all the levels, my next step was to create each level using specialized in-house tools to build walls, place cover for gunfights, script enemies to come out and shoot at the right times, and program set-piece events such as "boss battles" that give players an extra challenge at the end of levels. Once one of my levels was completed, I would watch other people play it and analyse their experiences to improve the level and fix the bugs.

At Frontier, I was also given a few tasks that would normally be done by a system designer, which is a very different role to a level designer because it involves devising the core game play. For example, a system designer may decide what the controls are going to be like for the game, or design the system that determines how characters in a game gain experience. This role is more technical than level design, but the process is similar: you create documentation to describe the system fully, program a prototype or rough version of the system, and then iterate on that system until it is working and fun to play.

In 2010 I moved to a new company, Lockwood Studios, which is much smaller than Frontier and specializes in creating content for Sony's social-gaming platform, PlayStation Home. Working in a small team meant that my role there was quite varied: not only was I designing, but I was also using a high-level language called LUA to create the editing tools and mechanics behind the game. Programming meant that I was applying a lot of the mechanics and mathematics that I used during my degree, and I am hoping to do the same when I start work at Sony shortly after this article is published.

Winning strategies
I really love what I am doing, but games development can be a high-pressure career. I have heard horror stories about "crunch time" when employees are expected to work overtime late into the night – including weekends – for no extra pay or time off in lieu. This does not happen at every studio, but most are under pressure from their project funders (which are usually publishers such as EA Games). If a funder pulls out, this can mean lay-offs and there is also the possibility that a project you have worked on for years will never be seen by the public. The threats of funding loss and redundancy are what I like least about the job.

Luckily, it is not all negative. Some studios work independently of publishers, and recently there has been a massive growth in the number of people going it alone. Independent studios tend to sell their games directly to their customers using services such as Steam and PlayStation Network. This means they are not reliant on a publisher, which reduces the risk of having their games cancelled and also means they can keep nearly 100% of their profits. Independents also have alternative forms of funding such as selling the game in its alpha testing period, or asking fans to donate towards an idea.

There are also some really great traits to the games industry. Everybody knows each other, which means that if you move to a new company, you will find that many of your co-workers already know you. The atmosphere is a lot like at university – it is easy to find social groups that share the same interests, and no-one wears a suit. Of course, the best bits are creating games, sometimes on new technology that the public does not even know about yet, seeing your game out on sale, watching a strong community of players grow and reading reviews as they roll in.

If you want to get into the games industry, the best thing to do is to try creating a game yourself. Work alone or with others, and do not worry about the art or sound – just use existing tools such as Unreal or RPG Maker and have a go. Showing a commitment to making games – rather than just playing them – will look great at interviews, and will also show you what designing a game is actually like.

As for academic courses, I would not recommend doing a degree course in game development. These degrees are not transferable to other fields, and often they are not well respected within the games industry. In my experience, an academic degree in a relevant subject such as physics or computer science will stand you in much better stead. Also, it is important to remember that even if you want to work in an artistic role within the games industry, you will need to have some scripting knowledge, so look for a course that has a good programming component and think carefully about how the rest of the course can be applied.

Working in games has always been a dream of mine. I feel incredibly lucky that every day I get to help create experiences that fellow gamers around the world will hopefully love and remember, just like I loved playing Dungeon Keeper (which I still install on every machine I own). Someday I hope to create a game like that – one that someone will want to play throughout their life.

Catherine Goode is a technical designer at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in London, UK, e-mail

This article appears in the May 2012 issue of Physics World

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