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Q&A: Will Holland
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Welcome to the second Q&A at The Pumpkin Post! This time the interviewee is Will Holland, a programmer at Autumn Moon Entertainment, who does scripting and engine programming. Will is a very funny guy, so you'll want to drink that yummy glass of milk after reading this. Like last time, I have added links to things you might not know about. If any of those are insulting to your intelligence, I apologize beforehand. Right, let's get to reading this, and I should not forget to thank Will: thanks, Will!
First of all, could you please tell us something about yourself?
Sure! I'm a student at the University of Massachusetts where I study English and Computer Science. I'm out here in California working for Autumn Moon through a co-op agreement between AME and U-Mass, which is a wonderful opportunity that I am absolutely thrilled about. When I'm not in front of my monitors clacking away on the keyboard, I'm either falling off my skateboard or running Dungeons and Dragons games for my friends. I got hooked on video games by my grandmother when she bought an NES and a copy of The Legend of Zelda to help keep her arthritis at bay (which has been quite effective, she reports). Ever since, making games has been my dream.
Musicians, artists, and writers often have inspirational people they look up to. Would you say that you, being a programmer, also have people you look up to, or is programming not really an art?
Well, it's certainly considered more of a science than an art, but there are brilliant programmers out there whose source code I'd love to read. An elegant chunk of code or a well designed class object can be a beautiful thing, but you won't find us sitting around oooh-ing and aaah-ing a buncha text the same way we coo over Bill's paintings. My inspirations actually tend to come from areas other than computer science, since games were my first love, and programming was just the most natural way for me to get involved. Ray Winninger is one of my idols, although he's a DnD guy who specializes in world-building, and I have no idea what he's up to these days. Warren Spector is another game-guru that has floated between pen and paper role-playing games and their video counterparts. I owe a lot of my game-education to Mark Overmars, whose simple tools for creating retro arcade games got me started on this challenging career path. Of course, Miyamoto has always been king of the designers in my mind, and someday I hope to shake that man's hand and thank him for all the times my television has transported me to Hyrule. As far as actual programming goes - the people at Google are forces of great good in our lives and I respect that very much. And finally, my Uncle Len is not really a famous programmer, but he's been there to answer my stupid questions and lay out the fundamentals back in my newbie days (thanks Len!).
Do you ever play a game and think to yourself, 'hey, I wonder how they programmed this or that'?
All the time! Those kind of questions depend on so many factors, and there are soo many ways to get this or that working, that I usually end up getting fragged, fall down a hole or forget to heal at the right time if I let my attention wander among the possibilities for too long. These days I settle for 'hey, I bet I could program that this way', and then scan my radar to make sure I didn't get surrounded while distracted.
How is programming a game different from programming other software?
Well, since I've only ever programmed games, I'm not too sure. The core principles of object oriented programming apply equally to all sorts of software, so there's really no difference there. What sets games apart for me personally is: games are fun! I guess I could be working on some sort of office application or web utility, but- why would I want to do that when I could work on A Vampyre Story instead!?
Working on A Vampyre Story has been different from other projects because of the 2.5-d perspective. On the art side, it's an ideal situation for our team because we have a lot of talent in both 3-d character animation and the 2-d environments. For the programmers however, it's quite a pain! Always projecting from 3-d world coordinates to 2-d screen coordinates, tweaking strange perspective and scaling issues, or whatever. As Froderick says: "It's tough bein a 3D model in a 2D world". Concerned fans needn't fret though, this game's gonna look amazing, and we're gonna type til our fingers bleed and debug til our eyes pop out to make sure of that!
How did you get involved with Autumn Moon Entertainment?
It's kind of a convoluted story, but ok here we go: Back at Umass I was very involved in 'Hi-Score' (www.hsgamedev.org), a student group for people that are interested in learning about the game industry. We caught wind of a rumor that a grad student in the comp-sci department used to work for Monolith and was the creative mind behind Sanity: Aiken's Artifact. Naturally, we barged in and convinced him to come to our meetings and tell us about it. That's how I met Aaron St. John. Years later, I ran into him again at a multimedia showcase where I was demonstrating a small indie game I made that had some sophisticated camera code for a 2-player, Zelda-ish 2D action adventure. Aaron was impressed, and recognized me from the old club meetings, so he revealed to me that he had started his own company and was looking for young talent to do some contract work. Four months later he had teamed up with AME to serve as lead programmer for a Vampyre Story, and they needed a junior programmer. "Oo Oo! Pick me! Pick me!" ... And they did, so here I am. Bill was pleased to find that I knew more about game programming than they expected, so I moved from part-time out-of-house junior programmer to full-time in-house programmer. It's been a wild ride, and it ain't over yet.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
One thing that keeps me going is that every day is always a little different. Sometimes I'm writing up feature requirements, translating artist speak into programmer speak. Sometimes I'm filling in missing character dialog, adding new engine features, or fixing technical discrepancies in our 3d models, but most of the time I'm scripting out the in-game events that happen when the player interacts with the environment.
The time I arrive in the morning is directly proportional to how late I stayed in the office the night before. Some mornings, usually early in the week, Bill calls a team meeting, and we all gather to coordinate our efforts, review design changes or new pipeline issues, discuss problems, and make fun of each others moms. Then I get on the emailer with the external programming team and tell them about any bugs they need to fix. They respond by sending me computer viruses that make fun of my mom, and then give me my priorities for the day. Then I sync my repository and get down to business. Around lunchtime people wander off into the market across the street for grub, or sometimes we go out for Chinese or Mexican food. Usually we just eat at our desks while Bill cracks a bullwhip over heads, shouting "Mush". If I'm hot on the trail of a new feature or elusive bug, I usually elect to stay late and work the vampire's hours, since I too am a creature of the night...Some of these things I'm kidding about, but not that last one. That's true.
What is the best thing about working at Autumn Moon Entertainment?
Working on a fresh new IP for really talented people in a genre that laughs in the face of today's action-dominated market. I may get in trouble for saying this...but: $%^#! YOU HALO 3. I'M SICK OF SHOOTING BUGS. If you wanna shoot bugs, buy Halo 3. If you want something new, yet tried and true, that'll stimulate your brain cells and tickle your funny bone, buy our game. Better yet, if you want both the action packed bug busting experience and a humorous romp in Draxsylvania, buy both! I don't mean to knock Halo, I just am a little frustrated with the way popular games force every subsequent game to be either a sequel or some sorta knock-off. This in turn drives creative geniuses that make great games out of the industry and somewhere else less stifling. I think it's wonderful that Crimson Cow has placed their trust in us to help 'reanimate' a unique genre that anybody can play and enjoy, regardless of your reaction speed, eye-hand coordination, or available gaming time. Few people in the industry these days actually get to make the game that they want to make, so it's really inspiring to help turn Bill's own game idea into the real thing.
What are some of the challenges involved in building an engine from scratch?
The proprietary scripting language has been a particularly exciting challenge, and I hope that future AME employees will find it powerful enough to do what they want, yet simple to learn and use. Another aspect that I have been working on for the past months is the asset pipeline, which was still needing a lot of work when I became involved in it. Whenever you take on a new task in programming, you have to adapt very quickly to meet that challenge.
Do you think the AVS engine would be useful for other companies as well?
Well, I don't know how many companies other than us and Tell Tale who are doing the point and click adventure these days (and they are already off and running), but hey, that doesn't mean things won't change. It's not the kinda format that your typical twitch-gamer is gonna pounce on, but that's ok. A lot of people still remember the golden age of video games - how good a 2D backdrop can look, how rewarding it is to solve a diabolical puzzle, and how absolutely refreshing it is to play a game that gives you a nice full belly laugh instead of blisters on your thumbs. Right now, American publishers and developers don't seem to value these things, but I think that if Crimson Cow can move our game onto shelves and into enough homes in Europe, it'll turn some heads. I know that there are plenty of gamers in America that remember Monkey Island and smile. With the right exposure this game could sell just as well here, and if that happens, I bet other companies would find it useful. Just let us finish it first!
As a programmer, how much influence do you have on the game, for instance on the story or the characters?
Well, programmers have to make design decisions too, but they're not the kinds of game defining features that are decided on in pre-production. It's things that usually have more of an impact on the way the other team members work on the game, rather than the way the player plays the game. Typically, all the story and characters are pretty much set in stone by the time a programmer sits down at a keyboard to start. However - I get to write extra dialog when it's needed, as well as direct the character's actions as they deliver the dialog that Dave Harris writes. So, the overarching storyline, the critical path and so on are out of my control, but I'm the one that actually puts it all together; stuff like, 'right here, Mona's gonna roll her eyes at Froderick', or 'ok, now she looks pissed, and is about to suck that dude's blood, so her lips curl back like... this, and she crouches a little like... this' and so on.
Bill's always open to his employees' suggestions and concerns, so all of us have a say when new content is needed, or we happen to have a particular concern. For example, I was concerned that the player doesn't get to bite enough people during the game ("C'mon Bill, It's a vampire game! people are gonna want to suck blood!"). As time went by, he found ways to add more 'necking' to chapter 2 to address my concern.
Finally, do you wish to get anything else off your chest?
I've noticed that fans are concerned about the size of AVS1, but the game is still about the size of Full Throttle and nowhere near an episodic format. The original design doc was massive, boasting of something like 72 locations. The market wouldn't support an adventure game that would be immensely bigger than Curse of Monkey Island right now. It's better to make a shorter but sweet and fun-packed high quality game, and leave you wondering what happens next than put out a long but thin, and low quality game.
Adventure gaming fans should go check out Tell Tale's new episodes of Sam & Max while they wait for Mona & Froderick's big debut (season two is out soon!), or Crimson Cow's The Abbey which should be out soon too. And I just want to say to everyone that's been waiting so very long to play this game: We're almost done!
Thanks for maintaining the blog :-)
Is that *gasp* a life-size cutout of Guybrush behind him?!?!!
Very cool. And about the Halo3 thing... I was in class and explained my comp background, "Yeah, it's a game I'm really excited about. Been waiting years!" My prof: "What, Halo3?" And I believe my exact response was, "Hell, no."
I can't wait for a game with humor and fun that will probably make me frustrated solving puzzles rather than test my non-existent hand-eye coordination. (And I, personally, prefer 2D.)
Sounds like a fun job, and it must be a very exciting opportunity! Thanks for the interview!
, at Saturday, October 27, 2007 11:25:00 pm
Hah, sweet. Boy do I envy you, Will. I'm hoping to get a similar job someday, and what better project to work on. Sounds like a whole lotta' fun ;)
Can't wait for the game. I hope it'll be enough of a success to keep AM going.
And indeed, thanks for maintaining the blog Haggis! Bloody cool exclusives you've pulled of. Keep'em comin'!
, at Monday, November 12, 2007 1:06:00 am
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