I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Mike Acton while teaching a programming masterclass for Game Connection in Shanghai and, while waiting for a table at Lost Heaven, Mike asked me how I got into games. I spelled out the basic story to him and he encouraged me to post it here in the hope that it might be inspiring or at least interesting to someone. So, here it is:
It was April 3rd 2000, the first morning of my first job in games, and it was raining. If I’d known it was going to rain I would have worn my other shoes – the ones without the hole. I squelched into the office on the eighth floor, the office that would be my home away from home for the next 5 years, excited, nervous, and ready to begin my new job. In my eagerness to start I’d arrived a little too early – it was 8:30am and the place was almost empty. The faces that were there I didn’t recognise, so I took this opportunity to nip out and buy new shoes and some dry socks. I returned at a more civilised time, dry shod, and was promptly greeted with a pile of black books that were the PS2 hardware manuals with which I was to become intimate with. So began my career as an Engine Programmer.
I grew up in a small country town in South Australia, a town where the youth aspired to drive trucks when they grew up, or to run their parents’ farm. The really ambitious aimed to be famous athletes, playing football for their favourite team in the nearest city. Cars were what was important – cars and girls. I understood the appeal of the latter, but in the former I had no interest other than as a convenient mode of transport.
I was a different – I liked computers.
The first computer I touched was an Apple II and I was immediately enthralled. It was amazing. The games were amazing. These computers could do *anything* and by learning to program them I knew that they could allow *me* to do anything. With the conviction of youth (I was 12) I knew what I wanted to do with my life – I was going to write computer games.
So, obviously, I had to buy a computer.
My parents were not technically literate, but they were supportive. My father offered to match me dollar for dollar, to help me buy my first computer, but I’d have to work for it. A long hot summer passed, where I picked fruit day after day while imagining the games I’d write. Soon I had enough to buy half a computer. My father drove me to Adelaide, nearly 3 hours away and I became the proud owner of a Commodore 64 and a Commodore 1530 Datasette.
It was awesome.
I connected my new baby to the TV and the first thing I did was type in the balloon program in the manual, just so like many others did. As I typed and began to understand, a whole new world opened up for me. This machine was powerful (it was a whole 1MHz after all), but it had its limits.
“Only 8 sprites? How can I get around that?”
And so began a love affair, an obsession, which still continues to this day – trying to push the hardware to the limit.
I left home at 17 to go to University where I studied Computer Science and Physics. I ended up majoring in Theoretical Nuclear Physics, mainly because it sounded tricky. It was. It was also just a little bit boring. Fortunately I realised this just before accepting a PhD (I was nodding off as my supervisor was telling me what I’d be doing for the next 3 years of my life) and decided to pursue what I really enjoyed doing – programming. With the wisdom of age (I was 20 and it was 1989) I knew that writing games wasn’t a valid career path but I did know that I loved programming. So I crammed a three year degree into 2 (I was impatient) and eventually stepped out of Uni with no idea of what I wanted to do.
I eventually fell into a job writing simulation and visualisation applications for mining and defence (amongst other, more gruesome tasks) on Silicon Graphics machines. It was as close as I could get to writing games without actually writing them – there were things flying around, stuff blowing up. It was cool and I could afford to buy myself new computers and a car and to travel and … and it still wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. In my spare time I would design games and game engines with other programmers at that company.
Then my father got sick with cancer. I was 28.
The one positive thing I can say about my father’s cancer it is that it made me re-evaluate my life. It made me think about what it was that I really wanted to do. Deep down, I knew – I wanted to write games. So I started writing games for myself and entering game writing competitions. I bought one of the first 3DFX cards in Australia and wrote demos for that. I spent every spare moment coding. I loved it. It was exciting. I was learning. I was having fun. I was writing games.
So I quit my job.
My plan was to put together a portfolio of code and then fly halfway around the world to GDC to try and find a job in the industry where I knew I belonged. It was going to be incredibly expensive, but I had to try. Then, fortunately, a game developer’s conference started up in Australia and instead I flew to Sydney to attend the first ever Australian Game Developer’s Conference in 1999.
It was fantastic. It was like coming home.
I demoed my code wherever possible, and I left the conference with new friends and some tentative offers of work as well an interview with a local game company, Ratbag Games. I took the job with Ratbag in April 2000 and began to live the dream of getting paid for doing what I love.
My father died 2 months later. I was 32.
That was nearly 12 years ago, and since then I’ve been through 3 studio closures (one as a contractor), shipped some average games and had some excellent ones shelved. There have been times of absolute joy, as well as numbing shock and sorrow. I’ve made fantastic friends who are now scattered around the globe. I’ve met so many brilliant, talented people – people who are just a little different from the Average Joe; people who have had the courage to step off the well-trodden path, to pursue a dream. People I want to be around.
I now run my own company, and I have the pleasure of travelling the world teaching and working with young, eager programmers (as well as their older, more cynical brethren). I love what I do; I love the people I work with. Yes, I have considered leaving the industry for a more secure, well paid job. But you know what? While I would be working at that job, I’d be thinking about writing games.