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Life As An Intern Game Developer

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Jump to: Introduction :: The First Day :: Three-Week Mark :: Personal Implications :: Conclusion

As of now, I am officially a two-week-old intern programmer at the game development division of Stardock; a company most likely best-known for their Object Desktop suite of Windows desktop customization software (of which I believe WindowBlinds and ObjectDock may be the most well-known). Within the game development scope of things, though, Stardock is famous for their turn-based strategy series: Galactic Civilizations; the most recently released of which was Galactic Civilizations 2 and its Dark Avatar expansion pack. The company also developed The Political Machine, a turn-based strategy game which revolved around the 2004 presidential election. And, here I am, a one-class-away-from-graduating English major at the University of Michigan who is, as previously stated, a game programming intern at a company best known for its turn-based strategy games, Windows customization software, and a history of excellent customer service. And I, somehow, managed a position there.

Though, in all honesty, I think the folks at Stardock thought they were actually hiring a kitten. Imagine their disappointment when I had neither fur nor whiskers. Though I do meow.

The First Day
I have a history of sleeping issues when I lay down with nothing on my mind; the kind of sleep I get on the night before starting a new job in a part of Michigan I had never seen to start work with a bunch of brand new people is restless at best. So, after getting to sleep at around 3am, I woke up at 7am to give myself time to have a nice, relaxing morning with a big 'ol breakfast (... instant oatmeal?) and, well, that's really all I had planned for the morning's activities. I was planning to show up to the office at 9am, but being relatively unfamiliar with the kind of traffic I would have to endure on the drive from Ann Arbor to Plymouth, I left at 8:15 "just in case." So, twenty minutes later, I was standing outside the very impressive building with the glossy, pretty Stardock logo wondering where I would be working. It's probably worth noting that I had never actually set foot inside of this office before -- when I interviewed for the intern position it was back in the "old" office in Livonia; my first thought at the sight of the new building was "Wow. It's all sorts of pretty.

Galactic Civilizations

The first mission as a soon-to-be-employed intern was to actually find my way within the office itself. There are three floors of the building: the first floor, which is shared with an accounting firm (and part of Stardock that I have yet to actually see the inside of), the basement which is undergoing renovation, and the second floor -- which, through the window of a locked door looked like the place I wanted to find my way in to... But, for whatever reason, the locked door was, in point of fact, locked to the uncleansed outsiders (ie, me) of the world. I walked back down to the first floor of the building and tried the door to, what looked like, the Stardock portion of the first floor (as indicated by the Galactic Civilization poster on the wall), and that door was also locked. The secretary within the accounting firm across the hall gave me judgmental looks as I walked around confused. Confused and scared. My next attempt at getting inside was to go down to the basement and see if there was a hidden stairwell that I would be able to access to get into the office. There wasn't. It was dark and basement-like, though. Eventually I decided just to play around in the elevator on the ground floor. This elevator took me up to the second floor and into the main lobby where I said "Hi. My name is Trent. I'm an intern. I'm, uh, starting. Starting today. I hope?"

After a short sit-down-and-wait period within the Stardockian lobby, Cari came and met me and gave me a tour of the second floor along with introductions to all the people who were at work at the time -- it was only about 9:00am and, as I know now, a majority of people don't show up until after 9:30-10:00am. Apparently there were some lack of notifications about when I was actually starting, so I had a bit of down-time for the first hour or so while I was there. Though, this downtime was well-spent getting the surprisingly speedy computer that I was set-up with; my worry that I would have a rough transition from my dual-monitor setup at home to a single-monitor workspace was instantly rendered naught -- not only is my work machine near-identical to my home one, but one of the two monitors at my desk at work is actually larger than both of my home ones. This was a very joyous realization.

The Political Machine

Since I had yet to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), people in the office were avoiding me like the plague, so I sat at my computer setting up software and downloading some of the necessities for fifteen minutes until I was given the requisite NDA; the moment I signed it, people around me lit-up and I was briefed on what my first task as an intern game programmer would be. I, unfortunately, cannot divulge any of the details here, but I can say that I was absolutely not expecting to be given a task of the kind of importance and awesomeness which I was given. As a measly intern, I was expecting to be doing nothing short of programmatically cleaning the office's gutters and scripting the trash bucket's cleanup routines. Instead, by the end of the first day, I was working alongside what I would consider to be a "veteran employee" in designing and organizing fairly major component of a project.

I could not have asked for a better job.

The First TwoThree Weeks
As of today, I have been at Stardock for a grand total of two weeksAs of when I started writing this article, I had been at Stardock for a grand total of two weeks; now, as I come back to this masterpiece in e-penmanship and creative thinking, I'm ending my third week there. It has been a weak and timid amount of time in the whole scheme of things (or, erm, I have been a weak and timid employee in the whole scheme of things; toe-may-toe/toe-mah-toe), but it seemed as good a time as any to finally write the little article that I've been meaning to get to since that first day.

I was talking to one of my friends earlier today about my job and, for a bit of background, this is someone who's greatest familiarity with the concept of video games is knowing friends who played Halo in dorm rooms, much less with the knowledge of what kind of work goes into modern video games. Anyway, I was talking to this friend, and I was trying to explain the kind of work environment present in Stardock -- the lead-in to this conversation being that I said it was difficult to imagine a larger development company being this... homey. Even as an intern, I don't get foul looks for walking around in flip-flops, being essentially draped across my chair/desk in an awkward looking, albeit surprisingly comfortable, bodily configuration while programming. For a quick break every now and then, there is a consistently-stocked lunchroom area with pop, fruit, snackables, mini-meals, and so on. Basically, the whole of the second-floor workplace (I still have yet to actually see the first floor) is a very comfortable, easy-going environment that makes working and adjusting to a completely new kind of work environment about as painless as I could have hoped.

Galactic Civilizations 2: Dread Lords

And then, of course, there are the people. I don't think I've had such pleasant things to say about such a wide variety of people in recent years. Even as a measly intern, people have been not only friendly, but also incredibly helpful; during my first few weeks if I was ever confused about something, there was never any intimidation factor in seeking out someone to get some help from. On my first day, I was given some very basic goals for the component of something that I was working on, on the second day I got some clarification, and on the third day I was playing around in the codebase working on implementing some of the most basic of features that would come in handy; other than these first few days, I've had nearly complete freedom in the way I go about designing and implementing my personal task (which is a fairly independent one, at the moment). This was not only surprising for me in the sense that I have a lot of freedom about how I go about working on things, but also that I would be given this amount of freedom on a non-trivial and fairly significant component of one of the company's current projects. Being vague and sketchy is fun!

Personal Implications
All of this really makes for a very encouraging experience for me, personally. After my first professional programming job the summer after my freshman year doing what was, essentially, contract work for the U of M Space Research department, I had a lot of my love of programming beat of me. Between that and my first-year Engineering courses at the school -- which, not to sound like too much of a jerk, were very work-intensive without a whole lot of actual learning occurring -- I decided that I would take my academic education in an alternate direction for my time at the school and do something... Well, different. So, despite changing my major to English, I found myself craving programming as a purely extracurricular activity; I got involved with implementing some additional features into the then-beta Torque Shader Engine and doing some very basic contract work (none of which really panned out). More recently, I decided to take a few additional Computer Science classes during the school year, since I had a large majority of the classes necessary for my English degree, along with playing with XNA during my spare time. It's been a weird sort of combination of work for me; surprisingly, there really are not a whole lot of similarities between English and Computer Science -- though, oddly, aspects of my Linguistics courses had connections to some aspects of computer programming languages.

Galactic Civilizations 2: Dark Avatar

As I stand now (one class away from a Bachelor's degree in English), I can't say I regret taking my academic "path" down a very different educational branch from my very Computer Science-heavy experience outside of school... But I did find myself worried that the degree in English would make finding actual employment as a game developer far, far more difficult than it would have been with a CS degree. And, as far as I know, an internship as a game developer may not make it a whole lot easier... But the one thing that has made an impact on me is that, in conversations with my coworkers at times, when I mention that I'm actually a near-college graduate English major the only reaction I receive is "Really? Wow, that's kind of weird for a programmer." I expected to be looked down upon -- nay, shunned -- for such a divulgence of my education. Saying that the lack of such a negative reaction gave me a bit of hope for myself would be a tremendous understatement.

I think the best way to sum up my experience thus far as an intern game developer at Stardock would be with a conversation I had with a housemate upon my return to my house at around 7:30pm last week. He looked at me with a grin, saying "Wow, you must have gotten to the office real late this morning." I looked confused -- it's a natural look that doesn't necessarily signal actual confusion -- saying "Erm. I think I got there at around 8:30 this morning, actually." He looked at me, eyes filled with confusion, asking "Did you... Did you do something wrong? You must be pissed!" I shrugged -- another natural reaction of mine. My response was simple: "I just lost track of time, I guess."
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This entry is actually about two months old, but I'm going to get this little journal going again and I'm all about recycling material.

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Congrats on the internship, sounds like a good gig. Have your feelings changed in the last 2 months [grin]?

I found this particularly interesting because I'm sort of in the same position (well, I have more than 1 class 'til graduation, and it won't be with an English degree), in that I just started an internship in the industry about 2 months ago. My experience has been quite like yours, from the sound of it.

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My feelings haven't changed whatsoever. If anything, I feel like I'm enjoying things more. I no longer get antsy sitting still for so long and I can get into a more focused "zone" easier. My biggest problem, still, is tuning out everything that is going on around me -- I need to learn to just put my headphones on and ignore what people around the office are talking about (we have an oddly-structured layout here).

Though this internship, as of August 16, will no longer be an internship. Come that date I will be an official full-time employee. I will take my final class this semester alongside my full-time job as a game developer. :)

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