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It's been an Interesting Trip

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I was re-reading old journal entries tonight and I noticed a couple things:

1) I don't update much any more.
2) My life has changed a LOT in the last couple of years.

I don't update much any more not because I don't have anything to talk about. I have more geekery in my head than ever before it seems. But all my geekery these days is for work and I work for a large company. Large companies like secrecy and they have lawyers.

I think that's really my only real regret about coming here. I miss being able to talk about programming freely. It's my passion and I feel so isolated when I do elegant code (or stupid code for that matter) and can't talk about it. I can't post code samples. I can't post screenshots. Well, not of the stuff from work anyway (my own stuff, sure, but I don't seem to be making a lot of time these days to work on my own projects).

I wrote up a post-mortem about the last project. In it I talked about some of the history of my part of the project, some funny stories from the project, and some general ramblings about work. I also had screenshots from the dev cycle (basically a series of snapshots that showed the metamorphosis from comically/tragically funny to production-quality.

Being the cautious person I am, I decided to get it cleared through my boss first since many companies have a nasty tendency to fire people over seemingly innocuous journal entries that lawyers think reveal some secret or other. Well, of course, it got sent on to legal and all of a sudden I was being asked to fill out about 10 pages of forms.

So not worth it. And thus ended that journal entry, stillborn.

But I guess that's the price I pay for working in a game company. If that's the worst thing I have to deal with, I'll be content. But alas, it does make it hard to think of worthwhile journal entries. Talking about the rest of my life (what little there is of it) bores everyone to tears, I suspect (including me).

As for the second thing I noticed - the changes in my life over the last couple of years - I was amazed at the transformation.

For years, most of my adult life in fact, I wanted to program games. I'd say that, and I'd whine about how no one would hire me. But I wouldn't actually do what I needed to in order to get hired. I wouldn't take the time to learn the code, nor do enough projects to get practice at it. I'd just feel terribly frustrated and wonder why no one handed me my heart's desire just because I asked for it.

And then, out of the blue, I get an interview with Turbine in October 2003. I felt real hope for the first time in years that I might actually be able to follow my dreams. The interviews went well for a long while and they eventually flew me to Boston for a full set of in-person interviews. Even better, it was for working on Middle Earth Online. I can't imagine many other games I'd rather work on, honestly, given my passion for Tolkien and fantasy gaming, MMOs, RPGs, etc. It felt too good to be true.

Well, of course, it was. They ended up not hiring me. The funny thing was, I don't think it was because I lacked in technical ability. I did well on the tech parts of the interview - which still amazes me because I look back on how little I really knew about game coding back then and I... well, I laugh.

Not getting hired was the catalyst for a midlife crisis, I think. I had had a real taste of hope. For a brief time, I'd felt more alive than I ever had when I thought I might actually be able to work on a game like that. Somehow, unlike previous disappointments, I was able to channel the massive depression from that rejection into something useful.

I spent the next year or so tinkering around with game code. I absorbed massive amounts of knowledge from books, code libraries, forums, anything I could lay my hands on. I dove into driving problems - terrain generation, permutations, 3D math, etc. I tore apart and wrote rendering engines. I gave up games and much of my social life. I had never felt such determination or had such discipline before.

At any rate, in the summer of 2004, my wife saw a blurb in the University of Washington about a game certificate program - a year long course in game programming. By that point, I was starting to feel like I was spinning my wheels a bit. I knew enough to know I didn't know much and that I needed mentoring and people to bounce questions off of. So, I figured out how to pay for the course (thanks Dad!) and enrolled.

October 2004 was the beginning of a year of real transformation - because of that class. I became obsessed with the class, learning everything I could. I not only did the assignments, but wrote a complex game engine from the ground up. I literally ate, drank, and slept game code for the next six months. I would spend every waking moment either working on my day job or working on my game code. And I was in heaven doing it.

Of course, there was a price to pay, though. I realized how much I was disliking my day job and I just found it harder and harder to muster the discipline to work at it. They noticed, wanted to help me and tried their damndest to compromise. But I just couldn't put my heart and soul into it anymore. Or much of my brain. All I wanted to do was program games. What remained of my social life went by the wayside. I started seeing my family less and less.

Six months into the class, I realized I couldn't continue like that. I was wearing myself out, and not seeing my family was not good for any of us. So I decided to back off somewhat - concentrate more on work, see my family more, and only do the minimum for the assignments for a while.

Literally days after I'd made that decision, EA emails me and within a month, I had a job offer to work on the Sims as a programmer and enough money so that I didn't have to automatically turn it down because I couldn't afford to take the job.

But the job was in California and for various reasons, would require me to move there by myself for up to a year. I wanted to finish the game programming course, I wanted to fulfill agreements with my current job and stay to help finish a project I was relatively critical for, and I definitely didn't want to move out on my own.

But this was the opportunity I'd been waiting for and had worked so hard for years to get. There was no guarantee I'd get other offers in the Seattle area, though it was seeming likely. The game, while not my favorite genre, had interesting technology and would be a great project to work on. Most importantly, it would get my foot in the door, be that big break that I needed to get in the industry and prove (to myself more than anything!) that I could indeed do this.

So I accepted the offer, moved to California, got a little studio apartment and dove into the project with a will and a passion that surprised even me. Living on my own, I had no reason to go home at night and no real desire to, so I spent pretty much all my waking hours here. Not exactly healthy, especially since I'd been already doing a similar schedule for the six months previous.

Interestingly, I felt closer to my family in some ways. I flew home every other weekend and the time I spent at home was real quality time. I wasn't constantly thinking about what I should be doing to fill my spare time with code so I could get a gaming job. I was able to really relax during my weekends off - the first time really in years I'd been able to do that I think.

And when I wasn't in Seattle, I was at work, pouring my heart and soul into a game, absorbing code, learning the engine architecture, learning to program on consoles instead of PCs, and generally having the time of my life.

And then, one day, the project ended. We had a release candidate and no more code changes were being accepted. And then it passed internal testing, then external testing, and finally went gold.

It was hard to come down off that mental mind-set - buried in crunch mode. I felt lost for a while again. But then I was basically told "take some time off". So I did and I flew home for a couple weeks.

I immediately got sick for a week, of course, hacking up a lung, etc. A year of stress (even good stress) will do that to you. My body rebelled and I let it, finally. But I also completely relaxed. I played games again. I worked on a project of my own, just because it was fun. I spent time with my family and had real conversations with my son. I visited friends.

And now, I'm back at work, starting pre-production for our next project. After an initial day or so of confusion where I got to know and grok my new bosses (and vice versa) and figure out what I'd like to be doing on the project, I'm now figuring out tasks and diving into them with gusto. Despite initial confusion, it's clear that I do indeed have some say in my destiny here, which is extremely important to me. It makes a huge difference being asked to do something instead of being told.

So, life is back to a new "normal" for me, I think. After two years of pretty intense change, I think I can finally relax a bit, settle into my own skin, start enjoying my life with less stress again, and really enjoy my new career, because it's what I've wanted for most of my life.

Oh, and go home in the evenings. =)

And impatiently wait for next May, when my family can move down with me.
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Thanks for the story. It's an inspiration and great example of what honest determination will bring.I hope to have my own story to tell real soon.

Even if you can't talk about what you're doing at EA it's still nice to read what you've been up to from time to time.

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