Meet the Programmer

Every game you’ve ever played started out the same way, as a piece of code on a computer screen. From the menu screen to the final boss, that code was created, tweaked and re-tweaked by a programmer. I always think of that scene in the Matrix where the guy stares at a screen of random letters and numbers and picks out “blonde, brunette, redhead”. Do Programmers see their games like that?

No they don’t, but former Codemasters programmer Nicky Hunt took some time out from basking in the glory of his awesome iPhone co-creation Hard Lines to tell me just what the life of a programmer entails, his time working at Codemasters, the creation of Hard Lines with Spilt Milk Studios and some helpful advice on how to make money: “don’t make games, go work for a bank.”

A graduate in Applied Computing from the University of Dundee, Nicky’s education put him in good stead for what a role in game’s programming would throw at him:

“The course was excellent in giving me a grounding in almost all areas of software development, including C++ and Java programming, network design, graphics, and perhaps most importantly, team work.  When I went for my interview at Codemasters I think the broadness of my eduction showed me in a good light as it demonstrated I was capable of adapting to multiple areas of development.  Once I got the job it was also very handy to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of good software engineering.  That said I learned a LOT more about making games in my first 6 months in the industry as I did in my entire degree course!”

Walking straight into a top studio like Codemasters and working on a huge series like Colin McRae Rally would be daunting for any new graduate, but having such a professional team to mentor him made Nicky’s transition a fairly straightforward one: “Due to some administration oddity at the time of my recruitment I joined as an Experienced Programmer.  I was placed in the Colin McRae Rally team, and the first project I worked on was Colin McRae Rally 3.  I worked alongside some amazing people, and can confidently say that if I wasn’t on that team I wouldn’t be half as good a programmer as I am today.  Even today I’ve never worked with such an experienced, capable team.  Our goal was always to make “the best” rally game, and we tirelessly made sure that what we released was at the absolute top of the genre.  It was a brilliant experience.

“When Colin McRae Rally 04 started, I was promoted to Senior Programmer and became the main UI & Game Structure Programmer.  I coded the vast majority of the front end and all of the various career modes in the game.  I loved the sense of responsibility combined with the input I was allowed in the overall design of the game.  Up until Hard Lines, it was the game I felt most closely involved with and really felt that I was able to make a big impact in the overall direction of the game. I’m pretty sure we finished the project a week ahead of schedule.  That’s the difference that using an experienced team, working to a sensible design with sane project management can make.  I’ve never worked on such a well executed plan before or since.”

From the well-oiled professionalism of Codemasters’ Colin McRae team, it was back Dundee to Realtime Worlds where production sadly wasn’t as well organised. Nicky was Lead UI Software Engineer for the team’s APB online shooter. A role that involved “coordinating the Art, Design and Programming aspects of the UI for the game, and creating the framework for integrating the powerful back-end customisation system with the player-visible UI system”.  It was also the game that heralded the end for the studio.

Readers of the site will be aware I’ve already spoken to former RTW staffers before about what they felt went wrong from their own departments point of view. Nicky feels a lack of cohesion between all the extremely enthusiastic departments was the biggest problem:

“The demise of the company and the game was heart breaking for a number of reasons.  The amount of love that was put into the project by team that worked on it was over and above any project I’ve even been involved with, some of the team literally lived and breathed the game.  There were huge discussions about the most minute of detail, and a huge amount of craftsmanship was put into almost every aspect of the game.  Where it fell apart was when all these different  areas came together.  There was far too much concentration on tiny systems in isolation, and very little thought about how everything would actually work together until it was far, far too late.  Targeting high-end PCs exclusively I think was also a massive mistake and shrunk our potential audience.”

At least APB got out the door, after working on Colin McRae Rally 04 Nicky was promoted by Codemasters to work on a PS2/Xbox FPS that never even made it to store shelves (at least in its original guise):

“I was promoted to Lead Programmer on a new console (Playstation 2 and XBox) FPS game.  Sadly that project, although full of initial promise was besieged by issues, both technical and design-based, and entered development hell with continual false starts and reboots.  I became quite disillusioned during that time and eventually decided to move back to Scotland [to Realtime Worlds] to try something new.  Over the course of number of years the game turned into Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, but by that point it had changed engines 3 times, had a completely different story and very few members of the development team were left.”

Fast forward to now and Nicky has helped create with Spilt Milk Studios a successful iOS game in Hard Lines.  The game has received an amazing amount of positive reviews from critics, including a glowing recommendation from EDGE Magazine. So why make an iPhone game?

Nicky explains: “I downloaded the official Tron game for the Tron Legacy movie, expecting some light cycle awesomeness with shiny graphics and thumping music.  I was very, very disappointed.  I was discussing said disappointment with my good friend Andrew Smith (also of Spilt Milk), when we decided to make a game together and show them how it should have been done. “

It would be a terrible disservice to the work Spilt Milk has put into their game to describe it as merely a Tron lightcycle game. The careful attention to detail and the real sense of character that they’ve managed to breathe into what is essentially a straight line is nothing short of genius. In fact, the attention to such details is what makes it fit into that category of a mobile game that hardcore gamers and casual players alike will love. Such attention comes at a price though:

“I spent about 6 months working on the game in my spare time up until launch.  It wasn’t easy, and being the sole coder on it meant I had to implement everything, which was a challenge to say the least.  The sales to date don’t really justify the effort put in from either of us, but the exposure we got and the positive reviews from websites, newspapers and players alike do make it all seem worthwhile.  We’re still working on the title and have some very special things happening in the near future which just might bring even more success our way.”

If Nicky’s story has inspired you to get into programming then pay heed to the following advice:

“If you want to be rich, don’t make games, go work for a bank.  Seriously, the money in games is very low compared to almost all other areas of programming.  But if you want to do it out of the sheer love of computer games, and creating new experiences for people then just do it. Really, just do it.  Get a compiler, a simple free engine (I use Cocos2D) and start making a game. There’s nothing that will teach you more about making games than sitting down and just doing it. No books or courses can teach you experience, and that’s what you need to be good.

“Your first game will be terrible.  The second one will almost certainly be terrible too.  I wrote a trilogy of awful games when I was 15, but I learned a lot.  Mainly about how not to do things, but it still counts.  Very few people can sit down and be instantly great at playing the guitar, and the same holds true for computer games.  It’s an acquired skill, it’s sometimes hard, and very often thankless, but if you really want to make something great, that other people can get hours of entertainment from, then it’s worth the effort.”

You can download Hard Lines from the iTunes store, and follow Nicky on Twitter @NicollHunt. Check out Spilt Milk Studios’ official website here.

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