Monday, July 05, 2004

How I almost became a computer game designer

Old Post: I first mentioned that I might share this story in my post on Spiderman 2.

In late 2001, shortly after 9/11, I was pondering what to do with my life. I was nearing the end of my Ph.D. career, expecting to finish by August of 2002. What was more, I had recently rediscovered how much I enjoyed writing, to the degree that I had taken an Undergrad creative writing course. It was time to start looking for a job, and while the obvious thing to do would be a Postdoc or a national lab, I was wondering if I could find a job which utilized my writing talents. Around that time, I dropped by Bioware's website. Bioware is the software company behind Baldur's Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, a top tier company when it comes to computer role-playing games, and I think I was looking for information on Neverwinter Nights. While there, I noticed an advertisement saying they were looking for a writer for computer games. I checked out the advertisement, amused at the coincidence, and looked at the job requirements. Surprisingly enough, I met the requirements, which were pretty vague, so I sent in my resume and a writing sample (what is now "A Stranger in the Library"). I'm not sure who was more surprised, the HR manager at getting a resume from a Ph.D. candidate, or myself, when they actually called to see if I was serious. I said I was, which was true enough. I hadn't decided I wanted to leave my field, but I was entertaining the possibility.

To apply, I had to take a series of tests. The first was a writing test, which I took in the comfort of my own home. I had to write a sample dialogue tree for a character in Neverwinter Nights. (For those who played the game, the character was Sharwyn, the bard, and the piece of dialogue was a description of a couple of quests, including one for her mother's cure. It wasn't exactly the same as in the game, and I didn't have enough information on the character to know she was a bard and a mercenary NPC, but I'm glad to say that I got her personality pretty close.) A dialogue tree, if you're unfamiliar with it, gives the player multiple things he can say, and the person he's talking to says different things depending on what the player says. In this case, since it was an RPG, the dialogue was more complicated, with the choices available depending on the player character's attributes (certain options were only available to smarter player characters, for example). To make it even more complicated, I had to write it in Word, using hyperlinks to connect the player's dialogue choices to what the Sharwyn would say in response. I had 8 hours to complete the test, which was administered by e-mail. I sent them 11 pages of dialogue, about 4000 words long.

Shortly afterwards, they flew me to Edmonton for an interview, where I talked to game designers, programmers, and the company owners--plus I went to see Spiderman with them. The next day, I took more tests, programming tests. First, I looked at a C-type script in Neverwinter Nights' scripting language and tried to spot the three bugs. I found four. Second, they had me try my hand with the scripting language, taking a basic map and adding objects and NPCs and building some events. They had a minimum set of required tasks I was supposed to do, then some optional tasks if I got those done. I got through all of them in five hours or so and was kind of drumming my fingers at the end. I considered adding a few flourishes, but the last thing I wanted to do was mess up the work I had already done. After this test, I talked to the head designer about what I could expect to be working on. Then I went home while they considered.

In case you're curious, I did sign a non-disclosure agreement. I'm pretty sure none of this violates the agreement, and by now it's dated anyway--the scripting language is one of the game features, and anyone who's played with it knows as much about Neverwinter Nights as I learned in my two days there.

I returned home, and I think it was a couple of weeks later that I got a call offering me the job. As you probably guessed by the title of the post, I turned them down. The least important part of the reason was that the position had evolved, so that the job I was being offered would be a level designing position rather than a writing position. More significant, I'm sad to say, was money. The amount they were offering was well below what a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering could expect to make, and that was before you factored in the exchange rate--the job was in Canada, remember. But the most important reason was timing. By that point it had become clear that I wouldn't be finishing my Ph.D. in August--as it turned out, the most significant data in my thesis, the data which is central to my recently published paper, wasn't taken until that August. Since I didn't know how much longer it would be before I finished my Ph.D., I felt that I couldn't take the position. While I may occasionally regret not taking the job, I would have regretted not finishing my Ph.D. more.

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