Scientists in Computer Gaming: Going to Game University


Although I learned Fortran as part of my undergraduate science education, my real interest in software goes back to the mid '80s, when my research group in the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley, bought a Macintosh. I began using it to write Basic programs for fun on weekend afternoons. I was inspired by the power and freedom of creating an artificial computer reality, in contrast to the inflexible and concrete nature of the physical reality I was studying.

In 1990, after a $200,000 (estimated) government investment, 10,000 cups of coffee, 1000 packages of Top Ramen, three experiments, three publications, one thesis, and 9 years of graduate school, I found zero jobs in physics, and vanishing support from my advisor and colleagues. After unsuccessful campaigns for both industrial research and academic teaching positions, I decided to change careers.

By the summer of 1991, another Berkeley physics grad and friend, Jack Eastman, had sold an idea for screen savers for the Macintosh called After Dark to a small software company called Berkeley Systems. My plan was to learn C programming on my girlfriend's Mac (thanks, Linda), write a demo application, and use Jack's software connections to get a programming job somewhere.

I consulted on a hardware product idea for Berkeley Systems that fall, and finished a demo application for a screen saver that covered the screen with colored tiles in a pattern à la Roger Penrose. Not only did I sell the screen saver to Berkeley Systems for the princely sum of $2000, but they offered me a job writing screen savers full time. I took the job, moved to the suburbs, and even got my teeth fixed. I once calculated that I wrote more After Dark screen saver modules than anyone I knew, except for Jack Eastman, who wrote the original collection.

Berkeley Systems started out as a family start-up to make utility software for the hearing- and sight-impaired. Suddenly, the same management was making multimillion-dollar deals with companies such as Paramount and Disney. They were going through programmers at an alarming rate, and they sent me home shortly after completing a very successful project for them, made me a contractor, and then tapered off the contracts. I enjoyed working at home: When I had my wisdom teeth out, the nurse for my oral surgeon asked if I was an athlete, since my blood pressure was so low.

After a few years of writing software at home, I got tired of not having an office, and had just arranged for one when I was called by a "headhunter" to interview at a company called Rocket Science Games in South-of-Market San Francisco. When their head of engineering offered me the job, I requested what I thought was a very nice salary. He said "OK" so fast, I knew I had underbid. I would have had to work my elbow patches off for years at Backwater State University to get anywhere near that salary as a physics professor.

Rocket Science turned out to be infamous in the gaming industry for starting up with a huge amount of hype and cash, and falling into the trap of trying to make full-motion video games. (The trap is this: For a game to be interesting, the player must make lots of decisions. At each decision point, the number of possible situations is multiplied by the number of choices. There is no way to shoot or store that much video.) By the time I joined in 1996, the original founders had moved off to get rich selling WebTV to Microsoft, and Rocket Science Games had become much more conservative. We put out a couple of pretty good games, but Rocket Science still went out with a bang in the following spring with a huge, raucous wake in a downtown San Francisco hotel bar.

A couple of months later I joined Atari Games. Yes, they are still in business. In addition to joining a company with 25 years of Silicon Valley history, I also joined the car, Unix, and Nintendo cultures. Working at Atari was like going to Game University. Among other things, I worked on Gauntlet Legends for the Nintendo 64, which, having missed completion the previous fiscal year, will very likely contribute nicely to profits for this fiscal year. However, the delay forced a corporate reorganization, which led to my graduation from Atari: The exact day Nintendo approved the game for production, they laid me off.

ANDY KARN is 40, lives in Menlo Park, California, with his wife Linda and their books, and will probably have a new job by the time this goes live.

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