Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Jon Holmes

Jon Holmes
Audio Engineer
Rare

Notable games Jon has been involved with:
All Points Bulletin (Realtime Worlds)
DiRT 3, DiRT: Showdown, F1 2012, GRID 2 (Codemasters)

rustybucket

Brad: A two part question first of all.

Can you tell me a bit about your educational background? And did you always plan on being a programmer, or more specifically an audio programmer in the games industry or were there other industries you considered?

Jon: My education was pretty standard for most Scottish kids – I began at nursery, where I learned how to make friends, play games with others and generally be a functioning member of society. In primary and secondary school I performed above average in the subjects I enjoyed (Art, Computing, Music) and sucked at the ones I didn’t enjoy (Maths!). I was quite a creative child, so I spent a lot of time drawing and making things. My family also had a big impact on my education, mostly with how I approached learning. My dad is quite analytical and I think that rubbed off onto me. After school I graduated from The University of Abertay Dundee with a 2:1 BScHons in Computer Games Technology.

Did I always plan on being a programmer? Not at all. Up until the age of 10 I wanted to be a comic book artist for DC comics (I love Batman). Then at the age of 14 or 15 I started learning the guitar. I got quite good at it, and thought I could make a living as a session guitarist. At ~17 it was pretty obvious I couldn’t compete with the guys who’d been playing a lot longer than me, so I chose a profession in game programming.

It’s funny that I took so long to decide to be a programmer, because I started programming at a very early age. Games were always a part of our family, and my older brother programmed a little in AMOS on the Amiga. We had games like “The shoot-em-up Construction Kit” that I played with before I could even ride a bike. I became a bit of a Deluxe Paint ninja and made loads of little visual programs in AMOS. I then progressed to stuff like Macromedia Director, Adobe Flash and Visual Basic until finally getting stuck into C++ at University. For most of my teenage years I much preferred the creative aspects games. I loved animating (something I picked up from my brother) and I loved writing music (something I picked up from my dad) and seeing it all come together as one product was a very good feeling. The programming was simply a means to an end.

However, in 3rd year of Uni I started programming shaders in DirectX. This was really hard, and I barely understood it to begin with. The coursework forced me to really dig deep into how it all worked, and I found that I really enjoyed it. I think this was the real turning point for me. Almost like a switch went off in my brain and I became someone else. Programming was enjoyable, I understood it, I liked investigating new things and I felt I was good at it.

You’ll notice, apart from some music references, that I haven’t mentioned much about audio yet. That’s because I wanted to do almost anything apart from audio programming; I didn’t want to be stuck in a niche position. Ironically, being niche has probably been the best thing that’s happened to me. My first attempt at audio programming was in uni. I did it in a few group projects because no one else would do it. Fortunately my audio programming got me noticed during the Dare To Be Digital competition in Dundee. Realtime Worlds hired me as an audio programmer off the back of DTBD and since then I’ve been very happy doing audio programming (I still suck at maths though).

Brad: That’s interesting that Maths isn’t one of your strong points, generally people think that to be a programmer you have to be really good at Maths.

How different is audio coding from other disciplines in the games industry? Do you feel as if you have to take a different approach to your work and does knowledge of music and audio in general help you?

Jon: Even though Maths isn’t my strong point it’s still important for a programmer. I’m now comfortable enough with basic calculus and trigonometry, but when you get into serious digital signal processing it can get pretty challenging. I just keep sticking at these things until I understand them.

Audio programming is easily comparable to other types of game programming. You’ve got high level coding, which is similar to gameplay programming. This would include stuff like hooking up triggers and logic for controlling the sound. Then there’s more architectural audio programming where you structure how the sub systems talk to each other, and making sure the code is as optimised as possible. Techniques here could be applied to almost any system that needs to run fast (graphics/AI/physics etc.). Finally you’ve got the signal processing aspect, which is where the maths comes in handy. The approaches would be similar to a rendering programmer writing shaders; relatively small bits of code but quite algorithmically complicated. Brian Schmidt gives a great comprehensive breakdown of these three types of audio programmers in his article here:

http://www.gameaudio101.com/Game-Audio-Programming.php

All of these areas of audio programming benefit from having knowledge of sound and music. Understanding the needs of your sound designers makes them more effective, and always results in better sounding games. I’ve found having a creative passion helps to push you technically; you won’t instantly dismiss something if it’s too hard, because you know it’ll sound amazing if you get it right!

Brad: I’m sure this also works the other way around right? I guess it’s always helpful for designers to have a basic understanding of what you do; the limitations of code and how difficult something will be for you to implement.

Before we get on to the unfortunate business of leaving you stranded on an island for the foreseeable future I have one more question. Are there any games that have been so technically impressive that you have found yourself analysing them and wondering how they were coded?

Jon: Totally – I find when you both have an understanding of each other’s work then quality and productivity improves.

One game I’m still really impressed with is Uncharted 2. The way the sound reacts to the environment, especially in the multi-player, is inspirational. I spent ages walking around trying to find flaws in their occlusion and reverb, but at the time it seemed perfect.

As soon as I hear something that sounds too good to be true I stop and try to break it. I try to think of ways the developers could have implemented it – completely dissecting the feature. Then I go through as many edge cases I can come up with, hoping the system falls over. More often than not it does, but Uncharted’s environmental processing is great.

I hear GRID2 sounds amazing too…

(You can leave that last bit out if you like!).

Brad: No, the GRID 2 comment is staying!

I know you can’t say what you are currently working on but I presume its Banjo-Threeie, it’s also an N64 exclusive for the hardcore fans that still own the console! To promote the game a real life Rusty Bucket ship will set sale with the Rare devs onboard. Unfortunately the hull plating will be breeched by a series of rocks along an island.

Luckily, being a boat full of games industry folk there were plenty of games on board. Your priority (other than surviving) is obviously to grab some games. You manage to grab a haul of your favorite games, jump into the ocean and find a bit of driftwood.

So you’ve grabbed 5 games (one of which happens to be a collector’s edition) and 1 game soundtrack. What were your choices?

Jon: Your ship wrecking stories keep getting better and better!

Brad: Yeah, I find keeping the scenarios quite realistic works well.

Jon: My games would be (in no particular order):

1)  Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (PC)

The campaign is great and the sound is what I’d expect from a Warhammer 40k game.

2)  Halo 4 (Xbox 360)

Don’t care much for the single player, but the multi-player is great for unwinding after a long day of holding onto driftwood.

3)  Counter-Strike: Source (PC)

Probably the most addictive game I’ve ever played. I would lose whole weekends to this when I was at uni.

4)  Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Xbox 360)

I’m determined to get the high score on “Pacifism”.

5) Batman: Arkham Asylum Collector’s Edition (Xbox 360)

Both of the new Batman games are fantastic, but the Batarang from the Arkham Asylum collector’s edition would come in handy while I’m stranded.

Soundtrack – Command & Conquer

Game soundtrack is easy – I’d take the original Command & Conquer soundtrack. All I need to do to re-live the 90’s is listen to that. “We’re going to have to act if we want to live in a different world”.

Brad: You have chosen some time consuming games there and I like your thinking with the Arkham Asylum collector’s edition, so all round good choices!

As I’m sure you are aware your scenario only gets worse when on the island. While strolling along the beach you come across the Rusty Bucket shipwreck, naturally you investigate. To your horror you see the remains a bird, suddenly a bear chases you away. You both reach the base camp and the bear starts slashing away at anything in his path. As he nears your prized games collection you reach out to grab them but only one can be saved.

So Jon, which game do you save?

Jon: Assuming I survive the encounter with the bear then I’d pick Counterstrike – I’m still not bored of playing ‘office’ and ‘dust 2’ after all these years. Perhaps the bear could play with me?

Brad: I like your thinking. I’m sure you do survive and with the backing of Microsoft I think the funding for a rescue helicopter will be secured in a few years.

Thanks for taking part Jon!

Jon: You’re most welcome 🙂

About the choices

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

Developer – Relic Entertainment
Publisher – THQ
Platform – PC
Release – 20th February 2009

Halo 4

Developer – 343 Industries
Publisher – Microsoft Studios
Platform – Xbox 360
Release – 6th November 2012

Counter-Strike: Source

Developer – Valve Corporation
Publisher – Valve Corporation
Platform – PC
Release – 1st November 2004

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2

Developer – Bizarre Creations
Publisher – Activision
Platform – Xbox 360 – XBLA
Release (EU) – 30th July 2008

Batman: Arkham Asylum Collector’s Edition

Developer – Rocksteady Studios
Publisher – Eidos Interactive, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platform – Xbox 360
Release – 28th August 2009

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Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Nick Turner

Nick Turner
Product Manager, Northern Europe
Deep Silver

Notable games Nick has been involved with:
The Dead Island series, The Sacred series, Ride to Hell, Metro: Last Light, Saints Row 4STEINHARDT SHOT 2Brad: On the surface you appear to have one of the coolest jobs in the games industry. You have made several appearances in MCV and you’re always driving around in a rather cool, custom-made Dead Island pickup truck. What do you actually do on a day-to-day basis though or does a lot of it involve slaying Zombies?

Nick: Ha-ha, yes it is cool! I’m very lucky to have a job that involves something I’m passionate about. My day-to-day job is hugely varied and that’s what I love about it, no two days are the same. My day usually starts with a strong cup of tea then I go through the overnight emails from Japan, Australia and all our other partners. At some point in the day the subject of zombie slaying will always come up! We are currently working on Dead Island Riptide among other titles so it’s all hands on deck.

The Riptide truck is a project that I’m really proud of. I’m very protective over the truck, maybe a little too much! It was really good fun to do something like this but more importantly it’s helped us build up the Dead Island brand. We’ve been taking it to various events around the UK and even into Europe.

STEINHARDT SHOT 1

Brad: How did you end up getting the job? You’ve working in different industries in the past so had you always planned on working in the games industry or did it “just happen”?

Nick: I’ve actually worked in the games industry since I was 17. I left school and started to work at a toyshop. I worked in the ‘VR’ department. Basically I was a shop assistant that looked after the video games department. We used to get this rep come round once a month and tell us about the new games. He worked for a company called Bizarre Love Triangle, which was a marketing company for Infogrames, Interplay and Virgin. I got the details off of him and applied for a job. They took me on in telemarketing. From there I went on to work for a games distributor. Then I returned to retail and worked as a supervisor for GAME Ltd. From there I went on to sales and became an Account Manager at Vivendi Universal.

After that I had a break for a while and worked on an IT desk at the council. It didn’t feel right though and really wasn’t me, and I didn’t feel challenged. I was there for quite a while but missed the industry massively. I applied for a job at Koch Media (Deep Silver) and it just so happened that my CV landed with them at just the right time. The rest as they say is history. As of July this year i would have been there 5 years.

Brad: So not really the traditional route of University and maybe a couple of years in QA before getting a job in a specific department. Do you think then, that getting into the games industry is in part about who you know not just what you know?

Nick: I left school with average grades. Too much time was spent playing Street Fighter and not enough time studying! Ironically my distractions paid off and when I was offered a job that involved me talking about games I jumped at it. I’ve learnt a lot from having great bosses and colleagues.

The games industry is so fast moving that more often than not you will end crossing paths with the same person you’ve worked at previously, in a new company. It’s not all about who you know but it can defiantly help you out. A recommendation or shining reference from someone respected in the industry does go far, but it’s not free and you have to earn that by working hard.

Brad: Well I’m also sure you have spent too much time playing Dead Island and unfortunately for you its about to end badly. Because of your great work with the Riptide truck, Deep Silver have asked you to take it one step further and help set up an actual island. Think Jurassic park only with Zombies and the Riptide truck.

Unfortunately a Zombie outbreak occurs and you find yourself the soul survivor on the island. You find a vault complete with games and consoles but as you start collecting your haul Zombies bust in. You only manage to grab 5 of your favourite games and one soundtrack. One of the games also happens to be a collector’s edition. While fighting off Zombies to escape you lob a grenade, destroying the vault. What games did you manage to come away with and why?

Nick: Hmm, good question! Well I’m going to presume that the island has Wi-Fi…

Brad: Yeah you can have Wi-Fi but you can’t use it to call for help!

1)  Battlefield 3 (Xbox 360)

I’m a huge fan of the series and it’s one of the few online games that I don’t constantly get killed by young kids every time I spawn.

2)  Grand Theft Auto IV: The Complete Edition (Xbox 360)

This game has always been in my top 5. Its replay value is huge and you can loose yourself for hours with mindless violence!

3)  Dead Island (Xbox 360)

Purely down the fact it has so many hours of single player missions to play through in addition to the online. Not only that but what better way than to get tips on zombie squishing!

4)  Far Cry 3 (Xbox 360)

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. For the similar reasons to GTA I guess, replay value and complete open world survival!

5) Forza Motorsport 4 (Xbox 360)

You can never get bored of smoking around a track in a high-end motor!

Soundtrack – Wipeout: The Music

Soundtrack is a hard one, Wipeout maybe! The original PS1 wipeout.

Brad: All good things must come to an end. You recklessly drive the pickup truck around the island one day while looking for a new base camp. The truck flips over and sets on fire. You only have time to grab one of your chosen games. Which one do you save?

Nick: I would save Dead Island, as it’s my baby. It also makes sense to save that as I can pick up some survival tips from it.

Brad: Ha-ha, well I can see you are very fond of Dead Island; I’m looking forward to playing Riptide at some point. Thanks for taking part in Leave Luck to Being Rescued.

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About the choices

Battlefield 3

Developer – DICE
Publisher – EA
Platform – Xbox 360
Release (EU) – 28th October 2011

Grand Theft Auto IV

Developer – Rockstar North
Publisher – Rockstar Games
Platform – Xbox 360
Release (EU) – 29th April 2008

Dead Island

Developer – Techland
Publisher – Deep Silver
Platform – Xbox 360
Release (EU) – 9th September 2011

Far Cry 3

Developer – Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher – Ubisoft
Platform – Xbox 360
Release (EU) – 30th November 2012

Forza 4

Developer – Turn 10 Studios
Publisher – Microsoft Studios
Platform – Xbox 360
Release (EU) – 14th October 2011