ASIS&T Vicarious Visions Field Trip

Explanation
The student chapter of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) visited the game development company Vicarious Visions (VV) at 150 Broadway Ave, Menands on 11/18/11.  25 UAlbany students from both graduate and undergraduate programs were present on the trip.  The visit included a background information session, tour, and question/answer session with one of the programmers.  Students left some 2 hours after arriving.

Background
VV was founded in 1994 by two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) alumni (Karthik Bala, and Guha Bala) at the RPI business incubator.  In 2004 VV was bought by Activision and moved to its current location in Menands.  There are about 140 FTE employees at VV and in the next year 30 more employees will be sought for positions ranging from junior level programmer to senior design staff.  

Game Making Process
Artists, Designers and Engineers make up the majority of employees at VV.  They are most responsible for game production.  Artists create the art and graphics to be used in the game environment, engineers create the code, physics and software tools behind the game, while designers provide the vision and direction that make up successful games.  

Tour
Touring the facilities allowed students to get an idea of what it would be like to work at a game development company.  Aside from sound-proof audio rooms and group work spaces which are both necessary for game development, employees of VV have access to a fitness room, a cafeteria with sodas for only a quarter, a networked Xbox room, breakfasts on Friday mornings and a full-function kitchen.  The glass display cases full of signed mementos and gaming awards gave students a view at what sorts of games VV has worked on in the past.  As well as an understanding of how well VV is perceived by the rest of the game development industry.

 

Questions and Answers

 
Q: How much does Activision get involved?
A: A lot, Activision is most involved with the early idea phase.  All ideas must be greenlighted before real development can begin.

Q: How much interaction is there between Artists, Designers and Engineers?
A: There is a lot of interaction between the three job roles.  Each team works in a shared space and collaborate every morning on whichever project they are assigned to.  Additionally, each person may be assigned to more than one project at a time, so everyone gets a chance to see
what other employees are doing as well.

Q: What is the percentage of conceptions to finished games?
A: No idea, concepts created for one game might be recycled for another at a later point, and brainstorming sessions really bring out a lot of ideas.  

Q: Can an employee work in all three roles described above?
A: Theoretically yes, but in practice it would be rare for someone to be very skilled in all three roles at the same time.  

Q: Why does VV create more games for portable gaming devices than it does for more powerful systems?
A: Mostly it is an historical accident.  It is much easier to convert between platforms than it is to create all-new games.  The concepts are already there, as well as much of the art.  All that is needed is engineer work.  And historically, VV has a good relationship with Nintendo.

Q: What was VVs’s response to Activisions cancelling the music production dimension?
A: Many developers were disappointed, but as all things business, one must follow the money.  There was no new demand for additional music games like Guitar Hero.  Much of this is because previously created Guitar Hero games were still being used, and making more would only pit VV’s previous products against its new ones.  Not a very savvy business plan.

Q: What programming languages do you want your employees to know?
A: C++, custom languages, tools coded in C Sharp, and for smaller games PERL and PHP.

Q: What are the typical hours like for employees?
A: In the early years of the company, the hours were real horror show.  But over the years, project planning has gotten much more effective.  Still, towards the end of any project cycle things can get hectic.  During those times, employees get more creature-comforts for their efforts.

Q: Do you have projects in line currently for platforms that haven’t been released yet?
A: Yes, though the length of time in advance varies widely from one system to the next.  Sometimes if the specs of new games are released early VV can get a jump on the platform by purchasing some sort of analogous system and experimenting with that.

Q: What is new employee training like?
A: There is no formal training, instead you are introduced to the members of the team and given easier projects at first.  VV thinks it is beneficial for new employees to feel like their work is important, and it is because even the newest member of every team gets his work in the final product.  Also, it is easier to answer specific coding questions as they come up than it is to generalize about what is expected.

Q: Does VV make use of only Windows products?
A: Mostly yes.  Tools from developers come that way and there is no use fighting an uphill battle.  Of course the server is Linux based, but personal computers all run Windows.

Q: Where do you render?
A: Most rendering is internal or in the game itself.

Q: What is the animation software used most?
A: It depends on the game engine, 3D Studiopacks for sure, sometimes Mays or Maya.  No Blender.

Q: Do you do 2D games with Sprites?
A: No, except during Game Jams.

Q: What is entry level for programming?
A: B.S. in Computer Science, VV does offer co-op work for students.  Testers don’t need the same requirement, but it is harder to be selected for those jobs if not recommended already.

Q: How long does a typical project cycle take?
A: Project Cycle length is very dependent on the gaming platform.  Also, budget plays a role, though that is usually determined by gaming platform as well.  Six months to a year for smaller handhelds, much longer for more powerful systems.

Q: How do you make work teams?  Do you keep the same teams together indefinitely or split them up?
A: VV tries to balance project requirements with professional development.  Mostly, the team creation comes down to what kind of role each person plays, whether they be engineer, artist, or designer.  From there, the numbers of each can be estimated, and people who work well together will obviously kept close.  But at the same time, if an employee needs experiential training in some aspect of game development he or she might be placed on a new team.

Q: Have you ever had to delay or release a buggy game?
A: Yes, it happens.  Obviously VV tries to avoid that.  When bugs are discovered after release, the biggest bugs are focused on first.

Q: Do you produce foreign-language games?
A: Yes, French, Italian, German, and Spanish (FIGS) releases are easy.  Many employees are somewhat bilingual, and can see when text is appropriate or not.  But eastern languages are harder, and take more time to re-release.  Generally eastern versions must be sent to some outside company for translation and consultation on character mouth movements.

 

Look for more ASIS&T events.

We have the Faculty/Student/Alumni, Next Steps in CCI Lunch on Wed, Nov 30, 12:30-3pm, Campus Center, Assembly Hall. (Open to all CCI faculty, students, & alumni IS, CS, INF, MSIS)

Next semester we will be having our Second Open Source Festival, if you are interested in participating come to a meeting or send us an email ualbanyasist@gmail.com.

Also, check us out on FB http://www.facebook.com/groups/ualbanyasist/

~ASIS&T Officers

~The American Society for Information Science & Technology
             (UAlbany Student Chapter)


Notes by Stephen Salino, MSIS graduate student, President of ISSA
Pictures by Christy Vicarro, CS/Math undergraduate student

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