Jan 17, 2013
When I let my friends know that I want to be a librarian after I exhaust my career as a software engineer, one of them laughed at me and said, “A librarian with an engineering degree? Are you doing to make houses out of books?” I just smiled and responded with a witty comment but inside I wondered, “What’s wrong with that?”
While surfing the web, I stumbled upon Graeme Ing, a YA author and a former game developer. I immediately saw the parallels between the librarian and the engineer and felt a need to feature him on my blog!
And so I did.
I got a hold of Graeme Ing and asked him a couple of questions. You can view his answers here in it’s total unedited glory, with a couple of comments inserted by me.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a software engineer? An author?
Now we’re going back a long ways! Once I realized that I couldn’t be an astronaut (don’t all boys want to be one?), I planned to follow my father into the British Royal Navy, and train to be a navigation officer. When I was 15, we got one of the first computers, a 4K Commodore PET. Wow! Anyone remember those, or am I showing my age? We are talking the turn of the ‘80′s here. After learning to program it and moving on to other computers, some that I built myself, I was totally hooked. From that day forward, all I wanted to do was write computer programs.
As for writing, I’ve been scribbling stories since I can first remember. I think I wrote my first at age 8, and it was about a boat that sailed around the world. (Anyone familiar with my debut book, Ocean of Dust, should be putting together the clues right about now.) I even typed a screenplay in my early teens. Of course, all of that was pure junk, but I was having fun, and that’s all that matters. It was 7 years ago that I got serious about becoming an author, and started writing Ocean of Dust.
After you finished school, what were your goals for your career?
Straight out of school, I went on to get a degree in Computer Science, and I strongly recommend that to anyone wanting to become a software engineer. _1_ There are basic software principles, like object-orientated programming, design patterns, unit tests, etc., that all good programmers need to know about and perfect. After that, my goal was to go out into the world and get as much programming experience on as many computer systems and languages as possible. At that stage, I hadn’t considered writing games.
You mentioned in your bio that you have worked on several games. What are some games you have worked on and what was your role in their development?
Raider as seen on Lemon Amiga.
Most of my games were written in the late ‘80′s and early ‘90′s on the Atari ST, Amiga, and Sega and Nintendo consoles. Since they were created in the UK and distributed throughout Europe, few folks in the USA have heard of them. Raider was one of my favourites, shamelessly ripped off from the video arcade game Gravitar. I also wrote Utopia, an early sim-city type game, and its sequel K240, a 3D point and click called Normality and a space exploration game titled Space Wrecked. In all but Normality, I was both designer and sole programmer. That’s how it worked in those days; not like the 10-100 man teams that modern game studios employ.
After coming to the US in 1996, I joined SOE in San Diego and worked as part of the EverQuest and Tanarus MMO teams.
What’s a typical day at work like for a software engineer?
Utopia as seen on Wikipedia.
Heh. Exciting and rewarding, but frustrating, all at once. It’s a great feeling to string together hundreds and thousands of lines of code and then see it all come to life on the screen. Highly creative. More an art than a science really. _3_ The frustration comes when parts of it (or all of it) doesn’t work. Then you have to play detective and go through it step by step to figure out why.
Hours are long for a games programmer. _4_ Twelve or more hours a day is common, and working weekends is expected at crunch time, leading up to the launch of a game. The camaraderie is super though; everyone working hard as a team, pushing to get the best experience for the player – the most fun, the best animation, mind-blowing sound, and most realistic AI.
I’m not in the games industry any more, so my days are less hectic, and I get weekends off. :) The routine is largely the same though. Usually the day starts with a team status meeting to see what everyone is working on, and if we are ahead or behind schedule. Obviously, the bulk of the day is designing and programming. (White boards are great for noodling with other engineers). Once you’ve written a chunk of code, it’s time to send it to the QA department to test, but before that, a good programmer will always rigorously test his own programs first, trying to think of everything that can go wrong, every weird thing the user might do. Finally, even when the game or application is launched, the team is usually fixing bugs and adding new features for months or even years.
How does one get started in the video game industry?
It’s a lot different now than when I started. In those days, you just needed a home computer, an idea, an artist, and a few weeks or months. Having been out of the games industry for a while, I don’t claim to have words of wisdom on this topic, but I see two typical ways in:
The first is to start on the bottom rung. Join a games company as a tester (QA), a support rep, server room technician, intern; anything that gets your foot in the door. Most games companies like to promote from within, and they’ll spot talent. From any position in the company, you can hob-nob with the games teams, get involved, share your ideas, float your artwork or animation skills, or show off some of your programming. If you have a real passion for playing and creating games, people will see that, and you could find yourself moved onto a games team as a junior artist, assistant programmer, or whatever it is that you want to do. From there, it’s just hard work and honing your skills.
Another way is to get a degree and some real-world experience. Be creative and plan your career. If you want to be an artist, why not work for a web software company, or marketing company so that you have a portfolio to show, and experience meeting challenging deadlines. Want to be a programmer? A computer science degree and any kind of experience writing high performance or high-scalability software is going to look very attractive to a games company.
Increasingly, more and more schools and universities are operating degrees and qualifications designed specially for a career in games development. These are worth a look.
Tell us a bit about your book, Ocean of Dust.
As a Young-Adult Fantasy novel, it follows the adventures of a 14-year old girl, named Lissa, when she is kidnapped from her hometown and forced to become a slave on a ship. This is no ordinary ship, however, since it travels an ocean without water, one made of a very fine dust that flows like a liquid. She’s such a curious, adventurous girl, that she becomes fascinated by everything around her. How does the ship move without sails? What are the mysterious creatures swimming around the ship? Why does she see and hear things that no one else can? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find the answers. :)
To what extent do you plan before writing?
Since I’m a software engineer, it comes as no surprise that I’m a big planner. I outline the whole story ahead of time. I draw many maps, and work out the chronology and the motivations of every major character. I keep all of this in spreadsheets and text files. I know, totally geeky, right? :) The story usually changes a lot as I write, despite my planning, so I have to be flexible enough to keep revising the outline and the plot. Like writing computer code, I just keep tweaking it until it works. I know that many authors (“pantsers”) just sit down and make it up as they go along. That amazes me, since the few times I tried that, I got totally lost.
How important is it to maintain an online presence as an author?
Major authors can probably get away without one, after all, how often do readers need to visit Stephen King’s or Dan Patterson’s web sites? For new authors, and especially Indies, I would regard it as vital. I think readers are more comfortable trying a new or unknown author if they know a little about them first. Perhaps they like the humour on your Facebook page, or follow your blog, or chat with you on Twitter. I love the closer relationship between author and reader, which is only possible through social media. Gone are the days of the aloof, mysterious writer in their ivory tower. If I can communicate with readers, I can learn what they enjoyed or didn’t, which means I can tailor my books to my audience. Then, everyone’s happy. :)
Are there any online tools that you find helpful for writing?
I can’t think of any online writing tools that I use, but I totally swear by Scrivener. What an incredibly powerful tool it is. Using it, I can reorder scenes with a simple drag and drop, I can see my outline, or monitor word count per scene or per chapter. I can track subplots and which scenes each character appears in; all sorts of things that makes life easier. _6_
Do you use your local library for research for your books? Do you generally do a lot of research?
The nice thing about writing fantasy and sci-fi is that I get to make things up. :) I rarely have to research. When I do, it’s usually just Googling about details such as weaponry, clothing or weather patterns, mostly to get the terminology correct. But, just because I invent worlds, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have to be realistic and consistent. For Ocean of Dust, I pulled on my knowledge of astronomy and navigation. The world in the book has two suns and four moons, and I actually calculated the orbital diameter and time of each one.
I have a book that I want to write that is set in Iron Age Britain. That will require years of research, and I’ve already started buying books about the period. Since I love books, I usually buy them. I haven’t been to a library in years.
Right now are you primarily working on your writing or developing games or are you doing both equally?
I don’t work in the games industry anymore, so usually I am just dabbling with game ideas in my spare time, mostly for the Mac and iOS devices. I design role-playing games and scenarios too. However, being an author sucks up most of my free time. Since I’m a software engineer by day, I still get the best of both worlds, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.
Is there any overlap between being an author and a game developer?
Totally. You’ll find many software engineers that write. Both are creative pursuits. As a games developer, you are helping to create artificial worlds and characters, and that’s what an author does too. Writing games has taught me skills that I use as a writer, such as tension, pace, action and above all, entertainment.
What’s next for you? More books? Maybe some games? What are your goals for the future?
Definitely more books. Lots and lots of books. I have a list of ideas that would take a lifetime to write. Maybe one day I might feel compelled to release some more games. I’ve thought of going retro – reinventing some of those simple but ridiculously addictive games from the ‘80′s. With the advent of Apple’s iAuthor tools, perhaps I can combine games and writing into interactive stories. I also have plans to publish a few role-playing scenarios. Plenty to keep me busy. If you want to know what I’m up to, you can follow me at www.graemeing.com.