Inside the Vault: Brendan Anthony

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Today’s Inside the Vault is with programmer, Brendan Anthony. He’s not responsible for any specific area or systems, per se – its more like we give him a list of cool stuff we want in the game and he makes it happen.

What’s your job at Bethesda?

The standard job description is “I make things blow up.” I’m a programmer and I work with physics, magic, special effects, and lots of general gameplay code. I’m very lucky in that I’ve been able to implement some pretty sweet features over the years — some days, if you were to hang around outside my cube, you would just hear bursts of laughter erupting over and over as I “test” explosions or crazy physics effects.


What other games have you worked on?

Besides a summer internship at Vicarious Visions in my hometown of Albany, NY, working at Bethesda has been my first industry job, and I was hired mid-way through the production of Oblivion. I remember going through the interview process vividly, because I was a huge (HUGE) fan of Daggerfall and Morrowind. When I sent my resume, I never could have expected or hoped that it would lead to a phone call with THE Todd Howard (ha!), or that the interview process would include an extended demo of Oblivion. I almost missed my plane home with the time it took to pick my jaw up off the floor. I think Todd told me that I was one of the first people outside the company to see that demo (in fact, he used that same presentation to announce the game several weeks later), and whether or not he was just massaging my fanboy muscle it felt like a huge privilege to see so much of the game before many others really even knew about it. At that point I was so psyched that it didn’t even matter if I got the job, and it only got better from there.

My very first task once I arrived, I swear to god, was “Implement Fireballs”. That was when I knew I had made a very, very good decision.

What is the best part about being a programmer? The worst part?

I am going to answer both of these questions in the form of a story. I was tasked with creating the lightning bolt effect for Oblivion’s magic system. Everything from designing the effect to figuring out the 3D math to programming the actual shaders was my responsibility. This being a programmatically generated effect with limited artist control, it was also my responsibility to make it look good to a much greater extent than is usually the case. Quite frankly, this felt like a lot of responsibility. They call it “Programmer Art” for a reason.

And it turned out that it was really hard to get the damn thing right. The first system I designed didn’t look as good as I wanted it too, so even though nobody was complaining I felt enough pressure to scrap and redesign it in order to make a more ambitious system fit into Shader Model 1, resulting in some long hours — to say the least — but also in a great feeling of pride when I finally got the job done.

Then there was the math. I won’t bore you with details of why, but it was tough and I had to come up with some pretty creative mathematical solutions to get the bolts to render on the screen the way I wanted. One problem in particular, and this is not an exaggeration, plagued me on and off for literally months. No matter what I tried, I could not fix this issue. The breakthrough came suddenly, late at night, away from the office, focused on something completely unrelated, when the solution hit me like a real lightning bolt- BABOOM! I had to write it down immediately to be sure that when I got in the next day I’d be able to put it into code. After so many months of failure and disappointment, having the solution finally come, and then to get to the office and watch it actually WORK, was immensely satisfying.

So that’s the long answer. The best and worst parts of programming are the same thing — the months and months of frustration and pressure followed by the complete sense of accomplishment that makes it all worthwhile. I had more of my hair when I started working here, but I also hadn’t ever had a hand in something quite as impressive as Oblivion.

I’m still a little nervous about those lightning bolts though!

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?

Honestly I’m not exactly sure how I got into the industry. An education and internship here, a resume and interview there and suddenly I’m sitting in a cubicle coming up with ways to light goblins on fire. I’ve been very lucky in more ways than I can count, so I guess my advice is “be lucky.”

What is it like working there?

People joke about the darkness of our basement office. I don’t joke about it. I’m seriously turning into Gollum down here.

One thing which I enjoy about working here is the atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation. It varies depending on the person, department, or issue at hand, but in general many of the problems that need to be solved are addressed in cross-discipline teams where everyone is encouraged to contribute. On the one hand, most of us have our usual “contacts” in the other disciplines who regularly interface with our work. In order to keep those people sane as they deal with your stuff it’s important that a variety of viewpoints are involved when making decisions. On the other, there is a general recognition that, no matter what your specialty, a great idea can come from anyone in the company.

Also, Bethesda takes care of its employees. I live for Cookie Wednesday.

Ever play the Fallout games?

I knew this day would come! No, the truth is I haven’t played them. It’s not quite as important that programmers play the previous games as it is that artists and designers do so, but I’ll tell you what, I hereby resolve to play Fallout 1. And I won’t even cheat on this resolution like I did with my New Year’s promise to stop killing hobos.

What is your favorite type of game to play?

Thief, Deus Ex, and System Shock 2- the so called “immersive -sim” canon. For my money, these games do so many things right where so many others go wrong that it’s hard for me to play games these days without making negative comparisons to this lineage.

There are a lot of factors that make a game fun for me: Player freedom and agency, mature writing and art design, and clean integrated design patterns are all personal touchstones. But one factor that can differentiate the great from the merely good is a clear vision backed up by strong direction. I’d much rather play a focused, polished game that sticks to a small number of ideas than a game that has features thrown in seemingly just because other games have them, or (God forbid) as filler material. Shadow of The Colossus rocked!

I was always a huge fan of the Elder Scrolls series, clearly, but my favorite game of all time would have to be The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I have a Hyrule/Trifoce tattoo on my arm to commemorate the way the first Zelda consumed my childhood imagination. Plus, Link to the Past: so much better than Ocarina of Time! Yeah, I went there!

What is your favorite game from the past year?

Dunno about the past year but the last really great game I played was Resident Evil 4. As my roomate says “It’s got some good killin.” That it does.

What games are you looking forward to?

Looking forward to Bioshock, as it sounds right up my alley. Can’t wait to try out the demo. Also Mass Effect looks pretty great.

I’m really hoping Metroid Prime 3 will be impressive, but I’m afraid that it’s going to be Metriod Prime, plus Wii controls, plus a whole lot of other crap that doesn’t belong in a Metroid game. I’ll have to wait and see. The buzz on it is pretty great though, right?

What are you hobbies and interests?

When not involved in my primary hobby, which is indulging base instincts, I enjoy philosophy, politics, nature and science stuff, playing guitar, gossip, television, wasting time on the internet, laying motionless on my porch, and drooling. I also engage in many other things which I am decidedly not interested in, such as “physical activity” and “getting out of bed in the morning”. Life is tough.

Reader Comments

  1. Programming is about life; To be good, you need a solid understanding of logic… to be great, it has to be your life. You know when you’re there because you dream in code, not images.
    “Breaking in” is different for everyone, but there are plethoras of small companies in need of programmers.

    … and Brendan, you should play both Fallout1 + 2 – at least for an hour… and know that in that hour, you probably wouldn’t have seen 1% of what the games have to offer. They might not be as pretty as Oblivion, but it’s the content that makes it what it is. It’s all that new stuff available today that we want for FO3 =)

  2. A programmmer, hurrah!
    I can handle the stres… I hope.
    I too have concerns about MP3, I heard some unfortunate stuff, alot of which has to do with Nintendos shift in focus.

  3. Good Interview. Glad to see that question about breaking into the industry. Does anyone happen to know if Brendan has an online portfolio of his work that might of helped get him the job? I’m interested in seeing what it takes to land a job working for one of the best companies possible. :P

  4. Hey Raptor, glad to hear you are doing well! Do give FO1 a spin, it’s worth it. And System Shock 1, if you haven’t and if you can stand the pixels. Thats where that genre really started.

    Ghan

  5. Yeah i thought the same. Tom Cruise with bleached hair. Maybe its from all that lightning…. who knows…
    I have a qzuestion about effects in Oblivion. Maybe it was already answered somewhere but i just have to know. Wha, oh why was there only one effect for all the magics? I truly cannot understand that one.

    Play Fallout 1 if you want a more serious atmosphere. Play fallout 2 if you would not mind a little inteligent genious insanity thrown in the mix.

  6. Hey Raptormeat!

    It’s great to hear you’re still with Bethesda and doing well.

    This was a great interview. I will also say, as a mage character, lightning is my favorite weapon of choice in Oblivion.

    You forgot to mention that your brilliant work on the Modern Adventurer staff was the real reason you got hired at Bethesda. ;)

    P.S. Hi, Ghan!

  7. All Hail Xenu! Seriously guys, flattery will get you everywhere.

    I used to have an online portfolio, but I took it down when I was hired. As B, indicates though, my true secret was the Modern Adventurer- no company can stand before the might of our acidic wit!

    As far as there mostly being one spell effect per school in Oblivion- its an artist time budget thing? I dunno, I don’t make these decisions.

  8. I’ve been hearing really good things about MP:3, as in “best in the series” good. It’s received a 10 from Nintendo Power. I know it’s Nintendo’s official mag, but the last time they gave out one of those was 2 1/2 years ago, for the Gamecube version of Resident Evil 4. Just saying, EGM gives out more 10s (Halo 2… really?), and they’ve got a rep for being tough.

    P.S. I loved Link to the Past. My fav. Super NES game.

  9. Yeah, I definitely want to try MP: 3, but I’ll vouch for Halo 2. The campaign was very good, not great, but the multiplayer gave that game more replay value than I’ve had with most console games.