Inside the Vault: Mike Lipari

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Today’s Q&A is with programmer, Mike Lipari. How important is Mike? Whenever we have a day that Mike has to leave early, we all get nervous that something will go horribly wrong while he is away. Nothing we ship leaves this building without going through Mike’s hands.

What’s your job at Bethesda?

I’m a Senior Programmer and the Systems Group Lead. Which is an official way of saying I fix stuff when its broke.

What other games have you worked on?

Morrowind, Oblivion, and their never-ending expansions, translations, and ports.

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

The best part is seeing something wrong in the game or something that could be better and being able to go in and fix it. The worst part is the fact that this is often done much much later at night than I would like it to be.

Since you deal a lot with The Construction Set, what would you say is the most impressive mod you’ve ever seen a fan do?

I was pretty impressed by the work the guys were doing using dynamic ref creation as a way of making arrays work within our scripting system. The idea of using quest stages as functions to be used in scripting was pretty nifty too.

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

***Warning! Long story to follow!***

Right out of college, I plunged head-first into the exciting world of multimedia CBT programming. It was every bit as thrilling as it sounds and after spending a year in a white shirt and tie crammed in to various cubicles hitting Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V for 70 hours a week, I had a crisis of sorts.

So I disappeared for a few days and wandered up to Maryland in search of Bethesda Softworks, the company that had made the two greatest games I had ever played (Arena and Daggerfall). I had no idea where I was headed but ended up stopping for the night at a Comfort Inn that happens to be just a couple miles down the road from the office. I checked the phone book and gave Bethesda a call, but the woman at the front desk wouldn’t give me directions and told me they didn’t like it when people just dropped by anyway. I had an address now but still had no idea where to go (MapQuest didn’t exist yet), and there wasn’t going to be any help from their end.

So I went out on a late night walk through the corn fields that are now the King’s Farm subdivisions and tried to decide what I wanted to do with my life. Less than half a mile from the office I decided that I wasn’t going to get a job at Bethesda, at least not by showing up at the door and asking for one, and turned up a side street to head back to the hotel and back to the world of CBT.

About a year later I was trying to start things up again with my girlfriend and we decided a clean start away from everyone would do us good. She was looking for graduate schools and the University of Maryland had a program she was interested in. It sounded perfect to me. A nice clean slate for us in an area in which we knew no one, where I’d probably get work easily (the government does like a good CBT), and where I could look more into this whole Bethesda Softworks thing. Perhaps they’d even have job fairs at the university. That’d be a more acceptable route in that just dropping by to say Hi.

Of course that never materialized. No job fairs were announced (at least not in the Sociology building), and another year later I was still no closer to escaping the mind-numbing, soul-sucking drudgery. So when I began to feel like I was headed for another crisis I dug around on the internet and tried to find a person I could contact. If I could talk to someone, I figured I could find out what I needed to do to get a foot in the door, or, if nothing else, I could find out for sure there was no room for me at the company and at least stop dreaming.

So I looked up the head designer for the next project (Morrowind), wrote a passionate e-mail, and sent it to three different e-mail addresses that could conceivably have been his. Two were bounced back but the third received a reply. After the initial “who the hell are you and how did you get this address” stuff he eventually told me that they weren’t looking for designers at the moment but, based on my experience, I might be able to get a job as a programmer. This seemed unlikely to me. Only a designer could have looked at my CBT experience and thought I was qualified to program games. But they’d agreed to an interview so I had to give it a shot.

The interview, from my point of view, could not have gone any worse. “It says here you know C. Have you done any C++?” “No.” “Anything really object oriented?” “No.” “Any graphics programming? DirectX?” “No and No.” “So you’re saying you don’t have any of the qualifications for this job?” “Yes.” Everyone seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm but as the meeting progressed it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore my lack of skill. By the time we parted company I drove back home convinced that it was over, merely awaiting the “thanks, but no thanks” email that was certain to follow. But instead I got an e-mail stating that while I had performed miserably in the interview, they wanted to see if I was worth anything anyway. So they devised a test.

At last something I could handle. A quantifiable challenge. So I read a book on C++ that weekend and the next week wrote what would become the basics of the terrain height map editing code. It was a separate stand alone app with home grown graphics and I had to re-structure it twice to make it more object oriented. But in the end I had proved I was able to overcome my utter lack of knowledge enough to be at least mildly useful. I was offered a job for less than half what I had been making…so I took it without a second thought and never looked back.

A lot has happened since then. My girlfriend became my wife. I’ve gone from sub-entry level to a senior programmer leading the systems group. And our offices are no longer in a dirty, damp basement. Now the basement is clean. If someone today were to try to get a job the same way I did, their e-mail would likely just end up in the spam filter with all the porn. And while it’s a lot easier to find the office now, an unscheduled visit is more likely to get you an interview with security than it is an interview with Todd. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that enthusiasm is still one of the most important qualifications they look for. On its own its not enough to guarantee you’ll get hired, but it at least will let you get your foot in the door.

What is it like working there?

Pure hell. I can’t wait to quit. :)

What would you say is your personal greatest game of all time?

Oblivion. I still find myself hooked on occasion. I start it up to look at a bug in GOTY and find myself sneak shotting bandits just to see their corpses tumble over ledges. If we let nostalgia factor in though, then its probably Contra 3 on the SNES. Back in the day I’d beat it in one man, starting on easy and working up through hard while using only the basic gun, just to kill time.

Remember when I borrowed Casshern on DVD from you and I was all excited about watching it? Whew. What a stinker.

It was fun watching it get shuffled from person to person and watching the disappointment slowly spread throughout the building like a disease.

Name your favorite They Might Be Giants album (Mike and I are both fans). I’d have to say ‘John Henry’ is my favorite.

‘Apollo 18′ is a sentimental favorite. My first concert was the tour for this album. “Live at Jannus Landing” back when they were just two Johns on a stage and all the crowd could do was jump up and down to the music.

What is your favorite type of game to play?

Open-ended RPGs. Surprising, no?

What are your hobbies and interests?

My son, Nic. Whether its building things for him to destroy or hiking with him packed on my back, he’s a lot of fun. But when I’m finally able to convince him its time to sleep, I enjoy reading and games (video, board, and card).

Is the master file currently up or down?

The master file is up. At least until Jon Paul checks in…

Reader Comments

  1. Puff puff pass Orin…. others, like me, need to see that steaming pile too.

    And for the record Mike, I had no idea you were so incompetent back in the day. I thought that was just all smack talk behind your back. I wonder if all of the other smack talk is true as well. ;)

  2. “But one thing that hasn’t changed is that enthusiasm is still one of the most important qualifications they look for”

    Awesome.

    Really nice interview, it’s a cool story about how you got into Bethesda and all that.

  3. Casshern is,imo, a great movie. Just stick with it and you wil get what it is all about.

    Please keep these inside the vaults up. They are a great source of info about the developers both professionally and personal..

  4. hi. enjoyed reading the blog. i went to college with mike lipari, dig the Pixies as well. just wanted to say hello and give him contact info if possible, if so pass along email address. thanks.