Inside the Vault: Ahn Hopgood

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Today is Ahn Hopgood’s turn on the Inside the Vault question and answer ride. Ahn has worked on several different parts of our codebase including interface, gameplay and AI. She was one of the primary architects of the Radiant AI system for Oblivion and is currently hard at work on Fallout 3.

What’s your job at Bethesda?
I am a Senior Programmer in the area of Artificial Intelligence.

What other games have you worked on?
My first game was Morrowind on which I did interface and gameplay. I then did some minor AI, interface and gameplay work on Tribunal and Bloodmoon. On Oblivion I did most of the AI and I did some work on Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles.

What was the best part about working as a programmer? The worst part?
I love puzzle solving and finding the answers to “mysteries”. There are two main stages of the programming work flow, creation and fire fighting. In creation you get to design and implement systems to make the game cool. This is a fun stage but firefighting is where code takes on a life of its own. Sometimes finding a crash in the game is a simple null pointer but other times it can be hours of tracing an evil memory trashing bug. It is frustrating, and exhilarating at the same time. Being able to fix the game or make it run faster or being able to help a designer find his logic error are some of my favorite things to do as a programmer.

The worst parts would be that the limitations of the hardware and the constraints of time. The game has to run fast and the amount of memory is limited so often your cool ideas (or sometimes crazy ideas) have to be dialed back. We are not a government contractor or have an artistic grant. We have to produce a product in a reasonable time period. Fans also would like to actually play the game. You can always think of all the other wonderful things you could have done if you just had a little more time.

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
My road is a weird one so not sure I have any tips for breaking into the gaming biz. I got a History degree with an Asian Studies minor my first go around at college. I then went to Seattle for a master program in Japanese Studies. After a year there I decided I was just going through the motions and did not want to teach, write books or work for some Think Tank. I left and went to work for lawyers so I could figure out if I wanted to get a Law degree. Figured out quick I did not want to do that because I wanted to keep my immortal soul.

On a whim I took a Java programming class so I could do more with my web pages. I found that I love to program. I went back to college and got a B.S. in Computer Science. As luck would have it Todd Howard decided to interview for programmers at the University of Maryland the semester I was graduating. His first question was what games have you played. I asked how much time do you have, because I am going to start with Pong and should take me about an hour to tell them all.

I don’t have any good tips for breaking into the industry but I do have some for staying in the industry. This is an industry that is not going to hold your hand and being a self-starter is vital to success. If you are lucky enough to get a chance to work for a game company, don’t limit yourself. Do more then you are asked to do and if you are a programmer make an effort not to just learn the code you are responsible for but the code base as a whole. Communication skills are a huge plus because few people producing the same commercial product can work in a vacuum. What you do impacts other people and vice versa so you need to be able to work with varying types of people — programmers, designers, artists and animators.

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder for the Commodore 64/128.

What games are you looking forward to?
I am most looking forward to Fallout 3 for obvious reasons.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
I am one of those rare morning people. I have never had the need to own an alarm clock because no matter what time I want to wake up, I will wake up. Every morning I get up between 4:30 and 5:00 am to work out. Without lots of cold medicine in me, I have never slept beyond 6:00 am even on a weekend and no matter what time I went to bed.

Worse job you’ve ever had?
One summer of my teenage years I worked as a cashier for Giant Food (supermarket). I was on my feet for 9 hours or more a day. Paranoid bosses that made you stand around every time you went on break counting your drawer of money while they looked at you as if you are trying to rip them off. Customers who constantly thought you were ripping them off of the sale price or going to scan an item twice.

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I like to spend my spare time with my dogs and my fiancée. We have two Jack Russell Terriers who demand a lot of the spare time. I also enjoy hiking, kayaking, and hope to do more scuba diving in the future. As for my current gaming fix, my DS gets the most use because I can do it anywhere and it goes everywhere with me. I am also trying to get through The Witcher on the PC.

Reader Comments

  1. ’’I have never slept beyond 6:00 am even on a weekend’’
    Lucky, lucky, lucky morning people. :D
    I usually sleep beyond 12:00 on weekends.

  2. I have an internal alarm clock that dos not allow me to sleep longer than 8hrs it socks so bad because on the week ends i really just want to sleep zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!

  3. you have tonnes of skill make npc’s as i realised on the Elder scrolls. i am another fan of your work and like they way you program things.

  4. Excellent interview full of realism :D Thanks for the magnificent artificial intelligence in OBLIVION.

    Lucky you always getting up early no matter when you went to sleep. I had a friend like that who would stay up til four or five in the morning trying to beat a video game then go to sleep only to wake up two hours later to walk his dogs. Must have something to do with dogs. I prefer cats though :D

    Me am a five hour sleep person as long as I keep the window blinds open. Otherwise its a healthy seven hours.