Inside the Vault: Ricardo Gonzalez

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Ricardo Gonzalez, programmer, is today’s Inside the Vault profile.

What’s your job at Bethesda?
I’m almost positive that what they pay me for here is “interface programming”. That is, I create, maintain, and polish that thin, delicate membrane that resides between the game world and the real one. There’s a glut of information and goings-on in our games that I’m told is very important and it’s my job to see that it gets presented to the player in some semblance of order. I also get bonus points if it looks pretty and if it doesn’t crash the game. To date, I think I have 3 bonus points.


What other games have you worked on?
This would be the first professional game I’ve worked on. As a kid, I invented a whole bunch of the single-player variety to keep myself, how did my parents put it?  “Occupied far, far away from the house”.  Old favorites like “Run There and Back Again” or “Spin in a Circle Really Fast”. I also had a lot of fun burying things in the sand and trying to find them again. I only lost that one once, and afterwards my mom made me promise to stay out of her medicine cabinet.

I also attended DigiPen Institute of Technology, a game dev school over in Redmond, WA, and made a game there, Hue and the Technicolor Kingdom. It was made by myself and a rotating team of three other programmers with the same development experience I had at the time, which would be zero. Each of us worked as coders, designers, and artists all wrapped into one, and we hacked it together during the scant free time we had between classes and homework. The result was less of the frenetic platform side-scroller I had envisioned and more like a sketchy demo of a “Block Shooting Blocks at Slightly Smaller Blocks While Jumping on Larger Blocks at 15 FPS”. Lackluster result notwithstanding, it was one of the most fun, frustrating, and educational years I can remember having.

What is the best part about working as a programmer? The worst part?
Being the “viewfinder” of the game world, almost every part of the engine passes through the interface in some small way so it’s always interesting work. You never know what parts of the code you’ll have to dig through on a daily basis, so you learn to develop a high-level working view of the game and its sundry interlocking parts, which can be terribly fascinating on a good day and dangerously labyrinthine and overwhelming on a bad one.

Also, the interface is always on-screen, the first thing the player sees, and that has its own pride. Then again, if the game breaks, it’s the first thing that messes up, usually in a very obvious and distracting way.

Lastly, every component of the engine has some fussy part that’s deceptively simple to work with, something insignificant that for some reason turns into a tangled mess whenever you touch it. For the interface, these things are always the most mundane, “who-actually-thinks-about-these-things” things, like proper scrollbar etiquette or the amount of time between a click and double-click. It’s difficult to convince people to take you seriously when you tell them you’ve spent two days tracking down an elusive mouse wheel bug.

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
I started off as a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Maryland with no idea of what I was going to do in the programming field that wouldn’t require a lobotomy to endure. I was playing my SNES at the time, and like Newton under the apple tree, it occured to me that a video game was a kind of “program”, if you will, and this “program” probably needed some sort of “programmer” to create it.

This revelation led me to DigiPen where I attempted to procure a Master’s in Game Programming. Unfortunately, time and money were both against me and I ran out of both before I was able to finish. I came back to the East coast half-educated and continued to design games in my free time while I took on every stereotypically boring programming job you can imagine. ( Did you know someone has to program dishwashers? Ever seen what happens to a rinse cycle when you hit a division-by-zero error? You don’t want to know, my friend… )

After about a year or so of continually applying for game jobs, I finally somehow talked my way into an in-person interview here at Bethesda Softworks. By some further good chance, I actually managed to convince my interviewers that I knew what I was talking about and I was hired shortly afterwards. This turn of events was *so* fortunate, in fact, that I’m not entirely convinced it was accidental. Like, maybe I actually have a super-rare blood type that Todd Howard needs to feed on and one night they’ll come for me and exsanguinate me from between my toes. It’s much more likely than me actually getting hired here on merit, so I sleep with shoes on to this day.

Tips for breaking in? Most people see applying for a game job the same as trying to get into some
prestigious club. This engenders the wrong attitude. Ever see that movie Assassins with Sylvester Stallone? Yeah, like *that*. The game industry is a cadre of professional assassins that are trying to kill you, and you have to kill them first. Research your targets to the last detail. Be efficient and comprehensive, prepared for anything. Constant, paranoid vigilance. And know that if you fail, you’ll die a horrible, lingering death. Live that and you should get in just fine. Or else…

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
Like most people, my favorite game is actually one I just played all the time as a kid and requires years of nostalgia to be viewed as “good”, per se. This would be Earthbound for the SNES, and its unique humor and gameplay still rocks my socks off.

If you say, “Hey, you jerk! You can’t use nostalgia to justify your favorite game! Give us a real answer!”, I’d probably say, “Geez, sorry, I didn’t know it was that crucial,” to which you may answer, “Look, it’s not… it’s just…I’m having a tough time at home and work is just…whatever, I don’t want to lay my problems on you…”, to which I’d reply, “No, no, it’s no big deal. I mean, I’m sorry things are rough for you, Disembodied Interview Voice,” at which point you could return with, “I know, and look, it’s totally not fair of me to dump on you like that,” but I’d understand and we’d be cool about it and I’d get to avoid the question. It’s a win-win situation all around.

What games are you looking forward to?
Fallout 3 for one. It’s one thing to constantly debug and playtest it; I really want to take it home and have my way with it for a hundred hours or so. Also Mass Effect for PC, although that’s more because I’d need to upgrade my rig to be able to run it comfortably and I want to have a reason to spend cash money upgrading my rig.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
Lots of things, I guess. Money. Lust for power. The chance to observe human suffering. I’m a fan of Thursdays. I like cereal and sitting in a comfy chair, thinking about how comfy this chair is. Yup, lots of things much more interesting than fleeting visions stretched across my unconscious. Ooh, the first cool breeze of autumn! I dig that.

Worst job you’ve ever had?
Ever been to Staples? Ever passed by the spot where they sell all those ergonomic chairs? Ever been accosted by one of those red-shirted guys asking if “everything was OK” and if you were interested in our Chair Wheel Replacement Program(TM)? Yeah, that was me. My official title was Furniture Associate, and I sold a grand total of five chairs in my three-month stint. The only thing that made the ordeal almost worth it was telling people that asked where the staples were that we didn’t carry them.  No, really.

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Other than working on and playing video games? Hmm. Ummm…huh. Well, I…hm.  I guess I cook sometimes?

Reader Comments

  1. Interface Programmer, eh?

    I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Guy Carver over the phone a while back. I asked him what a good position to get your feet wet would be, and he actually said “Interface”. He did mention, though, that it’s a tough job because you might have to constantly go back and retool/overhaul how it functions due to frequent design changes.

    You ever find yourself doing that during the development cycle of F3?

  2. Hey, that’s a very nice photo of you, Ricky. I could almost believe you in one of those Fallout 3 Wholesome American trailers were it not that I know about your own private Red Ray of Death. (Note: slight reddish tinge to eyes; do your thumbs count as a concealed weapon?)

    I do have to ask, though – Why do you have Q on your wall? Is he your inspiration? :D

  3. He was and is my favorite character from Star Trek:TNG, and when I was 12, I got to nervously get his autograph at a convention.

    My own autographed picture was slightly more difficult to obtain and required some small manipulation of time paradoxes that I’m sure will have caused no harm to the fabric of space-time whatsoever…

  4. I would expect the dishwasher will instantly transform into a mahogany étagère laden with ceramic frogs. That’s what I learned in grade school at least.

  5. Nice interview! Your a pretty funny guy.

    “Ooh, the first cool breeze of autumn! I dig that.”

    Oh dear, you should be here. Autumn has arrived, the air is crisp, the leaves are bright yellow here and there and the geese are flying off. That said, it’s a bit depressing since a nuclear winter will be just following complete with FO3 shined and polished by one of my favorites. :)

  6. So, knowing how “well-received” Oblivions interface was by PC gamers – got any contingency plans ready?
    You know, fake mustache and a ticket to Timbuktu?

    Great interview, good read and could you come back to the MTD thread already?
    The fun factor reached almost the level of the Penny Arcade comic. :o

  7. @Groundskeeper

    Ohhhh yeah. Most artists or designers wouldn’t dare try to rewrite the physics system, but *everyone* and their monkey has their own idea of how the interface should work. Right-click does X here, but Y here. Make the button glow red. The mouse cursor doesn’t “work”. And on and on.

    And most people expect interface bug turnaround time to be lickety-split. Health bar issue? Pshaw! One hour. Two hours, tops! (grumble grumble)

    It definitely keeps you on your toes, forcing to you keep your code modular and flexible lest the whole interface system turns into one big kludge.

  8. Nice read :) At last i get to see the face that creates the door to other worlds. Thank you for the hands that are more then..flesh.

    And yes thursdays are cool. Nice and peaceful for quiet folk and rowdy with plenty of raucous for the hyper-active children. Kinda brings out ones true character dont it :D

  9. “maybe I actually have a super-rare blood type that Todd Howard needs to feed on”

    aww poor Tod why cant you all pick on Pete Hines for once. then again Pete seems like the type who’d cry!haha