Inside the Vault: Frank Kowalkowski

FrankK1.jpg

Inside the Vault returns this week with Frank Kowalkowski, Lead Programmer on New Vegas…

What’s your job at Obsidian?

I’m the Lead Programmer for Fallout: New Vegas. That means that I work with the programming team to design the technical implementation of the game. That can mean that I sit down with Josh and a programmer and make sure that what he sets out to code will meet what is requested by the design team. I also provide technical assistance to the team when they need it. It’s a more social job than most people might think but I get plenty of time to sit down and code my own features.

When did you know you wanted to get into programming?

Strangely, I always thought I’d ‘grow up’ to be an author when I was in high school where I was more into traditionally creative outlets. I even managed to squeeze out a few creative writing awards and left for college to be an English major. After my freshmen year, when I had already switched to Physics for a major, I was offered a programming internship and took it. 10 bucks an hour back in the day meant I could afford a lot of frozen pizzas in college. I really got into the problem solving aspect of programming and it just kind of went from there.  Video game programming, more so than my days as a more traditional programmer, is really very wild, wild west in its nature. You often encounter problems you never thought you’d need to solve, and then you solve them.

What’s your favorite part of your job?  Least favorite part?

I love being part of the game development process, be it solving a problem or helping to design a system. The collaborative effort can’t be appreciated until you see the final game that emerges from the chaos and the long hours. Sitting down and hearing someone at a press junket tell you that they think a system you worked on is cool, without you hinting that it’s your system, is pretty rewarding. Mostly, though, I love figuring stuff out. That can mean resolving a bug or just identifying how we are going to get system X into the game.

My least favorite part is leaving ideas and features on the table. You never have the time you think you will, but it’s ok, even if it isn’t fun.  A close second would be the hours I spend away from my terrific wife and wonderful kids (Achievement: Spousal Approval). Obsidian is pretty flexible with the way we work, so it helps quite a bit to get to see the offspring during non-sleeping hours.

How did you get involved in the game industry?

I modded Quake 3. A lot. And I tried to do things that were out of the ordinary, such as turning Quake 3 into a deathmatch based RPG. I impressed someone enough to finally get a job doing PlayStation 2 development.

Do you have any tips for breaking in?

Make games. You can talk about how much you love games, and believe me, most of us will talk right back at you about it. The real key to getting your foot lodged firmly in the door is to show that you also love making games as much as playing them. There is no shortage of tools and SDKs available to the general public. Getting your hands on those and becoming an expert at using them and doing creative things is the best way to show you want to make games. We have hired some of the best modders in the various toolset communities to work at Obsidian.

To date, what’s been the highlight of your career?

Getting to work with <insert person responsible for my yearly review here>! I think the real highlight was getting to work at Black Isle. It helped me develop into the game developer I am today. I got to work with a lot of great people, many of whom moved on to Obsidian. Working at Black Isle, I was able to finally develop RPGs and work in an office that oozed video game developer. You’d see giant props of shipped games all over, but you’d also see coffee machines that you’d swear predated the construction of the pyramids. It was the first place I worked that felt like ‘we make video games and we love doing it.’ That all spilled over to Obsidian, except our coffee machine is really nice.

What’s your all-time favorite game?

I love video games, so this is akin to asking which is my favorite kid. I really did love the original Fallout. I remember how unique it was at the time and it was one of the first games where I remember talking to the developers online in the Interplay forums. So, yeah, this project worked out rather well for me.

What games are you looking forward to?

I love RPGs and I love console shooters. Fallout: New Vegas would top my list, but that’s the easy answer. I’m looking forward to pretty much anything Bioware and Bethesda put out for the RPG fixin’ side of me. I’ve loved Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and can’t wait for the next Medal of Honor as it will be using the same multiplayer engine. Halo: Reach is something that will get some playtime and once I’m done with my current backlog, Red Dead Redemption needs to get spinning in my 360. In short: lots of stuff.

Worst job you’ve ever had?

Working at the Cookie Factory at Woodfield Mall outside Chicago. Our managers worked ‘real jobs’ during our shifts, leaving us pretty much leaderless.  The pay was terrible and the hours stunk for a high school kid.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

These days I play video games during my spare time and spend as much time as I can with family doing the bevy of cool stuff you can experience in Southern California. It’s not uncommon to see me and the posse toting around Disneyland or the Wild Animal Park or Seaworld. You’d think I’d have any semblance of color to my skin with the amount of time I spend outside on the weekends, but the long weekday hours in the office restore my pigment to its proper, management-approved pasty paleness.

Anything else you’d like to share?

New Vegas has been a development dream come true. I actually moved to California, determined to break into video games, largely based off of my experience playing Fallout and talking to developers on the Interplay forums.

Reader Comments

  1. sounds like a great job, Frank! congratulations on being a honcho for the tinglingly-anticipated followup to probably the best single player game ever made… (no pressure!) i can certainly empathize with the pain of having to leave features on the table. some of them are just business decisions – lame – and some are just the harsh realities of development: “we either ship without it, or we ship next year.”

    i, too, have been enjoying Bad Company 2, though it’s a mediocre replacement for 2/2142. unfortunately, i kinda lost interest in the multiplayer MoH:T1 after seeing the demo – i really, really love the MoH series, and i still feel like the first two were some of the best produced video games i’ve ever played. however, the MoH:T1 MP just looks like a Modern Warfare 2 clone, and in my book MW2 is just a Counter-Strike clone: if you don’t have squads, you’re just Counter-Strike. Battlefield has always been a lovely middle ground between the glorified TDM adolescence of CS and the douchey ultra-realism of Rainbow Six and America’s Army. BF3, where are you?

    and if you still feel new to California, let me recommend a way to enjoy what’s probably the finest state in the finest country on this fine Earth: drive Highway 1 as far as you care to. it covers some of the most dramatic coastline around, and takes you through and near many beautiful state and national parks.

  2. A glorious wizard of programming magic! Creating illusions of life cleansing the spirit stressed soul and keeping the happy heart happy.

    Thank you for the interesting read oh mighty one with the steel fortress intellect.

  3. Good stuff!

    I especially like what you said about how you broke into the industry and what you recommend others to do to get in. A friend and myself are trying to do just that with an ambitious mod we’re making in the Neverwinter Nights 2 toolset and we plan to share it as much as we can. It’s quite a bit to learn, but I enjoy the creation aspect just as much as I enjoy the playing aspect.

    Can’t wait for New Vegas!