Today, we talk with Brett Douville, who leads our systems group in the programming department.
What’s your job at Bethesda?
I’m the lead programmer of the systems group, which writes and maintains a lot of code that underlies the games we make. Some of the subsystems for which we’re responsible are resource loading and management, audio, animation, physics, scripting, and pathing, although there are tons of bits that fall under our purview. We’re also responsible for a fair amount of team infrastructure work, such as our exporters, platform-specific resource converters, nightly and continuous build systems, automated crash reporting, and no doubt other things that don’t leap immediately to mind. We cover a lot of ground, and it’s hard to remember it all.
If the team as a whole is a body, I guess we’re like the circulatory system. We keep everything moving around, hopefully bringing oxygen and caffeine everywhere we go, and we’re almost certainly the first to know if there’s blood and guts everywhere.
What other games have you worked on?
I began my professional career at LucasArts on Star Wars: Starfighter, where I wrote all the game logic — from the flight model to the artificial intelligence, mission logic, and UI binding code for the front-end. I worked closely with the designers to get them everything they needed to build the fun. It was immensely gratifying to see things moving about on the screen and point and say, “Yeah, I made that move.”
After the original Starfighter I stuck around to act as lead programmer on its sequel, Jedi Starfighter, which was a big personal step in a lot of ways. It was a short project with a hard deadline, but that made for excellent lessons on the value of working within constraints of any kind, and since both of those titles I’ve been a firm believer in the dictum that constraints inspire creativity.
I worked on an unreleased title and then finished up my career at LucasArts as lead programmer on Star Wars: Republic Commando. It has been really interesting to see the fan love for that game continue over the years, most recently re-sparked by its release on Steam.
After LucasArts, I moved to Maryland and spent about a year with Day 1 Studios, in early development on what would eventually be released as Fracture. After that, I worked a couple of years as a consultant, mostly working on Star Trek Online before arriving here at Bethesda to help in the final push for Fallout 3. It has been a wild ride since I left the West Coast, but I think I’ve found my home for a while.
What is the best part about being a programmer? The worst part?
There are so many things I love about my job, and they have tended to change over the years.
When I first started working in the industry, I worked very closely with designers to see that their needs were met and to address any issues with the “fun factory” tools we were giving them, looking for ways to improve their workflow, adding functionality (sometimes under the radar), and generally trying to give them the tools to make the game as fun as they could in the time allowed.
As I’ve spent more time as a lead, I’ve tended to really enjoy working closely with my direct reports on hard engineering problems, software architecture, and walking the fine lines between functionality, maintainability, and performance. We’re lucky in the games industry to have impressive and interesting hardware to work on, amazing software to build, and crazy difficult problems to solve. It’s the perfect challenge environment.
The worst parts of my job are the times when I am waiting for something to build. It’s just dead time that is long enough to make me lose flow, but short enough that doing much of anything else isn’t really possible or meaningful. It’s also probably one of the drums I beat the most around here.
How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
I cold-called Tim Schafer while he was working on Grim Fandango, so I guess if I have any tips for breaking in, it’d be to give him a call and see if you can’t take him to lunch and pick his brain a bit. The basis for doing this was advice from a friend who suggested that I find someone whose career I really admired in a company that impressed me, and contact that person directly (while still sending a resume to their HR department).
Depending on what you want to do in games, start doing that right now. If you want to design, design. If you want to program, program. There’s nothing stopping you, and the bar to producing actual games today is essentially non-existent. Play games not just as a gamer, but with an eye to how you would construct things that you see in them (either architecturally speaking as a programmer, or from a systems design perspective as a designer, or as a 3D modeler, or an animator). Play them critically and take them apart as well as you can. Make stuff and get feedback on it. Improve your craft and build a portfolio about which you can be proud; this can be digital games or board games. Finally, and this is advice I’d give on getting in but also once you’re actually working, focus on doing what you’re doing right now as well as you can. It’ll be noticed, and you will improve and gain the admiration of your peers.
What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
Ay, carumba. This is an extremely difficult question to answer. I was enormously impressed by Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I play quite a lot of Dominion with my kids, and I’d say that’s a current favorite.
In the end, though, I think I have to go with the game where it all started for me, Adventure (the Crystal Cavern variety, not the Atari 2600 game): my father used to bring home a dumb terminal from work some weekends when I was a kid and we would spend hours tying up the phone — this was when using a modem meant taking your rotary dial phone’s headset and plugging it into two foam cups for a blazing fast 200 baud connection — connected to a mainframe at the defense contractor at which he worked (coincidentally, also the employer of Ralph Baer!), navigating twisty little passages that were either all alike or all different. Not only that, but the terminal didn’t have a screen — it was basically a combination of typewriter and printer, spewing page after page of 14-inch wide green and white paper onto our kitchen floor. We made maps, we paged back through the input and output to see where we went wrong or what we had done to get somewhere. It was a blast and I continue to have a soft spot for text adventures to this very day. I had the tremendous good fortune to shake Don Woods’ hand at the IGDA Developer’s Choice Awards a few years back and thank him for the game that most contributed to me being in this industry today.
What games are you looking forward to?
I have little doubt that I will play Fumito Ueda’s latest whenever it’s ready, and am also looking forward to the re-releases of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, see above. Other than Skyrim, I’m looking forward to Bioshock Infinite, Batman: Arkham City, and having time to spend with a number of games which have piled up on my shelf.
What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
My two sons. I love them dearly, but they wake up way too early and need to be ready for school far too early, and I am a night owl.
Worst job you’ve ever had?
I worked for a fish market for a while in high school, and actually it wasn’t really all that bad, though getting that smell out of my clothes is not something I remember fondly. I’ve had fairly few jobs, and most of them here in the game industry, so I feel pretty blessed in that regard.
Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Other than a prodigious amount of gaming (board, card, and video, much of it with my kids), I also enjoy coaching baseball, reading, film, and cooking.