The Bethesda Game Studios Interviews: Brett Douville

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.

Reader Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this!

    Hey Mr. Douville, you lived in my neck of the woods for a while.

    Great giving advice to would-be designers and coders… fortune favors the bold! And people who, you know, practice. ;}

  2. This is great, especially the advice you give on finding a job in the industry. I myself am an aspiring Game Developer. I dont know what part of the process I want to focus on but whatever it is I will use your advice to try and make a career out of this. Tahnk you Mr. Douville for the wonderful advice.

  3. Great interview, I look up to great programmers since I want to be one myself one day. Out of curiousity(if Brett reads this) what advice would you give to people working on solo big projects in order to help finish them and get them out there? Thanks so much for your hard work, I cant wait to see what things you’ve devised in Skyrim :)

  4. Thanks for the time and thought that went into this interview, you have some fantastic advice. So you’re the guys who actually make the cool ideas turn up in the game and WORK? That’s awesome.

    Congratulations for having a tree outside your window, it’s so nice to look up and see a tree/greenery when you’re working =).

  5. Nice, but you could have thrown in a few tidbits about his work on Skyrim, just to throw a little red meat to the crowd.

  6. Hey gang, Brett here, thanks for reading. Working hard on some game that’s coming out later this year, so will have to be brief.

    Shingouki, I could likely write a whole post about that question but here would be my quick thoughts. 1. A big project is very difficult, but lots of little projects are not nearly as bad — instead of thinking of it as a big project, break it up into bite-sized chunks. 2. Constantly assess the priorities of those chunks; when I am working on a side-project, I’m constantly evaluating based on the state of the project and my goals what I should be doing next. 3. Make sure that big project is something that can sustain your interest for longer than the time you expect it to take, since anything of significant complexity will likely go long. 4. Set a ship date — this will help maintain your focus on setting priorities for the next big thing. Make shipping a priority! Good luck with your big project!

    Stahlbrand, most of what I do isn’t specifically content-related (and to be fair, much of what I do wouldn’t be of interest to a large audience). Sorry! Keep an eye on the bethblog for more Skyrim-rich specifics. :)

  7. It’s ironic that I’m procrastinating my programming assignment by reading this, which is telling me to stay focused on my programming assignment. =p

    But still, a good read nonetheless….

  8. man, i wish i could do the same thing like Mr. Brett done, he must be enjoy this works, work with the game, so much fun!
    always healthy and happy, Mr. Brett
    ^_^

  9. Thanks for all the kind comments that have popped up since last I checked.

    Lottie, you’re right, it’s totally great to have a window. When I started working here we were in a basement and this is a vast, vast improvement. I actually can tell if we’ll be having a baseball game just by looking out the window! :)

    Alec, I went to the University of Pennsylvania for both undergrad and graduate school. I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to have a lot of time to figure out what I wanted to spend my time on for the next fifty years of my life :)

  10. “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.” I just completed a college-level Computer Science course at my high school, and it dealt with programming in Java. While beginning to plan out my final project in the middle of the year, I was sort of doing the same with Golden Sun and figuring out how to make a Java version of it (mainly the combat inner mechanics). I was sort of successful (except for the fact that I still knew little of designing combat menus like choosing to do the regular attack or cast a spell instead with JOptionPane). Still, I’ve thought of a lot of connections that things around me have with Java since getting into AP Computer Science.

  11. He forgot to mention that he is also a serial killer.

    for those of you who aren’t to fond of jokes, I was just kidding

  12. Hello, About a week ago I realized that I want to teach me to program games when I read about Skyrim.

    How do I start?

  13. Brett, I am in college right now for game developement I was wondering how to go from college to career. I really enjoy gaming and I want to make a mark on the industry I am just not sure how to get started from college. I know about the portfolio. and I am working on that. But what else can I do to make sure I can get into a career in this field. By the way I think Bethesda is one of the best companies for medievil games would like to see more of them. I would appreciate any advice you could give me.