At Bungie, we get asked a lot of questions by students who want to know what they should study to prepare themselves for an exciting career making video games. Sometimes, we suppress the urge to warn them to run as fast as they can in the other direction and provide some helpful suggestions. Those answers can be more diverse than the questions. To help you plan your course-load, meet a student of the world who seems to have taught himself as much as he learned in school. That helped him infiltrate our studio before the ink on his accreditation was dry.
Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?
My name is Ben Litowitz and I’m a sandbox engineer. I work with gameplay designers to make their ideas come to life in the game. I also provide them with tools to make their lives easier and toys to play with.
Your job description makes me picture our studio as one big day care center – one where the kids just happen to use toys to make kick ass games. What were your career aspirations back in the day when a cache of toys was the best thing in life?
My childhood aspirations ranged from pilot to policeman and were entirely driven by the latest movie I’d seen. I started programming young and was always making games, but it wasn’t until high school that I started thinking about programming as a career and not until college that I considered developing games for a living.
How does making that living translate to actually living?
In my free time, I play games and do a lot of programming. Before I came here, I played a lot of games from Valve Software on my PC. Since I started working for Bungie, I’ve been converted to a console gamer. These days, I try to keep up with the latest and greatest titles while also experiencing classics that I’ve missed out on. I also enjoy playing with my cat, Wheatley, whom I’m currently trying to teach to walk on his hind legs. On Wednesday nights, you can find me and the rest of the Bungie soccer team taking on other local game studios.
Fear not, convert. Even though I spend all of my game time in front of a console, I still know the namesake of your kitty. Tell us what life was like before we seduced you into abandoning your PC.
I started at Bungie right after finishing my undergraduate degree in Computer Science at Georgia Tech. I spent one summer as an intern at Bioware Austin working on Star Wars: The Old Republic. I helped write the companion gift system, the foreign language support for the combat log, and the interaction between the various factions and races of the Star Wars universe. Outside of work and school, I also did a lot of programming and thinking about games in my free time.
Your fresh-out-college tale is an inspiration for students the world over. Would you share more about your time as an Athletic, and how it prepared you for the trials of working for Bungie?
At Georgia Tech I studied Computer Science with a focus in multimedia and networking. The computer graphics, animation, and networking classes were instrumental in helping me build a better understanding for all of the disciplines I now interact with at work. The video game design class I took was a great opportunity to work with others, get my hands on a real game engine, and create something from start to finish.
And, as graduation day beckoned, how did you convince Bungie to be your first employer?
During my last semester of college I started compiling a list of links to the recruiting pages of game development companies. Around October, a news post reminded me to add Bungie to the list. When I visited the website and saw that they were looking for an entry level gameplay engineer I decided not to wait. In my email I mentioned my passion for games, my history with Halo, and what I had gained from my experience with Bioware. In addition to my internship, I think my website helped demonstrate my dedication and experience; on it I had screenshots and links to many of the games I’d made and a couple of relevant school projects.
The words “self-taught” certainly come to mind. When it came time to defend what you had learned in the dreaded Bungie interview loop, how did you fare?
I found most of the interview day challenging and fun, but stumbled when another former Georgia Tech grad, Ben Wallace, grilled me on spatial hierarchies.
Spatial hierarchies? I would stumble, too. What are those? And how do they impact games?
A spatial hierarchy is just a way to organize all of the objects in the game world (based on their positions in space) to make the game run faster. They’re such a fundamental part of many games, but one that most programmers don’t have to think about on a day-to-day basis.
Now that you are with us on a day-to-day basis, what is your favorite thing about being part of the Bungie spatial hierarchy?
The best part about this job is being able to come to work every day and create something new and exciting. The time from when I start working on something to when I see it on screen is so short that it’s almost addictive.
Of all the addictions that have graced your screen, which do you regard as the most intoxicating?
After having to debug numerous animation related issues, I wrote a debug tool that would let me pause the game and step forward one frame at a time, much like I was used to doing when debugging code. It wasn’t a complicated tool to make, but I use it every day and it’s been pretty useful for others around the studio.
Making the creative process better for everyone is a fantastic contribution. We can never settle for the way we have always done things. On that note, how do you make yourself better as a professional in this industry?
Being fresh out of college, there’s so much to learn from all of the experienced members of our team. I’m always harassing our networking, animation, and graphics engineers for more details about how they’ve solved problems for Halo titles or other past games. It’s also great to be able to ask other disciplines about their mental processes and work flows.
That collaboration is something that many people would love to enjoy. What would you tell them in order to help them break in to this industry?
First, be proactive and tenacious: don’t wait for opportunities to create awesome content. Second, recognize the scope of your undertaking and don’t bite off more than you can chew: a well-polished Tetris clone with a soundtrack and a scoreboard is better than a few design ideas and some skeleton code for an MMO.
Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent? Rank them in order of importance to your role.
You need them all, the ability to develop and improve on your weaknesses is key.
Thank you sharing so deeply from the well of your experiences, Ben. For those of you reading these words, we hope the path that leads into the wilderness where games are made has become a little easier to follow. If you want to know more, some of our other trailblazers have also been profiled. You can find them in the Breaking In