Broken In goes behind the curtain this week, scoring some face time with Michael Williams. Whether you know it or not, he’s been interfacing with you for quite some time now, sending out reams of luminous code that have made both your in and out-of-game experiences that much more immersive. Now it’s your turn to dive into some data points, get to know a little bit about Michael Williams, and if you have the talent, the portfolio, and the educational foundation, to prepare yourself for a role as a Bungie Engineer.
Q. Who are you and what do you do for Bungie?
A. I’m Michael Williams and I work on the Server Engineering team. My work involves pretty much everything where the game talks to our servers or where Bungie.net talks to the game. So when you check out a friend’s File Share, take a look at your medal chest, or upgrade to Bungie Pro
(you are already a member right?), you are talking to code I’ve touched. I’m also responsible for a lot of back-end stuff like grabbing stats for news stories, sharpening the teeth of the Banhammer, and getting late night calls if there are server issues. Recently, I built and ran the queries that awarded people Bungie Day recon for things like “games ending in 77777.” Day-to-day I am mostly working with C#, SQL, and ASP.NET, with a smattering of C++ thrown in from time to time.
Q. Wow, that does seem to encompass “pretty much everything.” How long have you been working in the gaming industry?
A. I’ve been at the video games thing for a very long time in one form or another. In college at Western Washington University, I co-founded a club of programmers, artists and designers where we focused on making small games. After graduation I got my foot in the door testing games for Microsoft, and eventually testing Halo 2 for Bungie. When Halo 2 shipped, I was hired onto our tools team which later became the Server Engineering Team.
Prior to the games gig, one of my first paid jobs was in high school, working over the summer on my school district’s computer systems. The job resulted in one funny moment when someone in the district administration system got mixed up and offered me a chance to be a substitute at my own school. I never took them up on the offer, but I often wonder what would have happened if I had showed up at the substitute training course.
Q. That could have been interesting. What about working for Bungie has made it interesting for you?
A. For me the most interesting thing about Bungie is that everyone here has a huge amount of ownership in the products we create. If I think I’ve got a brilliant idea for the project we are working on, I know that it will get listened to, considered, and could easily end up in the game. It is amazing to see a plot point, HUD feature, or game element and think to yourself, “I had a part in that!” When the idea is in your own area, it is even easier to make it happen – there are a ton of features on Bungie.net that were championed by just one person on our team and then made a reality. At Bungie, our products are the result of a ton of passionate folks who are in constant collaboration to produce the best product they can.
Q. Which “I had a part in that!” moments come to mind first when you think back over your tenure at Bungie?
A. Near the end of the Halo 3 ship cycle, when we were all working hard on Halo 3, our spouses were sent a beautiful care package full of items as a thank-you for letting us be stolen away for a while. This was by no means an isolated event, but I think it was the first time I really realized how much Bungie cares, not only for the employee but for their family as well. There are a huge number of folks at Bungie who are married, and a ton those have children as well. That culture of family really helps ensure that both we and our significant others love the fact that we work here.
Other memories include:
Q. As the studio grows and new faces flood into the building, how do you continue to maintain the same excitement you had when you were first swinging the croquet mallet as a Newbie?
- Harold (our studio manager) wheeling a shopping cart full of ice cream treats through the studio during a late night of crunch acting as a personal Ice Cream man for us.
- The team gathering around screens during E3 season to watch and comment on the yearly press conferences (and to see how our presentations go).
- Winning the a gold medal in the Summer Pentathlon playing croquet as a Newbie.
- Since I’ve started we have grown a lot as a studio. We are big enough now that we can have several projects going at once, which keeps the Server Engineering team on our toes supporting everything. Due to the number of folks here now, I may actually cross the hallowed border from Old Skool into the land of the Grizzled Ancients at our next Pentathlon.
A. The easiest way to maintain drive and passion is to look around and realize that what you innovate on today, others will be implementing tomorrow. There are a lot of great game companies out there right now who are doing really interesting things with Stats and online integration with their games. We have to constantly be thinking about new things we can bring to Bungie.net or support in the game, and that necessity makes going to work each day really exciting.
Over the years of working here, I’ve gotten to know a lot of really great folks at the company. If I have a single regret about my early time at the company, it would be that I didn’t get to know these folks sooner.
Q. If you could send out a warning to candidates looking to get some face time with the folks in the studio, what would it be?
A. If a strange sausage snack shows up on your desk – whatever you do, don’t eat it. Just sneak it onto someone else’s desk as soon as possible and try to forget you ever saw it.
Q. Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent? If a strange aspiring applicant showed up at your desk looking for a job, which quality would you demand they have?
A. I’ll say Talent. Experience can be earned over time, and the more talented a person is, the faster the growth in experience will be. Work ethic is very important, but even with the greatest work ethic in the world, there may be insurmountable problems without enough talent to back that work. Talent is the ability to see a solution where others don’t, and the ability to implement that solution once you see it, and it is a core need for the work we do. I think that is likely true across our disciplines, but is especially true in Engineering.
That said, if you take someone with purely theoretical knowledge with no experience at all, zero work ethic, or zero talent, they are going to fail at the work they are given. You need to work hard, get your hands dirty, and constantly be learning to succeed – both at Bungie, and in life. :)
Q. Bonus Round! Give us your top three things people looking to get into the gaming industry should do to make their path a little less rocky.
- Make a game for your portfolio: Building a portfolio is a key element to getting work in the game industry regardless of your discipline, and working on a game is a really great way to demonstrate your ability. Building a game is one of the best ways to show you have the both the experience and ability to be a member of the industry. There are a ton of hobbyist games being made on the Internet. Get involved in one, or start your own.
- Keep your games simple: One incredibly common story for folks making their own games is a group of folks creating an incredibly ambitious design document, a few rough renders, and then having their team fall apart. Code for games differs in a lot of subtle ways from other projects you code in school. Considerations such as speed, UI interfaces, AI, and networking can make even the simplest game challenging. (I suspect that the challenges for artists are similar, as the limitations of a given technology in terms of format, size, style and display make game art a very different medium than other forms of art). It is far better to have a completed and polished game of Tic-Tac-Toe than to have bits and pieces of a deep tactical RTS. If you take a simple game that you could build in a week, and focus on polishing it and adding features – you will find no end of interesting work to do on it. Homework, finals, friends, and life can all bring large amateur game projects to a crashing halt. By keeping your game small you up your odds of getting something you can show off and be proud of in the end.
- Get a broad education: Even if you end up going to a game design school with a laser focus on game education, take some time to learn things outside of your major either through classes or through reading. Almost any class you take can help you in unexpected ways. History, English, philosophy, psychology, theater, and other subjects can all have important things to add to the games you work on. Plus, if you end up needing to support yourself outside the game industry, a broad education can help you get work in a lot of places.
Thanks to Michael Williams for dropping some education of his own into this space. If you ask us, we think he would have made a mighty fine substitute teacher - even if it would have been just for laughs. Of course, we're glad his career path brought him to Bungie. If you’ve read Michael's interview and you think your own portfolio is packed full of great, complete content and you want to integrate yourself into Bungie, it's time to swing your career path straight through our Jobs Page
. We're hiring.