What’s your Criterion gameography, Alex?
I’ve worked on Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted, including the WiiU version, and then I helped Ghost Games with Need For Speed: Rivals. Now I have a couple of projects on the go…
Did you start off as a geeky kid?
Yeah I loved games from an early age. My parents won us a Sega Master System II in a Rice Krispies competition, then my brother got a second-hand Mega Drive II and I saved up for ages to get a Nintendo 64 with Goldeneye. We had an old Olivetti PC and I got hooked on some Jet Set Willy-clone platform game, then I discovered Monkey Island…
Did you teach yourself programming in between playing games?
I was quite an academic kid, and I knew I wanted to get into game-making so I studied maths and sciences at school. But I made the mistake of thinking, “I won’t teach myself programming because I’ll just pick up bad habits and when I get to university they’ll teach me all the good stuff.” It might also have been that the teach-yourself-programming books I picked up were all very dry – “Teach Yourself C In Three Months”. Blech.
Anyway, when I finally started my Computer Science course at university it was all theory and halfway through I realised that I’d have to teach myself to program. I knew that most games were built with C++ so when we got to pick assignments to work on I always picked projects I could make with C++.
I did find it tricky at the time because being a good student at school meant being spoon-fed problems and learning how to solve them. University was a lot more open-ended and I wasn’t in the habit of imagining a problem and solving it for myself. What’s different now is that there are a lot more people online who will pose little problems to solve and more people who will give you pointers. Being able to just ask around for help stops you being scared off by thinking there’s only one correct way to do things and you have to work that out for yourself.
So you were the antithesis of the teenage hacker who becomes a game programmer. When did you write your first game?
It wasn’t until I was at university, and I think I wrote a Tetris clone in C++ to teach myself how a game loop worked.
Looking back, would you have preferred a more game-focussed programming course?
Some of the more general computer science I did at university that seemed like it would have no game-making purpose at the time actually turned out to be pretty useful. For example, I had to learn SQL, which is a database-building language. I had no desire to be a database programmer, but as it turned out the first job I got was on a football management game which was all about manipulating tables of team and player statistics.
Making games doesn’t just mean making gameplay though. The understanding of logic and algorithms and searches and all that stuff you get from a computer science degree helps with making tools and systems as well as making the action. There are all kinds of things you can specialise in if that’s what you want, but in games you can be making tools or engines or systems or changing the software in all kinds of ways you never expected.
What keeps you coding?
The best times I’ve had are when I’ve woken up in the morning and I couldn’t wait to get into work to solve the next problem with the people I was working with. I’ve been lucky insofar as I’ve always worked with energetic teams who loved games. No matter how different we all were, we all loved games. The people around you are really important.
Game I wish I’d made
Any Lucasarts SCUMM adventure, Solving the puzzles was massively rewarding. The closest I got to that euphoria recently was when I eventually beat a boss in Dark Souls.
Xbox guy or a PlayStation guy?
I’m an everything guy. I have an Xbox One, a PS4 and a WiiU. All day one purchases.
Most extravagant game purchase
The Destiny Collector’s Edition. About £125 and I got a Ghost figure that speaks awful lines when you wave at it.