‘How I got into video game building’

For our generation, playing video games was a staple part of growing up. Yet despite spending hours with our hands furiously tapping controllers and keyboards, we rarely put much thought into the effort and creativity that’s behind why we’re able to build a city at the click of a button.

Some of us, on the other hand, have not only learnt how to build these digital cities but have been at it for years. Despite not having finished uni yet, Topher Winward has already spent time working for Microsoft and is currently interning as a software development engineer at British games developer Rare Ltd. With a lifelong passion for building games, he’s given us an insight into the innovation and passion that go into making those little disks.

1. So what does the job you’re in now involve doing?

I’ve been doing work all over the studio, but primarily I’ve been working on ‘Rare Replay’ [a project compiling 30 years of Rare games] for the year. It was my responsibility to design and implement the controller system, all user authentication and lay the groundwork for saving/loading and UI features. I also ensured we hit a bunch of stringent quality measures required for all Xbox products. In short, I had a lot to do!

Day-to-day work involves a lot of talking with designers and testers, writing up specifications, writing a bunch of C++ code, reviewing other people’s code and drinking loads of coffee. Note how despite the fact that I was hired as an intern, I’ve still been given a considerable amount of responsibility and real work – no tea-making here!

2. What made you want to go into gaming in the first place?

I’ve always been a huge gamer, but it was never my plan to enter the games industry – I just knew I loved to program. I applied to Microsoft for a year out of my course on the off-chance, and it turned out I was a great fit to work in one of their game studios. It was pretty crazy knowing Lionhead, Rare and Lift were all willing to take me on as an intern. Sadly I could only pick one!

That’s not to say I don’t love game development – I’ve been building games since I was 10. I ran a lunchtime club called “Flash Club” at school where we’d mess around in Macromedia Flash and Gamemaker to make fun games for us all to share and play covertly during IT lessons. I also spent a lot of my time building maps with a community for the game ‘Team Fortress 2’, where I met a load of other programmers and game developers. Having a community of like-minded people to help bounce ideas off (and tell you what they think needs changing!) really helps in developing your ideas and self.

Topher and colleagues at Rare Ltd. Image Credit: Topher Winward

Topher and colleagues at Rare Ltd. Image Credit: Topher Winward

3. What sort of personality and skills were Microsoft and Rare looking for?

I guess as a major factor, they want someone who’s enthusiastic about game development and the studio – Rare were a huge part of my childhood and I was really sure to let that show through in the interview.

Knowing your stuff and having confidence in your abilities helps a lot too. My interviewer told me most people go in sweating their face off and as such fumble easy questions, even though they’re solid candidates. The key thing for getting into games, however, is to have a portfolio available. Make it super easy for employers to see what you’ve done, either through a personal website, LinkedIn or a Github account.

4. Can you remember the first game you tried to build and how that went?

I was in Year 6 at the time – I’d found a way to access Visual Basic through editing macros in Powerpoint, and used that to create a bunny-pet simulator game. It’d randomise your bunny’s stats and would generate what jobs it was eligible for and what-not through that. Wish I still had a copy lying around somewhere. I’d also experimented around a lot at that age with the ‘Red Alert’ and ‘Cossacks’ map editors, trying to create fun levels to play.

5. What’s the most challenging aspect of working for a major company like Rare?

The most challenging part has to be trying to beat the others at ‘Quake’ or ‘Rocket League’ at lunchtimes! Really though, there are so many challenges that we constantly have to solve, and that’s a good thing. There is always a new bug that’s appeared, or a new feature that needs designing, or a chunk of code that needs refactoring.

It can also be challenging knowing that work you do affects literally hundreds of thousands of gamers’ experiences, so it’s important to really put a lot of care and love into each feature to make it as high quality and fun as possible.

Now what?