Gamers Made Good Profile: Alan Wolfe, Senior Software Engineer at Blizzard Entertainment

We asked, they answered.  Team Thrively owes a big thanks to our gamer guest blog contributors who shared their gaming upbringing.  Alan’s is the third gaming success story in our series. 

My interest in gaming started when my parents bought me an NES in the late 80s and started with games such as the original Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Super Mario Bros, Castlevania and the Final Fantasy series.

Similar to reading books or watching movies, video games had a certain immersiveness  to them, which I found very appealing.  Unlike books or movies though, video games also had an interactive element that let me explore their worlds.  It was like being taken to another universe and being let loose to adventure.

One of the most famous game designers of all time, Shigeru Miyamoto, drew on his own adventures as a child in rural Japan when creating the legend of Zelda apparently, so that sense of adventure from playing video games really should come as no surprise.

I grew up before the Internet existed, so playing video games was mostly an individual activity for me, where I would sit for hours and wander through the various worlds as the hero fighting monsters and questing for great justice. Sometimes video games were social, like when playing with my parents, or at a friend’s house.  But for the most part, it was a solitary activity for me and I preferred that, so as to be able to really myself into the virtual worlds.

While in 7th grade, a small group of friends and I decided to start learning to program games in a language called QBasic.  We started off with really simple text adventures, then learned how to fake graphics with text characters on the screen (such as having an X where the player was and having enemies be Y's moving around on the screen) and we eventually learned how to do proper graphics with lines and circles, then started dabbling in some basic music and sound effects.

It was a blast working on projects and sharing them, while also sharing techniques we figured out with each other.  I found that the immersiveness and adventure of creating a game was pretty much on par with playing them.  It took the interactions I had with these virtual worlds to the next level.  Not only could I interact with fantastical places, I could now create them as well.

In early high school, an uncle who is a professional programmer put me on the path to "real programming" by giving me a C++ compiler and a stack of programming books.  That was really what took me off the path from hobbyist game developer and put me on the path to becoming a professional.  I thank him every chance I get.

While in high school, my parents supported my hobby by letting me pick out books on game programming, and programming in general, and I was able to spend a lot of time reading those books and practicing the material by creating games.  Admittedly, I never once finished any of the games I started, but I would instead just implement the things that I thought were interesting, and then would stop working on one game and start the next.  That worked well for me in that I learned a lot of things fairly rapidly, but I do wish that I had actually made the effort to finish some of those projects.  The skill of bringing something to completion and adding a high level of polish is something I didn't really put a lot of effort into, and is a skill I started to appreciate later on.

blizzard entertainment

I'm ultimately self-taught.   In hindsight, I really wish that I had taken the college route.  I would have gotten to where I wanted to be a lot sooner, I would be farther along now, and the student loans would have actually been less than the lost income my "self teaching" delay caused.  Live and learn I guess!

My advice to parents is that if your child has a passion, let them pursue it, and help them be successful.  When I was growing up, video game programming was not a sensible career, but now it is extremely lucrative.  Those years of working in my garage on my hobby projects and playing video games in front of the TV has translated to me now working for a multi-billion dollar company, making a very decent salary, getting emails and calls from other gaming companies on a daily basis trying to recruit me away.  You never know what the future holds!

If you like video games, but find out that programming is not for you, games also need artists, game designers (designers are the people that actually decide how the game is going to work), musicians, producers (producers help make sure people have what they need to keep things on schedule), business people, and many other roles as well.  There are a million ways you can be involved in the creation of video games, so if it's your passion, don't be afraid to pursue it!

You might ask, is making video games as amazing as it sounds?  In a word, yes!

It's indescribable to see a game you created on the shelves at the store, or seeing other people playing your creation.  Working at 8 different video game companies, they've all had amazing perks - such as everyone going to see the latest movie during work hours, or having pizza delivered on Fridays, or getting early access to video games made by other companies.

It's true that there can sometimes be long hours when trying to reach a deadline (called "crunch"), but crunch doesn't usually last very long and is normally the product of poor planning - although not always!

It's also true that there can be quite a bit of turbulence when making games due to companies starting up and shutting down all the time.  For me and my friends and coworkers, getting your foot in the door and getting game experience seems to be the hardest part. Once you have that, it's usually pretty easy to find another job if you need to, so the instability isn't so bad.




Alan Wolfe: A gamer who become a game developer

Currently: Senior Software Engineer at Blizzard Entertainment

Credits: Line Rider, Gotham City Impostors, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Battle Nations, StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm

My blog on programming and game development