Anna Kipnis – Gameplay Programmer

July 18, 2006 — Leave a comment

David Perry Comments:

Anna Kipnis works for Double Fine, the studio founded by Tim Schafer, and helped develop the critically acclaimed title Psychonauts. A major theme of her interview is to roll up your sleeves and dive in, and I agree that nothing beats the inertia that you can get once a project (that you are really making) starts to take shape. It’s priceless and it can turn out to be the work that lands you your first gig. To remind people in this situation, we have an open source area on our Wiki to let people do exactly this.

Please dispel the myths: what do you do at work every day?

Write gameplay code — make enemies attack, hook up puzzles, make characters do smart things (I hope). Play the same, often broken, bit of the game over and over to make sure what I wrote works.

How did you get your start in the industry?

Step 1) Got a Computer Science degree, with minors in Cognitive Sciences
Step 2) Had my awesome industry friends recommend me to the best company in the country
Step 3) Sent my resume with a cover letter I wrote just for said company, with complimentary peanut butter to help with their rat traps (no joke)
Step 4) Interviewed, waited 2 months until they got the budget to hire me, got the job

What skills did you have that made this sort of work possible for you?

I had experience working with many different programming languages, especially object-oriented ones, and the ability to catch on to new ones quickly. I’d played a lot of games and had some understanding of exactly how gameplay elements were pulled off. I love games and AI to pieces, which got me through some bummer times during crunch.

Talk about the less-glamorous work you did before jumping into games. Did any of that experience help you at all?

I worked at a web house during and after college, where I dabbled in everything from backend Java programming to dynamic HTML and Flash. Although the systems I’m working on now are vastly different, the experience of collaborating on a team from a software engineering standpoint was very applicable to game development. Additionally, there are many information architecture and interface parallels between the simplicity and ease with which a user can navigate a great website and say, an in-game menu, or a control scheme in a great game. Creating a good website requires a lot of attention paid to the user experience, just as in games there is great emphasis on player experience. So coming from a background where user experience was valued helped set my production standards high and guides my interface decisions in game development.

Did your education help you get where you are? Or should people hoping to be in your shoes simply drop out, and get to work?

I’d like to offer the good ol’ ‘stay in school, kids!�?� advice, but the truth is that although I have a bachelor degree in Computer Science, many very talented people I work with majored in completely unrelated fields in college, went to vocational schools for their craft, or even dropped out of college to start working at a game company right away. Seems that if you have the chops and, especially, a working demo game to show for it, you may impress a prospective employer enough to get the job without earning that Ph.D. I do highly recommend finishing high school and dropping out of college to work only if it is a job worthy of it (i.e. don’t drop out to be a tester). A degree or several helps your salary in a big way.

In 2007, what do you think the salary range will be for someone in your role? From a junior position, all the way up to an Executive Director level?

This is all speculation, but I would wager 45k junior to 150k senior.

How competitive is the market for the sort of work you do?

It’s competitive in that many very smart people would love to have this job, but not very competitive in that it’s extremely difficult to break into the industry ‘ no one even looks at your resume if you don’t have a shipped title. On the other hand, your stock rises exponentially with every title you ship. The only time this catch-22 loosens is when a studio goes into severe crunch and needs to hire people stat to finish a game. If you get hired, you’ll work unfathomable hours for a few months, but upon paying your dues, you will have that ‘shipped game’ notch on your resume.

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