How many times have you been sitting on the couch, controller in hand, and thought, “If only I could play video games for a living”?
While life isn’t quite that simple, Darren Williams has achieved the next best thing.
Growing up in Adelaide on a diet of old-school adventure games like King’s Quest and Space Quest, video games quickly became an important part of Darren’s life – he just wasn’t quite know how to make a career out of it.
“I kind of got into gaming through those classic adventure games before getting into more action gaming and RPGs,” he says.
“It was in the back of my mind as a career path but I didn’t really see a direction to get there specifically. I treated it more of a hobby through high school – I was doing textures and mods for games like Wolfenstein and Quake.
“Through that, I got into the programming side of it and started seeing it as a career path that could lead somewhere – or I could, at least, make my own games.”
Darren went on to study engineering and computer science at the University of Adelaide but continued pursuing his true passion in his spare time.
“I kept working on my own projects and trying to build small games and renderings. I ultimately wanted to work at Blizzard if I could, so I applied to [Adelaide-based video game developer] Ratbag Games as well as other roles that were a bit more traditional for engineering.”
Choosing to apply at Ratbag Games proved to be a career-defining move: after seeing the demos he was capable of creating, they hired Darren as a junior engine programmer and thus kickstarted his career in the video game industry.
Darren claims he got lucky, but it’s clear he possesses the eagerness and tenacity to do anything he can to achieve his goals.
“I wasn’t taught the main programming language I use at university, so I studied that on my own. I was often reading about the game industry, particularly game engineers, so I knew what programming language was required.”
Given Ratbag Games was Darren’s first exposure to professional video game development, his new role didn’t come without its challenges. Aside from adjusting to the nine-to-five routine, he says expanding his technical knowledge wasn’t necessarily the hardest aspect of the role to pick up; rather, learning how to apply this knowledge within a collaborative environment was the most important skill to master.
“You’re working collaboratively in a team environment with a lot of people, so really I think the biggest eye-opener was working with other disciplines at Ratbag,” he says.
“I was working on the engine team at the time, on PlayStation 2, on things like special effects for games. Game hardware people, artists and animators spent a lot of time on that stuff, and it was great working with the other creative people on a project – it was a great learning curve seeing how you can collaboratively build gameplay with these people.”
“Ratbag was a great studio in that there were a lot of technical people who taught me not only about writing robust code but also how to interact with other teams. Our job as a gameplay engineer is to make it easier for the content creators, like artists and designers, to make their vision come true.
“It’s really satisfying to make that happen and to give them a new tool so they can do something they couldn’t do before, like place a creature in the game or create any type of boss encounter. That’s something I use every day in my job now and something I try to impart to new people coming up through the team.”
Darren continued to gain valuable experience over the next five years in studios throughout Australia, including a stint at Pandemic Studios where he worked on Triple-A games enjoyed by players all over the world.
Finally, his years of dedication paid off. After a vacancy opened in 2010 at Blizzard Entertainment, one of the world’s most successful video game developers and publishers, Darren was hired and made the move to the United States to live out his dream.
That was eight years ago. Today, Darren is a senior software engineer for one of Blizzard’s most iconic titles: World of Warcraft (WoW).
It’s a name familiar to most gamers, even those not interested in the role-playing genre. With 100 million registered accounts by 2014 and nearly US$10 billion in revenue by 2017, WoW remains one of the most successful video game franchises of all time – and Darren is right in the thick of it.
If you imagine working for Blizzard involves playing games all day, throwing around nutty ideas and working in futuristic offices with slides instead of stairs, you may have underestimated how much day-to-day work people like Darren put into these games.
“World of Warcraft is a live product. A lot of our time is spent monitoring the health of the game, like making sure the servers are running smoothly and performing well, and making sure everything is working correctly in the game,” he says.
“There are often things that will come up that mean we need to stop working on new features and help the community out right there and then, and that’s really important. It’s a bit different than an average gameplay engineer’s job in that we are doing live analysis and live support for ongoing servers. It’s really important to our players, and really important to us, to make sure the game they’re playing right now is working the best it can.”
When he’s not fixing bugs and ensuring servers run smoothly, Darren helps designers, animators and artists bring their visions to life in-game, whether it be items and loot, character animation and customisation, visual effects for spells or cinematic cutscenes.
If that doesn’t keep him busy enough, Darren and his colleagues at Blizzard have just launched the Battle for Azeroth expansion, a massive update to the game featuring new races, gameplay and other content.
“I think it’s really exciting to come back to an expansion that’s the base conflict of Warcraft, which is Alliance versus Horde and this ‘faction identity’ players have,” he says.
“We’re supporting that with the new Allied races which you are going to recruit and bring into your faction. There are also new types of gameplay we haven’t seen before in WoW, which is really fun to work on.
“Even posture! It’s a simple thing that players have been requesting for a long time: Orcs that could stand upright. It’s now in the game – it looked great on the first pre-patch day with all these Orcs were flying through the barbershop and changing their backs. It was really rewarding to see that. It’s sort of a simple thing for players but there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into that.”
Speaking to someone who has first-hand experience of the video game industry in Australia and overseas, we couldn’t help but ask how we stack up against the competition.
“Very well – we have a lot of great indie studios making a lot of great games,” Darren says.
“There’s a lot of talent in Australia and it’s great to see there’s a lot of them still here producing those games, whether it be indie games or mobile games.
“A lot of those people I worked with back at Ratbag are in the US or Montreal or even Europe – all over the place! It’s a small industry but it’s full of Australians, and it’s super awesome to catch up with them all.”
Darren has clear advice for those wanting to follow in his footsteps, which is to keep up with the industry and stay persistent.
“For me, the C++ programming language was key to the game industry, but there are a lot of other ways you can get into it as well. A lot of games these days are built on Unity, and there are plenty of other platforms you can use.
“Learn how to make a game by using the third-party software that’s used industry-wide. Make projects, make demos, include them in your resume and just be persistent.
“Show passion, show that you are willing to spend your own time to learn about the industry and how to make games. That’s exactly what I did.”