GETTING FROM HERE TO THERE:
AN INTERVIEW WITH TRONSTER HARTLEY,
SENIOR PROGRAMMER AT FIRAXIS GAMES
Tronster Hartley is a senior programmer at Firaxis Games, the
video game development company best known for its Civilization series, as well as president of Geek House Games. In this
interview with Crossroads, he explains how his career path
was influenced by not only his computer science education, but
also his willingness to experiment with game-making and
interact with new people on his own time.
Crossroads: Can you explain what the difference is between your two
jobs, Firaxis and Geek House Games?
Tronster Hartley: Sure. Firaxis Games is my day job. I work it Monday
through Friday, roughly 40 hours a week, but during crunch time
[when extreme overtime occurs in order for the company to meet its
deadline] a little bit more. Geek House Games is more of a personal passion. On nights and weekends, myself along with other professionals,
students, and indies [independent game developers] come together to
work on a game that will go into realms that we might not have a chance
to explore in our day-to-day activities.
Crossroads: Can you talk a little bit about why having something like
Geek House Games is important, not just to you personally, but in
terms of your career development?
TH: Before I even started working full-time in the game industry, I
was always fascinated by games. I loved playing them. I would tinker
around and make them in college during spring break.
After working a computer programming-based job in a few business sectors, I realized my passion for games had not been diminishing. I really missed doing game projects that were structured and
organized and I wanted something that would hold me accountable to
finishing a game.
My hard drive had half a dozen or a dozen projects that were
started but never completed. I realized in order to hold myself
accountable, it was important to establish a business entity and strive
to make some sort of goal with milestones and deadlines that would
force me to finish a game.
Once every year, I intend to submit a game to the IGF [Independent
Games Festival, an annual competition that is well-recognized in the
video game development industry for introducing experimental and
innovative concepts]. Making games in my spare time, even before
working full time for a AAA studio, actually helped get me a leg up
when I started interviewing at some of the game studios.
One thing I tell students whenever I talk to them about the game
industry is that even if they don’t have a job lined up or an internship
lined up, the best thing they can do for their careers is to start making
games right now. If the best prospect for them is to create a business
entity, do that. If they are disciplined enough to make games on their
own time and see it through from start to finish, then I recommend
doing that—whatever works best for them.
Now that I’m full-time in the game industry, I found that I am most
valuable if I specialize in a particular area of programming. For me it’s
been user interfaces. And while this is my focus, I still have a passion
to do a bit more with computer graphics, game design, and pixel
shaders. Every now and again, I even get the urge to just to make a
well-written system for playing sounds.
Since I’ve become very specialized in user interface, I put most of
my energy into it during my day job. Occasionally I will get opportunities to do more in art or design; I welcome those opportunities. But
when there are no opportunities outside of UI, during my day job, I can
always satisfy my other interests in what I do at Geek House Games.
Crossroads: I think something a lot of people don’t realize, especially
when they are new to the workforce, is that they don’t have to be
beholden to the thing that pays their bills 100 percent completely. That
really is a difficult thing for many people.
TH: Very much so. Before breaking into the game industry—my first
full-time job was working on a AAA title at BreakAway Games—I had
a job at a start-up that was creating and supporting backup software.
Early on in my life I set some financial goals. I wanted to be making six figures by the time I was 30, and I was making well beyond that
on contractor rates, but it didn’t make me happy.
When the opportunity arose at BreakAway, even though the salary
was a third of what I was making, my quality of life was going to
increase. At BreakAway, when I was coming out of meetings, we were
talking about where we’d be placing Tiberium on a map [in the game
Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars] rather than what files had to
be restored on someone’s hard drive.
Even crunching is different. I welcome crunching at a game company. Crunching happens at every other type of job I’ve been at, but I
don’t think there’s been a single case, outside of the game industry,
where I can say I’ve had a good experience from doing a crunch.
Crossroads: Just to back up, BreakAway Games is a studio that does
serious games, or games with objectives other than entertainment, as
well as AAA titles, right?
TH: Right. BreakAway is diversified. At least when I was there, there
was an entertainment section and a serious games section. They have
some of the most cutting-edge serious games technology. The people
who built that technology were able to transfer their skill sets very well
into the AAA space.