An Interview with Tronster Hartley
In the past, BreakAway had done a few contracts with EA to put
out an expansion to Battle for Middle Earth, an extension, and when I
came on board, I was hired to do UI work on Command & Conquer 3:
Crossroads: What is your educational background? I know you went
to Ohio Wesleyan University.
TH: Yes. Before I talk about my degree, I’m going to take you way far
back because it explains how and when I got interested in programming.
I’ve always had long-term goals on my mind. From kindergarten, I
was going to be a chef, until third grade when I learned how to do
AppleSoft Basic, and from third grade on, I realized I wanted to make
games. This is way back in the early 1980s, and I realized the only way
I was going to make games was to get proficient with a computer, so I
knew I would need to go for a CS degree. All through middle school
and high school, that was the target.
OWU had a very good program. I think there were about seven
people per class. The entire school has about 2,000 people on campus,
so it was bigger than my high school, but still small enough to get the
personal attention that I was looking for.
Crossroads: Did you find you were naturally adept at learning computing and programming before you started at Wesleyan?
TH: I did, but I was a bit of an ass in high school. I’m a big geek; I think
one of the problems with geeks in general, myself included, is that we
become very specialized in technology early on and it can breed a bit
of arrogance. My arrogance was the biggest issue for me, especially
amongst my friends. I would be taking an advanced placement computer science course in Pascal and I would be working with various
libraries the teachers were not familiar with. I actually had an ASCii,
3D, rotating cube in a program for a help screen, when all my teacher
wanted was a line of text along the lines of “This will count cards and
score them for a hand of bridge.”
I was thirsting to do more with what I knew, and it did cause a lot
of conflicts in high school. But once college started, I was quickly put
in my place. A lot of it had to do with the curriculum and programming competitions. There was an ACM programming competition
where OWU represented with two teams. It was a fantastic experience
as the problems were challenging, showing me how much I still
needed to learn. One of our teams placed; my team did not.
Crossroads: You were saying you started at Ohio Wesleyan and it had
a small class size and you got a lot of personal attention. Talk a little
bit more about what you studied there.
TH: Because of my AP scores in high school, I started immediately in
the Assembly class. It involved a lot of low-level “register” work, which
required an existing knowledge of programming. So my class was
filled with sophomores and one other student who also jumped ahead
via AP scores. Ironically, that student was the one who had hired me
for the backup software job.
The course was hard, due to so many factors. It had a long time
slot, started at 8 a.m., and involved looking at low-level code on a
black-and-white LCD that was projected via an overhead projector in
a dark room. I have this one memory of Dr. Zaring, our professor,
showing a difficult concept via the computer, and then flipping on the
lights. The six other people in the class were all asleep, heads on desks,
except me. I was lucky enough to have had a Mountain Dew in one
hand and a Surge in the other, double-fisting caffeine the whole time.
It was hard picking up the concepts, in this environment, but the small
class size and availability of Dr. Zaring made it possible.
In my senior year I had finished a lot of the courses that were
required to graduate, and instead, I was taking a lot more interesting
courses, such as compilers and a computer graphics study. I was having a lot more fun learning concepts that I knew would be more immediately applicable to the projects I wanted to do when I graduated.
I also became the president of the student chapter of the ACM at
Ohio Wesleyan. At that time, not many people on campus knew about
the ACM. We continued that year to do all the stuff that had been
done in the previous years, mostly computer competitions. But additionally, I wanted to do things that would make the ACM more visible.
Once a month, we would have an open, campus-wide “computer”
movie night. One night we’d show Tron and another night we would
show Lawnmower Man or War Games in the student areas. I see the
ACM as being about computers and culture and the fact that we cannot live without computers today, and those types of movies helped
bridge the gap between those of us who loved computers and those
who felt they were a necessary evil. Now this is in the late 1990s, and
today our society is even more reliant on them, but at that time, I felt
it was key for the rest of the campus to understand how important
computers were becoming.
Crossroads: So, you used movies as a hook into showing other people
how this field could actually be applicable in their everyday entertainment lives, as well as the deep backchannel stuff that goes on.
TH: Right. It was one of two hooks that we tried, but it was the only
successful one. The other hook was shut down by the administration.
That year, for Valentine’s Day we decided to have a match-making
service. All the students submitted ballots and then we had a computer algorithm—one of the guys had figured out a matching system—
and paired up students on campus. If people wanted to act on it they
could, but they didn’t have to. But some of the questions were a little
cheeky, like, “How far is too far on the first date?” Even though the language wasn’t crude, the dean pulled me aside and told me he was
pulling the plug on our project.
There are a lot of misconceptions about what computers can and
cannot do, and the people behind them.
Just today, I heard on the radio about a local college, which is offering some degree in computer security, and there was a voiceover of
this woman who said, “When I nab my first hacker, I’m going to dedicate that to my sister!”
I grew up in a hacker culture, and am offended by that commercial.
“Hacker” should not be synonymous with “evil person trying to commit crimes.” Having misperceptions of people who use computers,
what they do with computers, and being able to assess who is doing
good and who is doing bad, what it means to be doing good and what
it means to be doing bad—those kinds of things were important to me
when I was in college leading the ACM chapter, and continue to be
important to me today.
Crossroads: I can imagine that that has a lot of crossover with working in the game industry, too, this whole notion of doing good. I would
think it might be complicated at a company like BreakAway, where you