Jon Shiring, also known as “Slothy”, is a programmer here at Respawn and claims to be able to outrun a house cat, sometimes. He also occupies an office marked “lactation room” by the previous inhabitants of our office space. For more on how he got interested in programming, how he started in games and how he found himself at Respawn, check out the following interview:
Jon: Is it ok if the answer isn’t funny?
Abbie: No, make it funny.
Jon: When I was around 12, I had to pick an alias. Being a big D&D fan, I went with Lord Soth because skeletons are totally super awesome. Once I got on IRC around 1991, on EFNet, there was a guy using LordSoth so I became LordSloth. Eventually it was shortened and a “y” was added because all good names end in a “y” sound.
Abbie: Has it increased your love for sloths?
Jon: Man, I freaking LOVE sloths. Someday I’m going to the sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica.
Abbie: So how did you get started in the games industry?
Jon: So, I used to run an art group called iCE; it was pretty big on bulletin boards. I did ANSI art and ran the group for a while. And I stayed in touch with a lot of people in the group and there was one guy called RogueLeader who was working in games. So I asked “Do they need a programmer who has never worked in games before?” as a joke. He asked them and they said yes. I’d done a ray tracer in college so I used that as my example that I could program. They hired me and I worked from home for about a year in the basement of a townhouse with some guys I was living with. It was a really weird intro.
Abbie: What was your first company?
Jon: We did a game called Savage. The name of the company was S2 Games. It was fun. A lot of fun. We had like, 7 people. It was the most indie garage retail game ever. There were two brothers who did pretty much all the art and animation, one concept artist, 3 programmers and one guy who was the manager. The concept artist was part time, so like, 7 ½?
Abbie: Where did you go after that?
Jon: Well, the company went different ways and I went to Namco Hometek (the US side of Namco) and some of the guys went to do Project Offset. I worked at Namco for about 6 months and then joined Infinity Ward in June of 2004. Yeah, it was early in COD2.
Abbie: So you and many of the other people at Respawn have been working together for a really long time.
Jon: Yeah, Joel Emslie and Geoff Smith and I met at Namco and the three of us all came down to LA together, so I’ve been working with them since 2003.
Abbie: So tell me about what you do at Respawn.
Jon: I’m a programmer but I work on lots of different stuff. Generally speaking the way we work is that the designers and also the artists will come up with stuff they need to make the vision they have in their heads. And so we get a list of stuff and we figure out the best order to do it and we do it. We’re really glue, but the stuff we do is really important. If programmers screw up you get bugs, bad frame-rate, uneven frame-rate and buggy horrible interfaces to things. It all really matters. In the end we’re essentially enabling the creative people, so to speak.
Abbie: It must be easy to work with people when you’ve know them for so long, right?
Jon: Once you’ve worked with someone for a long time you know how they’re going to react to things and what areas might be good to go to for ideas. You have all these people you can bounce things off of and see what they think. Even though I’m a programmer and I talk about the creative types, I can suggest ideas and if people like them, they’ll be in the game. So it’s not a limiting thing. I love being able to walk around and come up with suggestions and see if anyone gets excited about it or if it just dies. It’s cool if they use it and if they don’t, that’s fine too.
Abbie: No hurt feelings.
Jon: The best part is…if they like it they’ll immediately suggest something I hadn’t thought of that makes it really cool. I come up with the almost-cool version and they’re like “Well, we could do this” and I think “Yeah, that’s a lot better. That’s why they’re designers.”
Abbie: So what are your favorite games?
Jon: Puzzle Quest, Fallout 3, God of War 3, Portal 2 and Disgaea 2.
Abbie: I loved Puzzle Quest.
Jon: I completed every mission, even the side missions, twice. I bought a second DS so I could play one while the other charged.
Abbie: WOW. That is dedication.
Jon: King’s Quest 3 was the one that made me beg my parents to get a computer. So that was important. I used to love all the old adventure games by Sierra and I love Katamari Damacy. I remember the games that are really different, but I’m not “super quirky game guy”. I play almost everything.
Abbie: And how did you actually get interested in programming games?
Jon: I always wanted to be able to make Sierra games when I was a kid. Then as I got involved in the art scene I got involved in the demo scene too. There were these guys like Future Crew who made incredible demos and I always wished I could do that kind of stuff. I started to learn to program in 7th grade. I was doing mods for a bulletin board called WWIV and that was kind of how I taught myself to program. Then I was a computer science major, so I stuck with it. At first it was just wishing that I could do all the cool stuff I saw on my computer.
Abbie: Yeah, I thought about programming at a time and I learned how to make a triangle in Logo.
Jon: But didn’t you feel excited about it?
Abbie: It was a pretty awesome triangle.
Jon: I remember I found a program that could compile batch files into .com files. It just took your file and made a little executable that ran it, but that was like the coolest thing in the world to me because batch files, anyone can do those, but executables…you’re programming. I was very young here. This was not last year.
Abbie: I just thought you were a fast learner.
Jon: My older brother also programmed and I remember he could make exe files back before I could and I was like “You can make those?!” I was so in awe. And he was like “Yeah, it’s just programming.”
Abbie: So do you have any advice for people who are interested in doing programming and working in games?
Jon: You should get a degree like Computer Science or Computer Engineering so you can get all the basics on programming. Essentially your big issue is standing out. There are a whole lot of people who have never worked in games and want to work in games. Just a resume of non-gaming jobs doesn’t tell you very much. So you want to have a demo or something a company can play and see your work. It should be a demo that actually runs, isn’t buggy and has help text. Something you could hand to a stranger and they would be able to figure out.
Abbie: So accessibility is a big thing.
Jon: Yeah, and the thing now is that it is easier than ever. An XNA game, an iPhone or iPad game…if it’s actually publicly available, instead of emailing a zip or exe file you can just say “Here’s the name of the program, you can just go download it from the app store.”
You’re going to get a lot more people who are going to go try it that way. Just by being there there’s an assumption that it’s worth looking at and if a potential employer sees that it’s been downloaded 10k times, that’s cool! If it hasn’t, it’s not points against you. Just emailing executables to game developers is just about the most suspect thing you can do.
Abbie: Sound advice.
Jon: The flip side is, there are a lot of people who start out trying to make a game and they don’t know enough artists who have time to do art assets. That’s usually where projects end and the biggest mistake you can make. Essentially, a programmer will be looking at your program and we don’t expect you to do art because we don’t do art. So if you have temp graphics or just whatever random coder art you did, don’t spend a whole lot of time on it unless you have a lot of time to spend. It’s not points against you if the game plays smoothly and is fun and we can see you’re a good programmer. That’s what we’ll judge you on.
Abbie: The best advice I’ve heard for people who want to be a games journalist is that when you’re starting out small and you don’t know anyone, go to things like PAX and meet the indie developers, build those relationships because often indies don’t get enough coverage and if they’re making good games, they’ll go to bigger and bigger places and you’ll grow together.
Jon: Yeah, if you’re trying to get into games in general you should be networking as much as you can. If you can go to PAX or any sort of industry event, that’s awesome…just don’t be pushy. If you meet someone who works in games just keep in touch with them. They aren’t your meal ticket but knowing people in the long run will pay off. Don’t cling. Don’t intrude.
Abbie: That’s funny because you were the one who told me about the open position at Respawn. But it’s neat to hear that from the dev side because you started doing this one thing in a basement and you’ve all moved on from there.
Jon: Yeah, it’s a really small industry and I found any time you talk about any game company someone in the room will be like “I have a friend over there.” It’s really small. As you meet some people you’ll meet more. As far as industries go, this is one that always needs fresh blood with new ideas and new excitement. There are more jobs all the time, especially as game budgets get higher and require more people to make them but also because the industry itself is growing. I mean, my mom plays games on her DS. There are just more gamers than there used to be.
Abbie: Even my mom plays Kinect, which is hilarious because I’d never seen her play a video game before. She used to sit behind me and say “Half-Life, more like no-life…or half-a-life” as I’d play. I take it your parents were a little more encouraging than that?
Jon: Well, they were always frustrated because I was really bored at school and I spent all my time running the art group, so they would say things like “I wish you would put that kind of effort into your school work.” which is a fair point but wasn’t where my interest was. It wasn’t a fight. They were just frustrated that I wasn’t spending all my energy on school, but I think in the end they understand.
Abbie: I didn’t even realize when I was in middle and high school that there was an industry behind making games…that I could be a part of it. I played games, but I guess I sort of thought it was like magic. I didn’t figure it out until 2 years after college, really.
Jon: The funny thing is once you start working in games, playing games is more like work than it used to be. It’s still fun but you lose a little bit of the romance. You’re always looking at games to see what they’re doing well. You want to boil everything down and say this type of thing is fun and this type of thing is not fun. It’s more like work. You don’t have the same innocent joy that you used to when you played games and didn’t worry about analyzing them. Even if you don’t like a game you can’t walk into an office of game developers and say “That game sucks.” They’ll say “Why?” and you have to come up with a defense for not liking the game. Then you’re not so obnoxious for saying it.
Abbie: And I guess you have to consider that someday, someone may be saying things about your game.
Jon: I’ve released games that had some critical reviews and it’s a bitter pill to swallow. But at the same time you have to be able to look at your own work objectively. I’ve never talked to anyone who thought the game they made was the pinnacle and there is nothing they could have done better. Every time I go to GDC I try to go to every post-mortem they have. You learn a lot from those. To see what people did wrong or what they would have done differently or what went well…if you’re ever the type of person who believes a game is perfect and don’t want to hear any criticism you’re never going to make anything better than that. It’s not a good way to be, in your career.
Abbie: So what do you like outside of work?
Jon: I like to help my wife out with some of the projects she’s doing, like an indie comic called The Fox Sister and we spend a lot of time doing stuff for that. I like spending time with my dog who is the greatest dog in the world. I try to have a good balance between work and normal life so we have friends over a lot. Normal life stuff.
Abbie: You’re so very normal…
Jon: Yeah, not really, I’m not sure the guy with the purple mohawk is the really normal one. Very few people accuse me of that.
If being a programmer at Respawn sounds even more awesome now, we do have a programmer position open with more info available on the careers page.