This Video-Game Engineer Answered the Call of Duty
Landing a job in the video-game industry is a dream for many young engineers, but for Sushama Chakraverty, it was a happy accident.
Back in 2001, she spotted a poster on her professor’s door advertising for an internship, and she applied without knowing the company she’d be working for. It turned out to be Atari, the legendary video-game company. That internship kicked off a fulfilling career as a video-game programmer.
“They hired me full-time six months later, and I never looked back,” she says. “I was having too much fun.”
Sledgehammer Games, Toronto
Senior User Interface Engineering Manager
Bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, D.Y. Patil College of Engineering; Master’s degree in computer science, The University of Maryland, Baltimore County
In addition to Atari, she’s worked at smaller gaming companies, as well as the leading development studio Ubisoft in Montreal and Toronto, where she contributed to major titles like Assassin’s Creed 2, Watchdogs Legion, and Far Cry 4.
The industry has changed considerably in just a few decades, Chakraverty says, going from a few small firms to a multibillion-dollar economic powerhouse. And she still thanks her lucky stars that she stumbled into one of the most fun jobs an engineer can have.
“There are so many challenges to solve and there are different ones that come up all the time,” she says. “The programming is very technical, but it’s also very creative.”
How to become a video-game programmer
Growing up in the Indian city of Pune, Chakraverty followed a well-worn path for an ambitious software engineer. After completing a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at D.Y. Patil College of Engineering, also in Pune, she got a job at a multinational company in Mumbai. She left India to pursue a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But as her degree program came to a close in 2001, Chakraverty was undecided about her next move.
“I knew I didn’t want to do traditional IT like building databases or working on networking programs, but I was unsure what else was out there,” she says. That’s when she saw the help-wanted poster for “an intern with some programming knowledge, some math, and some computer science experience.”
Chakraverty had played a few early MS-DOS-based games like Doom and Aladdin at college, but was far from a diehard gamer. The first project she worked on at Atari was the fantasy-themed role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes for the Xbox. She admits she found the content slightly baffling at first. But she was immediately drawn in by how varied and stimulating the work was. She wrote code for a variety of game systems, fixed software bugs, and helped to build tools for the game’s artists and designers.
“Every day was different,” she says.
What sets the video-game industry apart from other programming jobs, Chakraverty says, is the highly iterative nature of the work. If you’re writing a piece of software for a bank, she says, the requirements are gathered at the start of the project and are generally well defined. The architecture the engineers work on generally stays the same from start to finish.
“In the video-game industry, things can pivot six months before the product ships, even though we’ve been working on it for the last five years,” she says.
That’s because game designers often make major changes late in the development process, from rewriting the storyline to ripping out whole levels or adding an entirely new multiplayer mode. The team can cycle through hundreds of versions of the game until they hit on a combination that works. There’s a good reason for that, Chakraverty says. More than anything, video-game designers are searching for that ephemeral “fun factor” that can make playing the game so rewarding. And that requires a lot of prototyping and a lot of reinvention on the fly.
Iteration is crucial in video-game design
Typically a video-game project starts with the team throwing together a few rough-and-ready first drafts to make sure the concept works. Once that crucial fun factor has been found, the real development work begins. Much of the early code gets tossed out when the programmers begin work on the real game, Chakraverty says.
As different elements of a game are pieced together, from specific levels to the way fighting between combatants works, designers assess whether they are improving the game or just introducing more complexity.
The work itself is technically challenging. It’s “hardcore C++ programming,” she says, something most developers learn at university but don’t always get the chance to put into practice. And everything has to be optimized for the tight performance constraints of a gaming console.
A user interface specialist
After landing a job at the Montreal office of Ubisoft in 2008, Chakraverty began to specialize in user interface design. The interfaces are the host of menus and head-up display elements that players use to navigate through the game. They provide a crucial link between the underlying game systems and the information displayed to the player on the screen. This has to be done as intuitively as possible, Chakraverty says.
At Ubisoft, she also got her first taste of working in large teams, contributing to blockbusters like Assassin’s Creed 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction.
“We’re here because we want to have fun making entertainment for millions of people across the globe. Just the thought of that is very exciting.”
“On smaller teams, you get more exposure to stuff because you have more responsibility,” she says. Projects at the smaller companies tend to be smaller in scale.
At larger studios, projects can stretch for years, and the systems being built are more complex and interesting. The roles and responsibilities are more defined, Chakraverty says, which means “you don’t get to wear so many different hats. But you’re also working alongside the best in the industry, and there’s more opportunity for learning and network building. That’s a critical part of getting ahead.
“There’s never a time where you feel like you know enough,” she adds.
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has not always been smooth sailing. “Some companies are still boys’ clubs,” she says.
But things are changing fast, she adds, and the industry is very different compared to when she started out more than 20 years ago.
While there’s still a long way to go to diversify technical teams, she notes that areas like production and art, as well as more business-focused departments like marketing and finance are far more inclusive.
Chakraverty says her experiences have made her passionate about mentoring and helping younger generations of engineers recognize their skills and advocate for themselves, something she thinks women in particular are often not taught to do.
Wherever you end up, Chakraverty says, a career in video games can be uniquely rewarding.
“It’s a fun job,” she says. “We’re here because we want to have fun making entertainment for millions of people across the globe. Just the thought of that is very exciting.”