TDT: ‘Warcraft’ developers talk of worlds to conquer

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Video game production is a labor of love — and a lot of very hard work — according to industry stalwarts and Temple High School grads Jeff Strain and Greg Street.

Before they were celebrated for their work developing World of Warcraft and other popular games, Strain and Street were members of Temple High’s class of 1987, and they held a question and answer session with computer programming students at the high school Friday morning.

A number of 1987 graduates were in Temple this week for their 30th reunion held Friday evening. The class kicked off an eight-month fundraising campaign for Temple schools on Thursday and already had raised half of its $30,000 goal by Friday morning.

Street works as lead games designer for Riot Games. Previously, he was lead systems designer for World of Warcraft at Blizzard Entertainment.

Strain is the founder of Undead Labs, maker of State of Decay. He also previously worked for Blizzard where he was the lead programmer for World of Warcraft.

The questions from students ranged from interest in the technical details of developing video games, to the process of coming up with ideas, to how the speakers got their first big break in the industry.

“My first job at a game company was working at a game company called Age of Empires, which was up in Dallas at the time,” Street said. “I worked there for like 10 years, which is really long in this industry.”

Street became dissatisfied with his job when parent company Microsoft became more actively involved in Age of Empires.

“At the same time, all my friends started playing World of Warcraft,” he said. “I didn’t play, and I was getting really tired of hearing it.”

Street’s friends persuaded him to try the new game, and he was hooked.

“When I was starting to think about where to go next, Blizzard was the obvious place,” he said.

Strain began his career in a completely different line of computer programming.

“I was writing printer drivers for Hewlett Packard,” Strain said. “Hewlett Packard is a great company to work for, but it wasn’t the most exciting work you could imagine. … Greg and I would, in the evenings… (design) our own games together.”

After spending hours every night designing games with his friend, and working a full-time job during the day, Strain’s wife persuaded him that he might need to change careers.

“She said ‘If this is what you love, this is what you should be doing,’” he said. “‘You can’t have two lives, right? If you want to be making games, then just go make games.’”

Street said that he became interested in working for Riot Games after learning about its popular game League of Legends.

“I really love Riot’s focus on players,” he said. “At Blizzard, we were rock stars; we were the VIPs. But at Riot, the players are the VIPs.”

In response to an audience question about industry trends, Street said that cellphone games are becoming more exciting than they once were.

“For a long time, I was not a big purveyor of mobile games,” he said. “I felt like they were being made to attract a different kind of audience, a more casual audience. … More recently I think we’re starting to see what I consider real games, fun games, being made for mobile.”

Strain also said that students interested in going into the video game industry might find growing opportunities in mobile games.

“In terms of emerging trends right now, I’m not as excited about VR (virtual reality) as I am about AR (augmented reality),” Strain said. “Developing expertise there, understanding how the technology works, how the software works … it’s just one of those things, it just opens up all kinds of potential opportunities.”

From the back of the crowd, fellow 1987 alum Brian Floca, who spoke about his career as a children’s book author and illustrator at Thornton Elementary School earlier this week, asked what the students interested in video game careers should start doing now to get into the industry.

“OK, I’m sold, but your life seems so far from my life as a student here in this high school — what do I do now to start getting where you are?” Floca said.

The audience laughed.

“Demonstrate that you can make something — get together with your friends, try to make a mobile game — if you can’t do that, make a board game, make a card game,” Street replied. “Just show on your resume that you’ve taken an idea from the purely conceptual stage all the way to something people can play-test. A lot of times the hardest part of getting the game is like the last 10 percent.”

Strain agreed that making and finishing something is key to getting started in video games as well as in other fields, such as cellphone apps.

“When they see that you’ve actually taken the initiative to make something on your own, it’s a huge differentiator,” he said. “Go make stuff.”