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  • No More IT for Me: How One Tech Vet Became a Game Programmer

    - Robert Madsen
  •  This is the story of how a 25-year IT veteran was able to break into the game industry. It is proof that all game programmers are not under the age of 25.

    Looking back over the last five years, I still can't believe that what started as a wild fantasy, somewhere up there with "I want to be an astronaut," has actually turned into a reality. Everyday, I pinch myself to make sure it hasn't been a dream.

    Ancient Programming
    I started programming in 1979. Yes, I'm that old. Yes, they had computers then. And yes, I did write my first program on punched cards.

    I got my start in computing in a large IBM mainframe shop and have been variously employed in computers ever since. I taught myself Basic on a PDP 11/34 computer back in the day and have since programmed in Cobol, Fortran, C, C++, Visual Basic, Java, Python, and a few other variants of those languages. My core languages are Visual Basic and C++.

    I climbed the corporate ranks, holding jobs in programming, technical writing, data security, and disaster recovery. In 1993, I took a leap and went independent. For the next 15 years, I sold myself to whoever would pay for my coding pleasure. That meant I got to do a lot of database design, school projects, and other stuff that was real interesting. Really.

    Although I enjoyed my 29-year tenure as an application programmer, the time comes when an old programmer looks back on his life and asks, "What have I really accomplished?" In fact, I asked myself this question and the answer was I had helped a lot of people, but I never got to do what I loved, the thing that originally got me interested in programming in the first place. That's right: games.

    Games in 1979 were great! We had Advent, Trek, and my all-time favorite Tripe (if anyone knows where to find Tripe let me know). Even playing those simple games, I realized that I could use computers to create my own worlds! Unfortunately, in 1979 there was no way to actually make a living at programming games, so I became an application programmer and you've already heard the rest of that story.

    E3 Changed My Life
    In 2003, my son Stephen announced that he had finally decided what he wanted to pursue as a career. At the time he was 16-years old and had become an avid video game player. He showed me an article in a magazine that told how you could actually turn your love of video games into a career.

    We began researching the game industry together to find out about schooling and the best way for him to pursue this goal. Immediately, a spark lit up inside me as well, but I didn't think much of it.

    My son told me about this awesome conference called E3 that was all about games. He talked about how cool it would be to go there, but that it was only open to the industry. I checked it out. Because I owned my own software company, it wasn't too difficult to get access to E3, and in May 2005 we were in the car driving to Los Angeles from our home in Grand Junction, Colorado.

    E3 was a religious experience. As soon as I walked through the doors, I said to myself, "I've got to get into this!" E3 was better than Disneyland. For three days, I received a crash course in the current state of video games and I realized that my tech skills were far behind the times.

    Taking Action
    My E3 epiphany inspired me to take action. I swore to myself that I would break into video game development one way or another. I began reading every book I could find on the current state of game programming, game design, game anything! I signed up on every game related web site, and began reading every issue of Game Developer magazine.

    At first, it was very daunting. Although I consider myself an expert programmer in the business world, I had never seen anything like game programming. Even worse, most of my experience was using Visual Basic and web scripting languages. Although I knew C++, my skill set was rusty and knew I was going to have to bring myself up to speed.

    I began writing programs -- any program -- in C++. I followed examples I was reading in books. I took online courses in game programming. I began helping students online with C++ homework. Since my current business environment didn't demand that I code in C++, I made ways to do it myself.

    In the meantime, my son had been accepted and enrolled in the game development program at Full Sail Real World Education in Orlando. This gave me a great opportunity. He siphoned information and materials my way, and I was able to help him as he learned programming.

    In 2007, after a due period of mourning the demise of E3-as-we-knew-it, my son and I attended the E 4 All conference in Los Angeles. Stephen had just graduated from Full Sail and was looking for a job, so I signed us both up for the Game Career Seminar that was being hosted at the conference.

    Although I was still pursuing my self-inflicted game education, I had begun to see it more as a hobby than anything else. I mean, who would want to hire some old guy? I attended the Career Seminar more to support my son's efforts than anything else.


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