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Gamer of the Moment: Jon Shiring (Modern Warfare 2 Programmer)

Welcome to the return of ‘Gamer of the Moment’ where we provide you with an insight into the life, minds and thoughts of random gamers from around the world, but our featured gamer this month is certainly no ordinary gamer. To kick start the return of this great feature for 2010, Xboxic has interviewed Jon Shiring, a programmer within the video games industry who has worked on the Call of Duty franchise for Infinity Ward, putting his mark on some of the world’s biggest selling games of all time. Below, Jon discusses his entry into the world of programming, his hobbies, thoughts on ‘Project Natal’ and his future plans since parting ways with Infinity Ward this month.

Q1: When was the moment you knew you wanted a career in the video games industry?

Well the first time was when I went to a friend’s house in 4th grade and played King’s Quest III. It just blew my mind. We didn’t have a computer then, and I started lobbying my parents to buy one. I got into doing ANSI graphics and made quite a bit of money doing ads for BBS’s, and that eventually lead to me running an art group called iCE Advertisements.

But that’s not to say that I worked nonstop from 3rd grade and eventually got a job in games. I promise, this all ties together. I graduated with a CS degree in 2000, which was dot-com high times. Back then I knew John Carmack worked in games, and he is scary smart, and so I assumed that to work in games I would have to be as smart as John Carmack, so I kind of let the dream drift away without even trying to achieve them.

So I worked at a couple dot coms, the second of which I despised. During that time I talked to one of the old iCE artists (Rogue Leader), who told me he just accepted a job as an artist working from home on a game. I jokingly asked if they needed a programmer who had no game experience - and the answer was yes. I worked from home in Virginia for a year, eventually moving out to California and shipped Savage: The Battle for Newerth with about 6 other guys in a tiny office.

Q2: What are the perks and pitfalls of being a video game programmer?

I guess it depends on your priorities. It’s the only thing I want to do, so I kind of accept it as a package. I get to work on games that I love and make millions of people happy. Even on days where I worked long hours, I would still come home and read gaming sites and play games. It isn’t exactly a choice I made to be obsessed with games - it’s just who I am. Maybe that’ll change someday if my priorities shift and other things are more important, but for now, this is all I want to do.

That said, let’s talk perks and pitfalls. The perk for me is that you get to work on games, and that’s what I love. People say that talking about your job at parties is a perk, but in reality it’s not really. Women at social gatherings generally aren’t familiar with my games, and so it’s a more often than not a conversation killer. So in reality you get dudes telling you their gripes about your games - it’s not the worst thing, but it’s not the super rockstar perk that people talk about. It has actually gotten me out of a speeding ticket, as I’m lucky enough to have worked on games that are incredibly popular among the finest members of our law enforcement system (the officer asked me what I do for a living because I had a mohawk, I promise I didn’t bring it up to him) :)

I think stress is a major pitfall that is rarely discussed - I’ve seen coworkers have major health problems dealing with the stress of making big games. I have laid awake many a night at 3am with my mind racing - not in productive ways - just wondering if I forgot about anything as the game gets closer to shipping. Now you could dismiss that as something that only big developers worry about, but the truth is that when I was at S2 working on Savage I was just as stressed. We were fighting to get press coverage, get the game done, argue about the design, making sure servers could handle it, etc. It is just a stressful job. Your game needs to work smoothly on launch day, as more and more game sales and reviews are coming on that one day. There’s no chance for a do-over.

Q3: What is your earliest childhood gaming memory?

Other than the King’s Quest memory, I guess playing Rygar at a sleepover with friends as a kid on our NES. The game was very very difficult and we all took turns passing around the controller as we stayed up most of the night.

Q4: If you had sole creative control over designing any video game of your choice - what kind of game would it be?

I’m not a good designer and I wouldn’t want that role. I don’t think I have the grand vision to pull off anything amazing - but I’m a decent sounding board and every now and then I come up with some ideas to give the designers and watch them run with it. That’s about as close as I get to being a designer. I’m a good programmer and I love working with a team of gifted artists, animators, riggers, designers, sound guys, and producers to make a great game.

Q5: Excluding any titles that you have worked on, what is your favorite Xbox 360 game right now, and what future releases are you excited about?

My favorite 360 game right now would be Assassin’s Creed 2. You need to buckle down and make it past the bad beginning, but after that the game really takes off. Also Shadow Complex was awesome, Forza 3 was great, and Rock Band is always fun.

I’m really excited for Fallout: New Vegas and Alan Wake.

Q6: What advice would you give to any gamer wishing to get into programming within the video game industry?

Well I’m assuming you’re already programming. If you haven’t naturally been drawn to doing coding, then it’s probably not the right path for you. So, assuming you enjoy writing code, let’s talk about getting into the industry.

Just because Carmack works in games doesn’t mean you need to be his equal to work in games. If you can write solid code that doesn’t have bugs, then there’s nothing stopping you from having a job in games somewhere. If you’re good at C/C++, then you’ll probably want to apply as a programmer. If you’re more of a higher level language guy (python, lua, etc.) then you might want to consider applying to be a scripter.

When getting your application together, remember that a programmer will look at your application. So put yourself in their shoes - you need to think about what YOU would value when looking at hiring someone. Would you care a lot about what school they went to if they also gave you a game they wrote to check out? Does knowing that they’re proficient with Microsoft Office sway your decision?

Write your resume for a programmer to read, and give them a demo. The time right now is so easy for demos - get a game on the iPhone/iPad store and tell them to download it. Or give them an XNA app to run. I promise, coders won’t give a crap about the quality of the art in your game, but we are going to look at how much you cared, if there are bugs, etc. We want passionate people. We also want people who have good instincts - so if the demo runs and requires key presses, but has no help screen to tell you what to hit, or it crashes when you minimize it, it’s a sign that you don’t care enough or aren’t skilled enough. So care and make sure it comes across in what you send out.

Q7: Apart from gaming, do you have any other hobbies or interests?

Between working, gaming, spending time with my wife and our dog and cat, and time with friends, I have to say I have become less well-rounded over time. I do like to go driving, I love hiking in the hills around LA, and I love a good microbrew or a great bottle of wine. My wife and I go to a lot of comic conventions since she works for Marvel, and that ends up being a bit of a hobby for me. I’m flying to Calgary this Friday for the Calgary Comic Expo in fact - come and say hi! I’ll be on one panel about games, and I’ll be at Christina Strain’s table in artist’s alley (Booth F 05) the rest of the time.

Q8: What are your thoughts on the upcoming ‘Project Natal’ device?

I have to say I’m not really sold on it yet, but that’s not entirely fair because we haven’t seen their games yet. I believe E3 will make or break it. Natal must be very, very accurate in both the speech recognition and the gesture recognition for me not to be frustrated by it, and that’s something I’ll be keenly looking for at E3. And latency has to be low.

It’s quite possible they’ll show off some games that will look like a ton of fun to me - I’m approaching their press conference with an open mind. It’s also possible that it’ll only appeal to people who don’t already own a 360, and current customers like myself will yawn and be annoyed that game stores will give more space to Natal demos and less space for the games we want to buy. Personally, I’m really hoping that they succeed and wow me with new possibilities for games.

Q9: Since you first started as part of the development team on the Call of Duty franchise, did you ever imagine that it would be as huge a success as it is today - because with your work going into that process with the rest of the team it must feel quite an achievement?

Well, I didn’t imagine it would be as big as it is today. But I mean everyone on the team loved the games we made - so we didn’t expect it to be small, either. Just selling the number of copies that we’ve sold, hearing people talk about the games on late night talk shows, and hearing random people talk about the game when you walk around is really awesome. After CoD4 came out I was walking behind some young college guys who were looking at a girl and one of the guys said, “UAV is online.” I almost ruined their covert ops by laughing. That’s a great payoff for years of hard work!

I am extremely proud of the games I’ve worked on and how much of an impact they have had. We came up with our games ourselves and then executed our vision with very very little outside influence. And so we really felt like we’re the ones responsible for the success and that we can all be very proud of what we’ve done.

Q10: You posted on twitter, information that confirmed you are no longer employed with Infinity Ward, but what are your plans for the future - more programming for video games or are you considering a complete career change?

I’m definitely going to keep programming games. As I said earlier, it’s the only thing I’m interested in doing right now.

ICGamers would like to thank Jon Shiring for his participation in our ‘Gamer of the Moment’ feature and wishes him every success in future projects. Jon can be followed on twitter: @JonShiring and through his website

Gamer of the Moment returns next month where we will be on the look out for other interesting people to feature on the website; if you are active on the forums, follow us on twitter, regularly visit our Facebook Fan Page or simply just bump into us on Xbox LIVE - it could just be you!

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