A Good Life Synthesizing the Artistic and the Technical

A hugely popular form of entertainment, video gaming is currently a nearly $50 billion worldwide industry that experts predict will overtake the music industry in sales by the end of 2011. This is true in no small part because gaming, contrary to popular belief, is something we all seem to do. No longer the exclusive domain of teenaged boys, video games are played by twice as many 18-49 year olds as teenagers and 40% of all gamers are women.  What is it about video games that make them so popular? For Dave Burke, UBC CS Masters’ program graduate and co-creator of the award-winning game Osmos, that’s an easy answer. “Games are designed to be fun, to have pleasing feedback and reward mechanisms, and they’re designed so that the players will be successful. Life’s a lot more vague and long-term and incremental.” In short, he notes, “Games are easier than life!”

This isn’t to say that creating video games is easy, nor that the process is as satisfying minute-to-minute for the game developer as for the player. “Lots of people say, ‘Hey, video games are great! Gosh, it must be a blast to be a game designer!’ Dave notes. “But they say that without really understanding the day-to-day that goes into game-making. As a game designer, you spend a huge chunk of your time playing a game that’s incomplete and therefore broken or not fun yet. So it’s only in the end game, hopefully, ideally, that it becomes fun and pleasant and enjoyable and pretty and all of that stuff.” Nevertheless, the process of visualizing a game and working with the creative team that brings the game to life is amply rewarding. “The thing that I like about games is that it’s a marriage between the creative and the technical. You’re building something; you’re crafting something. You spend your day with creative types: artists, level designers, animators. It’s nice cross-breed between the technical and the artistic.”

As CS grad students often do, Dave entered computer science through the side doors of physics and mathematics, which he studied at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown. Realizing by the end of his third year at UPEI that a career in physics wasn’t for him, he made the switch to computer science by taking some CS courses in his last year and then applying to graduate schools. Such a switch isn’t at all uncommon for physics and math majors. By the end of their time as undergrads, for example, some students find that contemplating a career as a physicist or mathematician isn’t quite what they’re interested in, or they otherwise view an academic career as untenable. Dave finds that this is often a topic of discussion among physicists and mathematicians, who rue their colleagues’ departures to CS departments or to the world of finance, two areas that seem to poach the most frequently into their terrain. When Dave looked at various CS programs, he was drawn to UBC. “I was accepted to other schools in the U.S. and Canada, but got my warmest response from the people at UBC. The campus was beautiful as well. I hadn’t lived on the west coast before, so it was a nice combination of the warmth of the folks there and the city. I decided on UBC and it ended up being really terrific.”

Dave entered the CS Masters’ program in the fall of 2001 and found it enjoyable from the start. For one, he thought the relationship between professors and students was excellent. At a lot of larger universities, professors often devote considerable time to their labs and research at the expense of time with students. “That wasn’t the case at UBC,” Dave notes. “The research and working with researchers was great.” Entering the program with an NSERC grant for AI research, Dave soon switched into the IMAGER graphics labs and began working with Michiel van de Panne and Wolfgang Heidrich. To him, they were examples of the excellent relationship between CS profs and their students.  “Michiel and Wolfgang were awesome guys, strong researchers and also interpersonally great: responsive, present, interested, accessible, helpful.”

Dave also loved being exposed to the critical mass of keen, interested students in the program and the energy that resulted from those relationships. “Hanging around with professors and students, walking around, looking at what they’re doing and being in that creative, collective environment” made the program such a standout in his mind.  Spending time with colleagues didn’t happen only on campus. Dave recalls with real warmth how he and three other grad students ended up renting a house. (For the profile of one of Dave’s housemates, see here). “These were a bunch of people who were smart, talented keeners. We did a lot together that extended beyond UBC and the department. We went climbing together. We enjoyed good food and beer together. A lot of those relationships have persisted to this day. One of those friends is my business partner, Eddy Boxerman.”

The program offered Dave the space to complete coursework, engage with his own projects, and synch up with the research interests of department professors. Though he started his thesis on animation, as he progressed through the program he became interested in rendering and lighting techniques and these became the backbone of his thesis. A few months before graduation, thesis in hand, Dave approached several of the big gaming companies: Epic Games, Valve, Bioware (a division of EA), id Software, and Pixar.

Catching the eye of Epic Games of Raleigh, North Carolina, Dave was hired as a game engine designer in 2005 and for three years he worked on games like Unreal and Unreal Tournament. He and his team also developed Unreal Engine 3, the game development software package and tool set that Epic licenses to other developers. Dave really enjoyed working at Epic, which he describes as a company that makes solid games and game development software. But there was a problem. “The games Epic was making were fairly typical. You know, you’re a space Marine and you’re shooting aliens.” In December of 2008, Dave left Epic “in an existential funk, having hit what many in the games world would consider to be the ceiling in terms of income and freedom at work and all of that.” He took a year off and then at the end of 2009 he hooked up again with Eddy Boxerman, who had been developing a game called Osmos on the side while working for Montreal software developer Ubisoft.

This proved to be a fabulous meetup between the friends. Eddy was in the process of polishing Osmos and he looked to Dave for some help in finalizing the adjustments he was making to the game. For six weeks, the two worked on the game and then submitted it to the Independent Games Festival, a festival for gamers organized along the lines of independent film festivals. Nominated for several awards,Osmos won the D2D Vision Award at the February 2009 IGF. And with that, the game took off and has been a success in the market ever since.

Described by a reviewer of the iPad version as “achingly beautiful,”Osmos has a look and feel that’s radically different from the majority of today’s games. Dave says, “It’s a thinking game but it’s also a very atmospheric game. The game is dreamlike and the visuals are soft and translucent. It was built in such a way that if you try to play it aggressively and too hastily you will be less successful than if you go with the flow and be a little bit more deliberate and intentional. The game was built that way. That’s fairly countercultural in the world of video games where most of the time you’re shooting or whacking things or jumping around as quickly as you can. People have been responding to that incredibly favourably.”

Realizing the potential in Osmos, Dave and Eddy shortly after the 2009 IGF began linking up with other talented collaborators who could help refine and expand Osmos’ reach, which today they market through Hemisphere Games. Aaron Barsky, another UBC CS grad, came on board to create the company’s iPad and iPhone versions of Osmos. An example of how the Internet has transformed the nature of workplaces, Hemisphere today is a true telecommuter’s office, with Dave located in Toronto, Eddy in Nelson, B.C., and Aaron in Vancouver. Although they occasionally get together in the same physical location to brainstorm and spin out new prototypes for the company, the three enjoy the flexibility that this kind of working arrangement allows. Working and living this way is a lifestyle that Dave and his wife Melissa share with many of their self-employed friends, and he notes that living in the city’s core, not the suburbs, and working for themselves and not a corporation allows them a lot of flexibility and creativity. Though he tends to spend a lot of time on the computer, “even when I’m not working on Osmos,” Dave does enjoy playing board games, especially chess, hosting friends, and playing together with Melissa in the Toronto band The Most Loyals. “We have a pretty great life,” he says with evident warmth.

These days, Dave, Eddy and Aaron spend a good deal of time refining Osmos and preparing it for new markets. Dave estimates he spends roughly one-third of his time on Osmos-related products, determining new distribution methods and ways to monetize the game. Now fully out on PC, Mac, iPhone and iPad versions, Osmos will be released for the Android in December 2011. The team is also working on a multi-player version of the game and is developing a new game as well.

Dave has career advice for students coming up through CS programs like UBC’s. He notes that it’s important to look both at the purely academic side of coursework offerings and at the more project-based or applied side as well. Both have intrinsic value for the student and potential employers. In some fields, specific technical expertise is required. As an example, Dave has a friend who runs a company attached to the University of Toronto. The company has been hiring U of T postdocs who have published papers and who have specific technical knowledge. This is likewise true in a field such as electronic circuit design, a technically complex undertaking. The circuit designers at Intel, for example, all likely have PhDs. Then there are the engineering folks who do the machining for chip design processes, for which PhDs aren’t required.        

Creating products for the consumer marketplace starts with “academic products, the papers, the research and the algorithms.” These in turn are used to create “the stuff that people buy and download into their computers, like Photoshop image processing algorithms or 3D software or photo manipulation software.” Dave’s background in academic physics, math, and computer graphics has been hugely helpful in the development of Osmos. Likewise, Eddy has a background in physics. That said, in graphics, gaming and the part of the film industry that employs CS grads, Dave also notes that potential employers are interested in seeing if the student has more than just “book learning.” “One of the benefits of having a masters degree is that it can to some extent take the place of work experience. But the game and graphics project that became my thesis was the number one thing that employers were most interested in. I’ve done some hiring myself in the past, and I feel that while it’s great to see someone with some paper qualifications, ultimately what you want to know is, ‘What have you done?’ You want to see that someone has created something to which their name can be attached, where they can say, ‘I’m personally responsible forthis.’”  For undergrads and grads, this can come in the form of a project or portfolio that can be submitted to prospective employers as graduation nears.

Ultimately, Dave feels, it really boils down to what the student wants from his or her career. “As a potential student you might want to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to have a more research-oriented career or do I want to have a more building-oriented career or some kind of hybrid of the two?’ And it’s hard to answer that question before you actually get your feet wet, both personally in terms of learning and doing your own projects and also at school. You know, you go to school, you take a few classes, you see what sticks to the wall and then go down the path makes sense for you in terms of your interests.” If that seems like a daunting challenge, Dave also counsels self-patience and the virtues of looking ahead just as far as you can see. “Don’t get too fussed about not seeing the 10-year path. Maybe you’re just looking at the half-year path, and that’s just fine.”