The founder of Leeds-based Weaseltron Entertainment on his unique career in games & what it takes to succeed in the industry.
Computer games programmer Adrian Hirst graduated with a BSc in Computer Science and an MSc in Computer Graphics and Virtual Environments from Hull, before going on to build an impressive career in the games industry.
He’s been instrumental in the graphics and systems programming on more than 17 published games, including 7 number 1 titles. In a varied career, he’s worked on: Colin McRae Rally, the DiRT franchise, Burnout: Paradise, LA Noire and Grand Theft Auto V.
I have followed a slightly different path to most people. Most people do a degree, get a job and move around two or three times. I’ve worked in small teams and large teams, on small games and large games, working as an employee, a contractor and an employer, so I have a good range of experience within the UK games industry.
I did my undergraduate at Hull in 1996, back when they had just invented computers and they didn’t work very well. The fastest home internet modem was 28kbps – which is pretty slow. You probably wouldn’t be able to play YouTube on that. Then I did the masters course, which was absolutely fantastic. I still say it was probably one of, if not the best, year of my life. I was learning the things I’d been trying to learn at home. I worked all the hours God sent just because I was really enjoying it. I made an online 3D space multiplayer game work on a 28k modem and there were some great tutors.
The masters course set me up fantastically because there were very few games or graphic courses around. At Hull the focus was on games programming – giving graduates a solid foundation to move into graduate programmer roles.
The games industry is extremely competitive and only the most talented and motivated get to choose their career. I don’t necessarily think you need to be the smartest or have the best grades, as long as you really want to succeed. When I’m hiring, I look at the person, not just the qualifications. It’s important that the person you hire is the person who is able to learn as the subject is continually evolving.
One thing I’ve learned is that your knowledge is your job security. Keeping an up-to-date skillset is the best way of ensuring you can find work. Skilled professionals have always been in high demand. Knowledge and the ability to apply it is king.
One of the advantages of being in a small team is that everybody does a bit of everything. In a small team, you can’t get away with giving less than 100%. When you work in a team of four or five people, everything is everybody’s problem and this accelerates your learning. Keeping a view of the big picture rather than focusing on just a smaller element has helped me to develop skills and take on more senior project roles.
I network and I keep in touch with people I’ve worked with. When I launched Weaseltron Entertainment, I hired three or four people I’d met at Sony and Hull University. I’d strongly advise you to keep in touch with people you meet at university and places where you work because they spread out and get other jobs. They also know people who might be able to help you get your next job.
Making games is hard but rewarding. I’ve worked on some of the biggest games ever released. They were really challenging, but they were really rewarding. It’s great to finish a game and be really proud of what you achieved in that project. When those games are well received by the media and the players it’s even better.
I really enjoy working with talented people on large projects. Talented people tend to gravitate towards large projects and other talented people. If you’re working with the best then there’s always something you can learn.
Technical art can make a huge difference. There’s definitely a scope for artists to learn the technical side and for programmers to learn more of the artistic and content creation side of things. However, you can’t learn everything at university. As an undergraduate, it’s probably best to specialise in games programming or games art. Those are the roles that most companies recruit into, so jobs will go to graduates in their respective specialisation.
When you’ve been working on games for 20 years, you don’t actually play as many games as you used to play. You don’t have as much spare time as you do when you are younger but can still make time to play the biggest and best.
Weaseltron is a boutique code studio. We are setting ourselves up to just do code. We are not going to be making big games on our own but do partner with other studios to work on larger projects. We focus on the technical aspects of games, the graphics, systems and performance. Rather than just working inside existing engines like Unreal and Unity, we get our hands dirty writing our own highly-optimised engines. These skills are becoming harder to find in the industry and as a result they are becoming more valuable. If you want to work on the best games, you will probably need to work on custom engines, as a quick look through the best-selling games sales on any given week might tell you. We think that focusing on having a team heavily weighted in experience is unusual in the industry. It allows us to work on better projects. It also makes us a great place for graduates to learn their trade.
We are learning lessons from the various studios and many projects we have worked on in our careers. Working on lots of projects has been really useful. You can find a new way of tackling the same problem with each codebase you work with. Doing conversions has been particularly good for this because you get a lot of coverage over large parts of the code base.
Hiring people who have the coolest, prettiest, tidiest CV is not equal to hiring the best people for the job. I totally appreciate that the best programmer isn’t necessarily great at writing Microsoft Word documents. That doesn’t matter to us. Sometimes it can be really hard to put what you’re trying to say into words. I’ve found getting someone else to phrase this for you can help you get over the feeling that you’re being boastful. Also, having a personal demo and being able to prove that you’ve an interest in programming outside of your qualification makes a huge difference when it comes to making yourself stand out.