Crispy Gamer

Intern for a Day, Vol. 3: Ready at Dawn

COMPANY VITALS

Founded: 2003
Notable games: Daxter, God of War: Chains of Olympus
Notable software: Ready at Dawn Engine (fully licensable)
Number of employees: Around 60
Location: Irvine, California
Sodas: Always free.

10:42 a.m. It's a rare rainy day in California. I'm on the 405 freeway, and Google Maps has utterly forsaken me. According to my iPhone, I have arrived at my destination. Yet I can't possibly be at my destination, because I am pulled over to the side of the road on a busy off-ramp.

Rain streaks the windshield. An 18-wheeler, air horn blaring, rumbles past my rental car, causing the surface of my cold coffee to ripple like the puddle in "Jurassic Park" does just before the T-Rex arrives.

It's not even 11 a.m. and already this day feels a little bit cursed.

Ready at Dawn Studios

11:05 a.m. After more confusion from Google Maps and cursing, I wind my way through one of those anonymous business parks that pepper the Southern California landscape. You know the type: bland buildings, blank windows and parked cars as far as the eye can see.

Sidewalks always seem ironic in California. I notice them stretching off in various directions around the business park, but of course, I don't see anyone using them. In fact, I don't see any signs of humanity at all. Just rows of parked cars, and blacktop, and buildings, and more rows of parked cars.

Somewhere inside one of these buildings is the team of people who squeezed Kratos onto the PSP, delivering an experience that was every bit as epic as its console cousins (God of War: Chains of Olympus, the sole PSP title of which I actually own two copies. I purchased a second copy for the PSP Go.) They also developed the Nintendo Wii version of Capcom's Okami. They are currently hard at work on a trio of projects that, I'm told, are extremely exciting.

I'm about to meet those people.

11:14 a.m. The office is newly remodeled. It smells of fresh paint and new carpeting. To date, Ready at Dawn has made just two original titles -- Daxter for the PSP, and the aforementioned God of War -- but it is growing. And, if these expansive new offices are any indication, it clearly plans on doing even more growing.

A trophy case stands tall in the lobby with an armful of awards proudly displayed. Strangely, a mover's blanket is still covering the top portion of the case, making it look as if it's been hand-trucked in only moments ago. Who knows. Maybe it was.

Ready at Dawn Studios

11:15 p.m. My first impression of the place: It's dark. No one uses overhead lighting here. I see shapes moving in the shadows, tapping away at keyboards, peering at oversized PCs.

11:16 a.m. Didier Malenfant, president of Ready at Dawn, ushers me into his expansive office. He's clear-eyed and warm and confident. Before founding Ready at Dawn (or RAD), he worked at Interplay, Shiny and, most recently, Naughty Dog. I overhear people refer to him affectionately as "Dids."

He seems terribly calm for an upstart developer, especially considering the difficult year that development studios had in 2009 (R.I.P. GRIN and Pandemic, among others).

We're chatting in his office when a man with Schwarzenegger-caliber arms pokes his torso through the door. A knit cap squeezes his skull. He looks like he just stepped out of the ring after a match with Rey Mysterio. This man does not resemble anyone I have ever seen in a development studio before. I refer to him in my notes as "The Arms."

He asks Didier when he's going to be ready for a meeting.

"In a few minutes," Didier says.

I write in my notebook: "'The Arms' goes away."

Didier tells me that I will be going to lunch shortly with a group of RAD employees. He's chosen a programming director, an artist, a production manager and a camera artist so that I can get a sense of the kind of people who work here. "They'll be testing you to see how well you might fit in with us. Then, after lunch," he tells me, "we'll give you a proper interview."

"Really?" I ask.

"Really," he says.

Ready at Dawn Studios

We talk a bit about the makeup of the company. RAD was founded by former Naughty Dog and Blizzard employees. The company's informal mission statement -- "to make fun games that a lot of people want to play" (it actually says this on the Web site) -- hasn't changed since the company's inception in 2003.

Two more things that stand out from the company's mission statement (which you can read on the site):

1. "We are so much in touch with our 'inner child' that sometimes we have trouble locating our 'outer child.'"

2. "The best way to turn a good idea into a great game is to evolve it, draw it, hate it, shape it, demolish it, eat it, tune it, resent it, forget it, sing it, insult it, love it, live it with friends."

Didier says that there's no ill will toward RAD's former employers. "We didn't build this company to 'seek revenge' or anything," he says. "In fact, when we have new games come out, Naughty Dog and Blizzard both insist on going out and purchasing their own copies of our games to show their support for us."

Suddenly, the Arms appears again. "Ready now?" he asks Didier.

"I'm coming."

"Now?"

"Yes, now."

The Arms goes away again.

"That's Andrea," Didier says, smiling. "He doesn't like deviations from his schedule."

That's when I realize that "Andrea" is Andrea Pessino, VP of technology, cofounder of RAD, and a former Blizzard software engineer. Translation: The man helped build the core technology for Warcraft.

"Andrea," Didier says soberly, "is the one who'll be interviewing you later."

I can't tell if he's joking.

For some reason, my palms are suddenly sweating.

As Didier introduces me to the RAD employees who I'll be eating with, he says to them, "Take him to Subway, but only let him get the six-inch. If he wants the foot-long, he has to pay the difference."

Once again, I can't tell if he's joking.

Ready at Dawn Studios

12:22 p.m. I squeeze into a small car with a group of RAD employees. We're a little behind schedule thanks to that Google Maps screw-up from earlier. Everyone is really nice except for a guy named Tony who says, "So you're the reason I'm hungry right now."

A strip mall appears on our left. I notice a string of fast-food places, including the aforementioned Subway. "That's where we typically eat," someone says, pointing at the strip mall. "We call it 'The Food Court of Indecision.'"

We speed past the Food Court of Indecision. Whew. Didier was only joking. Ah, Didier, you old leg-puller, you.

We pull into a restaurant further down the street called The Counter, which is apparently an upscale chain of build-your-own-hamburger places. As we wait for our table to be prepared, I listen to the RAD employees chat about my upcoming interview with Andrea.

"Oh man, I feel sorry for you."

"Come on, it's not that hard."

"Seriously? You think Andrea's questions aren't hard?"

"Well, they're hard. But they're not impossible."

"What? Of the last six programmers we tried to hire, zero out of six passed the first two questions."

And there it is: the old palm-sweat again.

From what I can deduce from the conversation, this is how Ready at Dawn interviews typically go down: First, there is a phone interview. If I make it through the phone interview, I will be invited into the office. Once in the office, Andrea and his massive arms will ask me two questions. If I make it through Andrea and the two questions, I will be asked to lunch with the founders. If I make it through lunch, I will be given an offer immediately.

"They don't fool around with this 'we'll be in touch' stuff," someone says. "If they like you, they'll say so and make an offer right away."

Of course, this is all totally fake; I'm here for a story, not a job. I'm nervous anyway. I want Andrea and his massive protein-shake-consuming arms to be happy. More than that, I don't want to look like a goddamn fool in front of these people.

And even more than that, I want these people to like me.

Because I like it when people like me.

I find myself drifting off, enjoying a fantasy that Andrea and Didier (or "Dids," as I call him in my fantasy) will say, "Look, we know you're a writer, but man, you're so cool, come work with us!"

12:44 p.m. We're shown to our table. Two of the guys -- production director Marc Turndorf and camera artist Chad Verrall -- decide to split a shake. When the waiter takes their order, Marc says, "We'd like one shake to split, and you can make exactly one joke on that subject."

I write in my notes, "These guys are funny."

@@
1:18 p.m. Our hamburgers arrive. Mine sits in front of me. I poke at it. I don't feel hungry. All I can see looming in front of me are THE TWO QUESTIONS. I wonder if Andrea's left arm asks one of the questions and his right arm asks the other question.

I picture arms talking. My appetite vanishes completely. Poof.

I learn more about Andrea. I learn that he is obsessed with the television show "Friends," and that he is not the slightest bit self-conscious about this fact, and that he often quotes from the show. I learn that he is a creature of habit. He ate at Chipotle every day in the Food Court of Indecision for four months straight, until one day he decided his meal was too salty. He never went back. He is currently enjoying a new obsession with California Pizza Kitchen. He recently transformed himself through diet and exercise and willpower into the physical specimen he now is. "You wouldn't recognize him from a few years ago," programming director Garret Foster says. "He just looked like a totally normal guy back then."

I change the subject. I ask the RAD employees to tell me the absolute worst games they worked on before coming to RAD. They mull this over, then begin talking among themselves.

"Minority Report."

"Oh man, that was bad."

"Bratz."

Hoots go up.

"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."

"That was so bad too."

"It could have been good, but it was terrible."

"At least it's an interesting IP."

"If it's an interesting IP, why did things go wrong?" I ask.

"Pfft. Short production cycle and no budget," Tony says.

"Brother Bear."

More hoots.

Then Turndorf says, "The Game Boy Advance version of Iron Man."

Again, hoots.

Turndorf still clearly feels some allegiance to the game, and comes to its defense. "OK, it was bad, but we only had only four months to work on it," he says. "In fact, I'd argue that Iron Man had a better month-to-quality ratio than Chains of Olympus." [Editor's note: He means months-spent-working-on-the-game-to-quality-of-the-final-product ratio. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what he means.]

Everyone considers this for a minute. They're all extremely proud of the work they did on Chains of Olympus. "We busted our asses on that game," Tony says. In fact, Turndorf tells a quick story about how RAD was forced to show an early version of the game to get a review in a prominent game magazine that shall remain unnamed. "[Chains] was still buggy as hell, and we were missing cut scenes and voice work and all kinds of things," he says. "It wasn't finished, but we showed it anyway. They gave us a nine out of 10."

A nine out of 10 is, of course, a terrific score. But it's obvious that the RAD team will forever be haunted by question of whether or not it might have gotten that elusive, all-important missing point had the magazine actually reviewed a finished version of the game.

These guys still feel that missing point in their guts.

There's some general grousing around the table for a few minutes. It's clear they're still trying to make their peace with the never knowing.

Everyone seems terribly proud of the new mystery projects RAD is currently working on. They seem to really get off on the fact that they are no longer working on the shit games that they had to work on for other development houses in the past.

I ask, "What if we go back to the office and Didier calls a meeting and says, 'Look, we just got contracted to work on a new Wii game called Funnest Games Ever, and it has to have a lumberjack mini-game in it, as well as a pie-making mini-game and needle-point mini-game. What would you do?"

Groans.

Tony quietly says, "I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd get my resume together and get the hell out of there."

Everyone agrees. These guys have endured Andrea's daunting Two Questions. They made it through "Lunch With Founders." They got their on-the-spot offers. And the payoff is that now that Didier and Andrea (and the third founder, Ru Weerasuriya, another ex-Blizzard employee who I wouldn't meet until later that evening) owe it to these guys to make sure that they work on only top notch, A-1 projects.

We go back to eating. Ice teas are drained. Marc and Chad enjoy their lovers' milkshake. Rain falls against the restaurant windows.

Ready at Dawn Studios

2:11 p.m. Back at the office, I'm told to go into the conference room. This is where I will get my chance to answer the Two Questions.

I look around like a gladiator entering the arena.

Andrea is late. Marc jokes about the fact that Andrea being late makes this faux interview "just that much more authentic." (Andrea being late to the interview is a common thing.)

I sit and wait.

A pair of white, blank, dry-erase boards hang on the wall like a pair of close-set eyes. The room feels over-lit. I loosen my collar. Marc waits with me. Didier walks in. He's with a strange, thin man. The man has an inscrutable name badge and an odd little beard. He's a writer from the Italian version of Wired, and he's going to sit in on my Two Questions interview. Didier sits down too.

Just great.

Confession: I've always had a fear of being exposed as a fraud or a fake. All my life, I've been waiting for a tap on the shoulder, waiting for someone to say, "Look, we're not really sure how you made it this far, given your extremely limited skill set, but the jig is up. You are completely unqualified for this life."

I wonder if the long-dreaded shoulder-tap moment is now imminent. I wonder if the shoulder tapper looks a whole lot like Andrea.

2:24 p.m. He appears, looking distracted and more menacing than ever. His arms appear to have grown exponentially since the morning. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't bother with conventional doors but instead traveled from room to room by bursting through walls like the Kool-Aid man.

Andrea does absolutely nothing to put me at ease. He's clearly relishing the drama of it all, enjoying his role in this. He's affable but guarded. I feel like he's always on the cusp of saying, "I was only fooling with you." But he never does.

Andrea throws a quick math problem at me. Something like, "What's two to the eighth power?" I can feel everyone in the room looking at me, waiting for an answer. I notice a smirk forming in the little beard of the Italian journalist.

"144," I say.

That's when I see it; it's very subtle -- an eyebrow raises; there's a shift in posture -- but make no mistake: Andrea is thrown for a moment. I've thrown him off his game.

"Wait a second, no. That's wrong," he says.

Didier laughs and points at me. "I know his type. He says something confidently, and we almost believe him."

"You were close," Didier says suspiciously. He gives me the real answer. He's not kidding; I really was close. "And I like the confidence," he says. I think, The Arms has one-percent more respect for me now. It's not much, but it's something.

If this is David and Goliath, then David just got the tiniest bit lucky.

I listen intently to Andrea. I try to lob a few more confident statements Andrea's way. But it's futile. Things aren't going my way. During a particularly tense moment in Andrea's quizzing of me, the sound of a motorcycle revving up -- brraaaapppp, BBRRRAAAAAAPPPP -- is suddenly coming from somewhere in the room.

Andrea, looking perturbed, pulls his cell phone from his pocket. The motorcycle rev is his ringtone. (Motorcycles, like "Friends" and California Pizza Kitchen, are another obsession of his.)

Marc Turndorf is giggling in the corner. He's quietly dialed Andrea mid-question, apparently in the name of making the interview/Two Questions that much more authentic. ("Andrea's phone always rings during this part," Turndorf later explains.)

Without divulging specifics about what happens after this -- the Two Questions are a closely guarded secret at RAD -- suffice it to say I was found to be remarkably deficient on both counts. Once it's mercifully over, once my failure has achieved critical mass, I decide to play my final card: the chemistry card.

"Look, I know I didn't do well, but I still feel like I could fit in well with the team here," I explain. "Let me ask you; have you ever hired anyone even though they didn't do, you know, so great on the Two Questions?"

Andrea says, "We have, yes. Very rarely. But we have."

I say, "So, after my performance, would I be asked to have lunch with the founders?"

Without missing a beat, without hesitating in the slightest bit, Andrea says -- with perfect comic timing -- "No, you would not be."

Everyone in the room practically doubles over with laughter: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Everyone, that is, except me.

I ask where I would have gone to lunch, should I have made it that far. Didier repeats his Subway six-inch/foot-long joke. Marc says, "You actually eat at a nice Italian place."

More laughter.

Andrea gets up, takes his arms, and leaves the room before the laughter dies down.

@@
3:01 p.m. But not all hope is lost. I might not have the stuff to be a programmer at RAD, but there's still the outside possibility that I can land a position as a level designer. After all, what do these guys do? Tree goes here, enemy goes here, exploding barrel goes there. Boom, done.

I can do this.

I meet Dana Jan, RAD's design director. He's a thin, energetic guy wearing a baseball cap. He looks absurdly young. He looks like he should be working the counter at a Jack in the Box instead of being a principal at a major development house. But then he starts talking about building game worlds; how things fit together; how you have to think in terms of pacing and in terms of feeding the player new, exciting things to do; of empowering the player; and I realize I'm the one who should probably be working the Jack in the Box counter.

Dana, along with Marc Turndorf, gives me the Level Designer Test.

Here's the premise: A hero is climbing down a long rope to the bottom of an underground excavation site when his rope suddenly snaps. He's OK, but he's now lost in a labyrinth of torch-lit tunnels. He must find his way into the main crypt and locate a powerful amulet-thing. (All of this information is given to me via old-fashioned Xerox.)

My weapons include a sword and shotgun. There are three types of enemies: small, medium and large. The large, the sheet explains, is an "unarmed beast with a slow but heavy melee attack."

This is a take-home test, so normally any prospective level designer is given an indefinite amount of time to build his masterpiece. But I'm pressed for time here. I tell Marc and Dana to give me 20 minutes, and that I will create a level that will "make your heads spin."

Dana looks skeptical. "Just do your best," he says.

3:55 p.m. They leave me alone in the conference room and I get to work. First order of business: Stare at the blank sheets of paper in front of me for 10 minutes straight.

Ready at Dawn Studios

4:06 p.m. Finally, I work up the courage to make some marks on the paper. I draw a mine shaft, along with a stick figure who appears to be falling down said mine shaft. At the bottom of my mine shaft, the stick figure lands in a conveniently placed mine cart.

We're certainly off to a clich?d start, I think. I try not to beat myself up too much. After all, the object of the test isn't to come up with original assets or storylines; it's to come up with original level designs.

Next order of business: I need to figure out a way to introduce the shotgun into my level. My answer: I have the stick figure pry it from the cold, bony hands of ... a skeleton.

I think, OK, maybe now it's time to start beating myself up.

4:09 p.m. Marc pokes his head into the empty conference room. "How's it going so far?" he asks.

I don't tell him that my level is a clich?d, convoluted mess filled with skeletons and mine carts. Instead, I tell him that it is going great.

4:13 p.m. My way of introducing the sword: The stick figure must pry it from the cold, bony hands of a you-know-what. I put in some ladders for my stick figure, who I am calling Mr. Fascination, to climb up.

With time running out, I quickly throw in an oversized spider.

Finally, I add a large barrel and write the letters "TNT" on the side.

I engage in another bout of high-spirited self-flagellation. At this point, I'm not even sure I could get a job at Jack in the Box.

4:14 p.m. Marc and Dana return. They sit on either side of me. "OK," Dana says, "show me what's going on here."

Again, I lay on the confidence. "The name of this game is Mr. Fascination," I say.

"OK," Dana says.

When I point out the conveniently placed mine cart, I'm fairly certain I see a cringe pass across Dana's face. The mine cart, of course, suddenly careens out of control, hits an Evel Knievel-caliber jump, and sails through several wooden barriers only to crash-land in some water.

"This is an underground lake," I say ominously.

Dana likes the water. "You're introducing a new element," he says. "That's good."

He also likes the fact that the mine cart sinks to the bottom of the lake. "That takes care of the mine cart. Very efficient," he says.

I'm feeling good at this point. I'm thinking, Maybe it's not too late to turn this day around...

Ready at Dawn Studios

4:19 p.m. Mr. Fascination climbs up a ladder and encounters a blocked passageway. I explain how this is the game's first puzzle, how Mr. Fascination has to use the shotgun to shoot a nearby wooden barrier to release a boulder that will fall Indiana Jones-style to clear the obstruction.

Marc asks, "So can you see the boulder through the barrier?"

"Do you want to see the boulder through the barrier?" I ask.

"I think it's a good idea to see the boulder," he says. "Otherwise, how do you know the boulder is there?"

"All right. Then you can see it through the barrier."

Dana rubs his chin. I think I see another cringe, but I can't be certain of it.

4:22 p.m. After a few more ladders upward, Dana notices my spider and my single barrel of TNT. "People are always complaining about exploding barrels in games, but I actually like them," I explain. "I love shooting an exploding barrel. Especially when there are a bunch of enemies loitering around one."

Dana says, "Enemies do seem to enjoy loitering around exploding barrels."

Marc and Dana enjoy a chuckle over this fact.

Then Dana points out that there are no small, medium or large enemies with slow-but-heavy melee attacks. "This spider looks menacing, but what's it really doing there?" he asks.

Dana suggests that I include some bat enemies that will attack Mr. Fascination as he climbs ladders. "That way, you teach the player that they can fight while climbing," he says.

He also suggested putting some flickering candles behind the wooden barriers, which will entice players to try to destroy them. "This will get them prepared for the upcoming boulder puzzle," he says.

And then Dana kind of destroys me with his next observation. "If Mr. Fascination is in search of a crypt, shouldn't he actually be descending deeper into the earth and not climbing out of it just yet?"

He's right. Mr. Fascination is always climbing up. By Page 2 of my level, I was already at a higher elevation than the mine shaft at the start of the level.

Marc and Dana are quiet. "That's a problem," I say sheepishly. I accept the fact that my level basically blows.

I remind Dana that I was performing under extraordinary time constraints for the test, then ask him, point-blank, if he would hire me.

Ready at Dawn Studios

"Well, no, not based on what I see here," Dana says. "But once in a while, if we see some promise in a level, we'll give the candidate some feedback, and let them take another run at it. Mr. Fascination has some potential. I like some of the things you've done here."

I ask if I'm in the feedback-take-another-run-at-it category.

"Yes."

Though I'm fairly certain Dana is just being nice to me, and possibly even patronizing me to an extreme, I tuck his almost certainly fake compliment into my laptop bag and decide to call it a day.

5:29 p.m. It's after five. The Ready at Dawn office Christmas party is tonight. It's a black-tie event at the Hyatt in Newport Beach. Everyone seems in especially good spirits this afternoon. I run into Andrea on the way out. He asks how my level-design test went. "I did OK," I say. "They gave me some feedback and asked me to retool my level."

He shakes my hand. "There's hope for you yet," he says.

"I suppose so," I say.

I locate my car keys in my coat pocket, then leave the office, the door clicking shut and locking behind me with a kind of dramatic finality. All developers tend to have formidable doors outfitted with strong locks. Whenever I leave any developer, there's the inevitable moment of separation, of them on the inside and me on the outside.

I panic for a moment, wondering if I've left anything behind (besides a bit of my dignity). I picture myself knocking on the door, pounding on the door, asking them to let me back in.

I decide that I have everything. I turn around and head back out into the rain.

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Comments

Nice share! I like how you wrote this topic with expertise and it's fun to read. Really worth the time. I never thought that writing about a day's experience would be this interesting. - YOR Health

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