Monday, May 1, 2023
You can listen on Apple, Spotify or elsewhere.
Sunday, December 18, 2022
Since Twitter is setting up a Berlin Wall and banning links to any social media sites, figure I would post where you can find me online here
Not really active, but on these sites as well
Monday, May 21, 2018
For some background, Disbelief is a tech services company that focuses on problem-solving for game developers. In short, we help people ship their games. Since Steve Ellmore and I founded Disbelief we've grown from five people working out of their apartments to seventeen people spread across two offices in Cambridge, MA and Chicago, IL.
Recently, we completed a transition to open salaries at Disbelief. Everyone at Disbelief knows the salary and responsibilities for each role. We've had a goal of fairness and transparency within the company for a long time, and this is one key part of that.
The Business Case for Internal TransparencyOur early compensation structure was mostly ad-hoc. Steve and I would get together and discuss a number on a per-case basis. While we'd put a lot of thought into it, we weren't happy with this process. It worked fine when the company was a group of people who we had known for years, but it wasn't going to scale and it wasn't particularly transparent to anyone.
A problem-solving services company relies foremost on good communication and cooperation, it's literally our business model. If we can't communicate and work well with clients, we are not going to succeed. Building a culture of communication means we have to practice what we preach internally - clearly communicate business goals, current sales activity, and generally be as open as possible so everyone is rowing in the same direction.
We realized part of this would be more openness when it came to expectations of each position. An ad hoc set of criteria locked in our heads was not sufficient and would not scale. We needed more formal definitions of roles.
Roles and LaddersWhat we came up with was a 'ladders' spreadsheet which defines the roles and responsibilities of each position. The rows are each position (Junior Programmer, Programmer 1-3, Senior Programmer 1-3, etc), and the columns describe the responsibilities and criteria for one area of evaluation. The criteria are specific and attempt to minimize the amount of subjective evaluation and ‘gut feelings’.
One principle behind the criteria is they are rooted in business needs. This gives us focus on what is truly important for the business to succeed and what is not.
For example, one column is "External Communication". Junior Programmers are mostly concentrating on learning the craft of systems programming itself - how to take schooling or self-taught lessons and apply them to real systems in the real world, at the quality level Disbelief demands. Reflecting this, their responsibilities for external communication are minimal - they must be able to report status internally while other, more senior engineers handle the bulk of client communication. At the other end of the scale, Senior Programmers are expected to clearly report status to clients, anticipating and managing expectations, and act as ambassadors for Disbelief as a whole.
Defining these roles took a long time, and we thought very carefully about it. It has become a very useful tool. Monthly one on one meetings with managers have a clear set of criteria to discuss performance. Having the deltas between rows allows us to focus our mentorship and training efforts - rather than try to teach everything at once. Promotions can lay out exact responsibilities of the new role, both beforehand and after. New hires can be slotted based on specific criteria rather than gut feelings. Managers can be trained to evaluate using these criteria, which allows us to scale. The 'requirements' section of public job descriptions are mostly pre-written. At the highest level this document lays out a core of what it means to be a Disbelief engineer.
The FutureWe hardly consider ourselves done - the compensation structure and roles are a living document, continually reviewed. For instance, we only have programmer roles defined in this structure. While we only recently have started to hire non-programmer roles, we need to define and add them to the overall structure.
An additional problem we're tackling is adding a non-management, individual contributor track for very senior personnel who do not want to be leads but want a path for advancement. For example, recognizing that someone is a domain expert and can mentor/teach the rest of the company about an area. The last thing we want to do is shove people into a management role who are not going to be effective at it.
We've found this a very useful process that helped us sharpen and define our our approach to our work and business. If we find something that works better, we'll not shy away from change. At the end of the day, whatever route you choose for your company should be rooted in what works for your business. This structure may not work for you, but so far it is working for us.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Saturday, August 15, 2015
Freshly hired, you sit down at your desk at your hard won job at Big Game Studio. You're making games! Big ones! Excited to get started, you've gone through the orientation, pulled the source tree to your machine, and fire up the IDE. You wait for it to load... and wait... and wait... just how large is this project? Your producer has already given you a simple task for their editor -- make the FooBaz window remember its position and size between runs of the editor. You have no idea where to start. A sense of panic comes over you as you realize little in your previous experience has prepared you for dealing with a code base this big.
It is not uncommon these days to land a game programming gig and have to deal with a large legacy code base. It could be all in-house code, it could be a licensed engine, or it could incorporate a lot of open source software. Unless you are working on a small game, more than likely the first thing you are going to have to learn is how to navigate this beast.
Monday, March 3, 2014
The size of the levels were bigger than anything Irrational had attempted before. The previous game Irrational had worked on, BioShock, was more of an intimate corridor shooter. In contrast, we wanted Columbia to feel like a big city in the clouds. This meant much bigger and much more open spaces that still retained the high detail required for environmental story telling, because much of the story telling in a BioShock game was done via the world itself.
Finally, all of this had to perform well on all of our platforms.
|The end result
Hybrid Lighting System
- Direct lighting was primarily dynamic
- Indirect lighting was baked in lightmaps and light volumes
- Shadows were a mixture of baked shadows and dynamic shadows
- The system handled both stationary and moving primitives.
Dynamic lighting was handled primarily with a deferred lighting/light-pre pass renderer. This met our goals of high contrast/high saturation -- direct lighting baked into lightmaps tends to be flat, mostly because the specular approximations available were fairly limited. We went with the two-stage deferred lighting approach primarily because the information we needed for our BRDF and baked shadows would not fit in four render targets. We did not want to sacrifice UE3's per-pixel material parameterization, so something like a material id system to compact the G-Buffers was out of the question. This of course meant two passes on the geometry instead of one, which we dealt with by running render dispatch in parallel, instancing, and clever art.
Sunday, July 7, 2013
Our process is a little more lo-fi but effective. We use perforce's review daemon, and as part of programmer orientation we set new programmers up to subscribe to the source code folder and set up an outlook filter. That's right, every programmer on the team has a stream of emails for every changelist.
The emails are set up with the first line of the changelist description in the subject and the email of the changelist author in the reply-to field. The body of the email contains the full changelist comment and diffs of the change up to a certain size to avoid flooding our email system.
Reviews are handled by replying to the email, and cc'ing a code reviews email list which goes to everyone and is archived. This is so everyone gets the benefit of subsequent discussion.
We have a few senior engineers who at least read every changelist comment. Personally, I find it is something useful to do while waiting the couple minutes for a big compile to finish. But looking at our code reviews email list, quite a few programmers scan at least some of the changelists, usually looking for changes in code they are most familiar with.
This only works if you enforce meaningful changelist comments. "Fixed bug in renderer" would not be an acceptable changelist comment and would garner a review email to make a better one. A changelist comment should describe the problem being solved and how it was solved. It doesn't need to be a novel but it should be enough information so someone going back to this changelist 6 months from now can understand what was done and why.
I've worked on teams where this was the primary code review process, although currently we use it as a second line of defense - each changelist requires a primary reviewer.
We catch all sorts of issues with this review process - minor issues such as code that is unclear all the way to major bugs that were uncaught by both the author and the primary reviewer. This is a good method for orienting new programmers to the code base, teaching "code base lore", or pointing out bad naming. One of the things I particularly look for is badly named functions or variables - code without short, concise and meaningful names is usually an indicator of a larger problem. I could do a whole entry on names.
Beyond the day to day issues, I also find it is a useful toward improving the quality of the code base as a whole. If you see the same mistakes being made or people having trouble with a particular system, it gets you thinking about ways to prevent those mistakes, or make a system easier to use.