For many avid gamers, working in the gaming industry is a dream job. But like most dream jobs, it’s also high-pressure, demanding work. When we think of gaming careers, we tend to think of the developers. But where would the developers be without the machines they work on?
Games studios rely on high-spec, custom-built, powerful hardware to do the work that they do. It’s the role of the IT Manager to make sure that everyone has the equipment they need to deliver the goods and make preparations for when things go wrong.
When you’re working to tight deadlines - which gaming studios always are - faulty hardware, software or internet connections can spell disaster. In this environment, IT Managers have to be able to think fast and think ahead, making sure that everyone has the equipment they need and that all of the equipment can be relied upon.
Lee Pitcher is an IT Manager at Climax Studios, a games developer based in Portsmouth. They’ve worked on successful titles such as Silent Hill and Assassin’s Creed and their clients include Ubisoft, Konami, Microsoft and Google.
“Everybody here is passionate about what they do,” he says. “We share the love of gaming and share the love of creating things.”
What’s next for the games industry?
Whether you’re working in the industry or an avid gamer, the next year is going to be exciting.
Both Xbox and PlayStation are rumoured to be releasing new consoles, both of which are going to be much more powerful than anything we’ve seen before. At the same time, Esports and ESL are reshaping the profile and culture of gaming, drawing crowds and advertising revenues that can compete with traditional sports like football, rugby or tennis.
These changes present massive opportunities for games studios, but also something of a challenge. The studios don’t know what will happen next and they will have to respond quickly to changes in their industry as soon as more information becomes available.
“The next gen stuff's really interesting,” Lee says. “To be honest, we know as much as the next person. We're not Sony, we're not Microsoft. But we will inevitably have to change what we do here. ”
Beyond the work that the studio does, Lee anticipates a shift in how gaming is perceived and a move towards more collaborative, multiplayer experiences.
“I think the way we view gaming will change. Currently, it's still got that connotation of one person sitting there being quite antisocial. Whereas you look at Esports, you look at ESL, you look at these huge communities around games. You look at Minecraft, they have created cities, thousands of hours of people's time goes into creating these cities and creating these huge, incredible builds. I think there will be more community-based gaming, which I really hope does take off.”
Gaming IT is getting more complex, fast-paced and unpredictable
Lee moved into the games industry from a corporate background, which helped prepare him for the complexities of modern IT. Today’s IT environments tend to be a mix of on-premises and cloud infrastructure, and studios like Climax will often have to connect to client’s networks, as well as other studios'.
“We work with large third-parties. You have to jump through their hoops, you have to use their portals and work with their security. And if a problem arises and it starts snowballing, then the project can’t progress. All of a sudden you’re like: ‘We've just signed this huge deal and we can't actually do half the things we want to do on it because we can't get connected or we can't deal with the security requirements.’ So there’s a huge amount of pressure on a very small team.”
Games are developed and released according to extremely tight schedules which are usually planned years in advance. If just one part of that plan gets disrupted, it can mess up a multi-million pound series of events involving not just the games companies but the distributors and retailers who are relying on its release.
“I think in most workplaces deadlines can be kind of flexible, you know. If you don't hand in a report on Friday, but you get it in by 9 o'clock on Monday morning, that's fine. We don't have that luxury. If we don’t meet our milestones, that's it. Companies will stop working with us. So there is an understanding that we have to work very hard, meet all of our milestones and all of our deadlines.”
Unfortunately for IT managers working in the gaming industry, hardware failures are one of the most common causes of missed deadlines. Even top-of-the-range hardware can have its moments, so it’s always important to plan ahead and build a network of suppliers you can trust.
“If anything is going to go wrong and cause us lost time, it will be the hardware. We use our workstations all day every day, so things do go wrong. Things do break. Having a supplier that can do next or even same day delivery if we get in before a certain time - I've actually had Tom [from Novatech] in the office when he's driven a part down to us - is a huge benefit. We need to have a support network behind us that we can rely on.”
The importance of custom specification hardware
Modern gaming PCs are considered to be pretty powerful. But the workstations required to build games are in another league. Equipping an entire studio with machines that are up to the task and making sure that all hardware is up-to-date requires knowledge, experience and a lot of research.
“Because of the pace that this industry moves at, a year is a very long time. We will be looking at a piece of equipment we bought a year ago and thinking, 'This needs to be replaced soon.'”
Getting access to the latest hardware and software isn’t always easy. Especially when you need it to be delivered right away.
“These kinds of machines can’t be bought off the shelf. We don't just go and buy off the shelf, we custom-build our machines to a specific requirement.”
It’s also important to understand how each of the artists and developers like to work and what they need. Like any type of creative work, technology can be an enabling factor or a limiting one, and everybody has their preferred way of doing things.
“I try to spend time with the team and understand their requirements. For example, we always offer tablets. I'm not an artist myself, so I have to work with the artist closely to understand which ones they like. You know, which one do you like the feel of? What software are you using so I can check compatibility?”
Games studios use a lot of different software, such as 3DS Max, Blender, ZBrush, Modo, Houdin, 3DCoat, Photoshop, Mari, Autodesk Mudbox, Quixel Mixer and more. Hours of research goes into understanding what the different options are and what the most cost-effective way of providing the software is. When left unmanaged, license costs can quickly shoot through the roof.
“We are a studio that does a lot of art. There are thousands of different art softwares out there. Everyone that we interview has a different preference, so we need to find what's best. What can we maximise our investment against? Some of them are extremely expensive, some of them are not. We can't just Google 'best art software' and download the first one that comes up. We also need to understand how the drivers interact with our current software, how third-party hardware such as tablets and things interact with it.”
For every person that works in the gaming industry, there are ten, twenty, maybe even thirty who are desperate to break into it. The work may be tough, but you get to be a part of something special - and something that you’re passionate about.
“You talk to anybody who works at Climax. They are proud to work at Climax. They are proud to be in this industry”, says Lee. “Novatech have pride in what they do, and you can see it. Together, we don't let each other down, and that's a really good relationship.”
Thanks to Lee for taking the time out of his busy schedule to catch up with us.