We can’t talk about what we’re doing, so we’re talking about the people doing the work. Meet Chris Willoughby, a lead programmer on State of Decay. If he were any more low key, he’d be in a coma, but don’t let that fool you. He’s a low key badass, a great programmer, and a lot of fun. Read on, and you’ll see. — Sanya
My Favorite Game is Making One
by Chris Willoughby
I always feel cheesy when I say that line, but it’s absolutely true. At a young age I dissected every game that I played, seeking to understand the systems and limitations, the boundaries and the rules. Usually, I find myself losing interest in games when I’ve figured them out – when I’ve reached the boundaries, when I can see the numbers behind the Matrix. The thing about making games is that those boundaries don’t really exist, there are limits to what and how much we can accomplish, but they’re loose. It’s like playing in the ultimate sandbox – where we can build almost anything. If something doesn’t exist, we can come up with ways to make it happen. It’s the best.
I grew up in Casper, Wyoming. If you haven’t been there, it’s big, largely flat, and mostly empty. The whole state has under 600k people. To put that in perspective, I live in downtown Seattle now, and there are as many people that live within 10 square miles of me than as in 97,818 square miles there. Most people react to my being from Wyoming with curiosity. We didn’t ride horses to school, it’s really windy, very cold in the winter, and very hot in the summer. It can be pretty boring, but the people there are mostly pretty cool.
Know Your Roots
The NES changed my life. I remember receiving it for Christmas one year, all set up and ready to go when my sister and I woke up and wandered out into the living room. Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and Track and Field were all great. Out of the box it came with rumors of hidden paths in Super Mario Brothers, time spent figuring out how to game the light gun, and discovering that for super long jumps in Track and Field you simply needed to jump off of the pad and then back on within the right amount of time. This was the beginning of game development for me.
A while after we got our NES, my parents found and bought a used Commodore 64. It was amazing. I remember all the games on floppy disks, some of them giant collections that I’d endlessly search through looking for a golden nugget. It was here that I first really learned about making games. My mother and I would take turns making levels in Wizard. I learned about level construction, obstacles, and making something fun. From there, I moved on to programming. There were books that we would check out from the library that had line-by-line Basic program listings in them and we’d spend hours transcribing them into the computer. I learned to debug here. I quickly transitioned to writing my own games, starting on an open ended space exploration game inspired by Star Trek that I still dream about building to this day.
At some point the old Commodore broke down and I moved on to more advanced consoles like the SNES and Genesis, but they didn’t let me make my own games. I made paper and card games; I was heavy into sports and simulation, so I spent hours sitting around making the ultimate version of the Olympics that combined athletes from all major sports, assigning them stats, drafting them to teams, and then rolling dice to play out the games. I’d have basketball players playing baseball, football players playing hockey, and I’d roll the dice and record stats for everything. I wasn’t even a player in that game, I was the computer. During this time, I discovered Shadowrun for the Genesis. It’s one of my all-time favorites. It was my first experience with something that felt like an open world game — I could decide what to do next, I could just go hack for endless hours if I wanted to…there was like this endless stream of content. I never finished it, but it remains one of my true inspirations to this day.
I discovered the PC at a friends house in the mid 90’s and immediately fell in love. I was working as a student janitor at the time, making next to nothing, and worked out a loan with my grandmother so that I could purchase one on my own. I remember reading all the magazines and taking repeated trips to Office Max so that I could look at all of them before landing on the right one. I ended up with a high end Packard Bell with a Pentium 200mmx, 32mb RAM, and a 3.2gb hard drive. It also came with a modem and my very first interaction with the internet. I talked my mom into signing me up for Kali.net and I’d spend hours playing Duke Nukem against random people across the internet. I moved on to Diablo and Interstate 76 and was completely hooked. Other players brought a completely different experience to gaming — unpredictability, competition — it was like I was playing in an endless open world.
A few years later, I enrolled in the Computer Science program at Casper College. I was learning a lot about programming, but wasn’t as interested in it as I was in games. During this time I took a job as a telemarketer so that I could make more money and buy more games. After doing that for a few weeks, I got a chance to move into the IT department and stop making calls, yay! That job mainly consisted of loading up lists of numbers to dial and managing the pacing of the calls on the floor. Ever had a telemarketer call and then there’s no one on the other line? That’s because they predictively called you, hoping that a rep would finish their existing call in time to take yours. Sometimes that doesn’t happen and you’re left with dead air before it hangs up on you. By law, they were allowed to have 2 calls active per rep on the floor — and my job was to a balance it so that there was an appropriate amount of time between each call for the rep and that we stayed within the mandated guidelines. It was mind numbing, so a colleague and I figured out how the system worked. We wrote a program to automatically manage the pacing – essentially doing our jobs for us. This freed us up to do whatever we wanted, which mainly consisted of playing games and watching South Park. It was awesome.
A while later, I moved on to doing custom software development for local businesses. I joined up with a local consulting firm who would handle the IT work for local businesses and write software that suited their needs. We worked for the local County government and I ended up designing and developing the software they used for licensing vehicles, as well as the software they used for case management and accounting within the District Court. I learned a lot about developing and launching software and a lot about things like accounting and medical billing, but not games. I was successful, ending up a partner in the firm, but ultimately unfulfilled. I really wanted to make games, but had no idea how — this was long before things like Unity.
In the mid 2000’s I learned about Full Sail and it changed everything. There was a school you could go to and learn about making games. They worked with industry folks to develop the curriculum. The classes were all focused on making games. It was the path! My (now) wife and I quit our jobs, paid off our debts, and moved to Florida. I was 5 or 6 years older than most of my classmates. I had programmed professionally before, so I excelled in this environment. I ended up acing every class except one and finished up as Valedictorian of my class when I graduated 21 months later with a Bachelor’s Degree in Game Development. This type of education isn’t for everyone. It’s basically like rocket fuel — it can explode in your face, but with the right components and structure in place it can launch you into space. It won’t make you a game developer, but it will fast track your transformation into one.
After graduation, we settled on moving to Seattle to be a bit closer to home. I landed my first industry job at Surreal Software when I was 26. They are best known for Drakan and The Suffering, and I was hired to work on the character generation system for This is Vegas. We were using Unreal 3 and making an open world game. It was AAA. I worked very, very hard to get the system working. It was a mess at times, but I learned a lot, and met a lot of cool people (including Brant). I had always thought that I would end up being an Engine programmer, and that this was the perfect fit, but I found that I wasn’t completely fulfilled. The work was mostly behind the scenes, exceedingly complicated, and most of the interesting decisions had been made long in advance. During this time I played my (second) favorite game of all-time, Fallout 3. The freedom of choice, the size, the setting, the stories, and the characters all blew me away. I got lost in that world and loved every minute of it.
A few coworkers and I made the jump over to Microsoft. We were hired to work on the more casual-oriented Kinect, and this is where I learned to be a game programming generalist. I learned about prototyping, user experience, iteration, and fun. I learned how much a small team could accomplish, and how agile you could be without big barriers in place. The early time on Kinect was essentially the open world of game development, and it was awesome. After we shipped Kinect Adventures, Kinect Fun Labs, and a few other things, we moved onto Hololens, and suddenly, I wasn’t a game developer any more. In addition, I had worked hard and was promoted to the point where I wasn’t programming any more. I was managing a team of 12, and we weren’t making games. 🙁 Within a span of two years, I went from my favorite experience to an entirely different career, and again I was unhappy. It was time for a change.
State of Decay
I heard about State of Decay while I was starting to try to figure out what was next. I went home and downloaded it immediately and fell absolutely in love with it. Resource management, perma-death, combat, and the community were all great. I was terrified of, and subsequently saddened when I lost Marcus. I loved the church. I loved exploring. I liked the zombies and going into all the buildings. Sure, it was rough in a few places, but it was absolutely a new box to play in, and I loved it. I wanted to make games like this!
My wife pointed out that she knew someone that worked at Undead Labs, so she reached out. I got in touch with Jeff, and we met for lunch. I was so open about my love for the game that I was afraid he’d think I was feeding him a line. I was so excited when I interviewed and met the team. I knew this was the place for me. Thankfully, they felt the same way and I was hired. I went to work on the PC port of State of Decay – porting the UI and doing some controls work. From there, I was the main developer on Lifeline (danger zone!). Now, I’m working on “the future of State of Decay.” I love this game, this team, and my job. I’m playing my favorite game full-time.