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Video Game Programming... for a living! How cool is that?

August 23, 2012
Austin Lyons - Columnist , Traer Star-Clipper

My wife and I lived in Champaign, IL for two years while I attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During this time I met a guy named Mike Slone, who told me that he worked for a local video game company called Volition. Volition makes the popular Saints Row and Red Faction games, so my natural first thought was "Huh? A popular video game company in a Midwestern town? For real?" And of course my second thought was "This guy gets to make video games for a living. Cool!!"

I thought it would be fun and educational to interview Mike for this column. Our discussion was so interesting that I'm breaking it up into two columns.

Austin: What do you do for a living these days?

Mike: I work on Call of Duty: Black Ops II for Treyarch in Santa Monica, CA. I create the experiences that the player has through the course of the game. The team leads come to me with a document containing an overarching vision for a mission experience. Next, I go in and fill in all the details. Once that gets approved, I start working on it. The producers gather content for the game such as animations, sounds, game objects, and weapons and I plug them into the game. We constantly review and improve our work until we reach the date we plan on shipping the video game. You can always think of one more improvement, but at some point we have to stop improving the game so we can get it in the hands of our fans.

Austin: How did you get into the video game industry?

Mike: Like most boys in the 90s, I grew up playing Nintendo and Sega. Early in high school, I played a game called "Grim Fandango," which was unlike any game I had ever played before. The characters were relatable, emotional, thoughtful, and funny. The worlds were fantastic, strange, and beautiful. It felt like I was playing a Pixar movie. It was at that point that I realized the scope of what games could be, and it made me want to make them.

When I was in the 8th grade, I ordered a program called "Learn to Program Basic" from one of those Scholastic book order forms they give you that come on newsprint (do they still have those?). It promised to teach me to make video games. It was actually a really helpful tool and helped me to realize that I liked programming.

When it came time in high school to pick a career path, I waffled between video production and computer programming. I don't recall exactly why, but I went with computer programming. I knew that if I was going to be programming, I wanted to be working on games, so in college, I spent a lot of time working on little programming side-projects that were in game-related fields-most notably graphics and physics. My grades were ok. I think I graduated with a 3.3 GPA. I've never seen my diploma. Nobody has ever asked to see it, so I never bothered to track it down.

While in college in Chicago at Illinois Institute of Technology, I saw a job listing for an entry-level programmer at a company called Volition in Champaign, IL. It was actually pretty lucky for me, as game developers don't often hire people with no experience. Volition was in a big hiring push. I had never been to Champaign, but I figured I'd give it a shot. The interview was long and terrifying. I sat in a small room at a computer, and Volition programmers came in two-at-a-time and asked me to solve programming problems. They must have been satisfied with my performance, because I was offered a job. I started at Volition, working on Saints Row 2 on January 2nd, 2007.

I knew I wasn't going to stay at Volition forever, and Champaign didn't really have other options when it came to game development, so I had to look outside of Champaign. I saved up money and in 2011 I quit my job, moved to Southern California, and began working on my own projects. After a few months of that, I realized I didn't like working alone and wanted to be on a team again. A friend of mine had been at Treyarch a few months, and he helped me get an interview. I started at Treyarch in December of 2011.

Want more? Check back next time for part two of my interview with Mike. If you have comments or questions for me or Mike, email me at



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