Black Ops’ Irish connection

 

‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ is the biggest computer game in history. So far, 68,000 years have been spent playing it. And the lead programmer is from Galway.

Selling an estimated seven million copies worldwide in the 24 hours following its launch and generating revenues in excess of $1 billion to date, Call of Duty: Black Ops is unquestionably the biggest game ever released.

According to publisher Activision, 20 million users have also logged on to play the game’s multiplayer version since launch, clocking up over 68,000 years of game time in the process. This kind of online experience has become critical to the success of any game released today, as it offers potential replay value far beyond the single-player plot. In the case of Call of Duty: Black Ops , the role of overseeing this work fell to Galway native Martin Donlon, who was lead programmer for online on the title.

To him such a role presents some unique challenges: “With single-player games you’re trying to add a lot of different features to keep it interesting along the way,” he said.

“With multiplayer, you’re just trying to refine a core mechanic and ensure it is continually interesting as it’s repeated over and over again.”

Coming from Dunmore in Co Galway, Donlon began working with Activision subsidiary Treyarch nearly 10 years ago while on a J1 Visa to the US.

A self-taught programmer and computer systems student at University of Limerick he was already quite experienced with the demands of coding and was rewarded with a high-profile task from the outset.

“I worked as an intern at Treyarch for four months and, while I was there, worked on the Spiderman movie game,” he said. “I returned to Ireland in the winter but, in December of that year, they asked me to come back to finish the game.

“They figured it would be better to get somebody back into the country who already had experience on the team rather than try to hire someone over there.”

Donlon spent a further eight months in California working on the game and then returned to Ireland to finish his final year of university. After graduation, he travelled back to California to take up a full-time job at Treyarch and has remained there ever since.

In the decade since his internship, Donlon has climbed the food chain within the company to become a lead programmer, which he said represents a move away from development and more towards management.

During that time, he has worked on more Spiderman games, The World at War series and, most recently, Call of Duty: Black Ops.

“It’s pretty bizarre but it’s definitely exciting,” he said, though he pointed out that his work continues despite the game itself being finished and on the shelves.

“On launch day, we celebrated and then it was pretty much straight back to work,” he said. “We’ve had several update releases since then and we’re constantly tweaking game modes and gameplay settings to try to find what works in the wild.”

These regular changes are done, among other things, to try to solve any unforeseen imbalances which may be drawing ire from loyal and fanatical players.

It would be expected that each type of weapon can be bested by at least one other, for example, and gamers will not be shy in letting others know if that is not the case. He said this work would continue well into this year and will keep going as long as it proves viable – in other words as long as enough people are playing it.

Working alongside him in the company are a number of other Irish developers, though he said that, beyond that, he does not know of many others.

“In terms of actual developers, I’m not aware of all that many Irish,” he said. “We have five, maybe six at Treyarch but I’m not aware of any large group outside of that.”

He points to Demonware, the middleware tool developed by Dylan Collins and subsequently acquired by Activision, as an example of an Irish gaming success, however. He goes so far as to say that Call of Duty would not exist without it and others like Havok have also had a major impact on the industry.

With panellists at last year’s Dublin Web Summit suggesting that Ireland follow the lead of Canada’s Montreal in attracting big game development, he is equally supportive.

“We’re always shifting away from that structure of one team, one big office, working on a title and then releasing it,” he said.

“There are a lot more satellite offices and things being outsourced, so there’s no reason why the Atlantic ocean or any kind of distance limits what you can do right now.

“It really depends on whether you can bring the talent to you; you need to find some smart people and keep them in or bring them to Ireland.”

When asked if he might be one of those talented people who would return to Ireland to help it build expertise in the industry, Donlon said he was at least willing to consider it.

“I could be enticed back. I’m married, I just have a new family so there would definitely be a lot of reasons to go back,” he said. “Games are what I do, so as long as theres the opportunity to do that I’m happy to live anywhere.”

Originally published in The Irish Times on 21st January 2011.

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