Changing Optimization Targets

Alternate Title: How I changed my mental model to be a more effective game developer and human.

Back in February 2016, I started my journey as a professional game developer. I joined Sparkypants to work on the backend for Dropzone. This was about 7 months ago at time of writing. I didn’t enter the game development world in the standard ways. I wasn’t at one of the various schools with game dev programs, I didn’t intern at a studio, I haven’t spent much of my personal development time building my own indie games. I had on the other hand, spent years building backend services, writing dev tools, competing in AI competitions, and building a slew of half finished open source projects. In short, I was not a game developer when I started.

My stark contrast in background works to my advantage in many parts of my job. Most of our engineers haven’t worked on backend services and haven’t needed to scale that sort of infrastructure. My lead and friend Johannes has been instrumental in many of my successes so far in the company. He has background in backend development as well as game development and has often been a translator and guide to me as I learn what being a game developer means.

At first, I assumed my contrast would work itself out naturally and I’d just become a game developer by osmosis. If I am surrounded by folks doing this and I’m actively developing a game, I will become a game developer. But that presupposes success, which was only coming to me in limited amounts. The other conclusion would be leaving game development because I wasn’t compatible with it, something I’m unwilling to accept at this time.

I shared my concerns around not fitting the culture at Sparkypants with Johannes, as well as some productivity worries. I’ve learned over the years that if I’m feeling problems like this, my boss may be as well. Johannes with his typical wonderful encouraging personality reminded me that there are large aspects of my personality that fit in with the culture, just maybe my development style and conflict resolution needed work and recommended this talk by Jonathan Blow to show me the mental model that is closer to how many of the other developers operate, among some other advice.

That talk by Jonathan Blow spends a fair amount of its time on the topic of optimization. Whether it is using data oriented techniques to make data series processing faster or drawing in a specific way to make the graphics card use less memory or any number of topics, optimization comes up in nearly every game development talk or article at some point. His point though was that we often spend too much time optimizing the wrong things. If you’ve been in computer science for a bit you’ve inevitably heard at least a fragment of the following quote from Donald Knuth, if not you’re in for a treat, this is a good one:

Programmers waste enormous amounts of time thinking about, or worrying about, the speed of noncritical parts of their programs, and these attempts at efficiency actually have a strong negative impact when debugging and maintenance are considered. We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil. Yet we should not pass up our opportunities in that critical 3%.

The bolded text is the part most folks quote, implying the rest. I had heard this, quoted it, and used it as justification for doing or not doing things many times in the past. But, I’d also forgotten it, I’d apply it when it was convenient for me, but not generally to my software development. Blow starts with the more traditional overthinking algorithms and code in general that most bring up when they speak on premature optimization. Then he followed on with the idea that selecting data structures is a form of optimization. That follow on was a segue to point out that any time you are thinking about a problem, you should keep in mind if it is the most important or urgent problems for you to think about.

The end of the day, your job as a game developer is not to optimize for speed or correctness, but to optimize for fun. This means trying a lot of ideas and throwing many of them out. If you spent a lot of time optimizing for a million users of a feature and only some folks in the company use it before you decide to remove it, you’ve wasted a lot of effort. Maybe not completely, since you’ve probably learned during the process, but that effort could have been put into other features or parts of the system that may actually need attention. This shift in thinking has me letting go of details in more cases, spend less time on projects and focusing on “functional” over “correct and scalable.”

The next day after watching that talk and discussing with Johannes, I attended RustConf and saw a series of amazing talks on Rust and programming in general. Of particular note for changing my mental model was Julia Evan’s closing keynote about learning systems programming with Rust. There were so many things that struck me during that talk, but I’ll just focus on the couple that were most relevant.

First and foremost was the humility in the talk. Julia’s self described experience level was “intermediate developer” while having about as many years of experience as I have and I considered myself a more “senior developer.” At many points over the last couple years I’ve wrestled with this, considering myself senior then seeing evidence that I’m not. As more confident person, it is an easy trap for me to fall into. I’m in my first year as a game developer, regardless of other experience I’m a junior game developer at best.

Starting to internalize this humility has resulted in fighting my coworkers less when they bring up topics that I think I have enough knowledge to weigh in on. The more experienced folks at work have decades of building games behind them. I’m not saying my input to these discussions is worthless, I still have a lot to contribute, but I’ve been able to check my ego at the door more easily and collaborate through topics instead of being contrary.

The humility in the talk makes another major concept from it, life long learning, take on a new light. I’ve always been striving for more knowledge in the computer science space, so life long learning isn’t new to me, but like the optimization discussion above there is more nuance to be discovered. Having humility when trying to learn makes the experience so much richer for all parties. Teachers being humble will not over explain a topic and recognize that their way is not the only way. Learners being humble will be more receptive to ideas that don’t fit their current mental model and seek more information about them.

This post has become quite long, so I’ll try to wrap things up and use further blog posts to explore these ideas with more concrete examples. Writing this has been a mechanism for me to understand some of this change in myself as well as help others who may end up in similar shoes.

If this blog post were a tweet, I think it’d be summarized into “Pay attention to the important things, check your ego at the door, and keep learning.” which I’m sure would get me some retweets and stars or hearts or whatever. And if someone else said it, I’d go “of course, yeah folks mess this up all the time!” But, there is so much more nuance in those ideas. I now realize I’m just a very junior game developer with some other sometimes relevant experience, I’ve so much to learn from my peers and am extremely excited to do so.

If you have additional resources that you’d think I or others who read this would find valuable, please comment below or send me at tweet.

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