Jessica Yen’s story isn’t an unusual one for DigiPen students: She took an internship at Monolith Productions her senior year to get some industry experience under her belt; when her internship ran its course, the company hired her full-time as a Tools engineer.
What’s uncommon, however, is the level of praise that her manager, Eric Gross, heaps upon her. “She’s unflappable, takes everything in stride, and pretty much exceeds expectations on every level,” he gushes.
Yen, a 2011 graduate of DigiPen’s Bachelor of Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation program, seems to have found her niche at the Kirkland-based studio. She was originally hired as a gameplay intern, but found herself transitioned into a Tools role early in the process. “I found out I really enjoy tools programming – I think it’s definitely one of the most rewarding areas of game development,” she says.
Part of the appeal for her has to do with the longevity that tools have in the game development process. “The analogy I use in my head is that game development is like baking a cake,” Yen says. “Gameplay programming is like all your cake materials – your flour, your eggs, your butter – and you make this awesome cake, and it goes out the door and somebody eats it, and it’s great! But tools are the things that stick around, like your pots and pans and ladles and things, and if they’re really good, they work for every cake you’re going to make.”
Her first exposure to that type of programming came during her second year at DigiPen. “I built a level editor for my sophomore game, and I really enjoyed it,” she says. “It was the first time I had used C#, and part of it was ‘Oh, C# is so cool! It has all these neat features!’ But I enjoyed making the tool, and it definitely helped with building the game.”
When she began interning at Monolith, she found a different set of challenges from those posed by her student work. The biggest one was scale: Because the tools that Monolith uses have been around for well over a decade, the code base was considerably larger than anything she had dealt with before. “You go from something that’s maybe a couple thousand lines to something that’s several million lines – I mean, all the code I’ve written ever at DigiPen could maybe fill up one project in Tools.”
But that hasn’t stopped her from rising to the challenge. According to Gross, Yen quickly stood out as a potential candidate for a full-time position. “She had been performing above her level – she had been performing at the mid Software Engineer level,” he says. “And for our Tools group in particularly … tools engineers must be strong technically, but also sensitive to the needs of their clients moreso than gameplay or engine guys. And Jessica has the perfect temperament for it.”
Gross explains that it’s typically a slow process getting a Tools intern up to speed. “When we bring an intern in, we start them out with bug fixing just to get an introduction to the code base; they fix bugs here and there until they start to get a feel for how the systems work together,” he says. “And she was fixing bugs really quickly, so we decided to give her a shot at implementing some new features, and she did that really quickly as well. We code-reviewed her stuff really carefully to make sure it was robust, and everything she had done was top-notch.”
This is far from the first time that Monolith has worked with DigiPen students. “Our conversion rate [for DigiPen interns] is huge,” Gross says. “In fact, we originally used to take internship resumes from UW, from Full Sail, from any number of places. We’d have all of the candidates show up and screen them, and the DigiPen students were always at the top of the screenings, so nobody else was even getting called back. So our opinion of DigiPen is pretty high.”
For her part, Yen says that her DigiPen game teams taught her a lot about the process of game development. “As learning experiences, the game teams were amazing, they really were,” she says. “You have to deal with lots of different programming styles, and … I guess the most important thing would be dealing with code that you haven’t personally written, because out in the real world, unless you work for a startup, that’s pretty much all you’re ever going to do. So what I really picked up, especially last year, was how to read other people’s code and figure out what it does.”
As for Gross, he couldn’t be happier with Yen. “She’s at the point now where … we’ve recently transitioned some other people internally from another team and another code base, a senior-level guy and another associate, and Jessica is helping them get up to speed,” he says. “I mean, she was an intern six months ago! It’s pretty tremendous.”