In 2020, the Miami Heat unknowingly gave a huge assist to DigiPen MS in Computer Science graduate Vineet Dogra. The team was in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, starting off the championship series with two losses in a row. “No team has ever come back from 3-0 in the finals,” Dogra says. On the hunt for his first job in the game industry, Dogra was having trouble in the finals too, narrowly missing four positions in the last round of the interview process.
“I was down in the dumps, but then came this player Jimmy Butler in game three of the finals, and what he did for me that day changed my life,” Dogra says.
The philosophy we had at DigiPen is the same philosophy we have at Visual Concepts. I think that’s why it works.
With two of the Heat’s starters sidelined due to injuries, Butler put on an astounding 40-point triple double — one of three players ever to do so in the finals — leading the Heat to victory through overwhelming odds. “Ironically, I was also about to interview for Visual Concepts, the company that makes the NBA video game,” Dogra says. “I got so hyped up and inspired by Butler’s performance, I barely slept for six days just reviewing every programming question I could.”
Channeling Butler’s spirit, Dogra landed the job, becoming one in a growing roster of nine DigiPen MS in Computer Science graduates working on the studio’s 2K sports franchise, including the recent NBA 2K23. “The philosophy we had at DigiPen is the same philosophy we have at Visual Concepts. I think that’s why it works,” Dogra says.
Much how Dogra saw himself in Butler’s NBA finals performance, fellow MS in Computer Science graduate Sindhu Jannali works on developing a game feature that, literally, helps players see themselves in NBA 2K23. In the MyCareer story mode, players can use a mobile app and phone camera to upload their own face onto their character using the series’ long-running face scan feature. “It’s an existing process, but my task on R&D is basically to improve the existing algorithm and pipeline to better the user experience,” Jannali says.
Improving the feature’s image processing algorithm has meant lots of AI work, something Jannali says she discovered her interest in at DigiPen. “The two years at DigiPen confirmed that I was really passionate about AI and helped me a lot to prepare for the game industry, especially this role,” Jannali says. “Being on a small student team helped me learn how to wear multiple hats at a studio, like being a developer and a QA person at the same time.”
Since the face scan team is comprised of Jannali alone, she does indeed serve as her own QA person the majority of the time. “I do a lot of testing on my own face,” Jannali laughs. “It can take a couple of tries until I get something that makes me go, ‘OK, this actually resembles me.’ There’s a lot of testing involved with edge cases too, like what happens if you wear glasses during the scan or have anything extra on your face?”
MS in Computer Science graduate Shashwat Pandey’s time on the NBA 2K series has been largely focused on two virtual cruise ships — NBA 2K22’s Cancha Del Mar and NBA 2K23’s G.O.A.T. Boat — that serve as online multiplayer hubs for last-gen console and PC versions of the game. Pandey’s backend networking powered the elevators on each boat, allowing players to travel between decks to access different game modes, minigames, features, and shops. “In previous versions of the game, all server connections went through a Central Park neighborhood,” Pandey says. “The code required a considerable rework on the ship to allow players to travel from deck to deck.”
The G.O.A.T. Boat took the groundwork Pandey and his team laid on the Cancha Del Mar and expanded it with even more features. “I’m most proud of the squad travel feature in the elevator this year, which was all me start to finish,” Pandey says. The new feature allows groups of friends playing online to travel up and down the boat’s decks together, something that proved to be a tricky networking task. “It was hard to implement as it needs a lot of synchronizing under the hood to make the players connect to the same server,” Pandey says.
Completing the feature by himself was no small feat either, especially given Visual Concepts uses its own custom programming language. “The language is close to C++, so all of professor [Dmitri] Volper’s lectures at DigiPen are useful on a daily basis,” Pandey says. “Writing engines from scratch like we did at DigiPen also gave me a deeper insight into the functioning of game engines, which came in handy in understanding the humongous code base at Visual Concepts.”
Dogra’s first year at Visual Concepts found him implementing UI and menu elements in NBA 2K22. “When you work with UI, it has the art element, but it also has code which interacts with the art. I think it was the best way for me to start, because I was able to understand two different code bases in a sense,” Dogra says.
DigiPen makes sure you have the raw skill you need to play any sport in the game industry.
On NBA 2K23, Dogra was handed even greater responsibility, working on MyCareer mode’s flashback system for last-gen consoles and PC. “Your character in the story is already in the NBA, but you flashback to important games in your college career and can play them,” Dogra says. “I worked on implementing those moments and games, and on tying them up with the regular season in our engine.” Rather than adapting the flashback system that was built for current generation consoles, Dogra and his team built the last generation version from the ground up.
Dogra says one of the reasons he and so many DigiPen MS in Computer Science graduates have gone on to Visual Concepts is the wide range of skills they come equipped with. “If you have an athlete who can run fast, has great hand-eye coordination, and good discipline, they can excel at lots of sports,” Dogra says. “DigiPen makes sure you have the raw skill you need to play any sport in the game industry. Visual Concepts picks up on that really quickly and can tell that engineers from there know how to solve problems.”
That well-rounded foundation is something Pandey puts to use every day out on the court, so to speak, with his DigiPen peers at Visual Concepts. “The variety of courses I took at DigiPen put me on the right track to be a generalist. I know enough about a lot of things to be able to dive in and be productive quickly thanks to that,” Pandey says. “I know I can speak for many of my fellow Dragons here. Visual Concepts was an opportunity too good to pass up.” Judging by the sizable number of Dragons the studio has drafted onto their roster, the feeling was mutual.