When thinking about the companies he might like to work for, senior Matt Sutherlin has always been quick to identify at least one game studio that sits at the top of the list: Blizzard Entertainment.
So when it came time to look for a student internship for the summer after his junior year in the B.S. in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation program, he knew exactly where to start.
“I’ve always loved Blizzard products, and I would say I had more than a mild problem with playing too much World of Warcraft for a number of years,” he says. “They take very few people in general and it’s very competitive, so I knew it was kind of a long shot. But despite that it was one of two places I applied for internships.”
Specifically, Sutherlin applied to an online listing for a software engineering internship related to engine programming. After sending off his application materials, Sutherlin says he waited close to three months before he received a response—enough time to make him think he hadn’t been selected.
On the contrary, when Sutherlin did receive an email, it was an invitation to schedule a preliminary phone interview, which happened to be with the project lead.
“It was just a half hour of rapid-fire technical questions,” he says. “It was intense.”
Sutherlin was soon contacted for a second phone interview (this time much more conversational than the first, he says) and was eventually offered the position to work on Blizzard’s unannounced MMO project, codenamed “Titan.”
Everything was looking good until three days before Sutherlin’s start date. That’s when he received a phone call from Blizzard explaining that his internship position had disappeared due to a major, unexpected shift in the “Titan” project development. Luckily, however, the engine team for StarCraft II was interested in bringing on Sutherlin to help with their work on the upcoming title Heroes of the Storm.
Even on the first day of the job, Sutherlin says, there was a lot to take in. After touring the sprawling Blizzard campus during an intern orientation session (where each intern received plenty of Blizzard swag), Sutherlin went to meet with his team and program mentor.
As it turned out, the StarCraft engine team was operating at only half of its usual staffing level for senior engineers, meaning there was plenty of work that needed to be accomplished over the next weeks and months. But before he could take on any actual workload, Sutherlin was first tasked with familiarizing himself with the StarCraft codebase.
Even that was no easy job.
“The StarCraft codebase is about 10 years old, with millions and millions of lines of code,” Sutherlin says. “It dwarfs anything I had previously worked on — many times over.”
While daunting at first, Sutherlin says he soon hit his stride after a couple weeks in. He worked on bug fixes, art tools, and programming contributions to the underlying engine code — all toward the goal of allowing Blizzard artists and designers to have their artwork and features display correctly on the screen.
In doing so, he also alleviated pressure from the rest of the understaffed engine team.
“I definitely felt like the work I was doing was valuable,” Sutherlin says. “There will be a point when I can point at things in Heroes of the Storm and say, ‘I did that.’”
Sutherlin says it was also a learning experience seeing the scope of work that goes into a major commercial product. One of the hallmarks of the StarCraft franchise, he says, is each game’s ability to play and perform well across multiple operating systems and hardware configurations.
As such, Sutherlin had to maintain compatibility when working between Windows and Mac clients, as well as solve problems associated with older, inexpensive graphics cards. He also had to ensure that the features he implemented wouldn’t compromise the game’s robust editing tools, which fans around the world use to generate original maps and content.
“At school, because of the size of the teams, our level of experience, and the scope of time, there are a lot of considerations that we just can’t afford to make,” Sutherlin says. “But when you hit the industry, those are real-world concerns.”
For other students who might be considering an internship, Sutherlin says it’s important to consider the type of work you want to do after graduating and apply to something that fits your specific skill set. Then tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight that fit.
“I know that not everybody always gets that amazing opportunity to do exactly what they love doing, but you should strive for that,” he says.
For Sutherlin, having moved toward a specialization in graphics programming since his sophomore year, looking for a position in his field of interest was especially important for helping him determine if it was something he was ready to take on right out of college.
Today, Sutherlin says, he feels confident he can do just that. And more than that, he’s excited.
“My time at Blizzard really cemented that that’s what I want to do,” Sutherlin says. “I want to program graphics on games.”