Yes, Mom, I can make a living playing video games

The following was published in The Brookville Democrat newspaper in June 2011.

By Melanie Padgett Powers, Special Contributor

Who says your children can’t turn their addiction to video games into a career? One local graduate has spent the last 10 years creating video games for a living.

Justin Crouch, a 1999 Franklin County High School graduate, is a senior software engineer at Human Head Studios in Madison, Wis. His parents are Sandy and the late Tim Crouch of Metamora.

Like many little kids, Crouch started playing video games around age 7—on an Atari 2600. But, he said, “The magic really started when I was 10, and we got a Nintendo for Christmas.” That Nintendo Entertainment System, or N.E.S., came with the games Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. “Mario Brothers was the first game that really got my imagination flowing,” he said.

Many of Crouch’s childhood friendships and memories were connected to playing video games. But even though someone had to create those games, he never imagined it as a career. Then one day, as a junior in high school, he came across a magazine article that made him reconsider his college plans.

“I was sitting on the front porch of our house reading the video game magazine GamePro, and there was a headline that said, ‘So You Want to Make Video Games,’” he said. The article described a school affiliated with Nintendo called DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash., just outside Seattle.

Suddenly, Crouch knew what he wanted to do after high school. He told his parents, who were supportive even though he had been aiming toward a more stable and potentially lucrative career path: He had planned to study aeronautical engineering at Purdue University and become an Air Force pilot.

Instead, Crouch and his father flew out to Seattle to visit the DigiPen campus and meet with instructors and students. “After that day, I was hooked,” he said, even though, “I’d never done any programming in my life.”

If he succeeded at DigiPen, Crouch would earn an associate degree in two years in real-time interactive simulation. “That’s just a fancy way to say ‘video game developer,’” Crouch said. But first, he had to catch up with students who spent years programming on their home computers.

“Playing video games and making video games is very, very different,” he said. “[DigiPen] was really intensive. We started with a little over a hundred kids in the class. At the end of the first year, around 70 kids had dropped out—either failed out or couldn’t take the stress.” Crouch was one of the survivors, although he struggled that first year. Fortunately, his roommate, who had been programming for years, tutored him.

That summer, Crouch came home to Franklin County and worked construction during the day and studied for hours at night. “All of a sudden, it clicked and the [computer] languages started to make sense,” he said.

He compared it to learning a foreign language. When you’re first learning a new language, you’re memorizing a lot of words and constantly translating in your head. But then one day it all comes together. “After years and years of experience you can just speak it.”

After he graduated, Crouch landed a job at Magic Lantern in western Illinois. But after seven months there, the tiny company went under. He then took a job with High Voltage Software outside Chicago, where he stayed for two and a half years before moving to Madison and accepting a job with Raven Software. There, he worked on the games “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance” and “Singularity.”

After five years, he accepted his current job at Human Head Studios in August 2010. He’s currently working on “Prey 2,” which will be released next year. The game garnered a lot of buzz earlier this month at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. Players in the game play a federal marshal named Killian Samuels who finds himself marooned on an alien planet, now working as a bounty hunter. A CBS article said the game has the potential to be the “next epic sci-fi game of 2012.”

As a game play developer, Crouch programs the parts of the game that players control. This differs from technical programmers, who make sure the game interfaces with the game systems properly, and environment artists, who develop the levels and areas of the game.

On “Prey 2,” Crouch is working on the weapons systems. “All the looks and feels of manipulating that weapon I have to write the code for,” he said. That means how many rounds and how fast a weapon fires, what damage it creates, and the screen shake and controller rumble when it’s fired.

The advancement of graphics in video games since Crouch was in high school playing on a Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 has been a huge leap forward. “It’s bringing us much, much closer to photorealism,” he said. Controllers are also much more high tech, even able to detect a user’s movement.

While “Prey 2” sounds intriguing, Crouch will never play it once it’s released. “By the time I’m done with a game, I’m so sick of it,” he said. Plus, there are no surprises. He knows every sound and movement, every level, every possibility. He compares it to the release of a new book: After an author writes a book, does he read it for pleasure once it’s published? “Nah,” Crouch said.

While Crouch finds his job creatively rewarding, he cautions any would-be video game developers that there are no perfect jobs. When he has a “milestone,” or project, due, it’s crunch time. “You gotta bust your tail, and that can mean tons and tons of unpaid overtime,” he said. “Once you start working those 80 hours [a week], you’ve got to be careful because you can get burned out really fast.”

He advises students interested in his field to work hard in high school and take as much computer science and math as they can. “I use linear algebra and trigonometry every day in my job,” he said. “In high school, it was fair to say I hated math.”

While he attended a specialized school, he encourages students to attend a four-year college or university to get a more well-rounded education. Consider a major in computer science with an emphasis on software engineering

Now 30 years old, Crouch is married to his high school sweetheart, Angela, and they have three young kids, Allison, 5; Isobel, 2 ½; and Charlie, 10 months old. But Crouch still plays video games as much as he can. His latest favorites include “Fallout: New Vegas,” “L.A. Noire” and “Rift.”

But it’s the game that started it all—Super Mario Bros.—that holds a special place. After having two daughters, Crouch was in charge of decorating his son’s nursery. He chose a Super Mario theme, hiring an artist friend to paint a mural of the game’s world. He made shelves showing the question mark boxes and bricks from the game. A Mario mobile and quilt decorate the crib. With Charlie living in a video game world since he was born, it wouldn’t be too surprising if one day he was inspired to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

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