Spider-Man 3 Developers to Discuss Process-Improvement Experience in SEPG Keynote



Heidi Brayer

This library item is related to the following area(s) of work:

Process Improvement

This article was originally published in News at SEI on: August 1, 2007

As Guha Bala tells it, everything could have stopped after Synnergist, the first game released by Vicarious Visions, a computer and video game company he and his older brother, Karthik, formed while still in high school.

“We thought it would be easy. We found out it was much more complicated than we ever anticipated,” Guha says of their initial venture into the gaming world.

The two brothers could have pursued other careers and just chalked it up to an adult-world learning experience from a hobby started in the basement of their parents’ home.

After all, each had other interests, the kind of interests that equate to job security. Guha would go on to earn an honors degree in chemistry from Harvard University and was considering whether to become a scientist or pursue some other graduate-level course of study. Karthik, meanwhile, was studying at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

But both brothers chose to develop software titles and now lead Vicarious Visions, which recently topped $1 billion in retail sales with more than 100 software titles.

“I found this is what I was passionate about, getting a lot of energy with very little promise of anything in return,” said Guha during a recent telephone interview. Guha and Karthik Bala will keynote the SEPG North America conference held March 17 to 20 in Tampa, Fla.

Their talk will draw upon their experiences in process improvement developing more than 100 software titles including Bee Movie, Transformers, Shrek the Third, Tony Hawk and in May, 2007, Spider-Man 3 for five different gaming platforms including PlayStation 2, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, and Nintendo Gameboy Advance.

For Spider-Man 3, the systems and sub-systems code alone amounted to approximately 1 million lines of code.

Guha, who serves as president of Vicarious Visions and oversees the day-to-day production management, explained that developing computer and video games like Spider-Man 3, involves the coordination of numerous outside influences.

The team that worked on the project had to coordinate the efforts of nearly 200 people within 16 months to meet production schedules. They had to oversee such tasks as scheduling recording time with actors Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire. Other aspects of the project including writing a script that, in its final form totaled 6,000 lines of dialogue, which had to complement the movie screenplay, but not duplicate it. Another aspect was the sound technology which includes writing audio code.

“There’s a sound engineering process for taking a voice recorded in a studio and making it sound like it’s recorded in a warehouse,” Guha explained.

To coordinate such an extensive undertaking, Guha said employees at Vicarious Visions often incorporate components of the Team Software Process (TSP) and Personal Software Process (PSP) methodologies into their work. The two methodologies were created by Watts Humphrey, National Medal of Technology winner and founder of the SEI Software Process Program, as a way for development engineers and teams to implement principles of CMMI in their organizations.

For example, before even beginning a project, individuals and teams at Vicarious Visions rely upon historical data when making future estimates on project schedules.  Another important aspect has been the implementation of a team-wide launch process when beginning new initiatives.

“This involves breaking down the elements of a process and building a shared vision and clarity of what we’re actually trying to accomplish,” he said, adding that it is a way to bring the team members’ expectations into alignment with management and also build broad-based commitment to a project. 

Guha said it was while he was in college that he and Karthik, who was attending RPI at the time, decided to make the uncertain world of gaming their future.

At RPI, Karthik had met and was inspired by Mike Marvin, who, with four other students, started a software company called MapInfo Corp., which was later sold to Pitney Bowes.  Marvin, who received his Master of Science degree from the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at Carnegie Mellon University, mentored many tech startups at the time including Vicarious Visions.

''Mike Marvin said he'd give us seed capital if we stayed here, and persuaded us that we could learn plenty from the other companies,'' Karthik stated in a Dec. 19, 1999, New York Times article about software startups in central eastern New York. The two brothers had been considering moving their company to California after graduation in 1997. They are now based in Albany and employ more than 150 people. Marvin and others helped Vicarious Visions with a business plan including benefits for its game developers. Other software executives in the region also helped in developing strategies for syndicating games on the World Wide Web, according to the Times article.

Gutha said he and his brother have no regrets and their new game plan involves looking to the future.

“The simplest way to explain it is this: Our goal is to make Vicarious Visions a household name for our medium,” Guha said.

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