You’d have to look hard to find senior programmer Ike Adams’ fingerprints on any track, car or feature of iRacing. Then again, you’d have to look even harder to find a track, car or feature of iRacing that Adams hasn’t impacted since he joined iRacing in 2013. That’s because he focuses his talents on making the jobs of iRacing’s other programmers and artists easier . . . or at least more efficient. But as you’ll learn, Adams is used to improving the quality of life – so to speak – for lots of people, iRacing colleagues and members of course, but also some kids who may never take a lap on the sim in their lives.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you come to iRacing and what did you do in your previous life?
A: If you consider iRacing a game, this is the fifth gaming company I’ve worked with since graduating from Syracuse University. That’s 15 years of gaming development. I mostly started out in PC games. My last job was at Harmonix, where I worked heavily on the Rock Band franchise.
We also did dance games for the Xbox, using Kinect. We did a dance game called Dance Central on the data that we get from your body’s movements. We play music, you perform certain moves, dance along with a character on the screen and your performance is judged based on how well you mimic the character on screen.
I consider myself a generalist, but I think I most enjoy working on the user experience; the interaction the player has with the game; the amount of fun people have. It’s like the full-on experience from the observers’ perspective to the player’s perspective. That’s a really rewarding part of game development.
Another area I like to work on from the company perspective is building tools and such; knowing how to program and do things automatically. I see a lot of co-workers struggling with mundane tasks. So what I’m doing even now at iRacing is taking what a lot of the artists are doing and seeing if I can automate some of it.
Q: So you are not so much focused on any one car, track or feature but more on streamlining the processes your colleagues at iRacing perform in building or making new cars, tracks and features?
A: As you can imagine, the work we do at iRacing requires a lot of custom solutions; it’s not like a tool exists somewhere for the artists, because we have our own very specific requirements for building tracks. I haven’t gotten to the car development stuff, but I am familiarizing myself with the track development tools. I’m trying to build on the experience of our artists so it doesn’t take so long to do a lot of tasks.
I’m finding that they’re, not wasting time or being inefficient; it’s just that the tools they are working with are inefficient – and I can help with that.
Q: It seems to me one example of that is with the trackside environment. After all, within reason, a bunch of trees looks like a bunch of trees looks like a bunch of trees. Likewise, grandstands full of people. But every race track has unique — even signature – structures like the new pagoda at Indianapolis, the colossal Ferris wheel at Suzuka or “Miles the Monster” that you just can’t churn-out on an assembly line, as it were.
A: Right. Usually in video games, you plop a house down in a certain area and you can re-use the same house again and again and again. It doesn’t matter. It’s a fantasy world, nobody is familiar with the space and you get to make the rules. If you’re doing it after reality – as we are in iRacing — then every single asset is customized to look precisely like the “real” thing. There’s not a whole lot of re-use.
So much of our work is labor intensive. Laser scans help, but there’s still a lot of work in going from the laser scan to building models that we can render in our engine, texture properly and make them look as closely as possible like the real thing.
There’s a lot of steps involved and lot of those steps – I believe – can be made automatic, or at least made quicker for the people doing them. I’m trying to streamline the process. If something takes three steps – if you have to click on this thing, then look up something on a chart or menu and click on this other thing . . . well I want to go in and question whether that really has to happen, or whether we can do it in two or, ideally, one step. Ultimately, the artists tell me what would make them more efficient. That makes my job easier, because I can just go in and do those thinks or make those things possible.
“The work we do at iRacing requires a lot of custom solutions . . . every single asset is customized to look precisely like the ‘real’ thing.”
Q: Sounds like the artists could be putting themselves out of work!
A: We joke a lot about how we just want to clone our artists, then we’ll get twice as much content. Of course we’re joking (really, we’re joking guys) but if we can make people more efficient, that’s the same thing as cloning: people will have twice as many cycles and what they’re doing will take only half as much time.
It’s all kind of abstract, but from artists’ point – it’s all the same stuff, you move the right things into the right positions but by optimizing the process you just put it there – period — as opposed to putting it there, clicking on something else, dragging it there and hitting “save.”
Q: Moving from the abstract to the concrete, I think it’s fair to say you’ve made a real difference in the lives of some Boston kids as a snowboarding instructor. Can you give us a little insight into that aspect of your life?
A: I work with a volunteer service agency in Boston, Youth Enrichment Services – or YES for short. The mission is to take kids from inner city Boston and give them the opportunity to go skiing or snowboarding in the mountains. There’s lots of people who live in Boston who never get outside of Boston; never get outside of their neighborhood.
Our program is designed so that other agencies can use YES to take their kids snowboarding on the cheap. We get a donations from ski mountains, the rental shops donate used equipment to YES and we have a full shop with ski equipment and snowboards in Boston, so kids come during the week to get equipped with boots, bindings, boards, poles, skis and so forth and all that stuff gets put into a giant bin. Then we load up buses and the kids come early-early on Saturday because we go to mountains all over New England, so sometimes it’s like a three hour drive and we bring the kids up to the mountains.
We break them up by levels and spend the morning teaching them how to ski and snowboard. I’ve been pretty active in that since 2002 and then, the last couple of years with two young children of my own, I haven’t been going on as many trips. I still try to stay as active as I can. During the week we have to run the shop and prepare for the weekends, so I keep involved in it that way as well.
Obviously it’s not a very affordable sport, so lots of kids never have the opportunity to do it. But to expose young kids to it is very rewarding especially since they probably wouldn’t have had the chance otherwise.
“You can teach the skills and techniques, but you can’t teach passion.”
Q: Still on the subject of kids, what would your advice be to a young man or woman interested in pursuing a career as a gaming programmer?
A: I did a lot of interviews when I was at Harmonix and what I like to see from people is passion. You can detect passion rather easily (in a candidate) because they will have done something. They will have done their own side projects, or they will have written a story for a game. I like to see stuff, regardless of whether it’s professional, I want to see that this is what you want to do and you’re going to do it regardless of what happens.
It’s pretty easy to detect the difference between people who are faking it and people who have a passion. I’ll ask them to show me stuff, and if they haven’t done anything they’re proud of then I’m a lot less excited. You can teach the skills and techniques, but you can’t teach passion.