Video game 'firefighters' rise to the 'Call of Duty' in Portland
PORTLAND — In a small waterfront office, two programmers are working on some of the biggest titles on the video game market.
Wade Brainerd and Michael Vance work as a team for Activision, one of the world's largest game publishers, in a state that is mostly alien to the industry.
Their recent credentials include "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," a cinematic military shooter that grossed more than $500 million in its first day of sales, and an unannounced game expected to be revealed as the next "Call of Duty" title within the next week.
Brainerd and Vance may be far from the Santa Monica, Calif., offices where they previously worked, but because of the nature of their work and and their senior status with the company, they've been able to operate in Portland for more than four years.
"We all had been working at Activision for a very long time, and in the industry it's valuable to hold on to those connections," said Brainerd, an Orono native, "so we approached Activision as a group and we said, 'hey, we'll move to Maine, we'll open a little office, we'll do research and development ... we'll fill a niche that you guys need.'"
Brainerd and Vance said they couldn't say anything about the new game, other than that they have been working on it for 15-16 months with Infinity Ward, the studio primarily responsible for its development.
"We have our own (intellectual property) we want to protect. We have our own release schedule," Vance said. "Marketing works very hard to build the sort of very specific crumbs of hype, and that goes into all these metrics and trends, and that builds into pre-order numbers surging. And that all builds into Day 1 sales."
The two programmers also couldn't confirm whether they were working on software for the PlayStation 4, Sony's new high-tech game console, or the yet-to-be-announced successor to Microsoft's Xbox 360. Vance said he couldn't even let a visitor into their main workspace.
"You can't even talk about that," he insisted lightheartedly.
Brainerd and Vance may not play a creative hand in the development of best-selling games like "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," but their engineering work is considered integral to the games' success.
They call it "firefighting."
When a game is weeks away from release, Brainerd and Vance jump into the internal code and make sure that everything checks out, which can be a rather intensive process.
"We built our names in California on coming in and fixing hard problems that other people couldn't solve," Brainerd said, "or at the end of a project just being able to quickly resolve issues. That's what we mean by 'firefighting.' The only thing that people can notice of our work is that the game works."
Brainerd and Vance said "firefighting" is the last line of defense against bugs, glitches or slowdowns in games before they are released to the world. It's a job that can demand up to 80 hours of work a week.
But Brainerd said because of their office's independence, their work schedule is more flexible now, which enables them to spend more time with their families.
"There's nothing more depressing than working 12 hours a day in (Los Angeles), then driving back to your place and being stuck in traffic," Vance said, smiling. "... That was the worst feeling in the world."