In parts 2-4 of our Get to know your XNA MVPs feature, we’ll be welcoming and interviewing two of the most recent additions to the team, as well as one veteran. Recently I had the opportunity to interview John Defenbaugh, better known as @SigilXNA on the AppHub Forums and Twitter.
I’ve always been curious as to how many of our MVPs got their start in the XNA community, and as I conversed with more and more of them I quickly began to realize that they all come from a diverse set of backgrounds. John Defenbaugh is no different. A childhood love for tinkering with games is what initially sparked his interest. “I’ve been tinkering with games ever since I first started programming, but didn’t do much seriously with it until college. I got involved with a collaborative online game that turned into a business opportunity when some of the developers got hired to build a game for a Japanese university,” Defenbaugh said.
Despite having a programming background, he decided to pursue an MBA, eventually getting hired as an analyst for a management consulting company, in turn leaving his work with videogames on hiatus. It wasn’t until he picked up the original Xbox that sparked his interest in development again. “I heard about XNA, and was looking for an outlet to do more active development and learn something new, so I decided to start learning it.”
Like most of us, Defenbaugh has held a lifelong passion for gaming. At the young age of five he was nipped by the gaming bug, claiming “I wrote my first game in Atari’s version of BASIC. It consisted of moving a 36-pixel bug around the screen with a joystick eating dots of food. In retrospect, I have no idea where I learned how to code in BASIC – either I read it somewhere or my dad taught me, but I have no memory of the learning process.“ Faced with the same situation many gamers experience today, his parents were “actively opposed to games as entertainment for the most part though,” therefore, “I didn’t get to indulge the habit all that much until I got to high school.” That’s not to say that Defenbaugh is devoid of any sort of geek credibility, adding “For a couple of years in college I routinely won or placed in the local Magic tournaments.”
What appealed to him most about the XNA toolset was clear, and his engineering degree probably contributed to his interest in advanced
graphics. “I find the various optimizations, compromises, tricks, and hardcore mathematics that good graphics entails to be fascinating,” adding,“I’ve learned I’m a better engine programmer than game designer, so I’ve been concentrating more on that side of things.” A major selling point for XNA is the low barrier of entry. It is free, although it does have a $99 annual fee to release games. Furthermore, it allows for the release of titles on all of Microsoft’s current platforms, including Xbox 360, Windows Phone 7, Zune, and Windows PC. Defenbaugh found the lower barrier interesting as well, stating “with XNA, people who have very little experience can quickly put together very impressive 2D games with real gameplay (not just Gamemaker type stuff). That’s probably what drives me to help on the forums as much as I do.”
Just as a carpenter has a tool belt, all software developers use a fine array of tools to perfect their craft. While some of these tools are disposable, others prove themselves useful time and time again. Those talented enough, such as Defenbaugh, create their own. “I pretty much write most of what I need from scratch, for better or worse – I find graphics engines to be limiting a lot of the time, personally, because I’m always looking to tinker and customize everything.“ Continuing on with his thoughts, not all engines are beneath him, stating,“If you’re going to use an engine for anything at all, it should be 3D physics. Even with an engineering background I’d think twice before attempting to write one of those myself.” Havok seems to be the physics engine of choice for most Triple A studios, featured in titles such as Assasin’s Creed, the Halo Franchise, and Half-Life 2, although it isn’t available for use by XBLIG titles. For that, Defenbaugh suggests BEPU, which he claims to be, “by far the best indie/Xbox physics engine, and it’s recently free and open source, so I think it deserves to be publicized anywhere it can.”
In addition to the number of top notch premium suites of software available, there are also a number of freeware alternatives as well for those looking to add to their own toolbox, as we as be willing to learn and on occasion deal with the shortcomings. Many students run into this issue. Defenbaugh has been in this situation, therefore requiring him to learn the freeware versions such as Blender, Gimp, and Inkscape before moving onto Max, Photoshop and Illustrator. He does want to point out however, that it isn’t just about the tools. “A lot of people expect a certain tool to make them a brilliant artist, animator, etc., and it doesn’t work that way, any more than buying an expensive hammer will make you a great carpenter.”
Frequently I run into developers who, despite having a passion for gaming and the community behind it as a whole, hold interests or even careers in other fields. For many of us, the gaming industry serves an alternate life to the one we wander within each day. Defenbaugh is no different. “In ‘real life’, I’m a project manager for United Airlines in Houston. I run a .NET/Oracle development team, building financial and accounting applications.” Despite not having any XNA game titles under his belt, it has proven financially profitable thus far by licensing engine technology which will be used by one of the Dream.Build.Play 2011 teams.
I hope after reading this you have a better understanding of what it means to be an XNA MVP, as well as a bit of insight behind one of the community’s most recent additions. Be sure to welcome John Defenbaugh and congratulate him for his achievement. Keep in mind, MVPs are crowned their position for a reason: They excel in their field and enjoy assisting others. Check back later this week for Part 3 of this feature, where we interview another recent addition, Michael McLaughlin.