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Sep 30, 2015

Trading game controllers for mission control

You’ve probably heard stories from parents or teachers about the day the US landed on the moon, Yuri Gagarin’s trip as the first human in space, President Kennedy’s moon speech, or any number of the enduring moments of the 1960s space race. Those narratives probably drum up images in your mind of patriots in lab coats making inconceivable discoveries and decisions that would impact countless lives. Unfortunately, after two shuttle disasters and developing a reputation for bureaucracy, the traditional space industry isn’t the dream job that it used to be. For most engineers, space exploration is a flicker of the imagination - left to be dimly lit by the occasional video game, movie, or tv show.

Something changed a couple years ago - in quirky offices spread across the world - some adventurous engineers and scientists began to peer towards space as a viable business. The passion for space had been bubbling under the surface of the San Francisco Bay Area where SpaceXSpire, and Planet Labs were founded. It’s since been cropping up in Glasgow, Scotland where both Spire and Clyde Space build satellites and components, and where many other new space companies are based.

Ready For Liftoff

All around the world, technology and opportunity are finally catching up with the vision of space that we grew up with in our imaginations. New advances in technology have enabled cost effective satellites that are engineered with little more than iPhone components and launched with relatively cost-effective rockets.

These aren’t startups driven by old-hat aerospace engineers that were too cranky for NASA. They are the fair trade coffee consuming, healthy snack eating, and fast moving passionate cultures that most game industry veterans would associate with a company like Valve or Double Fine Productions. The job titles are similarly unlikely to appear in a government job posting. “Full Stack Spacecraft Engineer” and “Spacecraft Software Developer”, each a sharp 180 degree turn from the abbreviation soup that plagues traditional space industry jobs, have begun to grace job listings. It should be no surprise that this quick-moving tie-free culture has attracted major attention from game developers.

Development: A blurry line between simulation and real life

Ben Yeoh, a former game industry veteran turned ground-to-space full stack developer, finds that the team makeup is especially similar: “No one person could do everything from A to Z, primarily because the amount of tech and research that goes into different parts of the project require varying skillsets and deep expertise. In the new space industry, we need HW engineers, RF engineers, embedded software guys, AIS expertise, GPSRO experience, and etcetera. And for AAA games, we had 3D graphics programmers, animation programmers, physics programmers, gameplay programmers, 3D artists, concept artists, animators, and so on, and even those have specialized sub-fields.” It’s not uncommon for developers, artists, or quality assurance who work on games like HaloDestiny, or Mass Effect to have to brush up on their physics.

The thirst for knowledge is something that drives many in the game industry. Those that have moved their desks to the universe of spacecraft development have discovered a massive learning opportunity. “Space represents a monumental technical challenge, which is very attractive to engineers like us. The similarities to game development makes the transition easy - tight deadlines, people working on the product on their own initiative and fueled by their passion, difficult engineering challenges, and always having new classes of problems to solve,”  offered Linus Tan, who recently swapped high profile game development for low orbit spacecraft.  

Space: A Different Psyche

Despite the many similarities, the new space companies aren’t simply a mirror image of the game industry. For better or worse, the game industry lives on hits. That boom and bust approach leads to layoffs, questionable policies towards contractors, and sometimes flat out puzzling decisions.  The stability of business to business models, having a consistent product offering, and valuing full time team members over temporary help provides a stark contrast to many game industry realities.

The mission itself is also much different: planet-wide self-improvement. “Space development has a proven track-record of significantly improving the human condition”, said Linus, “Weather satellites, GPS, you name it. Space also represents a monumental technical challenge, which is very attractive to engineers like us.” We’re now able to look back on our planet and to listen – to get an alien perspective of Earth, our people, our machines, and our signals. It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to describe it as an altruistic God Mode for real life. Yeoh agrees: “I think there's a real possibility of impacting the world in a positive way (relatively speaking) compared to working on games, and I think most game devs who have been working in the game industry would agree that this is a highly attractive point.”  

Are Game Studios Training Space Marines?

Working on games is great training for working on spacecraft. We’ve entered an entirely new reality - one where you don’t need a PhD to experiment in space. For a long time now, the game industry has had the benefit of being the be-all and end-all of many people’s career ambitions.  The game industry has reaped that benefit, sometimes to the detriment of those that love it so much. How would the industry cope with instead becoming a means to an end is anyone’s guess.

Should the giants of the game industry be kept up at night by the idea of a talent exodus? Not quite yet. However, it warrants some thought to be given to how the future of the gaming industry, which for decades has relied on space as an object of fantasy, will cope with space exploration as an everyday reality. The next time you work or play with a spacecraft might be as real as opening a shell and SSH’ing into a real satellite or to be the last person to physically touch a satellite before it reaches orbit.

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