Oddworld’s Inhabitants: Thatcher Ulrich, Senior Programmer

Oddworld's Inhabitants: Thatcher Ulrich, Senior Programmer [Hosted by Oddworld.com]

Date: June 2002

Interviewer: Oddworld.com

Interviewee: Thatcher Ulrich

Oddworld’s Inhabitants are as diverse as the world they’ve worked together to create. Here’s where you’ll find interviews and other informative articles spotlighting the many creative folk that work at Oddworld Inhabitants. Be they headline players or behind-the-scenes heroes, the Inhabitants profiled here all share Oddworld’s ceaseless dedication to bringing you the best worlds and games that you’ve ever experienced.

Thatcher Ulrich, Senior Programmer img16_main

Q: What’s your background?

Thatcher Ulrich: I’ve always loved videogames. Games are what pulled me into programming in the first place. I got my start writing BASIC programs for the 8-bit Atari computers. I didn’t really think about game programming as a career until after I graduated from college though. I went to Duke and majored in EE/CS. Mostly I studied computer architecture. I thought I was going to design chips or something like that. Duke didn’t even offer a computer graphics class at that time, and to this day I’ve never taken a formal graphics course.

When graduation rolled around, I was kind of idly thinking about going to grad school for computer engineering, and equally idly thinking it would be fun to make computer games. This was during the Genesis/NES era, and I didn’t know how to break into the industry, such as it was. To be honest, I was following the philosophy of Mick Shrimpton (of Spinal Tap): “have a good time, all the time”. So, more by default than anything else, I took a job at a place where I’d done summer internships, making acquisition & display software for industrial sensors (http://www.tekscan.com). Very rock n roll, I know…. I worked there for about two years, and then I had the opportunity to join a startup making 3D games for exercise equipment. I was the lead programmer for about seven years. Our products were the Tectrix VR Bike and VR Climber and a bunch of games that came with it, which you might occasionally see in health clubs…

Getting back to the Spinal Tap theme, throughout that period I was also playing in a band with three other bespectacled nerds; we worked hard to popularize a genre known as “sixteen-eyed rock”, but never quite hit the big time..

After that I spent a couple years with another start-up, making Soul Ride (http://www.soulride.com). We hit a lean patch financially, and the Oddworld opportunity came around at just the right time.

Q: Who are your biggest influences? Why?

Thatcher Ulrich: As far as games: I love the old-school arcade games: Asteroids, Robotron, Mr. Do, Elevator Action, Spy Hunter, etc. The Looking Glass action/adventure games, especially Ultima Underworld II, made a huge impact on me. I admire Wolfenstein/Doom/Quake for their atmosphere and technical excellence.

Q: Why did you decide to go into the video game industry?

Thatcher Ulrich: Well, I love games. There are enough new professional and technical challenges in game programming to keep it fresh.

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

Thatcher Ulrich: Besides vegetating on the couch, I like to hang out with family and friends, walk the dog, bike around town, play soccer, surf the web, watch soccer & basketball, read, noodle around on guitar and go to the movies. I’ve also recently discovered I like to putter around the house, and even do yard work.

Q: What CD are you currently listening too? What book are you reading?

Thatcher Ulrich: Elliott Smith’s first album; also Rocket From The Crypt “Circa Now”. I’m reading “Age of Homespun” at the moment, a history book written by my mom. I’m usually reading either pulpy sci-fi, or 19th century novels.

Q: What kind of a place is Oddworld?

Thatcher Ulrich: Oddworld is a place that demands your best work, and provides an environment where you can do it. You can generally be sure that the person at the next desk is a talented pro who will do the product justice in their specialty. Oddworld is very detail-oriented, in the administration and operation of the company, as well as in the product itself. There’s also a very clear, and unique, product vision.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

Thatcher Ulrich: Sit down at my computer around 9am, start up various tools, sync to Perforce, survey the tasks of the day, and dive in. Bounce between Emacs, MSVC, and email. Take the dog for a walk around lunchtime. Back to the keyboard til around 6 or 7. Every day there’s a new little puzzle to figure out.

Q: What do you like best about coming to work? What’s the worst part?

Thatcher Ulrich: Best: Having the opportunity to do a nice job on something. Worst: Long compiles. Certain GUI programming tools.

Q: If you could change jobs with one of the other Inhabitants who would it be and why?

Thatcher Ulrich: Don’t tell anyone, but I have the best job in the whole place.

Q: What at Oddworld are you most proud of?

Thatcher Ulrich: Hm. I sweated a lot over the camera control in Munch’s Oddysee, and I think it turned out pretty well. We learned some things last time though, and it’ll be better in the next game.

Q: Many fans are upset with Oddworld’s decision to develop for the Xbox exclusively. Any comments?

Thatcher Ulrich: The Xbox is really hot hardware. I sympathize with people who have to choose only one console. But I think the Xbox is going to push console gaming forward. The games look so good already, and the next wave will be even better. The extra graphical power frees up programmer time to focus on other things like AI, gameplay and tools for the designers. As far as targeting only one platform, it’s a huge boon for the programming team. We can be much more aggressive with our engine and much more economical in our coding than if we had to make a multi-platform game.

Q: What advice would you give someone trying to break into games? What type of education does someone need to do your job?

Thatcher Ulrich: Study hard, work hard, and be interested in things outside games.

To do my job, you need a solid grounding in programming, math and video game technology in general. More importantly you need to be able to stay focused on the task at hand, be able to communicate, and constantly learn on the fly.

Q: Who is your favorite Oddworld character? Why?

Thatcher Ulrich: Abe cracks me up.

Q: Can you tell us anything about the new game or what you are working on right now?

Thatcher Ulrich: At the moment I’m working on collision/contact detection. We are in top secret mode so I really can’t disclose any details about the new game