Dev Space: Ali Helmy

Dev Space: Ali Helmy

New year, new games, new people to meet! In December we decided to open our hearts and Dev Space to our awesome VR devs. You already met Darío Sancho, The Climb's Lead Programmer, and Fatih Özbayram, Producer for Robinson: The Journey and The Climb. Now meet Ali, Animation Programmer for our VR team!

Name and position

Ali Helmy - Animation Programmer on Robinson: The Journey and The Climb.

Why did you want to work in the games industry and how did you get started?

Growing up I had always been completely fascinated by computer games and the portals they open to these fantastical worlds I read about in my fantasy & science fiction books. One day my brother brought home an issue of 'PCGamer UK' magazine, that had a very long interview in it about the making of the Blade Runner game that absolutely blew my mind. I had never before thought about the effort, technology and creativity that goes into making games and ever since then, I was absolutely hooked. I tailored my GCSE (high school for US folks) degree to make sure I went on to get a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering. I started working on super small games, then graduated to an open source RTS game, called 0AD.

Later on, I had to abandon that dream for a paying job for a while but it was always on my mind. Until, a few years ago a small indie mobile games company (Limbic) had an opening and I joined them. It was my first ever actual real paying job programming games, and it was the start of a dream come true. Working on a AAA scale game studio at the forefront of technology was always the ultimate dream, though. Ever since Crysis, Crytek to me was not just another AAA gaming studio, but one of the few that are truly at the bleeding edge when it comes to technology. My wife caught me checking the Crytek website for openings and kept urging me to apply, even though I knew I couldn’t possibly make it. Fast forward a few awesome interviews later, I found myself moving my family to Frankfurt, and almost two and a half years later, I still think it was the best chance I ever took :)

When the chance came up for specializing into an Animation Programmer after being a Gameplay programmer, I absolutely pounced on it. I believe that across the industry, animation systems have lagged  a lot behind other systems, like rendering for example. Also, it is a common notion that everything looks worse in motion, rather than still slide shows, so I am hoping we can change that!

What are you working on at the moment? What's first on your to-do list?

Overall I am working very closely with the animators, designers and the CRYENGINE animation team to make sure we get the highest fidelity we can from our animations. VR poses some unique challenges when it comes to animation because basically, you can’t predict where the player is facing, can’t force them to look a certain direction, can’t “cheat” your way through some animations (like most games do in regular 3D) and with the improved depth perception and increased player camera movement, any animation shortcomings are more obvious. This means that for VR, it involves a lot of work investigating the best techniques, making sure we can grab the player’s attention and direct it to what is important; also, a lot of Inverse Kinematics and pose correction to make sure character skeletons land exactly where they should be.

In VR, if your foot is even a tiny bit off the ground, or your hand is not 100% touching the item you’re holding correctly, these would be very obvious. Furthermore,  with  the extended  range  of motion  that VR provides the player with, I am looking extensively into expanding the capabilities of our procedural animation layers. This provides our animated characters with much greater precision, but more importantly a bigger range of freedom on top of the already hand-crafted animations our animators create. On my to-do list next is exposing some of the interfaces for the lower level CryAnimation systems responsible for the IK & skeleton pose modifiers. This would provide more effective communication (between development teams and users) and control over the characters in the game, which add a LOT to the experience, specially, but not exclusively, in VR.

What music do you listen to at work?

A broad spectrum really of Metal: Heavy Metal, Power Metal and all the Metal :) My headphones are not very good at noise cancelling, so I use my music to compensate and it really gets me in the mood for some extreme keyboard bashing!

What tools are you using at the moment?

Visual Studio for 95% of the coding; Vim for all text editing that is not C++ code; git for my personal branches and local work versioning; perforce for versioning the code with the rest of the team; git-diff for, well… diffing; Fraps to record progress, share videos of work or to point out something.

Oh, and, of course, a lot of CRYENGINE Sandbox to set-up the animations and the characters properly. More than 90% of my time spent in the sandbox, is usually in the Mannequin editor or the Character Tool.

What types of games do you like, and what is your favorite game of all time?

I absolutely love RPGs, especially of the open world flavour (yes, Bethesda, I am blaming you for my lack of sleep for the last about 12 years). I also absolutely love point & click adventures (Indiana Jones & the Fate of Atlantis/Monkey Island), and almost everything out of the Lego series.

Secondly, I am a huge rally fanatic, and ever since Colin McRae Rally came out years ago, I have been a die-hard fan of the Dirt series from CodeMasters. If you come across me on my lunch break/after hours at the office, I am more likely than not Rallying :)

Some other one-off games that I absolutely love but don’t really fit into a genre also include Kerbal Space Program & Dwarf Fortress; although I’m really bad at both :)

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

My wife and I absolutely love travel and the outdoors; I love cycling everywhere with our daughters in the bicycle trailer, hiking in the forest, trying out some new coffee brands, reading a steampunk or fantasy book or, preferably, all of the above!

The  ultimate weekend for me would be to travel to a new city, then cycle to some part of its surrounding wilderness, drink up some coffee, then huddle with the book next to a campfire. On a normal weeknight it would be just playing some board games with my 2 daughters, and then some reading or the latest Netflix series episode after they go to bed.

Where are you going on your next vacation?

It might be around February, so hopefully Dubai to visit my brother and his family who are currently living there, and also because it is a great escape from the European winter and a chance to catch some gorgeous sun!

Do you have any tips for people wanting to get started in the industry?

Refuse to settle down for a (non-gaming) job, and keep applying. I didn’t work in the game industry when I first started, but that doesn’t mean you have to end outside it either. Read a TON of books. I read every single book I could afford/find on the topic. Also, blogs, news sites and current industry progress. There is no such thing as useless information. I spent my free time doing games programming and trying out smaller personal projects. If you are truly passionate about game development, in this day and age there is literally NOTHING stopping you from doing so. At the very least, it will teach you a LOT about making an actual game, and at best, it is always a positive thing for recruiters and teams to show it is actually a passion of yours.

Don’t get dissuaded by interview or recruitment rejections. Some of the best information I got and steering to the right path of learning came from big companies turning me down, but being awesome enough to point me to what I was lacking and what I needed to learn. If you ever get declined from a job position, don’t be shy to ask for feedback from the interviewers as to why. It really shows you do care and would instantly make everyone respect your openness and be glad to point you in the right direction.

Finally, if you want something, just ASK for it. I would not be here if I hadn’t applied for the job at Crytek. Every single person in the game industry would not be where they are if they hadn’t ASKED for the job. Want to get into the game industry, regardless of your skill level/proficiency field? Then why aren’t you checking Crytek’s openings and applying RIGHT NOW :)

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