Berkeley student engineers success

Software developer and EECS student Michael Bao makes a name for himself in video games

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Randy Adam Romero/Staff

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Michael Bao’s friends call him Mikey, and on the weekends, they all play Mario games on the Wii. Bao, a second-year EECS major at Cal, is known for not being particularly good at Super Mario Bros. — but when it comes to making games, Bao’s friends turn to him for answers.

In April 2010, when he applied to work on a “Half-Life 2” mod — a game developed as an expansion pack of sorts for the original game — called “Age of Chivalry,” Bao didn’t expect it to go very far. “At first, we were very much just a mod team. We were just a bunch of people who were like, ‘Oh, we should make a game,’ so initially we had no idea what we were doing,” he said.

Three years later, “Chivalry: Medieval Warfare” is an extremely successful indie game with a 79 on Metacritic and a large player base via Steam, an online gaming platform. It is known as one of the first high-quality medieval warfare titles of its kind, praised for its combat mechanics and multiplayer matches.

When the team — called Torn Banner Studios — decided to transition from a mod to a full-blown game, Bao was made lead programmer. He was in his junior year of high school and had only been programming seriously since his freshman year. “Requirements were a little more lenient (for the mod project), so I managed to sneak on during that. When we decided to transition to a full-blown project, I got switched over too,” Bao explained.
On top of everything, he was a self-taught programmer, and he had never used the Unreal Development Kit. The UDK is the free version of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3, which many developers use as a foundation of sorts for their code. In order to work on “Chivalry,” Bao had to quickly learn the ropes of the Unreal Engine.

For Bao, a lot of the value of his experience came from learning rather than getting access to gaming events or making money off of the game’s royalties. He says his experience with real-world programming has helped him in his computer science classes at Berkeley.

“I think a lot of people think that game development is really hard, and that’s why they shy away from trying to do it — but I think that once you get into it, it’s actually not that bad,” Bao said. “It just takes a lot of time and dedication. If you’re willing to put the effort into it, you can get it done.”

For Bao, putting effort into “Chivalry” meant working 20 hours a week for very little pay, and he says it became more of a “full-time job” toward the end of the project. “Mike was in front of his computer all the time. I’m surprised he ever ate or slept,” Kevin Lin said rather facetiously. Lin lived in Foothill with Bao during fall 2011 and spring 2012, when Bao was working on “Chivalry.” Gautam Tammewar, another former dorm-mate and friend of Bao’s, added, “He’s either at his computer or playing Mario with us.”

Bao worked tirelessly, sacrificing sleep and grades, all out of love for the project. “The game wasn’t about just one person’s vision but the entire team’s vision,” Bao said of the team’s dedication to the game. “If no one wanted to work on it besides the boss, then it wouldn’t be a game worth making.”

The team believed in “Chivalry” because it knew the game could find success. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo as well as indie-friendly platforms like Steam make it easier for small developers to get noticed, and services like Humble Bundle give more players access to high-quality indie titles.

“I really like the fact that indie games can do so well in the gaming industry, just because the Internet is so friendly to indie games in general,” Bao said. “I think it’s one place where people with passion for something can really have success, and that’s one of the reasons why the gaming industry is so awesome. People who love what they do come together and do it. You can definitely tell when someone worked on a game that they really cared for.”

Bao added that the amount of time and effort he put into “Chivalry” was the exception to the rule when it comes to indie game development.

“A lot of people do this in their free time, whether it means an hour a week or eight hours every day. There’s a lot of cool indie projects out there; you could probably join one by sending them an email and saying, ‘Hey, I’m a programmer. I don’t really know Unreal, but I can learn it really quickly,’” Bao said. These kinds of indie projects make game development accessible to students or those looking to break into the gaming industry.
Bao expects indie games to grow even more popular thanks to the open nature of PC gaming and the iOS and Android mobile markets. For aspiring game developers, this means that a pet project might turn into a career or, at the very least, an invaluable learning experience.

“As long as you have someone to do the art and someone to do the programming, you can make a game,” Bao said. He added that, even if the project is not successful, it’s always worth doing in the end.

Contact Kallie Plagge at [email protected]. Check her out on twitter at @kirbyoshi.