What Goes Up: An Interview With Adriel Wallick

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Adriel Wallick–if you’re going by Google alone–is best known as a participant of the ill-fated game jam reality show. A few entries for her organization of the Train Jam appear as well, and people seem to joke that she works on satellites, but by and large, it would be difficult to parse out who Wallick really is.

The truth? There are games and satellites! Our interview covered these topics and more, and it’s hard to read her views on games and not come away inspired.

Pixels or Death: I’d love to hear about your education. Are you a secret doctor!? I assume the educational requirements are steep if you’re to be involved in satellite work…!?

Adriel Wallick: Actually, a lot less involved than you’d think. I didn’t actually work on rockets or building the actual satellite structure; I worked mostly on the flight and ground software of one of the main instruments that will be going up on the GOES*R weather satellite.

I’ve always been a big science and math person (my father is a form of mathematician, so I guess it’s mostly just how I was raised) and then when I went to college, I majored in Electrical Engineering. I actually decided pretty late in my degree that I actually wanted to focus on software, but as I couldn’t change my major by that point, I just took a bunch of software electives and then told everyone I was a software engineer instead.

Where did you go to school? Did you enjoy it?

I attended Boston University in Boston, MA. I definitely enjoyed it–I met a lot of wonderful people there and super enjoyed my education. I also had the opportunity to live in what would then become one of my favorite cities. I ended up living there for almost ten years (minus a year when I lived in California) before leaving somewhat permanently.

Can you please explain about your work on the GOES-R and BUSAT satellites? What’s their function, are they still in use, your specific role…

So, BUSAT was a satellite that was conceived of for part of a multi-university competition. The competition runs every few years and the winner ultimately is launched as part of a secondary payload on a future mission. We were part of Nanosat-5. For BUSAT, I was on a team of four working on the Command and Data Handling subsystem. We were responsible for, well, routing commands and data! The way BUSAT was being designed was a highly modular CubeSat, so we were responsible for coming up with an easy and flexible interface to each other subsystem.

As I was working on this for my final year project at Boston University, I was actually part of the hardware side. I designed a few routing PCBs and soldered a bunch of tiny things onto other things. We ultimately didn’t win the competition, so this one never got launched.

For GOES-R, I actually worked at two different companies on two different sections of the course of my time associated with it. My first job out of college was as a software engineer at Lockheed Martin. While there, I worked on a lot of the command databases and test software for the Geostationary Lightning Mapping (GLM) instrument that is on the GOES-R satellite. After I left Lockheed Martin, I ended up at another company called AER where I worked on implementing the group processing algorithms for the GLM instrument. This actually resulted in me having to reference a lot of my documentation from Lockheed Martin, which DEFINITELY taught me an important lesson on proper documentation!

Why that line of work? Have you always had a love of space, or was it something you fell in to?

I completely fell into it. I’ve always thought space was cool, but never pictured myself working on anything that associated with it. I started working on BUSAT because a few PhD students came to one of my classes and said that they needed people to work on. A friend and I decided it sounded cool as a summer internship and hoped that we could then turn it into our senior project (which we did). I continued working on it the summer after I graduated, and then through the professor who was heading it up, I got an interview at Lockheed. Since I already had experience on satellites, they put me on satellites. That’s basically how it happened!

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What about that work made you want to leave it? Or was it just time for a change?

Ultimately, I wasn’t too happy doing it. It sounds cool (and honestly, is pretty cool work), but I needed a much more creative line of work. I felt very much like a small cog in a large machine, and I dreaded the office life and nine-to-five lifestyle. I’ve always enjoyed playing games and have always wanted to make games… so I started making games.

What was your first step into a different line of work after the satellite work?

The first thing I did once I decided that I wanted to be a game developer was attend PAX East. I had just moved back to Boston and it was the first year that PAX was to be in Boston, so it seemed to make sense. I met a few local developers there (which was VERY awkward as I had no idea how to talk to them like normal human beings) and then was told about all of the different developer meetups in Boston that I should attend. I started attending those, befriending other developers, and working on my own side projects. After a while of working on side projects alone, I started working on projects with other developers, and eventually that led me to me being hired at an indie Studio in Boston (Fire Hose Games).

What was the first game you worked on?

The very first game I made after getting serious about it was a 3D Tetris game. I would never recommend making a 3D Tetris game–Tetris does not work as a 3D game.

How did you end up involved with Rock Band Blitz?

When I got hired at Fire Hose Games, it was when they were contracted out to Harmonix to work on Blitz. I actually worked at Fire Hose for almost a year and never once worked on a Fire Hose game, since my whole time there was working with Harmonix!

Was it after work on that title that you decided to go a more independent route?

After working on Blitz, I actually moved to another company in Boston that did a lot of non-original IP work. I still worked on games, but there was, again, no creative outlet for me. After a year or so there, I decided that I ultimately just wanted to work on my own ideas and my own games.

Something lead you away from science/satellites to games… be it intentional or serendipitous, did the reality meet your expectations?

Yes–games are where I belong, 100%. I’ve made so many amazing friends in this industry and am able to do so many wonderful things. I wouldn’t change anything for the world right now.

What were you like as a kid?

I was weird, I’m sure. It’s sort of hard as an adult to really look back and describe who you were as a kid. I was always into math and technology, I loved reading, etc. I was probably viewed as a huge nerd and never realized it. I didn’t particularly like hanging out with other people, and a lot of my teenage years were spent playing various games until the wee hours of the night.

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How would you describe yourself, particularly your personality?

Blerf–this is a hard one. I’m unconventional, I guess. I’ve gone through a lot of wildly varying personality types over my life. I used to be awkward and adventurous, then unconfident and traditional, and most recently, I’ve become confident and ver much someone who just tries to make things happen. I don’t really know how to define that. I spend a lot of time trying to see if things that sound wildly impossible are actually doable in a way. However, I also spend a lot of time doubting myself to an absurd degree. Mostly, I just try to be as happy as possible by doing the things that make me happy.

You talked about the cathartic aspects of gaming on Twitter a few days back… do you still feel the same connections to games?

Oh no, this interview was so long ago that I forget what I was being cathartic about! If I had to guess, I was probably talking about playing games from the age of like 10-15 years old as those are the years I get the most emotional about. I spent a lot of those years feeling lonely, and games were a way that I was able to feel real emotions and passion. I remember playing Final Fantasy 9 and becoming so emotionally invested in the characters and the story. I was very sad when it was over as I actually felt like I had lost a part of me now that I could no longer consume their adventure. I definitely still feel this kind of connection towards games today–if I get myself invested in a game, I always have this twinge of depression once its over. I always feel a bit empty after I complete an epic story.

What would you like to see out of games that you might not have seen yet? What would you like to see out of YOUR games!?

I want more games that force us into human connections. I think Game Oven Studios does this perfectly–their games force you out of your comfort zone and create an interaction between two people that may never have been there before. I think that’s beautiful, and I want more of that.

Clearly when making games, there’s an opportunity for them to speak for you. Did you ever feel that way with any of your scientific work?

Not at all. When working on something like a satellite, there’s no room for a creative or personal input. Everything has to work perfectly and have no room for error. This makes sense when something is millions or billions of dollars and going to space, but it makes for a very boring place for a creative person.

Do you even think that kind of connection (in the scientific realm) can exist? Or are the required disciplines too disparate?

In terms of research and development, I’d say so. I would imagine that someone working at a place like SpaceX can definitely put some personality and creativity into a very science-based mission.

To solve complex problems, you need to have an artistic mind, in a way. If you combine creativity and science, you have the means to come up with wildly amazing concepts to solve the world’s science problems.

Going into games, do you think of it as more supportive of your emotional well-being than your previous line(s) of work? (Was this even a driving factor!?)

This wasn’t a driving factor in my career change, but I love how supportive the game developer community is. We all seem to come together very well to help build each one another up, which I think is amazing. Because this is such a creative industry, we tend to put a lot of personal feelings into our work. It can be hard to deal with that without a support structure, and the fact that there are other developers out there who can talk about struggling with the same things makes me feel not so alone when I am struggling. Especially in the indie side of things, none of us are competing with one another, so we all just work together to feel wonderful.

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Adriel Wallick hopes to see the GOES-R satellite launch in 2016, but for now, check out her blog, where she’s documenting her efforts to create one game per week!