Gene Gacho: Programmed to Succeed

by Joshua Diokno   

profileMuch has been said about the younger generation. Most of them, if not all, have been negative, pandering on their supposed inability to think critically and be professional. A lot even go as far to characterize them as mediocre and mundane, alluding much to their penchant to excessively use social media to brandish their consumerist vanity.

Some points might be valid, but much of their critics discount two important aspects of belonging to this younger generation: their voraciousness for ideas and their desire to innovate. Yes, this generation had been done a great disservice with all the generalization and more often than not, we tend to overlook real movers and innovators of the industry.

Such an individual is Mr. Gene Gacho. Tenured in Secret Six as a Programmer, he is the brainchild of the studio’s upcoming FPS game, “Xandata”. As he is with ideas, Mr. Gacho had been benevolent enough to extend his time to walk us through his path into becoming a Programmer, the experiences and frustrations that went with it and the not-so-glamorous but nevertheless worthwhile process of working on Xandata. And yes Mr. Gacho, we also don’t aim at advertising Mineshine. Tastes awesome though. But we digress, let’s dive in.

Xeno Creative (XC): How does one become enthused in programming? What path did you take that made you say to yourself, “I am going to be a programmer”? Was it something that came about as a necessity or a genuine desire?

Gene Gacho (GG): I think anyone who wants to do more with a computer will find their way into programming. Programming is just a way to get a computer to do things for you.

I’ve been into video games since I was 6. I started getting interested in modding (making modifications for existing games) when I was in Grade 5. I started with Red Alert 1 because it was easy – it didn’t really require much programming skill aside from editing a text file. Quake 2 and the advent of Action Quake was when I really decided I wanted to learn C++ to be a real modder. I ended up going into Computer Science for college to further develop my skills.

XC: How does the typical day of a programmer look like?

GG: Lots of thinking. Most people who see programming in movies and TV think it’s about typing, but it’s not. You have to plan things before you implement them. I think this is also a mistake most novices make – they try to code as fast as they can. While it could work for smaller projects, larger ones need to be very structured in order to avoid painting yourself into a corner, technically speaking.

XC: Do you have any personal projects that you undertake in your spare time? If you are not working on any, what kind of projects would you want to pursue in the future?

Project Xandata actually started out as a personal project. I’m not pursuing any other programming projects at this time but I do have other games planned. VR looks very interesting to me as well – I’m interested in doing some VR projects for our local museums, but time is scarce nowadays.

XC: Have you tried your hands into other media or technical discipline? If you have, what was it?

GG: I used to be a part-time pixel artist for ABS-CBN Interactive. I did some work on the Pedro Penduko, Rounin and Deal or No Deal games they launched for Nokia Series 40 and 60. Pixel art is still a low-key hobby of mine I do from time to time.

XC: If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what do you think you’d be specializing in?

GG: I’d probably be working a simple job in outside the games industry in order to support my martial arts training. Working on games takes up a lot of time and dedication and often conflicts with healthy living. I had to give up fighting at some point… I don’t think I’ve had a real match in around 4 years now.

XC: How do you see the Philippines as a venue to further the development of the programming discipline?

GG: This is somewhat of an advocacy for me. The Philippines has produced lots of great artists and creativity seems to come easy for Filipinos. Lots of artists have made it big in companies like Marvel, Naughty Dog, etc. I really want to see more Filipino programmers (especially game programmers) become international successes as well.

Sadly, I’ve done lots of interviews with applicants and I’ve found that most schools really aren’t good. Some teach really old technologies that nobody ever uses anymore. Others spoon feed students with copy-pasted code, thus robbing them of the most important thing you have to learn in the discipline: critical thinking.

It’s also frustrating that we are content with consuming technology, but not pushing to make new things with it. The world has seen big changes in the form of tech startups like Uber. I’d like to think that Filipino creativity can produce a grand app idea that would be worth billions one day and a Filipino team would be able to program that idea into reality.

XC: Do you see yourself as one who contributes largely to the industry?  If so, how?

GG: Aside from my day job at Secret 6, I also teach Game Development Math in College of Saint Benilde. I try to do what I can to improve programming skill in the industry, but I sometimes feel my reach is limited to within the company and school. I don’t think I know how to measure how much one contributes to the industry, so I think this question could be better answered by my students and colleagues.

XC: Where do you see yourself in the coming years?

screenshot9GG: I have several more game ideas. I don’t see myself retiring until I do most of those. When I do retire, I’ll probably just spend the rest of my days bartending at a speakeasy… and maybe give out quests to adventurers.

XC: What piece of advice or message can you give young aspirants wanting to enter the industry?

GG: Never be afraid of math. Math can be learned even via YouTube. If you can’t overcome the need to fit in an intellectual-adverse society by believing math is hard or only for smart people, then you’re locking yourself out of a lot of powerful programming skills commonly used in game development.

XC: What were the key ideas that led to the conception of Xandata?

GG: “Keiji Inafune will probably never make a Mega Man FPS”… Or a Mighty Number 9 or Red Ash shooter. This was a key idea. I was brought up on Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake, but I’m also a huge Mega Man fan and I’ve always thought that a multiplayer Mega Man FPS game would be fun.

“Destiny’s PVE is horrible” was another, and probably the most influential key. I loved the raids and the PVP for it, but coming straight off Guild Wars 2, I felt that the Destiny PVE experience was so bland. I started to tell my guildmates, who are also co-workers from Secret 6, (shoutout to [SIX])  that I could probably make something better. At that time, I also wanted to push my skills into multiplayer programming. That was when the first prototypes started coming together. It really was just supposed to be a joke at first, and at some point it felt like we were on to something and I decided to design the classes, write the background story and do the world-building.

Don’t get me wrong about Destiny though – by the time they rolled out the Taken King expansion I think they turned a 6/10 game into one of my most favorite games ever (I have the limited edition Destiny PS4). I’ve stopped whining about it, but I certainly won’t stop trying to build a better game. Work hard until your idols become your rivals, as they say.

screenshot2XC: Describe your typical day in production for the game.

GG: Right now, it’s a typical setup. We already have a clear list of things we’re going to put in for the beta and divided it into sprints.

We have scrum meetings at the start of the day and any available people who can work on the project for the day take (or are assigned) tasks and work on it.

We have group-checks for minor tasks or whenever we need someone else to give a second or third opinion on how something plays, looks or feels. This is done for concept art or features that don’t involve other players.

Occasionally, we have massive playtests where everyone from the studio can try out the latest build.

Pre-ESGS was a different story though: The team was much smaller so it involved a lot of just downing a bottle of Mineshine or two and working until 4AM for me. (This is not a paid Mineshine endorsement)

XC: What are we to expect from the game that is a departure from other games of the same nature? How would it stand out?

GG: I’ll be the first to admit that we didn’t really start this project to innovate. Certainly, the Mega Man-inspired art style makes Xandata stand out from the other grey-and-brown FPS games. However, Xandata is more of a collection of a lot of features inspired by our pedigree in other games. These features combine together in a great competitive PVP experience on par or even better than foreign AAA games – we set out on this to prove that Filipinos can do a AAA-level title.

We’re focusing a lot on how combat feels. It’s faster-paced and more mobile than realistic shooters like Battlefield or CS:GO, while at the same time we don’t want it to be as intimidatingly fast as Quake. We put in a lot of effort to make sure that the core motions the player goes through all throughout the game – shooting, moving, skills, killing another player, acquiring loot – all of those should feel good and responsive.

We’re also avoiding the hero-shooter way paved by Overwatch. We’re going to provide lots of customization in terms of weapons, armor and skills. We want our players to express themselves through all these so they can call their character theirs. We want our players to feel that attachment – they are their character.

We’re also putting in a lot of Filipino mythology undertones in the art and lore. Nothing too overt that it ends up alienating to the foreign audience or worse – corny to local audience.

XC: What’s next for Xandata? Are we seeing other installments in the future or does the studio have other plans up its sleeves?

GG: We’re currently addressing the feedback from ESGS. A lot of pro players have given us their thoughts on how to make it better, and we really appreciate them for trying out our game.

Afterwards, we will be starting a bigger push towards a beta. Hopefully we’ll have it done by the end of the year. Stay tuned to the Project Xandata Facebook page for any announcements.

Indeed, we are in great anticipation of Xandata. And knowing Mr. Gene Gacho, the studio definitely would have greater things in store. Xeno Creatives wishes all the success to Mr. Gacho and to his future endeavors with Secret Six!


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