A lead developer from Sweden with a passion for retro gaming. Thom tells you how he became a lead developer and about his life at Purple Lamp in Vienna.
Who are you and where are you from?
My name is Thom Orahim and I work as a Lead developer at Purple Lamp Studios. I’m originally from Sweden and I studied Game development Graphics at university, did some programming in High School and slipped into game development because I really liked that. I got introduced to a job as a programmer by an old classmate and since then I’ve been doing Game dev.
What is the game industry like in Sweden?
The game industry in Sweden is actually really big. A lot of triple A games come out of Sweden and in terms of education we have really strong universities there. I’m from one of them, it’s called the University of Skövde. We have had some guest lectures there from guys like Earnest Adams. He said it’s one of the best Game Development universities in the world, and he has tried a few.
What’s interesting about the educational system in Sweden is that we have a lot of startups. We have like hubs, called incubators. And there’s quite a lot of them there. A lot of students get funding while studying to start side projects in those incubators and eventually they become full fletched projects.
There’s also a lot of indie studios. I remember we had some classmates, actually they were juniors, so a year below me. They started with incubator and now they are a publisher that own 3 or 4 studios, they really took off. And in terms of the people we have. The head of design at my university was the designer of Battlefield 1942. That’s the level of teachers we had. So yeah, the game industry is really big in Sweden.
Thom, I see your room is filled with a lot of games and game figures. I can tell you are a real gamer, so this might be a hard question for you to answer. What is your top 3 of games?
The first two are easy, Pokémon and Zelda. The third one is a bit harder. It would either be Burnout, the racing arcade games, Burnout Revenge and Burnout Takedown 3 or 4. Or I would say: The House of the Dead, the gun shooter game. Because I’m also a big fan of gun shooter games as well. It’s a shame there are not more of them because the technology doesn’t exist. Motion tracking is not quite there with the Wii motes and Motion Plus.
Which one is your all-time favourite?
All-time favourite must be: The legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64. It was the first game I played and I completely fell in love with the entire series after that. I got into the whole RPG genre through that game. I’m still a big fan of Retro games, more than modern games that come out. It was all about the gameplay back then, rather than fancy graphics.
How did you end up in the gaming industry?
I started out with 3 years in High School learning programming. I originally went into technical education there because I wanted to work on mechanics and stuff, building things, because I always enjoyed that. And in my second or third year I got to try some game development in High school. Did some replicated Pong games, stuff like that. And I thought: this is awesome. So, I decided then that I wanted to work with games.
So, my courses for university were set. I also decided that Programming was a hobby and I wanted to become an artist professionally. I went the art route in university, game development and specialising in art. I was learning graphics, UX and doing animations etc. Since I had some experience already coming there, it took like two months before I released my first game with some classmates. Because I could deal with the programming.
After university a classmate of mine got himself hired at a firm that was representing music artists. Copyright and stuff like that. But they also handled the fans, they did the fan platforms. They were looking for a programmer and he knew that I was able to do programming. He asked me if I was interested. So I was like, yeah….why not. I need to get a job anyways. So, I took that on and thought I would switch to art later. I stayed there for like a year and a half and then decided that it was time to move on to something new.
I started looking for jobs worldwide, just outside of Sweden. At that time in Sweden the game industry was all about hyper realistic games like Battlefield and that is not quite the art style that I like since I’m more of a Nintendo fan. And I was hoping to get to Japan at some point.
I started applying outside of Sweden. And as soon as I decided that, 3 days later I was contacted by a recruiter that asked me: Are you looking for a job? So, I was like: yeah, actually I am. It just took off from there. I did a couple of interviews and eventually got a job in Vienna at Sproing. I was there since 2011 and after that I started at Purple Lamp Studios in 2018. It’s a really strong studio with a lot of talent, I just love it.
What is your role at Purple Lamp?
My role as a game developer has changed quite a bit over the years. I started out as a Programmer in Sweden, got hired at Sproing as a UI Programmer and after that I got the chance to… as I was saying I wanted to get back in Art and I had done a lot of web development on the side as well. UI, UX and usability stuff is what I like to do. I asked them and showed them some of my work and they said: “oké, we’ll try it”.
They were looking for someone to do the art for two projects, and I got that role. For those two projects I was doing the art and they were happy with that. And during that I also got the studio to show the importance of UI. Because we were more focused on gameplay back then. But I highlighted how important UI and UX is and at the end of those two projects I was asked to improve the workflow in UI. And that’s how I eventually slipped in the UI lead developer position.
What is a typical day for you?
A typical day is like uuhhmm. Check-in first of all to see what needs to be done that day, because we have the SCRUM methodology. We have our daily standups, check-ins with each other to see whoever is blocked or if I’m blocked myself. And then going on with the tasks that need to be done that day.
Sometimes we need to do some design work. From there I move on to wire-framing. Just trying some different ideas to see what the UI could look like with the changes. That’s the UI design part of the work. From there on it usually splits off a bit. Where I would be building the UI in the game, where some other programmer would work on the backend for it. So now, you could actually start clicking buttons in the game and it actually does something.
How do you like working in the game industry?
I love the creativity of the game industry. Seeing your ideas manifest on the screen. And this is also why I’ve stuck with the UI stuff and wanted to be an artist. Because I like getting feedback from people on my designs. I like to get praise so to speak. And the easiest way to be praised is doing the art. Sad, but true.
Because usually people see the pixels and if you have done some great art, people be like: aahhh…..that looks beautiful! Whereas if you are a programmer and you do a good job that means there are no bugs and there is nothing in the game that is annoying the player. But if there is a bug in the code players are going to complain.
So for me that is why it is interesting working with the UI stuff. Because I get to touch code but at the same time the work that I do. The minute to minute work I do actually, is directly visible in the game. It’s not hidden in systems somewhere. People see it and interact with it and I just love that.
And what do think about the people you work with in the game industry
That’s great as well. I mean, just looking at Purple Lamp. We have a huge diversity when it comes to people at the studio. I don’t know how many countries exactly we have at the moment, but I think at least half or less than half of them is from Austria and the rest is from somewhere else.
That is why our official language is also English. So that helps…because I don’t speak German haha.
But yeah…with people from different cultures, different parts of the world coming together and all of them wanting to make games. I just find that amazing. It’s great sitting together and discussing what games people like and seeing where they are getting their ideas from to put into our own games. For me working on usability, this is also great. Because I get to see how different people think and I try to incorporate that in my day to day when developing UI.
But what I love most is that there are so many people coming together and brainstorming, creating a mash of ideas. Which all comes together and you all create this great game. I can then just sit and look around and go like: “that what created by that guy, that thing was developed by that girl over there”. And all that was created by these awesome ideas from everyone.
Is that what you like most, all the talent that comes together from all over the world?
Yeah pretty much. And I just love interacting with them.
Does that international environment also create challenges?
Definitely…and that also needs to be balanced out. Western culture is fairly direct. We’re used to it so it’s not offensive for us and just seen as positive criticism. But we had situations where there were some people from other cultures that weren’t used to communicating that direct. So they did experience it as offensive.
But we also had cases where someone was from somewhere where they were even more direct. And that was grinding the gears a bit. So yeah sure it comes with problems sometimes. You also deal with so many different personalities and people think differently, so I will not always match together.
Was it hard for you to move to a different country for work?
For me personally it wasn’t that hard actually. I’m very open and I make friends quite easily if I want to. Something I learned at university in Sweden. So yeah, I’m very open and not really worried about not being able to communicate because there are always ways to communicate.
Sure yeah… one of the biggest problems coming here was the language barrier. Being a German speaking country and I moved here almost 10 years ago. It’s improved significantly, but back then no one on the streets would speak English. It was pretty hard to walk around in the supermarket because I couldn’t ask the cashier anything. I couldn’t even ask if it something milk or yoghurt.
So for that it was great to have my colleagues. In the beginning I would just go with them and I would say: “Oké let’s do some shopping and you can tell me what to buy haha”. So they basically decided what I was eating in that period.
I was very happy with my colleagues, even though there was a language barrier and all. They really saved me. I had a colleague that helped me to buy furniture because I came with nothing. I literally only had a big duffel bag, a backpack and my laptop. That’s all I could take with me and I left everything else to my roommate back then.
You’ve build up quite the game collection in those years (Thom’s room is filled with games and collectors’ items from games)
Well actually, I was already a game collector back in Sweden. This is roughly… only a third I think. I actually decided to take it a bit easier here. And it was only the last two or three years where I thought: ah forget it.. I’m going to do what I want and I started getting my collectors editions again. (Thom’s shows the rest of collection) Yeah… I released the brakes again haha
Oke, but back to your last question. The hardest thing was definitely the language barrier. And I would say Sweden is a bit more technologically advanced as well. Roughly 10 years ahead I would say.
Did it feel like going back in time?
It very much felt that way, it was like going back into the 90’s. Because in Sweden, by the time I moved we had already started the movement of getting rid of cash. You could pay with card everywhere. So I was used to that, the convenience of not having all those coins in my pocket.
I came here and they were like: Yeah we don’t take cards. So I was like: “What do you mean you don’t take cards?” So suddenly I had go and walk around with money again and of course they use the Euro here. And the Euro has a lotttttt of coins. At some moment even my wallet broke, I had a hole in my wallet because of those damn coins.
But now there are getting there. I can pay with my card everywhere now, so I’m back where I was.
Is Vienna traditional?
Yeah, Vienna is very traditional. The culture, the parties and a lot of other things. The architecture is still the nice old buildings. I’m not saying that there aren’t new buildings, because they are constantly building new residential areas and expanding all the time.
That actually reminds me of one of the first impressions that I got when I came here. I went into a subway station, looked around and thought: What bunker did I just walk into. Because it was all just concrete and metal rebars sticking out the wall everywhere. So I was like: Greaaaaat, so this is their subway station. Later of course I realised they were just renovating that particular part of the subway.
How’s your German now?
My German is still completely garbage haha. But that’s also because I originally did not think I would stay as long as I did. As I said, I got here in 2011 when I worked for another company. My goal was to get to Japan. I kept thinking: Oke, I’ll stay here for one and half, two years. Work up my resumé and then I’m going to the next place. But the problem was, when I got to two years I got into a UI lead position and started building that part of my career. So, then I was like: My career is going so well, I can’t go now. And then after that I just thought: Oke, now I’m just stuck here haha.
But you also enjoyed life in Vienna, right?
Yeah of course, that why it’s completely fine. I got myself a girlfriend, because when I moved here I was single. So that’s one of the things that made it easier for me. She is Bosnian and was studying here and we have been living together for 7 years now. So, everything is just working out great and the city just has a lot to offer.
My life just took off when I moved here.
What achievement(s) are you the proudest of in your career up until now?
I’m the proudest of the UI Framework I’ve built and developed together with some colleagues. We were trying to improve the UI workflow. Basically, one of the problems we had with games. And a lot of studios still have it. Normally UI’s have a long roundtrip. You do the design, you get the first version in the game, realise it doesn’t quite work the way you want it so you have change things. And it can be just simple like making a button bigger or move things around, switch sides.
Also, another problem we had back then was displaying things. The data needs to go in the UI. So you have to figure out how to get the data into the UI and usually it would go like we get the UI and then it was like here’s your data. But if you then want to share the same data with multiple UI’s you have to get each of those and say: here’s the data, here’s the data etc.
With our framework we figured out a way to just send the data to one point and the UI’s would fetch the data from there. And it would automatically update whenever there are changes. Another cool thing about that framework was that it had a visual editor. When you were building the UI you actually saw it the way it would look in-game and you could actually try the hover effects and go around clicking them and the sound effects would play etc. And this could all be done separately all outside of the game.
And whenever you hit save we also had another feature called Hot-reloading in the game. So you could actually have your game running and when you clicked save in the editor you would instantly see it in the game as well. So that meant that when we changed the UI you didn’t have to restart the entire game and play through the game to get to the point where you made changes.
Just all those things we build into that framework was just an awesome trip. It took us 4 or 5 years to get as mature with that framework as we were. But considering how fast and how much it improved the development times of UI was definitely worth it. It was and still is so convenient to work with.
Looking at the projects that I’m the proud of. One of the funniest for sure was a game called Nonstop Chuck Norris. It’s was a re-skin of Nonstop Knight. We branded the game with Chuck Norris and took the early decision with the Publisher that the game shouldn’t take itself too seriously.
So, we went with the Meme Chuck Norris. The Chuck Norris approves this kind of thing. His movies were already cult classics, all of them. And there were some hilarious moments that we placed in the game. And back then that seemed so badass. Like in one of the movies he stops a chainsaw by just grabbing it. And he doesn’t lose his hands, no he just stops the chain. And we were like: yeah that’s awesome, let’s put that in the game.
So, we gave him a chainsaw to hack and slash with. But of course, instead of holding it in his hand normally, we flipped the chainsaw so he was holding it by the blade. We just really took the entire meme culture and put that into the game. And it’s also a lot of memories from childhood.
What is your favourite gaming platform?
Oeh that one is tricky…I’m a retro gamer. And even though I’m not able to play it now because my NES is in Sweden along with 2/3 of my collection, I would say Nintendo 8bit is definitely one of my favourites. Mostly because the gameplay was just different back then.
I also played a lot of Nintendo 64. I mean Zelda and StarFox was one there. But in later years, if we’re talking newer consoles I would tend to lean to X-box, because of the grip of the controller.
Do you have any advice for anyone considering moving to Vienna?
I can only look at that from our studio’s point of view. We usually have very helpful people at the studio. Because there is some bureaucratic stuff that needs to be taken care off when you get here. You need to register for certain things. That’s what I really liked when I moved here, the office assistance was really helpful with that.
I guess speaking German is definitely a plus. But these days it’s not completely required anymore when you get here. It was definitely my biggest hurdle coming here but it’s way easier now.
What are your personal favourite hotspots in Vienna?
I’m a foodie, so my favourite hot spots are restaurants. I’m big into the Asian cuisine, so there are two places I recommend. One is a ramen place, which is an authentic Japanese restaurant that is run by actual Japanese. They make homemade noodles and everything, it’s just delicious. It’s called Shoyu, which means Soya sauce in Japanese.
The other one is called Hiro, which is an Asian al la cart buffet. It’s pretty cool there as well, last time I was there they had two robots serving the tables. You order through your phone without the need of a waiter. It’s really high tech compared to other restaurants. It’s really funny to see those robots running around serving all the tables. But most importantly of course, the food is absolutely delicious.
I also used to go to The Lizard, which is a pub with some pool tables. It’s really nice to hang out there and shoot some pool.
And I really like the aquarium here. There is a big aquarium in the middle of Vienna. It’s actually really cool because they used one of those old FLAK towers from the world war. They renovated the inside and so you got this multi-story aquarium. But they also have some birds and monkeys. You can walk across this bridge and it’s completely open, so you can reach out. So yeah, that’s a nice date spot.
Thank you for this fun interview Thom!
Yes thank you, it was really fun to do.