What Do They Do?
by Michael G. Ryan
"I always wanted to be an artist. My father was an artist, and we used to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art when I was young," says Mark Jindra, a Web developer at Wizards of the Coast. "That idea quickly changed when I saw a television commercial advertising a starving artist sale at a local hotel. I wasn't willing to starve to become an artist."
The Road to the Web
During his teen years, Mark became fascinated with computers and taught himself to program both his Atari 800xl and his Commodore 64. "Then, when it came time to go to college, I opted for a career as a computer programmer," he says. But in the aftermath of college, his computer-related jobs were, in his words, "unfulfilling"... until he stumbled upon the Web.
"I am lucky that, at those many jobs, I picked up skills in multimedia development and some of the more modern programming languages and was easily able to make the transition into Web development," he admits. These skills landed him a quick stint constructing a website for a student organization at a major college in Ohio. "It took me a few hours to build a five-page informational website, and I made an easy couple hundred bucks. I remember thinking, 'This is the kind of job I could really enjoy.'"
He was already familiar with Wizards of the Coast long before coming to work for the company -- he began gaming more than 20 years ago when his cousin introduced him to D&D. Later he founded his own play-by-mail game company, where he did all of the programming and game design himself.
"Prior to coming to Wizards," he says, "I worked for a subsidiary of Wizards of the Coast called Andon Unlimited. We ran conventions around the Midwest including Origins and even Gen Con. I was a longtime friend of Andon founder Gary Smith, and when he needed a webmaster and RPGA coordinator, I was there for him."
Three years after beginning work with Andon, Mark joined Wizards in September of 1998 as part of the newly formed online media team. "All I can remember about my first few days at Wizards is that I thought to myself, 'This must be the coolest place on earth,'" he says. "Well, at least it was for gamer like myself."
He was promptly put in charge of the Wizards online community and began work on a revision of the Wizards website.
It's "Like a Jigsaw Puzzle"
So, just what does all that mean? What does a Web developer actually do?
"'Web developer' is just a big-business way of twisting the title of webmaster into something less intimidating and mystifying to management," Mark says. "I can sometimes be working on as many as twenty or thirty projects -- what I mean by that is, I know the schedule of the next thirty or so Web updates, and I keep in touch with the production team so as to stay in the loop."
Mark's projects are generally articles for the D&D, Forgotten Realms, or Chainmail websites, but on occasion he works on projects for the Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game or the d20 Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game pages. "The projects include development projects like generators and calculators, as well as graphical projects like art galleries," Mark explains. "So far, I would have to say that the highlight of my career at Wizards was developing the html version of the fast-play rules for D&D that are on the Dungeons & Dragons movie DVD."
The process of developing, say, an article for the Official D&D Website is actually somewhat more complicated than you might think. First, a producer offers a writing assignment to a game designer, and the article gets placed on the web content schedule. When the article comes in, an editor does a first pass on the piece to be certain it's ready for review by the D&D rules council. Once the article is finalized, it's returned to the producer, along with any necessary information to guide the Web developer, such as suggestions of images and artwork to use or links to add.
The Web developer then begins to pull all these pieces together "like a jigsaw puzzle," Mark says. "I take the raw article and do all the [html] markup, deciding what font sizes to use, how the graphics best fit with the text, what if any special code needs to be written, and so on. Ultimately, I act as a 'typesetter' and something of a graphic designer for the articles, as I am the last stop for them before they are viewed by the public." The Web producers at Wizards maintain a schedule detailing the status of each article, and developers like Mark use that schedule from week to week to monitor where their projects are at any given time.
"The most fun comes when someone decides to take a vacation and the schedule needs to be moved up," he notes.
The variety of skills Mark needs to make this process function is impressive. "I started Web programming by teaching myself html," he notes, "but it seems that very little of what I do on a day-to-day basis has anything to do with raw html anymore." There's a common misconception out there that anyone with a little knowledge of html can be Web developer, he notes. "To some extent this is true, but to do it for a living is another story altogether. With the advent of hand-held and cellular devices, the way that the data is marked up and stored [for online use] has changed quite a bit.
"One advantage of the way things are done in today's Web environment is that content can be shared laterally between brands, even other sites. Web pages can easily be served in a multi-language format without having to create a separate site . Our Sideboard website is a great example of this."
To date, Mark has done quite a bit of Web work for Wizards. In addition to challenging projects like the "Join Regdar" promotion the company created for the launch of 3rd Edition D&D ("I learned quite a bit about programming in the Visual Basic environment for that one.") and strange ones like the "Waterdeep Weather" generator for the Forgotten Realms pages ("It does a lot behind the scenes to make sure that there's a weather prediction for each day of the year."), he has also worked on the "Chainmail Warband Generator," which evolves constantly as new models are released. This, he concedes, is by far the hardest project he's worked on yet.
With projects under his belt like The Externals, an interactive browser-based product that Wizards did for Alternity's Star*Drive game, Mark can take great pride in his accomplishments. It's not an easy field to work in, with so many different demands on his skills. "Just about every reference in the text of The Externals was linked to its key reference somewhere else in the product," he explains. "It also included a dice roller and online enhancements." Curious players can still find the game at the Wizards online store.
What Comes Next?
So, would he ever consider leaving the Web development field? Possibly. He's already written several articles for the D&D website, including for the "Monster Mayhem" and "D&D Fight Club" columns, and he's currently spearheading support for psionics in "The Mind's Eye" feature. But the big screen might also lure Mark into a new line of work. "I have always wanted to be involved in some way with the motion picture industry, possibly in special effects. Or the computer game industry as a designer/writer of computer games." In the meantime, however, he's very happy with the field he's become an expert in.
So, what advice would he offer someone looking to get into Web development? "You should start early, learn the basics of html development on your own, and get into an intern program before going on to college," he suggests. "Learn as much about xml and xslt as well as multimedia development in Flash and Shockwave as you can. The future of the Web seems to indicate that programming in the .net environment will become a necessary skill as well.
"The hardest thing about the job is that it is always changing, but that may also be the reason I enjoy it so much. Our online media team gets a considerable amount of recognition from within the company itself, and occasionally we get a letter from a fan that thanks us for the job we do -- it's days like those that make the job worth doing."
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