His ‘Call of Duty’ sent him to the video gaming industry

Alum Features

December 18, 2020

By Mike Killeen

Here’s today’s trivia question: Which industry earned the most income based on 2018 earnings, the video game industry or the global film industry?

If you said the video game industry, go out and buy yourself a new game. That would make James Heidelberger very happy – especially if you bought one of the games he’s worked on.

Heidelberger, a 2020 graduate of Saint John’s University, was a Squad Lead Tester working with the Emu Team for Activision, a video gaming company based in Santa Monica, California (he recently was reassigned to a new project, so his current job title and duties are in flux).

It’s a big business. The video game industry made a collective $139.4 billion in 2018 (the global film industry made $136 billion).

“Every day, more and more people are playing games, whether it’s the hot new release being played on a top-of-the-line computer, or it’s a free app on their phone,” Heidelberger said. “This has only been highlighted by the times we live in, where playing video games with friends has become a lifeline for communication, and being able to do things with friends while remaining socially distanced is easier than ever with accessible multiplayer games such as ‘Among Us’ and the Jackbox Games.”

How Heidelberger got to this point is an interesting story that starts in his youth.

“I’ve loved video games since I was a kid,” Heidelberger said. “I got my first personal video game, Pokémon Gold on the Gameboy, when I was pretty young. I started teaching myself how to read so that I could play without having to ask my parents what was happening on screen. Because of this, my passion for reading and language have always been closely tied with my love for video games.”

The Wayzata (Minnesota) High School graduate came to SJU as an undecided major.

“My first semester, I really connected to my English classes I had been assigned to – Haunted Americas with Yvette South and my FYS with John Kendall,” Heidelberger said. “I had always liked reading and writing, and so I decided to give (English) a shot.

“My second semester I got into a Computer Science class and really enjoyed the technical aspect of it. After a few changes back and forth, I ended up going with an English major and a Computer Science minor,” Heidelberger said.

An English major might not be the first thing you’d expect someone in the video game industry to have, but it has worked out well for Heidelberger.

“I would definitely say that both my English degree and the liberal arts education from CSB and SJU helped me to get this job,” Heidelberger said. “In the most literal sense, there is a lot of text I deal with on a daily basis when doing testing. There are subtitles for every line of dialogue in the game, there are game signs and posters and all other manner of objects that have text on them, and all of that needs to be proofread.

“Plus, once we find a problem, it’s important that we write our report to be clear and concise about what issue we're seeing and how it can be reproduced, so that the developers can fix it. More than just that, however, I learned a lot of transferable skills, such as a thorough attention to detail, and the ability to challenge how I normally think to come up with creative solutions - although for my job it's more often creative problem creation,” Heidelberger said.

“When he told me that he’d landed a job working for a software company, it didn’t surprise me,” said Kendall, an instructor of English at CSB and SJU who was Heidelberger’s academic adviser.” I had a sense he’d combine his love of a good story – the narratives he experienced from his time in the English Department – with the technological prowess  from his Computer Science interest I’d come to expect from him.”

And actually, Kendall has a background in the industry. He served on the team at the now defunct Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium that “moved” the original Apple “The Oregon Trail” computer game into the MS-DOS and Mac platforms.

“In using this specific illustration during the business writing class and others, I do stress the importance of process analysis, that if you skip steps – in anything – you may not get the outcomes or results that you seek,” Kendall said. “I think James was listening during that part of the class – his job now depends on that type of analysis and precision.”

“I was extremely lucky to have John Kendall as a mentor throughout all of my school career,” Heidelberger said. “He was also one of the first people that I told that I was considering trying to get into the games industry, and he was nothing but supportive about helping me find that path, which I am forever thankful for.”

Heidelberger has spent most of his time working on the popular “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.”

“Essentially, my job was to answer any questions that the testers had, run group tests and help investigate any systems or features that the developers wanted to double check to ensure they were working correctly,” he said.

Activision is currently taking on the ambitious task of making the three most recent “Call of Duty” games – “Black Ops Cold War,” “Modern Warfare” and “Warzone” – work directly with each other.

“If you own all three, you should have full access to all the games no matter which one you’re currently playing. Because of this, I’ve been shifted to test on all three to help make sure that that process is smooth and works without problem,” Heidelberger said.

On Dec. 16, Activision released its first major update of “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.”

“While we don’t usually try to make the game more difficult, trying to make the game fair for every player is a huge part of what we work on, and is a strong focus due to the multiplayer nature of the game,” Heidelberger said.

“When you meet James for the first time, quiet and reserved may be the terms that come to mind,” Kendall said. “That may be true; however, once he engages on his passions, he is one of the most liberal – and that’s not a political term here – thinkers that I know. He makes connections between ideas and characters and narratives and technology that are astonishing.”

“I’d just like to thank all of my professors for their support and assistance along the way,” Heidelberger said. “I’m extremely lucky to be able have a job working on something that I’m passionate about, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”

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James in cap and gown

James Heidelberger