Get the inside story on what it’s like to be a video game designer for Xbox.
Lead Design Program Manager—Xbox, Microsoft
More than 5 years in the field
How did you become a video game designer?
Like a lot of people in the game industry, I grew up playing video games. I studied art and design at Carnegie Mellon—a double major in painting with computer graphics and animation. That’s where I was able to develop conceptual and visual design skills, and at the same time, I wasn’t afraid of technology.
I sold my computer and game system my freshman year of college. I wanted to spend time on school work, hold down a job, and still have a social life. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I fell back into playing games as a hobby.
Early in my career, I worked in database software as a user interface (UI) designer, making people productive. While I was working at Microsoft, an opening came up in the game division for someone who had art and design sensibilities, along with some technical acumen and experience doing user interfaces.
What was your first job out of college?
I was a graphic designer for IBM, doing box designs, book illustrations and technical illustration. It was also the beginning of web design, which I got excited about and became involved in. It seemed like a good medium for the creatives in the company. This was where I got interested in UI design.
Later, I went to Oracle to pursue UI design further. It was interesting to put together visual design, ergonomics, psychology and technology. I had some great mentorship from the head of my group and really developed a passion for interface design. Now, I’m responsible for a lot of the UI design for the next generation Xbox.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love being able to create stuff—to come up with a cool idea and actually see it happen. It’s fun working in the games industry. The people I work with all love to do what they’re doing, and when I go out, I see people enjoying the things I work on. People get excited when they talk about games. You don’t hear that when people talk about productivity software.
What is most challenging about a game designer job?
There are a lot of social and managerial dimensions to the job. Sitting down in your office alone, creating something, is one way to get things done. But in a large organization where you’re building a platform and building a system, there are dozens—if not hundreds—of people involved. Getting an organization of that size all heading in the same direction presents a lot of challenges.
In the end, what you’re responsible for as a game designer is whether a game is fun or not. When you listen to a group of people who just played a fun multiplayer game together, it sounds as if they are telling the story of something they just did in reality. Getting to that point in designing a game is challenging.
It’s also hard to balance the difficulty level so that the game rewards people who gain expertise, but isn’t so hard that people become frustrated and stop playing. The game should quickly become an extension of their own ego, so they’re no longer fighting the controls, but just doing it: flying the plane, doing cool moves, trying to shoot down the guy in front of them, and feeling like they accomplished something.
What are misconceptions that new designers might have?
People have a misconception that when you become a video game designer you play games all day. It’s a very demanding industry. With games, you make or break your sale with every single person who comes to the store, picks up your box and tries to decide if it’s a game worth playing. We spend three years working on it, to come up with cool innovative ideas that will compel people to fork over the money and go on a ride. It’s harder than it sounds!
It also changes how you enjoy games. My own standards are significantly increased. You almost have to turn off the part of your brain that is studying the game, rather than just enjoying it.
What skills are most important for a game designer?
You need creativity to have a vision, see what will make a game fun and create a great experience. You need communication to articulate that vision to 30 or 40 or 50 other people and get them to do what you think needs to be done. And you need dedication to see your vision through—to work your way through the disappointments and failures. When you’re three months from shipping, working until 2 a.m., you need to be pretty darn dedicated.