Profile of a Video Game Designer
Interviewee: Paolo Malabuyo
Job Title: Lead Design Program Manager, Xbox - Microsoft
Years in Field: Over 5 years
How did you enter the game development field?
Like a lot of people in the video game industry, I grew up playing games, wasting my money on arcades, playing Atari and the early game consoles. 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.
Early in my career I worked in database software as a user interface designer, making people productive. While I was working at Microsoft, an opening came in the game division for someone with experience doing user interfaces, who had art and design sensibilities along with some technical acumen. I saw that as the opportunity to jump to designing software that made people unproductive.
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 user interface 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 user interface design for the next generation Xbox.
What do you most enjoy about your career?
I love being able create stuff, to come up with a cool idea and actually see it happen. In my current situation I've got this great opportunity to affect the experience of every single person who plays with the next generation Xbox.
It's fun working in the video 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 game development?
As a game designer, in the end what you’re responsible for is: is it fun or not? Working on "Crimson Skies" for the Xbox, we had to define the multi-player experience, when two or more people play against each other. We wanted people to experience the game as if they were creating their own narrative, as compared to a single player when they're experiencing a story you created for them. 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 themselves in reality. Getting to that point designing a game is challenging.
It's also hard to balance the ease and difficulty, 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 misconceptions do people have about the field?
People have a misconception that by becoming a game designer you play video games all day. It's a very demanding industry, a hard business. With productivity software, people often buy it because they have to, or an organization buys it for everyone. With games, you make or break your sale with every single person who comes to the store and 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.
What skills are most important to have?
- Creativity – You need the creativity to have a vision, see what makes it fun, and create a great experience.
- Communication – You need the communication to articulate that to 30 or 40 or 50 other people, and get them to do what you think needs to be done.
- Dedication – You need dedication to see your vision through, work your way through the disappointments and failures. When you're three months from shipping, working until 2am, you need to be pretty darn dedicated.