Flowmaps and Frag-Grenades, Part 1

An Interview with Halo 3's Colm Nelson

By any measure, Halo 3 is one of the most wildly-successful consumer software interfaces in recent memory: more than 1 million players played the game in its first 24 hours on Xbox Live; over 8 million copies sold to date; and “over 100,000 pieces of user generated content being uploaded daily […] 30 percent higher than YouTube on a daily basis.” It’s probably safe to say that more cumulative man-hours have already been spent in Halo gaming lobbies than in Microsoft Word! But H3 is distinguished for another reason, too. It’s one of the earliest—and definitely one of the highest-profile—mass-market video games to benefit from the contributions of a dedicated interaction designer.

Colm Nelson was the interaction designer for Halo 3 and has been a working UX designer since 2000. Before joining Bungie (the Studio that produces the Halo series), Colm’s background was largely in Internet consumer applications, with a heavy bent toward entertainment software. Colm’s experience is unique, but it’s part of a growing trend in the gaming industry toward employing UX professionals. Colm would like to see this trend continue, and was gracious enough to speak about it with us, and share some insight into the intersection between his ‘traditional’ UX background and his job duties at Bungie.

Hi Colm—I’d like to thank you for taking the time out to speak to the B&A community. Given the audience here, I thought this emerging trend—this matriculation of interaction designers into the gaming world—is something that folks would want to know more about…

Online systems that facilitate player experiences around social interaction, custom content sharing and online communities have received a lot of attention by both the gaming press and fans and is definitely a hot trend in gaming. The gaming press has even begun to draw comparisons with these features to You Tube, My Space and Facebook. My observation is that developers that are offering more features in [the] user experience around the game are seeing more of a need to specialize and fill roles specifically around user experience and interface design.

Games with success in these areas have generally done a good job developing a solid feature set and matching the social goals of gameplay with the accessibility and usability of the features. Ultimately these features add to the longevity of a game’s popularity, which translates directly to sales. I think as a result there are more opportunities for traditional interaction designers in the games business.

I’ve met developers that are actively recruiting from traditional software interaction design to take ownership of these features and if you look around you’re starting to see postings for UI designers—both Bungie and Blizzard are actively recruiting interaction designers and experience designers. There are also studios that are championing player experience research and design such as XEOdesign, Inc.

But I also think that if you look around you’ll see that it’s not as clearly defined role in all game companies as it is in traditional software so I think as a trend it’s fairly early. My impression is that in many game companies the interface and experience design in games is handled by either designers or artists that are also responsible for the overall game design. The good news is that if you are an interface designer with a passion for games, there are definitely opportunities out there.

Let’s start at the beginning. I actually remember seeing the job req. at Bungie that you filled … it even used the term ‘Interaction Designer.’ My jaw almost dropped—design jobs in the gaming industry typically focus on character design, level design, gameplay and mechanics. How did Bungie ‘catch religion’ about strong interaction design? About paying attention not just to the core gaming experience, but also all of that scaffolding that gets you into the game? The experience around the game?

Yeah, I had the same reaction when I saw the posting. I’d been looking for opportunities in the games industry for some time and had not seen any positions related to interaction design, so when I saw the posting I was amazed.

The guy that hired me, Max Hoberman, was the online, UI and multiplayer design lead for Halo 2. Max and the team at Bungie are really passionate about the user experience around the game and also about usability. It’s just part of the culture of the studio. You can see the results from the design of the party system and the matchmaking system from Halo 2. Heading into Halo 3 there was plenty of ambition for the social experience and with features for the game so the team decided to hire a dedicated Interaction Designer.

And how did you get the job? ;)

As soon as I saw the position I put together a portfolio and cover letter that said I wanted to help Bungie in their quest for world domination. I managed to get a phone interview with Max, which went OK. His feedback was that he enjoyed our conversation but if we had a second conversation he expected me to be more critical with my observations about what could be improved from Halo 2 and Bungie.net. This was on a Friday. The “if” felt pretty dicey to me so I decided to be proactive.

I worked all weekend on a concept document on ideas to improve Halo 2 and fired it off on Sunday night at 3am. I wasn’t sure how it would be received but it paid off because I got a invitation to visit Bungie for an interview. I flew to Seattle to meet the team for a full day interview and was really impressed with the energy and passion that they had for design and the experience around the game. It was a lot of fun—I was also passionate and the interview felt like a series of brainstorming sessions as we discussed problems and ideas and how we might solve them. I guess it went pretty well because they offered me the job!

Describe the development team to me. I (like you, before your time at Bungie) come from a web & consumer applications background with roles like Product Manager, Project Manager, Developers, Designers, Researchers. Is game development roughly the same? How were you situated on the team?

There are similarities. It is still software design so all of the practical considerations still apply—you need to manage the project well in order to succeed and you need the resources to make it all come together. Producers, engineers, designers, researchers and QA all play a role on the team. Producers at Bungie are roughly equivalent to project managers from my previous experience, although I think the producer role varies quite a bit across studios. But at the same time you have cinematics, art, modeling and animation that are also core to the project.

There’s really not a “product manager” role, at least at Bungie. The team makes pitches for the game, the leads of the studio then decide what will be greenlit for production, and the team leads propose and drives feature sets for the project. It’s a very collaborative process and it is driven by the leads of the various disciplines. An example is that in designing the online experience and interface plans we solicited feedback, then proposed features and prototyped “proofs of concept” in order to land on the feature sets that would be developed for Halo 3.

Was there a bit of culture shock moving into the gaming world? Did folks on the team generally ‘get’ what you were brought onboard to achieve?

Yeah, there was a bit of culture shock for me. Mainly because some of the tech, process and roles on the team were new to me. As far as people getting my role, I’d say it was about the same as what an interface designer typically encounters when joining a new team. Definitely the core team responsible for interface and social design had clear goals for how the interface design process would work and understood what I was tackling—we tackled it together as a team. I was really surprised at how important interface design and usability was to the entire team—it was awesome! And at a higher level, even if all the folks didn’t get the details about process, they were supportive and as a rule folks at Bungie are really good at giving feedback on concept proposals and contributing ideas.

[Stay tuned for another installment of Colm Nelson, designer and gamer.]

Posted in Interactivity, Learning From Others, Workplace and Career | 12 Comments »

12 Comments

  • Olivier Olivier

    November 25, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    The following bothered me enough to register. I cannot understand why a site that writes about usability uses such a small line-height for the text. It’s currently at 1.3em which many find too low for easy reading. Just increasing it to 1.4 makes the text much more readable. Sorry for the rant but it is a pet peeve of mine.

  • Holger Maassen

    November 27, 2008 at 9:19 am

    @ Bryce – Clear and brief talk – It was just a trifle too short and too brief for my liking. I am eager to read the next part
    @ Olivier – Why didn’t you post your opinion under the topic forums? http://boxesandarrows.com/topics – Your comment has nothing to do with this story. Sad!

  • Bernie Telles

    November 30, 2008 at 6:04 am

    Bryce, thanks for the story…it’s very inspiring to hear stories like Colm’s–of interaction designers being taken more seriously.
    If you’re planning to talk with Colm again, would you mind asking which specific methodologies transferred most easily from the consumer app industry to the gaming industry? Or about the differences between consumer application methodologies and game methodologies? It’d be interesting to know which methodologies apply to more industries.
    Thanks again!
    Bernie

  • Bryce Glass

    November 30, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    Thanks Bernie! Part 2 of the interview does indeed get into specifics a little more deeply and touches on some of the methods and deliverables that Colm employed during the H3 development process. So, tune in again…

  • L long

    November 30, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Bryce. I submitted this to Digg because it is something that audience would find interesting. I’m regretting it now however. It is my fault I didn’t do the due diligence and read the entire article carefully.

    The two part thing is crap. Your business module (of gaining subscribers) is in direct conflict with your users’ needs. On a usability site none-the-less. The only user-centric valid reason a for time delayed 2 part article online is you don’t have the information yet. If you were running a batch of tests and want to report the first half – that makes sense. All you are doing here is transcribing an interview and the first part barely introduces the subject. If you wanted a couple pages, fine. But this is manipulative and excessive.

  • Bryce Glass

    December 1, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    L long — I just wrote the thing, I don’t decide how it’s apportioned and doled out to you. Take it up with the fine folks at Boxes and Arrows. (Tho’ I suspect that their reasons are less manipulative and Machiavellian than you seem to think — the reason I was given is that they try to keep articles to a reasonable length and this one goes longer than that average.)

    And I, too, regret your decision to submit to Digg if your brand of ‘crap’ is typical of the quality of insight and analysis that appearing over there will bring over here. Don’t blame me for your hair-trigger Digg finger. (Since when is ‘reading the damn article’ considered ‘due diligence’ anyway?)

  • L long

    December 2, 2008 at 2:23 am

    Then I pass my crass disapproval on to them.

    Why knowingly crass? Because I was treated as an ad impression instead of a reader. Give me a low marginal value and I will return the favor.

    I don’t buy the reasonable size argument because this whole page is under 100k with the comments. The text is only 9k compressed. None of the constraints in other mediums apply: there’s no paper costs to cover and you don’t have to fit into a 30 minute time slot.

    Here are just a few ways to present an extra long article and leave the choice in the readers’ hands:
    - Link to full article at the end of intro. The reader will know what they are getting into.
    - Pagination would allow limitless content in manageable sizes.
    - Editorial titles to delineate conversation topics.
    - Make content more stimulating with relevant images and figures (I’m guessing these are in the next part??? This is about a richly designed video game and not even a screen cap.)

    I never blamed anyone for my mistake. This was feedback. Interesting to see if any real conversation will occur over my feelings however. So far only smug deflection.

  • Jackie Curry

    December 12, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Interesting start to an article… but ditto on splitting into 2 parts being annoying. There is no mention of when the next part will be posted.

  • Bryce Glass

    December 21, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    And now, by… er… ‘popular’ demand, Part 2 of this interview is now up and available for comment.

  • Anonymous

    July 6, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Bryce,
    I’m curious about your answer to “And how did you get the job?”…
    Did you ask for direct feedback in the phone interview or did they offer it to you and open the door for a 2nd chance to prove yourself? Getting honest feedback from a phone interview and getting a chance to redeem yourself is unique. I’m usually left guessing what went wrong when a phone interview doesn’t pan out…

  • Bryce Glass

    July 6, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Hi Andrew — great question! I feel compelled to clarify that it was Colm’s response to my question, so I will forward this on to him for clarification. But it’s my understanding that the interviewer, Max, freely offered up the direct feedback as a wrapup to the phone call.

    So—you’re right—honest and unsolicited feedback during a phone interview is all-too-rare, and wonderful when its given (and, as you can see, gave Colm the chance to ‘set things right’ and impress with his ambition and drive.) Perhaps, as interviewees, we should all get into the practice of -asking- for feedback as the last point of a first phone-interview. Perhaps something like… “May I ask… how do you feel today’s interview has gone? Do you have any concerns or questions that I can answer right now, or perhaps work to deliver an answer within [timeframe of our choosing]?”

  • colm nelson

    July 7, 2009 at 4:24 am

    Hi Andrew – Bryce has it right. In this case, Max volunteered the feedback as a wrap up to our conversation and it was definitely helpful. What I took away was that there may or may not be another conversation so that’s when I then took the initiative to follow up with the concept document, based on several topics of the conversation, Max’s feedback and my own research. I think Bryce has a good point about asking for feedback if the vibe is right. What I would say as well is that it is always worth following up with a response immediately after a phone interview, if nothing else but to express thanks for the courtesy of the conversation and consideration. This is also potentially an opportunity to include some additional thoughts about how you feel that you may contribute to the organization based on the conversation and solicit feedback for next steps. I’ve been on the other side of the interview loop with phone screens and it always makes a good impression when a candidate follows up with a thoughtful response.

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