Madeline Wagar ’16, Assistant Editor with Works & Days, interviewed John Hopson ’97, User Research Lead at Bungie Studios, a video game company based in Washington state.
Describe a typical day in your work.
There aren’t really typical days. Game development is a very cyclic industry. The early stages of coming up with ideas are very different from the final run up to ship a game. There is a whole cycle to development. Right now, we’re in the final crunch to ship Destiny (an intricate, interactive first-person shooter). We have people coming in to play the game in lab multiple times a week, and we are running data analysis on the statistics we gather every day. We just finished public alpha testing, so we had 500,000 people plugged in playing the game from home. We have lots of data from that. We surveyed several thousand participants to get their subjective opinions, and we will be analyzing that.
How did you discover/develop this career?
After Reed, I went on to get a Ph.D. in psychology from Duke. There, I was making games with friends as a hobby, while studying. I started noticing parallels between my psychology book and my game development book. I published an article online about what I had noticed about video games and psychology. Microsoft read it, liked it, and offered me a job.
One of the nice things about the game industry is they don’t make a lot of distinction between professional and amateur work. Especially with the rise of indie games, that line is very fuzzy.
What have you found, psychologically, makes for a good or popular game?
I tend to think in flavors. No one flavor appeals to everybody. Some are more universal but those tend to be blander. It is comparable to a lot of psychology research on humor, which finds that the funniest jokes on average are probably not the funniest jokes you’ve ever heard personally. It’s a matter of opinion and individual experience.
We have to figure out who we are aiming the game at. When we test a game, we are not just testing it against generic players, we are testing against a certain type of person we think will enjoy the type of game.
The number one thing we do is try to clear all experience problems away from the fun. If players don’t understand a symbol, or how to pick their weapons, or don’t know how to get something done, it locks them out from the fun of the game. We try to clear out where players get bored or frustrated.
What do you like most about your job?
There are two things I like most. One is that this job changes all the time. I can’t tell you what I will be doing on a particular day next month. The whole development process is very unpredictable. There are constantly new challenges. I never have to go out looking for new problems to tackle; new problems just come to me.
The second thing is, this is a popular media. When I finished my dissertation, there were probably six people in the world who might have wanted to read it. Now, I’m working on games that are played by millions of people. I introduce myself to people and tell them about my work, and they know and understand what I do.
What’s your favorite video game?
The most time I spent on a game after its release is Halo 3. This game felt most like mine. I spent an infinite amount of time playing it after it came out.
I like a lot of different flavors of games. Recently I’ve been playing a lot of FTL, a rogue-like game where every time you play through and a character dies, that’s it, you have to start over. It is a very strong flavor, but I’ve been enjoying it a lot. Somehow it is frustrating and somehow it isn’t. I’ve been enjoying it.
There is a constant conversation about how video games affect people, especially young people, and whether this impact is positive or negative. What’s your opinion? What do video games do for people?
Every game I’ve worked on has been M rated. Like anything else, games are a nice pleasure in moderation. Too much can be a problem. But it takes A LOT of game play to see any side effects. And that much of anything would have side effects.
What about your experience at Reed has been most useful in your career?
A lot of the psychology I learned certainly gets used. Concepts around participant handling, statistics, and data analysis get used every day. I think the lack of grades applies really well to working in a fluid, real-world job. You have to be able to do your job from feel, through feedback, from your own perception of your own impact. I see a problem in new hires sometimes, when they are fresh out of school and they are used to getting a letter grade at the end of their work. The real business world is just not always like that.
Any advice for current Reedies?
My number one piece of advice is to get your work out there. I didn’t even know this job existed until Microsoft called and offered it to me. There is an amazing array of opportunities out there. What works is to get yourself out there, make your work visible, and let people see it.
You can read a more recent follow up to John's "Behavioral Game Design" article here.