Job Hacks: Mike Boccieri, Video Game Producer

Careers rarely go exactly to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down people for the insights they cultivated on the way to the top of their field.

Name: Mike Boccieri

Age: 35

Job: Video Game Producer

His Start: I was a gamer my whole life. I grew up on Nintendo. When I was in high school, I played so much Civilization that I developed an eating complex. I became one of the fastest eaters people had ever met, because my family wanted me to eat at the table, so I’d eat as fast as I could so I could to go play video games. In college, I’d make documentaries about video games and culture, or movies that were kind of Scott Pilgrim-y with hyperactive cuts. It’s very ingrained in my general lifestyle.

So, game production and development was always the plan? I was actually studying film [in college]. I thought I wanted to be in the film industry. Towards the end of my junior year, I was talking a lot of classes in flash development and motion graphics. I was approached by a professor at the university who was starting a multimedia company. I kind of liked doing interactive multi media development as much as formal film stuff. A few years later, I got a call from a former roommate that he was going to San Francisco to get a masters in video game development, would I be interested in joining? I’d gotten an acceptance from Columbia’s film productions program, but I turned it down for that. 

What makes a good game, to you? A great game has to have a compelling game loop. That’s the heart of the action and reward cycle that drives your engagement with the product. A good game loop is a series of loops. There’s a loop that happens moment to moment, and then there’s an hour to hour loop, and a day to day or month to month loop. A great game has nested versions of all of those things. For example, a game like the newest Grand Theft Auto has tight controls that make it easy to drive and interact with the world on a visceral level.

On a minute to minute level, have interesting dialogue and conversations that keep going. On the longer form, you’ve got story arcs, character development, have this big open world you can explore, you can just spend days exploring the world, and that’s the hour to hour experience. Each of those levels can be vastly different from game to game, but as long as it has those attractions, that is the secret sauce for every good interactive experience.  

What skills make a good game designer? The ability to dig deeper on the opinions that the people playing their game are giving them and find the hidden meanings behind the words. For example, when a good designer hears from a player that a certain weapon is overpowered, a good game designer doesn’t just say, ‘It’s overpowered, I’ll address that’ and make the weapon less powerful. That might affect the intricate balance of systems the designer has put together. So, they might instead say, ‘Tell me why it’s overpowered.’

‘Oh, it just seems to freeze everyone inn place too long.’ Or, ‘every time I get hit with it, I don’t know what to do to counteract it’. “Hmm, maybe there’s not a problem with the power of that gun, there’s a problem in the way we’re messaging game play around that weapon. Maybe if we make it more clear to players ways they can counteract that weapon, game will be more powerful as a result.” So a good designer will implement those solutions that please more people, rather than listening to an opinion at face value.

So, you need to be adaptable?  You need to know that the proof is in the pudding. The best laid plans on paper will often fail on implementation. It’s rarely going to be right on paper the first time. I’ve seen people try to make games entirely on paper first and then implement it and it doesn’t work and they don’t know why. It almost never is right, you have to pick it up and play it and glean what’s next based on the interaction. You need to be open. The best developers are the ones who have an open mind and are hungry to get an input from people who play the game. 

What are you most excited about in the gaming world right now? Virtual reality is something that’s been a buzzword in games for well over a decade. Right now with products coming out like the Oculus, its becoming closer to a viable museum for delivering interactive content or pseudo non-interactive content. Not only “traditional” games media but new forms of game and film style storytelling are going to be possible using virtual reality than have really been afforded to interactive developers at any other point in history. I’m excited to see what comes out of that in the next 5 to 10 yrs. Just like when the Wii came out an had that very tactile experience that was so novel. These new headsets and devices have a similar novelty. You see immediately how the possibilities are so broad. 

What do you think is something that’s misunderstood about gamers and/or gamer culture?  I think that for me, the thing I find so interesting is that today, there really are as many gamers as non gamers. With the advent of mobile tech and mobile gaming, your mom is a gamer. Everyone’s mom is a gamer, because most moms are willing to pick up their phone and play something like Candy Crush. These are games. They delight consumers. The numbers of people playing these simple games is huge. I think people forget that, I think they dismiss those as non gaming interactions, say ‘I’m not a gamer, I don’t play games,’ but they forget that they do. If you play solitaire or Minesweeper, you’re a gamer. 

Games and cooking are not too dissimilar. So, if you like to cook and like all the complications that go into making a great meal or cake or something like that, that’s pretty much what making games Is about. If you’re having a great meal, think of all the different things that go into a great meal. Food, wine, desert, décor, people who grew grapes that are wine, people who grew chicken, the chef—all have different backgrounds and areas of focus but all comes together. Games are very similar. If you can talk the culture of food—that’s a great hidden gem to get people who make games to talk in a common language that everyone understands. 

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