Breaking Into The Industry is a weekly interview series that speaks with video game professionals from all across EA. We hope that by sharing how some of the industry's biggest (and smallest) players got their start, you can learn how to do the same.
Let’s start with the basics. What’s your name and what do you do at EA?
I’m Robert Kissinger, Creative Director in the Online Group at EA. My role is to lead the team that designs the user experience for EA.com and Origin.
EA.com went through a pretty major redesign a few months ago. What was your role in that?
In a nutshell, my role was to lead the design strategy and execution for the redesign.
Initially, my task was to identify the goals for the redesign of the site. Based on those goals, we then had to decide if a full redesign – a time-consuming and expensive task – was really necessary, and in our case we determined it was. With Origin on the way, I also needed to help define the differences between EA.com’s purpose and Origin.com’s purpose.
Once those purposes were clarified, I worked with my partners in Product Management to understand what was already working well on EA.com and what needed improving, and began to formulate a strategy for how a new site design would satisfy those needs.
There are a ton of technical considerations that go into designing a site – it's not just “making it pretty” (a phrase that always bugs me). But, of course, EA is one of the most important entertainment brands in the world, so the site needed to capture that quality of fun and engagement – the epic quality that Star Wars: The Old Republic gives you, the escapism that is The Sims, the action and excitement of Mass Effect 3 or Need For Speed, and so forth.
After getting all the objectives in place, I worked with a creative agency called Odopod to bring those objectives to life. My role was to provide direction and feedback through many rounds of design iteration to create all of the page types and graphics for the new EA.com.
Once the core elements were created, we were “done” enough to begin building the new site. At that point, my role shifted into shepherding the design and the work of our talented engineers – making sure that everything was being built as intended.
How long does something that massive take to build?
The design phase for EA.com was relatively accelerated – it took probably two months or so. The build phase was incredibly tight as well. Six weeks? Which is epic for something of this magnitude. Our web engineers are aces.
Two months? Wow. What’s a more standard timeline for something like that?
It's hard to say. Every site is different, and each design solution adjusts to the problems that need solving. In our case, two months was the right amount of time. That said, I've worked on sites in the past that go through months and months of design iteration. It all depends on a number of factors.
It sounds like your role involves a lot of stepping back, thinking things through, and making sure projects are moving in the right direction. Do you still get a chance to jump into Photoshop and mock things up, or participate in more hands-on design work?
The majority of my role is to come up with design strategy and to make sure that our designers are both doing their best work and executing against the goals we've defined. That said, I definitely get my hands dirty as well, although I certainly spend less time working in Photoshop and writing HTML than I used to. In a sense, stepping back and curating is a different version of “designing.”
I heard that you’re hiring for some people on your team right now. Is there anything specific that you look for in a designer?
I look for designers who are truly obsessed with interactive design – people who are driven to create great digital experiences. Obviously, an excellent portfolio is important, but equally important is the ability to speak intelligently about design decisions.
The nature of design is that there is no single “right” answer. Good designers should not only be able to create a sensible, elegant solution to a problem, but should also be able to talk about the solution in a way that helps others understand its viability. Interactive stuff is constantly shifting, and often the “right” answer is a moving target. I look for designers who are comfortable with change and open to going back and taking another look at what they've labored over so diligently – even to the point of ripping out the nuts and bolts and starting again.
Do you allow your designers much creative freedom? And do you like them to challenge you on decisions?
Yes, and yes – to an extent.
To your first question, we have certain guidelines that designers must follow. We have style guides that inform overall design direction – things like colors, typefaces, layout styles, and that type of thing. So, everything they do has to conform to the overall “rule book” in order to create a consistent experience for our users. However, within that sandbox, I encourage designers to go wild. When we’re defining the boundaries of that sandbox at the beginning of a project, everything is fair game and the creative juices can flow unchecked.
As for challenging me on decisions – of course that can be good. As I said before, there's no single “right” answer and there's never a perfect solution. Digital media is always changing and adapting, and if a designer or anyone else on the team has a suggestion, I'm all ears. Sometimes my answer will be “no,” especially if ’there's a suggestion that would “break” some other component of the design, but I will sometimes say “yes.” Or at least “maybe.”
Can you talk a little bit about your background? How you got to EA, how long you've been here, and where you've been in the past?
My degree is in Film and Video, which was part of the College of Communications at Penn State. I was always drawn to the junction between technology and a mass audience, I guess.
That was in the early 90s, right when the Web was being born. I graduated from college and moved to San Francisco, then quickly got swept up in the emerging web design practice that was exploding here in the Bay Area. I worked at a few design agencies and eventually ended up at frog design, where I spent about five years.
I just finished reading the Steve Jobs biography. They used frog design for a lot of their marketing needs. Were you around for any of that?
No. That was before my time. frog was originally an industrial design agency, and they worked with Apple in the 80s to design the original Macintosh computer and some other hardware.
After frog, I became more interested in working in an in-house capacity. There was something about “owning” a design challenge for the long haul that appealed to me. I spent a few years at a startup called Rupture, which was acquired by EA. Rupture was a social network for gamers, and many of the ideas hatched up there have gone on to inform some of the things that Origin is doing.
I've been an EA employee for about four years now.
What advice would you give a high school graduate who wants to become a creative director in the game industry?
I'll answer this more as a UX (User Experience) person than as a game industry person.
First off, learn HTML and CSS. Be able to build what you envision – it's an incredible advantage in the industry to understand the nuts and bolts behind an elegant design.
Let yourself make mistakes and don't be frustrated if what you end up creating isn't as mind-blowing as what you had originally envisioned. As Ira Glass said, it takes a lot of time and practice to master your craft.
Take classes on design. Nowadays there are great university programs on interactive design and mountains of incredible free resources online. Learn it by doing it.
Have a point of view, but never forget that a designer is not an artist.
Is there a specific video game job you'd like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week's interview with Combat & Control Designer, Brian Bartram, for more insight into the industry.