Editor's note: This is an updated version of the initial online article.
Holly Hirzel, 42, Sr. Project Manager in Microsoft Studios, a division of Xbox. She grew up working in the family food business, Hirzel Canning Company, in Northwood, and currently resides in Seattle.
If you’re a video gamer, chances are Holly Hirzel has your dream job.
Hirzel, 42, is senior project manager in Microsoft Studios, a division of Xbox, where she works with designers, programmers, artists, audio designers, testers, business and marketing folks, user research people, and external brand partners.
What does her job entail?
“For any given part of a game, there are a lot of pieces that have to be coordinated. Depending on where we are in the development cycle, the work can change, but right now I mostly work with a team of 35,” she said in an email interview.
That team is made of the people who brought the world the motion-sensing Kinect, which tracks and translates a gamer’s body movements for onscreen avatars. After the Kinect launched, she said, that group “was tasked to go dream up and execute the next crazy futuristic thing which is still top secret for now. It’s amazing but that will be an interview for a later day.”
Hirzel lives in Seattle with her son Jack, 8, her partner Eric, and his son Hugo, 11. She grew up working in the longtime family food business, Hirzel Canning Co. in Northwood. She attended Ohio State University but transferred to Cornell University with the intent to be a photojournalist or science writer, and made side money as a college student by teaching others how to use computers and install RAM. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications and has been involved in the gaming industry for 17 years, including stints at Sony, where she worked on the PlayStation, and running her own software developer company.
At Microsoft, she helped develop 1 vs. 100, the Xbox Live version of the popular prime-time game show, and worked on the Netflix and Hulu apps on the Xbox.
Hirzel was a guest speaker Saturday during opening weekend activities for The Art of Video Games exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art, which runs through Sept. 28.
Q: What are the best and worst aspects of your job?
A: Best aspect is that I have found my nerd tribe and I truly enjoy the people I work with. The downside is, it’s a crap-ton of work and it’s very competitive. At any given time there are probably 100 people who would willingly fill my shoes and the industry is known for, shall we say, less than optimal job security. There isn’t room for coasting.
Q: 1 vs. 100 was a significant and successful project you helped develop, including “role assignment in multiplayer games,” for which its patent credits you as a co-inventor. Talk about the game and the experience in creating it.
A: 1v was an incredible experience — essentially a live-game show that had about 140K people playing all together. It was ahead of its time, that’s for sure. Technically it was a huge effort to pull off, and no other company but Microsoft could have ever had the chops and talent to do so. We didn’t really realize how complicated it would be to execute it until we were in it, which is always the case. Luckily, we had the momentum, the brains, and the money to pull it off. What was so interesting about it was that we had many different verticals of production — we had to make the game, and the underlying network to support it, plus the creative and production work that went into the weekly questions and live host segment and interviews, plus a team handling prizes … so incredibly complex. I had never before worked with so many moving parts.
Q: 1 vs. 100 was hugely popular. So why was it canceled and are there plans to bring it to Xbox One?
A: 1v was canceled because we made a mistake on the business model. At the end of the day we exist to make money, and we were not able to flesh out the full portfolio of games that might have made that happen. As for Xbox One, I know that the game show format is of great interest and is considered a “must” for the platform.
Q: Talk about your work in the incubation group that created the Kinect and what that involves. How does the group work and are there any projects you can discuss?
A: I can’t talk about what we are doing, but incubation groups are so different from what I’m used to. We are expected to try and fail, try and fail, and fail fast. The fast part is key. We celebrate failure, it’s what we learn from. We have to bang out a lot of prototypes based on the bluest of blue-sky ideas. Crazy or impossible are not words we use — we are expected to push the boundaries and push them hard. If you identify things you cannot do today, then you figure out roughly what it would take to do it, even if it seems like the tech is a decade away. Turns out sometimes “impossible” isn’t so impossible after all.
Q: What are the big trends in the video-game industry? Where do you see the business going in 10 and 20 years?
A: Development of mobile Augmented Reality games and Virtual Reality gaming experiences are what is trending now. The Oculus and Morpheus headsets got a lot of attention at E3 last week and that area will continue to grow, I’m sure.
VR, and Natural User Interface devices like the Kinect, are really just getting started. It’s a pretty big shift to think about how to interact with your body, or to really immerse yourself into 3D. It’s a big leap and there is a lot of learning to do to figure out what types of experiences are best using those devices. It might seem niche now but it won’t stay that way. ... Think about the phone. It used to be huge and attached to the kitchen wall and if you wanted to walk you were limited by the stretched-out cord. Like any tech, once it becomes smaller, more portable, and more socially acceptable then we will see more of a broad adoption. That is, if the experiences on the devices are satisfying.
Q: How easy or difficult is it to break into the industry and what are your recommendations for those who would want to? Are specialized degrees in gaming, as universities increasingly are offering, now a requisite for the business?
A: As with any creative field, it can be pretty competitive. In a lot of ways it’s like the movie industry — everyone has an idea for a script or a game but that’s not the valuable part. The valuable part is your ability to bring a team, or work in a team, to execute a vision within the bounds of time and money. If you think that playing a lot of video games makes you qualified, sorry to say that is not true. If you want to be a designer, you need the ability to analyze and articulate the mechanics behind the game, and offer alternatives. Design paper games. Design games for your friends outside and get them off of beer pong. If you want to be an artist, you need to draw or sculpt or model and build up a gigantic diverse portfolio. If you want to be a developer, learn how to code and make some prototype games.
It is possible to get a job in the game industry without a degree, but that is more and more rare. The only way you can get away with that is because you’ve been making games with some friends and you have some quality demos to show. Or, you made a game for a phone that you can boot up and show. Otherwise yes, a degree from an art college, game college or a [computer science] degree is expected.
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