Michael McDonald of Walker Labs On The Future of Gaming
Prioritize the player: As game developers, we should always prioritize the player’s perspective by asking ourselves, “Is this fun? Will people enjoy this?” It’s easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of game development, but our primary goal is to entertain.
As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the gaming industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael McDonald.
Michael McDonald is the Creative Director at Walker Labs, a web 3.0 game studio creating groundbreaking titles for the open metaverse. Prior to his current role, Michael held various senior artist positions at Wētā Workshop, Ubisoft and EA, where he eventually became the lead environment artist. He has contributed to the creation of new and thrilling experiences for beloved franchises, including The Sims, Need for Speed, Mass Effect, and the upcoming Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story. It’s an honor and a pleasure to discuss my experiences.
For seven years, I worked at Electronic Arts Melbourne as the Lead Environment Artist for Need for Speed: No Limits, a well-known franchise in mobile gaming. I had a stable and fulfilling job collaborating with fantastic teams on projects that pushed the boundaries of mobile gaming. I contributed to the development of launch titles for the first-ever iPad (The Sims Freeplay), numerous top-ranked games on the app store (Dead Space HD, Mass Effect: Infiltrator), and led art teams in creating demos for Apple and Google keynotes. However, after seven years, our formula for success became predictable, and I craved innovation.
In 2015, Microsoft unveiled Minecraft on their revolutionary mixed reality headset, Hololens, which captured my imagination. That same year, Magic Leap, another trailblazer in mixed reality technology, had a job opening through Wētā Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand, my home country. I applied, underwent a rigorous art test, and was hired to develop the cutting-edge mixed reality game, Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders, for Magic Leap.
During my time at Magic Leap, I had the privilege of meeting industry pioneers like Gabe Newman, Hideo Kojima, Adam Savage, Neal Stephenson, and John Gaeta. However, due to the pandemic, Magic Leap shifted its focus to the enterprise market, and many of our projects were geared towards location-based experiences.
Feeling it was time for a change, I moved to Europe to work on AAA games in Stockholm and collaborate with former Magic Leap colleagues on XR training simulations for enterprise clients in Germany. These experiences proved to be incredibly eye-opening. Today, I’m excited to be exploring the next frontier of entertainment technology as Creative Director for Walker World, a groundbreaking interoperable game experience within the Web3 blockchain layer stack. It’s an excellent example of what open metaverse interactive experiences can offer.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the most fascinating stories of my career began with the purchase of a ray gun.
To celebrate my role at Wētā Workshop/Magic Leap, I bought a collector’s item from Wētā Workshop’s store — the Manmelter 3600ZX Ray Gun, designed by Greg Broadmore, who later became my Game Director at Wētā Workshop for four years.
A couple of years ago, inspired by the release of Unreal Engine 5 a few years ago, I took it upon myself to recreate my own ray gun design in 3D using the software. Seeing the level of detail and effort I put into my work, I shared it on LinkedIn and made sure to tag Greg Broadmore, the original designer of the ray gun. When Greg saw my work, he was blown away and recommended me for a top-secret project to Sir Richard Taylor and Neal Stephenson. This led to my involvement in the creation of the Snow Crash ‘Sword One’ collectible, which was very similar to my Unreal Engine 5 ray gun project.
Working directly with Sir Richard and Neal, I oversaw creating the digital twin NFT counterpart to Wētā Workshop’s physical and fully functional sword. After more than a year of collaborative development, the sword was auctioned off at Sotheby’s for over $400,000, surpassing the original Snow Crash manuscript’s value. My involvement in this tremendously successful project all stemmed from that ray gun purchase back in 2016, reminding me of the profound impact that seemingly small decisions can have on our lives and careers.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Numerous individuals have contributed to my growth and development over the years. At each job, I’ve had the chance to learn from creative talents at various stages of their careers, from seasoned directors to ambitious juniors with fresh perspectives. If I had to choose one person who has had the most significant impact on my career, it would be Dan Tonkin, my former Art Director at EA Melbourne.
When I first joined the industry as a digital artist, Dan mentored me and emphasized the importance of delivering high-quality content with a player-centric approach. His guidance has been invaluable, and I’m thrilled to share that we’ve recently joined forces as development partners. Together, we’re gearing up to explore groundbreaking web3 and XR solutions through our soon-to-be-established studio in Wellington, New Zealand.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Throughout my career, I have been privileged to work on several projects that have made a meaningful difference in people’s lives. One particularly noteworthy example is a Virtual Reality (VR) training simulation designed to accelerate the production of reliable Covid-19 vaccine vials.
The pharmaceutical company responsible for the vaccine, which must remain unnamed, faced the challenge of rapidly training hundreds of staff members to mass-produce the vaccine vials before the cleanroom laboratories and production lines were even built. Our solution involved creating a VR training simulation, for which I served as the Lead Artist. We used blueprints of the cleanroom laboratory under construction to recreate the space in VR, complete with digital twins of all the necessary equipment. We collaborated with the customer support team to optimize the digital production line, ensuring its efficiency and effectiveness for the staff.
Once the physical labs were completed, the well-trained staff hit the ground running, producing, and distributing over 100 million vaccine vials worldwide, ultimately saving countless lives. I’m incredibly humbled and honored to have been part of such a significant and life-changing project alongside a remarkably talented team.
Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in gaming that you are working on?
I have been delving into the potential of Web3 blockchain, Unreal Engine 5, and XR/mixed reality hardware technology. Nevertheless, the most revolutionary development in the field is unquestionably Generative AI. We have been utilizing AI-powered solutions to expedite production times and generate unique experiences that were once unattainable. A prime example is generative AI speech for in-game non-playable characters, which facilitates natural dialogue between players and game characters. Picture interacting with ChatGPT-like characters within a gaming environment — this is genuinely groundbreaking and an exceptional storytelling instrument for any game.
How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?
Every few years, a groundbreaking technology emerges that significantly disrupts the game development industry. In the past, new generations of consoles, such as the original Nintendo Entertainment System and early mobile phones, have transformed the landscape. Advances in game engines and the accessibility of various plug-and-play tools have also had a substantial impact. Open-source tools that integrate seamlessly with Unreal Engine and Unity have accelerated game development and leveled the playing field for smaller studios. Major game studios like CD Projekt Red and Bandai Namco have used Unreal Engine instead of maintaining their in-house engines. The accessibility of technology for independent developers has never been better, allowing even those in displaced countries to create unique interactive experiences and share their stories.
Junior concept artists and VFX compositing roles already feel the impact, with 3D art asset creation possibly facing the axe next. However, the disruptive potential of Generative AI also presents challenges. It is a double-edged sword — while enabling instant content creation, it threatens job security and the relevance of certain skill sets.
Despite these drawbacks, there are benefits to adopting AI in game development. Smaller teams can produce AAA-quality games, which traditionally require hundreds of developers working for over five years. In contrast, larger studios with massive budgets will have the capacity to create even more immersive and expansive gaming experiences. AI could even make full earth-scale game worlds rich in experiences a reality. The roles within game development teams will undoubtedly evolve over time. Junior concept artists and 3D modelers might be replaced by associate directors, who will guide AI in mass-producing high-quality game worlds.
While it is impossible to predict precisely where the industry will be in the next decade, these changes offer a glimpse of the potential transformations. Generative AI’s ability to create instant content and streamline the game development process can potentially change the industry in ways we’ve never seen before.
You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?
Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, I’m soon launching my own studio, Magic Matter. While continuing to support existing clients revolutionizing the industry with new technology, we will focus on seamlessly blending immersive digital experiences with the real world. Our goal is to enable people to experience true co-presence with others across the globe, connecting with individuals from various cultures and backgrounds while remaining grounded in their physical environment. Research has shown that human connection and engagement with our surroundings have numerous health benefits and are essential aspects of life. Our platform aims to facilitate immersive entertainment and improved access to education, healthcare, cultural awareness, and another untapped potential yet to be fully realized.
I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage games and gamification to enhance education?
Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of incorporating simple game mechanics, such as progression models and feedback loops, to motivate people to learn new skills and establish healthy habits. Even basic elements like experience point progress bars can inspire individuals to achieve daily goals, such as taking 10,000 steps with a Fitbit or steadily learning a new language. I apply various techniques from game design and production in my day-to-day life. For example, I frequently use Kanban boards, a tool common in agile game production sprints, to stay organized and on track with my personal tasks.
How would you define a “successful” game? Can you share an example of a game or toy that you hold up as an aspiration?
A game’s success depends on its ability to incorporate compelling and intelligently designed interactive feedback mechanisms, resulting in finely crafted cause-and-effect loops. This is precisely what distinguishes games from films as a storytelling medium. In fact, “storytelling” may not even be the most fitting term for games. The most engaging games grant players a profound sense of agency, allowing them to assume an active role in the unfolding story. We developers merely provide the stage, while players themselves take center stage, weaving their own tales.
Multiplayer games with well-structured cause-and-effect mechanics foster communication between players, creating a sense of camaraderie. Personal favorites like Street Fighter showcase this concept in a social setting, where all players contribute to the cause and effect. I miss the social connectedness of gaming arcades from the 80s and 90s. As I work on developing the metaverse, I aspire to capture that sense of togetherness that characterized those early gaming experiences.
What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create a Successful Game” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Prioritize the player: As game developers, we should always prioritize the player’s perspective by asking ourselves, “Is this fun? Will people enjoy this?” It’s easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of game development, but our primary goal is to entertain.
2. Design effective feedback loops: We need to focus on creating meaningful and well-constructed input-output mechanics. Visual feedback, a sense of progression, and encouraging conversations between players should be our top priorities.
3. Cultivate good taste: Developing a game that resonates with our target audience requires good taste. We need to trust our instincts and understand what players will love and appreciate. Good taste can make or break a game’s success and memorability.
4. Gather and analyze player feedback: Games these days are often geared towards Games as a Service (GaaS), so it’s crucial to improve the user experience and retention rates. Analyzing player behavior data can help us understand what aspects of the game people find enjoyable. However, we should be careful not to misuse this data for negative purposes like maximizing monetization or fostering unhealthy addiction.
5. Encourage strong team communication: Game development is a collaborative effort that requires a diverse range of skills and understanding. Effective communication is key to success. We should work together, problem-solve as a group, ask questions, and support each other when needed. It’s crucial to grasp the bigger picture and be curious about the team and project to ultimately determine a game’s success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It sounds a bit sentimental, but a movement centered on peace, love, and understanding. Perhaps not in the hippie sense that John Lennon popularized, but in the belief that interactive experiences, gaming, game development, and life generally are most enjoyable when guided by these principles. It’s essential to understand and appreciate everyone’s unique differences, backgrounds, and values, irrespective of gender, race, age, culture, beliefs, or anything else. Embrace love for people, places, things, and in yourself. Find a deep appreciation for your life journey and experiences. Connect with people and your surroundings, immerse yourself in the present, and cherish those moments.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Building on my earlier sentiment, I would like to share my favorite “Life Lesson Quote” which my grandfather Baz instilled in me during my teenage years, “The most important thing in life is not the destination, but the journey that gets you there!” He was a wise man and ardent mountaineer who often took me on challenging mountain-climbing trails in New Zealand. Reaching the summit was always exhilarating, but it was the journey that truly mattered — the conversations, the laughter, the sore muscles, and the feeling of accomplishment. It was those moments that I shared with my grandfather while connecting with nature that meant the most. I encourage you to embrace your life’s journey, seize opportunities, and share your experiences as success will invariably follow.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn is my go-to platform, as I truly enjoy engaging with people, learning from their diverse backgrounds and experiences, and even discovering exciting opportunities like creating that Snow Crash sword!
Don’t hesitate to follow and connect with me there and follow my journey. Thanks for your time!
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.