The Game UX Interview Series
Interview #7: Evva Kraikul
I’ve met Evva briefly at GDC last March, and I felt curious to know her better: she’s in UX, and she’s Creative Director, CEO and Founder of GLITCH, a community driven arts and education center for game makers. Surely, she’d have a few good stories to tell!
Hello Evva! How have you been?
I’m doing well! It’s a really busy part of our year, so it’s been a challenging couple of weeks; but I’m a really strict nine-to-fiver! For myself and the team. I want people enjoy life outside of work.
Evva, what are the places on Earth where you feel at home?
Well first, Minnesota: I grew up here! New York City: I really love the food, the culture, the people, and the public transit! Bangkok: It’s the only place where I can actually speak Thai with everyone I meet! I have a lot of family there, I like to catch up with them. I guess that’s what it it boils down to isn’t it? Home is wherever your family is? In my case, that’s mainly where my partner and my dog are: Minneapolis/Saint Paul.
In this series, we always start off with an origin story, so: How did UX find its way into your career?
I started building battle simulators for AOL chat rooms and websites to sell my Beanie Babies when I was about 10 years old! My dad felt that computers and the internet were going to be the future so he bought a computer and we had dial-up at home. Ebay or PayPal didn’t exist yet, so I had to come up with a process to send cheques back and forth; like, you send me half of the funding, I send you half of the Beanie Babies. Customers and I were both taking a risk!
Really, my websites weren’t elegant at all, but I ended up getting a lot of feedback from customers and heard, “you’ve got mail!’ a lot. Then I’d change the way I display my inventory, or display pricing, or even changing the shading on a button; resulting in *maybe* better browsing experience? (I had no way to measure it!)
You were doing all that yourself? OK wow! That’s an awesome story!
Yeah, my parents didn’t believe me until the first cheque came in the mail! From there, I did a lot of coding and development during the days when you could add code directly into MySpace text boxes. I wanted my page to look cool!
Fast forward a few years, I found myself pursuing a double major in neuroscience and psychology at the University of Minnesota. I searched for ways of bridging my studies with my interest in games, and, at the time, there were no groups doing anything even remotely related to games in Minneapolis. I ended up starting a student group which is now known as GLITCH. Our goal back then was simply connecting students who were interested in playing and making games across campus, and also professionals who were in this space.
Also, because of my interests, I think UX was always in-there somewhere: One of the first people we invited to speak with us was Mike Ambinder, an experimental psychologist at Valve.
Tell us about GLITCH today.
GLITCH is an independent game label that’s home to the offbeat, the debut, and also the experimental. We’ve been empowering game makers through community-driven programs, since 2009. Early on, we had a few projects we’d want to push a little further, so we applied for grants: Things started to get “real” for us when we got funding within the first six months. My partner, Nicolaas VanMeerten, and myself, decided to pursue GLITCH full-time and launched our headquarters close to the University. Actually it’s right across! There! [Evva moves away from the camera to reveal a splendid view on the campus through the window.]
My vision was to create an arts and education center for game makers. We’ve had success through programs like Power Leveling that we do at GDC, fellowships through the development studio, and we’ll be publishing our first games in 2018!
GLITCH is launching games this year?
Yes! We’re keeping our support local right now. We’re launching HyperDot of Tribe Games and Optica by Graveck Interactive. Expect to hear a lot more about these projects and the label in the near future!
How many people work with you at GLITCH now?
There’s 6 of us working full time through the whole year and 4 founding board members.
Great! I’ve seen a few support initiatives run by very dedicated people who have a day job as well. It’s encouraging that full time dedication is even possible, and viable!
Yeah! What we care about is making sure that others can actually start their own projects, their own organizations and studios as well. We’re getting to figure out what programs work best to empower start-up studios. That’s why we’ve actually started talking about publishing. A lot of the game makers come to explore, learn technical skills and find collaborators. After participating in our programs, many folks have been asking us, “what’s next?”
What’s a typical work week like for you, Evva?
It varies from week to week but what is consistent is that I have many conversations. Lots of prototyping, flowcharts, wireframes, artboard, and… legal documents! As a Creative Director, I end up overseeing different aspects of design, production, and business development.
Here’s what’s on my calendar from last week:
Daily Stand-Ups; Flow discussion on our PBS project; Art review of the ribbons we’re making for our PLAY/TEST Arcade (We have a traveling pop-up arcade that’s making an appearance at local conventions.); Weekly dev updates on each of our titles; Artboard research for the AR puzzle room we’re working on with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Conversation with our Director of Operations and Community Manager to discuss how to best support our volunteer hosts on events such as Story Forge and DnD Thursdays; Board Meeting on programming and finances; Testing conversation to review goals, protocols, and check-ins with our collaborative designers; Wireframes; Changes in iconography and nomenclature for the multiplayer UI in HyperDot: Players were a bit confused by “free play”; Top secret podcast conversation with Stephanie Hurlbert (!); Calls with potential Power Leveling Guild Leaders for GDC 2019; Build Reviews; Happy Lunch Day.
Ouf! You mentioned collaborative designers?
We do something called participatory design, where we incorporate (and compensate!) members of our target demographic to be part of the design team. It’s taken a while to figure out how to actually do that, but it’s so rewarding and eye opening. Our participatory designers bring up points and ideas based on their own unique experiences that we would have never thought of without their knowledge.
What do you like about your work?
I like having the power to select my team, the projects we tackle, and the partners that we want to work with. I think there’s a lot to be said about being able to come in to the office every single day, to work with friends on projects we’re really passionate about, with partners we deeply care about.
Is there anything you wish were a bit different?
Sometimes I wish I could focus specifically on one project. I’m constantly feeling like I’m not really making anything anymore, even though I am! Luckily, I’m energized by people, but sometimes I look at my calendar and I’m like: “These are all conversations!”
Do you sometimes wonder: what if…?
What if we were 30 people? What would GLITCH look like? What does design look like? We’ve been talking a little about the future, and we’re not if sure what growth looks like for us.
Tell us about your design process!
I have it written down for you! [Evva sends a file over chat.]
If($FundingExists) -> An idea -> Research -> Prototype -> Test-with-real-people-within-the-target demographic -> Get feedback -> ?( Find funding to make it happen if it’s worthwhile) -> Iterate
Haha! Wait… Funding exists before the idea?
Yes! It’s out there! There are foundations that have a pool of funding to give in the coming year; if you build enough trust, some of the funding will go directly to an organisation and then it’s up to them to figure out what to do with the funding. It’s out there!
In my design process, I end up spending much time on the research: what similar games already exist, who plays them, in what space, that’s one of the most exciting parts! Then there’s the making. I’m a huge fan of low-fi prototypes: hand-drawn things that I put in front of people while I try my hardest to not cringe. It helps me understand if my original intent results in the desired behaviors I tried to design for. I usually do a paper prototype, before I even do anything digital.
We also produce a few programs, such as Power Leveling, and in program design we’ll recruit a few people help us with a pilot launch. From there we iterate very quickly and get feedback. It allows us to find out if it’s worthwhile or not, and if it is, to find the funding to make it happen on a larger scale.
What do you do when you get stuck?
I like to reach out to people! I like to consult experts that know more than me, and often times I’ll pay for their advice. When I’m stuck, I end up having conversations and I talk it out: I find that more talking helps me better than not talking. Going somewhere weird to eat (it’s really helpful to have the conversation coupled with food for me! [laughs]); being somewhere that’s different and new, with someone really smart across the table.
What do you do to procrastinate?
I’ll watch GDC vault, or a TED Talk, and then tell myself “it’s for work”! And I justify it to myself, when in fact I’m not doing my work, the work I’m supposed to be doing.
That’s super productive! Now you have to tell us what to watch!
I just watched recently the Raph Koster talk at the Game UX Summit in Toronto: (Dis)Assembling experience. It was *exceptionally* good!
Oh, yes! +1 to this! Any games that have inspired you recently?
Yes, for our PBS project, I’ve been doing a lot of research on games for Pre-K, and the Toca Boca games, like Toca Lab and Toca Kitchen, fascinate me!
Have you seen how minimal the UI is and how much they communicate through facial expressions? Toca Lab is just a face on the periodic elements and a work bench! I hadn’t given it much thought until now. Gosh, I love that so much: facial expressions as the primary form of communication and feedback with the player. It blew my mind!
Do you have a UX pet peeve?
Like doors that have a handle that say “Push” and hamburger icons?
Being serious, right now a current big pet peeve is how misunderstood Game UX is within our own organizations and even outside of it to our player communities.
As a thought experiment, I spent a lot of time at GDC this year talking to UX designers, user researchers, technical artists, and was trying to best understand how the concept of UX fits into each studio from AAA to indie. What I learned was that technical artists are doing research, and UX designers were doing game design, and programmers were doing UX and UI! What was consistent was that all folks working on UX in some capacity were focused on a high-scope area that was complex and ambiguous.
Hahahaha! You know I’m a UI Artist who also does UX, right? I think I might be using the infamous “UI/UX” title on my linkedin, but I absolutely hate it!
Yeah! And I think there’s a lot of overlap between the two, so I understand! But wait, why do you dislike the term “UX/UI”? I want to know!
Why is there a slash between us?
Hahahaha! I LOVE THAT! You have a typography issue with it?
I’m curious what would make sense to you?
We’ve all given much so thought to this, and still can’t nail it, right? Game Design, UI, Interaction Design, Creative Direction, Art Direction and Visual Design: all of it is about Player Experience! It all intersects! So where does UX stand in-between it all? What’s your take on this, Evva?
It’s funny because I’ve gone through exactly the same thoughts about it. Am I an Information Architect? A UX Designer? I also do Research, and Game Design…
Where does one role start, and where does it end? I ended up with “Creative Director” because it seemed like the best fit.
At the end of the day, Game UX is all about a system that directly impacts player experience and that’s all that matters. I’m comfortable with the level of ambiguity in our day to day roles right now.
What are your hopes for the future of UX?
I hope — and I am confident it’s going to happen — but ultimately I dream of our industry figuring out how to harness the power of UX in the current development process. And figuring that out, for each studio, is going to be different, because every team is so different!
Game UX isn’t Web UX either: games are more dynamic. We’ll have to discover our own way of doing, and it won’t be a clean transition. It’s messy, tough, and challenging, but I’m sure we, as an industry, can figure out how to do that. I’m super excited to see the games we make and how they will change once we are able to work in a flawless, fluid way!
Fluid and flawless! Thank you Evva!