The Game UX Interview Series
Interview #5: Howie Begosa
Welcome to The Game UX Interview Series, the series where one Game UX Professional interviews another. I’m Mike, the editor of this series, and for this interview I have the pleasure of introducing you to a friend and colleague of mine, Howie Begosa, a Senior UI/UX Designer at Disney. He has worked on countless Disney titles over the last decade and is an invaluable resource within our organization. Most recently, he worked on the Star Wars Jedi Challenges AR platform, and I’m very excited for everyone to hear his story.
So, let’s meet Howie!
Welcome to The Game UX Interview Series Howie! We usually kick these off with origin stories, so how did you get your start working in Game UX?
I had come from a background in advertising and web design, but I had been always frustrated by the limitations with HTML. I gravitated towards Flash and quickly became enamored by how easily I could create interactive experiences expanding beyond just web design and into games.
When I was presented a designer position to work with Disney on an MMORPG for Pixar’s Cars, I jumped on the opportunity without hesitation. Coming from a web design background, I inherently had to learn HCI best practices through my experiences designing for that medium. Applying and adapting those principles to games was a natural transition and an important one for me once the UX term became mainstream.
We’ve worked together the last few years, and you’ve been at Disney for 10 years total. How has the gaming industry shifted from when you started?
The casual games industry was primarily focused on Flash based games on the web when I first started working at Disney. We were still designing for 800x600 resolutions that fit in a web browser and were pulling some insane optimization tricks so that assets would load in quickly over an Internet connection. Simply getting 3D to work in a browser was a challenge. Those kinds of technical limitations really forced you to think creatively about how to solve problems, especially when they impacted the performance of your designs.
The most notable shift has been the death of Flash and web games, and a huge focus on mobile experiences. This meant complete shifts in interaction models to touch based interactivity. It was exciting to take on new challenges and new problems to solve. The industry moves quickly and even now, I’ve been very lucky to design for emerging technologies like AR and even OTT (over-the-top) devices like the Apple TV.
Let’s talk a bit more about designing for Augmented Reality (AR). Can you tell me about your experience working on Jedi Challenges, was this the first AR game you’ve worked on?
I had briefly worked R&D on Mirage (the headset technology) and it was my first time getting involved with AR. I had tried other headsets like Oculus and the Vive and was blown away by the sheer potential of the technology. To me, it was like a caveman seeing fire for the first time. I was hungry to learn more and I found it fascinating that I was learning about human biology and cognition alongside my work.
For example, human sight is very good at discerning objects with great detail when it’s in the center of our focus. But our brains aren’t able to make out that same level of detail in our peripheral. On traditional screens, we like to put up a lot of UI elements in the corners so it makes way for the beautifully rendered worlds in the center. This translates poorly in an AR experience because you spend much more energy darting your eyes into the corners to properly focus on and read these elements. So we quickly learned that elements we wanted the user to focus on needed to gravitate towards this center field, and we needed to be creative with how we directed the player’s gaze in the directions we wanted.
How did you go about finding AR reference?
During early development, there actually wasn’t much to reference in regards to AR. There was no device that had hit the mainstream market and a lot of our learnings came from trial and error, as well as adapting some of what works in VR. It was both exhilarating and frustrating. We were very much inspired by the things we saw in movies, but the challenge was taking something visually appealing and making it actually functional and usable for our experience.
I really wanted to avoid simply putting UI elements on flat planes when possible. We have enough 2D screens in our lives, and this was a great opportunity for us to tell a story as well as showcase some of the lore and mythos of the Star Wars universe. One of our more interesting achievements was creating the Galaxy and Planets navigation model in which users traverse through the galaxy at a high level and into greater detail at the planet level. But the challenge was how we could communicate to the user to go back to where they came from. We could just throw a back button somewhere, but where would it go? How would it fit into the theme and story of our galaxy and planets? It seemed too contrived. We also had to factor in the technical limitations of our headset. Look too far left and right and you’d lose tracking from the beacon on the floor. We discovered that when you looked up and down, the loss of tracking wasn’t as noticeable, and we ended up stacking our visual representation of the galaxy and planets vertically and using those as a means to navigate through the hierarchy. With a bit of clever animations and transitions, it made sense.
Throughout your career, you’ve worked on multiple titles, IP, and platforms concurrently, how are you able to shift focus?
With LOTS of coffee! No, but seriously, it’s definitely challenging. Each project’s dynamics can be completely different. Some projects that I’ve worked on in the past have been licensed or co-developed. Those require more social skills and being able to get third party teams to understand and execute on your design vision. It can be nerve wracking at times because you have to rely on the abilities of an outside party as well as be cognizant of their own emotions and personal investments in the project.
Others projects, like Jedi Challenges, are developed internally and I have instant access to engineers and other artists. In this case I have a more direct material impact since I can hop into the project and code and actually help with production and execute on design proposals.
Sometimes external partners work in completely different time zones, so emails and questions can be coming in at all hours of the day. It takes some degree of discipline and a bit of strategic thinking to know when to put the phone down and realize that you can’t fix everything immediately. Some things will be just fine until you get to them the next morning. Trust me, your loved ones will thank you for it.
In terms of shifting focus, if I develop a deep understanding of the entire experience of the product, it pays off in the long run. Note the key word there is “experience”. You may have superficial knowledge of the state of character or environment art, animation, etc. But the most important thing to keep a pulse on is ultimately how the experience as a whole works and feels to the user. It doesn’t happen overnight and that’s ok! But it’s important to get to that point so you know how a change to one system can affect another, and you can make educated decisions based on that knowledge.
What do you think has been your biggest challenge so far?
I think part of being a successful UX designer is understanding how to communicate effectively with others. I feel like they don’t teach this enough in school. Too many people are enamored by the idea of insufferable leaders. Sure, these people are great visionaries. Sure, you can force your ideas upon others all you want, but at what cost? It’s better to arrive at solutions together, and being open to other people’s perspectives, even when you believe you’re right. I can be very passionate and opinionated about my work. And while I believe that’s a great trait to have, I also think it’s important to be a great design partner. Nobody wants to work with an asshole.
On my first day at Disney, I vividly remember our tour of the Studio Lot. As we approached the Frank G. Wells Building, I noticed a plaque at the entrance with the words “Humility is the final achievement.” I remember thinking to myself how appropriate this statement is in our industry — where ego and hubris can quickly consume a well accomplished professional. I still try to live by those words to this day and remind myself that the best work is accomplished as a team and not by a lone rockstar.
Where do you get your inspiration when starting a new project?
There are the obvious sources of inspiration: movies and other games. But then there’s the not so obvious. The wonderful thing about about our profession is that we can draw inspiration from so many other seemingly unrelated experiences. Case in point, I’m a huge fan of the magical arts. By that I mean I dabble in magician circles and frequent The Magic Castle in Hollywood. Various principles and methodologies in magic performance translate really well into our discipline. Obvious examples are misdirection: pointing your audience’s attention to one focus over another. Priming: conditioning your audience to a particular action or idea. And of course showmanship: presenting your work in an entertaining and amusing manner, even if it’s something people have seen many times over.
I’m also fascinated by physical puzzles and impossible objects like Japanese puzzle boxes or Hanayama. Escape Rooms have also been gaining in popularity and I think these are excellent physical manifestations of the digital games we all love to play. I make a mental note of all the little moments of awe and elation I experience on a day to day basis across all mediums in hopes that perhaps they will translate into something useful for a future project.
What’s the key to surviving in this industry and what advice do you have for someone looking to start working in Games UX?
Be hungry to learn. As I mentioned earlier, humility applies not only to your professional relationships, but also in your ability to grow. Our industry changes so quickly that just when you think you’ve mastered one skill, you have to completely rethink everything you’ve learned. Being agnostic to technology really helps in this sense. Love using Photoshop for your layouts? Too bad, everyone’s using Sketch now. You’re a master at Flash? Ha! Flash is dead. Time to learn Unity. The more flexible you are in learning new software, technologies, best practices, navigation models, input methods, design systems, etc. the more you’re likely to survive and stay useful and impactful in our industry.
“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” — Unknown
What excites you about the future of Games UX and how will you be a part of it?
When I was still in school, I spent the majority of my time researching Alternate Reality Games. I was fascinated by how ARG’s spanned beyond the film experience and incorporated aspects of web, phones, email, and real live events and actors. The storytelling experience was crafted and curated by “the puppet masters” who were able to react in realtime to their audience feedback. With the advent of IoT devices, AR, and VR, those storytelling experiences and bits of fantasy have new vehicles with which to permeate our lives. Someone has to create and design them! Why not me?
I think now more than ever, Games UX is in a unique position to inspire and influence more practical aspects of our lives in the form of AR and VR. All those cool diegetic UI experiences you found in video games past suddenly have a place in our day to day lives whether in the form of industrial or lifestyle applications, and along with it the creativity, playfulness, and storytelling we express in games UI and UX. The transitive nature of our craft is truly what excites me the most about our field.
What’s next for you and your career?
It’s always tough to answer this one. I’ve been with Disney for so long that I’ve had many friends come and move onto other things. And I’m really happy for them and excited for the things they’re creating. There’s a part of me that wonders what it’s like on the other side and if the grass is any greener. But I’m incredibly lucky to be part of a company that allows me the flexibility to hop from project to project, platform to platform, one incredible IP to another. There are some fantastic opportunities on the horizon with this company that I hope to be a part of in some way or another.
I wouldn’t leave Disney unless I start to get bored or stagnate here. But the company continuously keeps me on my toes, so I don’t see that happening anytime soon.