Understanding AAA, Startups, and Mobile with Richard Khoo
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
(This is an interview conducted on the Game Dev Unchained podcast)
Richard Khoo is a Game Design Director that has been working in the industry for over 15 years. He spent a decade at Blizzard working on titles like Starcraft 2 and was the lead systems designer for Heroes of the Storm. Shortly after, he was at Riot Games to help with Leagues of Legend. Richard spent several years working with startups, pitching to investors and did consulting work for companies like Wargaming. He currently is focused on mobile and is at Pocket Gems working on unannounced IPs.
Starting in QA
Over a span of 15 years RIchard has touched all corners of the industry such as AAA, Indie Startups, and am currently tackling mobile. His impressive background at working at the most influential and successful companies, such as Blizzard and Riot, gives credence to his perspective of how these different sectors in the game industry compare to each other.
Richard first started his career at Visual Concepts “as QA and while I was a QA tester I actually was modding for ostensibly for Blizzard for Warcraft 3.” He remembers “actually taking in my laptop while QA testing and maximizing my time. Like while I'm waiting for, like you know, the build to reload because I crashed the game I'm just like turning to my laptop and actually scripting in Warcraft 3 and making cool stuff.” His hard work eventually paid off and Richard “got promoted to lead, at some point. I forget when. Because I was modding on the side, it allowed me to do my QA job really really well. I wrote something like, you know, over 900 bugs for the games that I was working on. Yeah, they took notice they were like ‘you're really good at writing bugs.”
Working at QA and crossing the bridge to development is sometimes a great way to transition but requires a huge amount of dedication. Richard’s constant drive got him “working [as part of the] night crew. So if you work night crew QA, you're a special kind of dedicated developer because you don't get home ‘til like 5 o'clock in the morning and then you sleep during the day.” This sound crazy but Richard puts it into context as his “previous job was actually as a Gamestop employee in New Jersey. So what happened was the assistant manager, one of the associates, and myself all like caught wind of ‘oh hey, they're hiring at Visual Concepts. It's for QA tester, I think, we should all apply for it!’ So the three of us did and we all got the job and the three of us moved out all the way from New Jersey to California all at the same time. So it was a really special time, you know. We hung out a lot we talked a lot about our game, QA stories. We're all really excited about it all. Just felt, you know, we were all just young kids with dreams wanting to get into the video game industry.”
Dropping out of Cornell...
What makes Richard’s story even more compelling is that he comes from a household where both his parents had a doctoral degree (PhD). Richard himself was finishing his education at Cornell University before refocusing his career path towards game development. “I've realized that my life is actually punctuated by kind of like these ridiculous like beliefs that I have in myself. Because I originally went to Cornell to be a doctor... so this is back in 1998, you know, the stereotypical Asian going to become a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer or whatever right? And all I wanted to do is make video games. Prior to that I had been using the Blizzard Starcraft and Warcraft 3 editor to make mods and stuff. So I always enjoyed entertaining people and being creative. As I went to Cornell the reality is, you can get all straight A's. like I did in High School. you can win all sorts of awards, which I did, but then you go to college and then like it's another level of these motherfuckers are like the better doctor. So my grades started slipping and I started to fall back on what do I actually want to do? And that got me to think about how I want to make games I want to write stories, I want to compose music…”
As Richard rediscovered his interest in game development his grades started to slip. Furthermore, he doubled down and laser-focused on his new path and “decided to make video games. And [my friend and I] were going to do everything that we can to get into the video game industry. And yes so we just started consciously doing things that would help develop our creative skills because back then nobody knew what does it mean to be a game designer, you know, right?” But “after I realized I wanted to do games, I kind of just stuck with it and got a job as a Gamestop employee. And kept my eyes open for any opportunities.” That opportunity led him to move to California from New Jersey to start work as QA for $10/hr and the rest was history.
Working at Blizzard
“When I started at Blizzard like I definitely felt, ‘oh my god!’ I was the first level designer hired out of the modding community, not the first one, but the first set of people who are coming in. And I remember just feeling so weird with pride and assurance that like my shit don't stink like I'm the best thing ever since sliced bread and all that. But within the first like week of being at Blizzard I [realized] there's some really smart people here and I've got a lot to learn, right? So I became a sponge. I felt that I never was conscious about the fact that I was at Blizzard therefore I should just learn everything I've always wanted to learn.” Richard, never one to let an opportunity slip, absorbed everything he could and slowly climbed the ranks at Blizzard during his 10 years there. “So working on Warcraft 3 and then Starcraft 2 I was focused mostly on content design and I like learn how to use the tools that we had at world-class levels. So you know, learning how to work with the tools engineers working with the artists and narrative and creative in general to make really great stories. Working with the multiplayer system designers to like create great units for multiplayer. Mentor like some of the designers on how to use the tools really well so just try to add as much like value as possible and Blizzard, like any really well established video game studio, they recognized it. They put me in positions where I could affect more areas of the game I was promoted a lot and I look back and I'm really thankful for all of that. And I just kept adding lots and lots of value so I think Blizzards not in terms of ‘you got to make a game, you got to like communicate to people you got to do.’ All that stuff.”
Richard carried forward of all his lessons learned climbing the ranks at Blizzard. He attributes many of Blizzard’s success “to being around for 25 years and has since crystallized into pillars on best practices around how to creatively collaborate, how to prioritize certain types of development, how to think of the long-term.”
My time at Riot
When Richard took his talent to Riot Games he compared his experience there to like “maintaining this Tea Garden where it's been release it's been approved and in a way, formulaic, where they don't want to mess with the formula to to hurt any existing sales or customers or upset the community they built so long for. And the longer that continues the harder for designers to actually design anything new. It's just when you look at the constraints, right? Like ‘hey, this is all that you're allowed to work with it. This little box and everyone on the team has to be in that same little box as a designer but you still have to come up with original concepts or original implementation energies for the new types of heroes that you want to introduce to that game. Then there's what like 300 of them, at this point, I don't know probably closer to 100.”
One can imagine with an established franchise it can be frustrating for a designer trying to be creative in that space and instead, the job entails developers to maintain more than change. However, even Richard admits, that Riot does some things better than Blizzard and “use social media more effectively than Blizzard ever did and I can say that confidently because I felt like [Riot Games] basically they ran circles around [Blizzard]. In terms of really drumming up a lot of excitement around the League of Legends versus Heroes of the Storm. So I think the lessons are they’re like the blueprints on how to make super awesome games.”
“After Riot I realized that a lot of my passion was actually in building new games from scratch. And there was a gap of time between when I left Riot and when I actually started consulting for Wargaming and that was when I was actually a freelance game designer director. It was effectively the position that all the startups that I was talking to were offering. I worked with a lot of different startups, so I just said ‘okay I'm a game director.” Richard proceeded to spend some time in the open market doing consulting work for companies that needed help getting started with game design. He took advantage of his skillset and did freelancing for several years.
“The Dragon Prince” on Netflix, was one of the first projects that Richard jumped on to help create a game for after Riot. Anyhow, he had to move on and “worked with them for like a couple months but actually left. Because one of the things you start to realize when you're working for startups is that you're working for no money and no benefits and just equity. It was a good salary and all on paper but the question was like we still needed to find funding.”
Being out on his own he found that “the first rule of working at startups, it's tough- because like you gravitate towards your friends and it's the highest risk possible so you want to be with people that you can hang out with and it's cool, and you can really go toe to toe with like when the shit hits the fan. But you subtract money out of the situation and then it's like it's a deeply personal question.” Working with friends can be a very scary or fruitful experience and it requires a deep connection to celebrate the good times and battle through the harsher times. After a while, Richard was approached by Wargaming for consulting and he jumped at the chance. It was a perfect situation for him to balance something secure and continue to work with startups for game design pitches. At the time Richard “was trying to be fiscally responsible because I had like my my son and daughter at the time. But if I wasn't I think I would have done harmful things to my body just trying to like keep up the pace in order to keep adding value with the hopes of impressing this investor and then we'll find the that the magic innovation somewhere just right around the corner. That stuff is really really really hard.”
After two and half years working in startups, eventually Richard was personally recruited to Pocket Gems by the CEO and believed in their “mission statement to pioneer new experiences. Mobile gaming is growing. The devices only get stronger I mean you can just see read all the business report words for it. That may or may not be for everybody, but like, I think that's another reinforcement why to get into it I've always loved like designing games and I always believed in elegance above everything else. So if you can execute a AAA quality type of game on a small screen like that's that's awesome, like the to me, that's a work of art and a reason to get into mobile games in and of itself. I think that there will always be challenges because mobile games have only been out for 10 years so like not all of like the best practices have been established. But when you're thinking about making games, you always have to ask yourself... like there's a big split between games where you know you're trying to pioneer and do something new and crazy. Or games that are just kind of like, to me, products. There's nothing wrong with that. It comes down to do you want to work on an established franchise that already has a pretty established IP or do you want to try to create something new? And I always advise people to think about what kind of risks do they want to do because again it all comes back to economics for me. It's like are you super super risky? If you're super super risky go join magic leap and go make some like crazy fucking AR VR game, I have no idea that people will actually want to play. But for me I've always been sort of like moderately aggressive.”