You know life is good when your hobby crosses over with your work – I should know, I get to talk technology every day which for me is a hobby so even the toughest days at work usually have a silver lining.
When I talk about the many roles at Microsoft, one I sometimes mention is a racing car driver and that’s a skillset Kiki Wolfkill has been able to bring to her work in. Kiki is an executive producer at 343 Industries, the gaming unit within Microsoft Studios that’s responsible for the Halo franchise. 343 sits alongside game studios such as Turn 10, Lionhead, Rare and Good Science creating first party titles for XBox. Kiki has worked in the gaming arena for a good number of years at Microsoft, helping to ship over 25 games including Project Gotham Racing, Forza, Rallisport Challenge, Fable, Crackdown, and many others.
Kiki joined the gaming group at Microsoft in 1998 having previously worked in Microsoft’s post production studio as a motion graphic artist on PC games – not exactly what’d you’d expect from someone who had a BA in Chinese history at the University of Washington – though she did minor in fine art and begin a second degree in broadcast journalism, so you can see some lineage.
The first time I met Kiki she was intriguingly coy about what she was working on – we’ll get back to that shortly but as a car fan myself I was initially keen to know what it’d been like to work on games like Gotham and Forza and whether Kiki’s own experience as a driver had been of use. It’s not like her driving skills are Sunday cruiser either as she was born in to a motorsport family and spent her early years crammed in to the back seat of small sportscars. She has raced both as an amateur and as a professional, beginning with amateur road racing with SCCA, NASAPro, and Porsche Club Racing and I’m told by others that she was consistently on the podium. Competing in the Women's Global GT Series in a Panoz Esperante is no mean feat and placing in the top 5 three times and fifth overall isn’t too shabby either. She’s driven pace cars and TV camera cars and took part in the 2002 Gumball Rally in an Xbox styles Mini Cooper as well as the Cannonball One Lap of America in a Noble M400.
Back to work though, she has served as a racing subject matter expert and helped ensure that the driving games on which she has worked are as a true to the real thing as possible. She actually spent plenty of time in my hometown of Liverpool, working with Bizarre Creations on Project Gotham Racing and explained to me the process of modeling real world cars as art and science, involving the tech specs of each car, detailed photography and then tuning the physics model of the games to reflect the handling characteristics of the cars.
As you’ve probably gathered, Kiki isn’t an archetypal game developer – she came up through the world of gaming with an art background is now an executive producer (EP). As we began talking about the EP role and what it takes to build 21st century games it became clear that there are a lot of similarities with the film industry – so much so that Kiki has really started to see an exchange of skillsets and talent between the world of gaming and movies. As I’ve said before, Microsoft has a lot of developers but when you dig into the types of people we have at the company, you find we also have world class concept artists, art directors, and audio directors as well as game designers, experience designers, cinematic animators, lighters, effects artists, character artists, music composition etc. – all of which you need if you’re building games like Halo. Take a look at the job listings for 343 and you get a real sense of that mix of skills.
That brings me neatly back to today. As much as I loved talking about the driving games, they’re now under the stewardship of the folks at Turn 10 and I’m eagerly anticipating Forza 4 – assume I’ll be busy the week of October 11th. Meanwhile, Kiki and her team are keeping busy building the next episode in one of the biggest franchises in entertainment. Earlier in the year when I first me her, she teased with “I’m working on something in the Halo universe”. Post E3, I now know that is of course Halo 4 and when I visited Kiki for a second time, at the 343 Industries HQ, it was clear I’d stepped in to the world of Halo. The entry hallway is lined with Halo artifacts that reminded me that Halo is so much more than just a game – it’s a lifestyle, with comics, board games, figurines and all manner of toys on display. We chatted about where things are going with Halo 4 and Kiki mentioned that so far, it’s been a journey of building a team of talent from across the industry and the world. As you would expect, I dug for more details about the game but it’s too early for that…however it does mean I’ll go back later in the year and see where they’re headed.
I walked away educated about another world of Microsoft that tends to be seen through one lens – the finished product of a game like Halo or Forza. For those willing or interested to dig behind the scenes, you find a set of people and roles that you may not expect at Microsoft.