Interview with Marc Sodermanns
Lead UX Designer at Massive - a Ubisoft studio
Hi, my name is Marc Sodermanns and I am currently working as a Lead UX Designer at Massive, a Ubisoft Studio in Malmö, Sweden. I am working on the just announced, super exciting project Avatar-Frontiers of Pandora. I just moved to the beautiful city of Malmö four months ago from Guildford, United Kingdom, where I worked at Electronic Arts on the Need for Speed franchise.
Before that, I worked for a couple of other game development studios in Germany like Ubisoft in Mainz and studios that developed browser or mobile games. I also gained experience in other industries like interactive media and advertising agencies.
How did you start in the industry?
I still remember the day I played Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System plugged into a TV. I was astonished by this pixelated dude doing actions based on my input on a controller. I was blown away by this interactive experience, the graphics, the sound. That really dragged me into the world of videogames. Since then I started playing all kinds of games and owned a lot of different consoles and handhelds. That was also the time when I built my own PCs. That really changed my life and was also kind of responsible for some bad school results. 😉
With this love and passion for videogames, I tried everything to turn this hobby into a living.
After graduating in Graphics Design, I first worked for a post-production company as a Motion Graphics Designer and later as a freelancer for some time, mainly in the areas of screen, motion and graphic design. Through a scholarship, I studied Game Design at the Games Academy in Frankfurt to learn the basics of game development. The experience there was very impressive and informative and I got in contact with a lot of lecturers who worked in the industry and received a lot of insights from game development.
After finishing Games Academy, I started working as a Lead VFX Artist and UI Designer for an interactive/post production agency. I became aware of Funatics Software through a job advertisement for a Game Designer position, so I sent them my application and finally got into the game industry. I worked on projects like UFO Online – Fight for Earth, based on the original UFO online Enemy unknown series, later called XCom and other browser games like Cultures Online and Panzer General Online in cooperation with Blue Byte Ubisoft.
Since they only had one UI Artist, they needed someone to fill the UI / UX design and art gap. That’s how I got into my first role as a UI / UX Designer in game development. It turned out that I can combine my graphics art skills and game design fundamentals in the position of an UI / UX Designer. Unfortunately, the projects did not generate enough profits. So Funatics was forced to close most of its departments at the time and eventually ceased operations. My next station was Blue Byte Ubisoft in Mainz where I worked as a UI /UX Design freelancer for their browser game “Might and Magic Heroes Online” a turn-based strategy game. The team, the project and working environment was very impressive. I worked on this project till I was given the opportunity to join the Skull and Bones project as a Technical UI Designer. That was the first triple A project I worked on. I did a lot of UI and UX Design for the game, but as a technical Designer, I was also involved in optimising the Ubisoft Engine. We improved the workflow and accessibility for Artists and Designers. It was really interesting to work with such a big lead studio in Singapore where I also worked for a short time overseas.
A very interesting job advertisement made me leave the games industry for the time being. So I joined Palmer Hargreaves, a big B2B advertising agency, where I worked as an Art Director. This position was a new interesting challenge, especially expanding new horizons. I got even more responsibility because I managed the digital departments and processes. Main areas of work were still UI and UX design, but this time for blue chip corporations.
But actually, I missed the gaming industry too much, so I took the opportunity to join Digamore in Cologne as a Senior UI/UX Designer. Digamore got me interested because it was a small, rock’n roll attitude start-up with a cool project, a football manager mobile game called “Football Empire”( I am a passionate football fan). As I haven’t worked on a mobile game before, I was curious about it. Especially in terms of smaller screens, aspect ratios, performance but also a new and different core audience / player types it was a tremendous difference to AAA games – so a number of new UX challenges. How to attract and bind players to the game, since it was a free to play game with microtransactions? How to keep players engaged and make them spend money for your game? Because the team was very small (like 10-13 people), I was the only UI/UX Designer and worked closely with the Game Designers, Artists and Programmers..As your work area is bigger in smaller studios, I was not only responsible for UI UX design tasks. I also implemented some of my screens and animations directly in Unity 3D. Besides that, I also set up and ran some user tests with our Producer and did a lot of research and analysis on user feedback and collected data from our performance team. But, as things can happen quickly in the game industry and especially in a highly competitive App Store, Football Empire did not reach the expectations and the project was closed.
One day a Recruiter reached out to me and he mentioned that Electronic Arts was looking for a UX Designer, senior position. That’s how I came to Electronic Arts, Ghost Team to work on Need for Speed Heat. It was very exciting to go abroad and work outside of Germany. At Ghost I had more responsibilities and more leading tasks which were further increased by my Manager promotion. I was entrusted with leading a small team and was heavily involved in project planning. After Need for Speed Heat, EA Criterion received the license for working on a new Need for Speed. So I switched to Criterion, also as senior UX Designer and was heavily involved in recruiting a team of new UX designers which I led as a manager. In retrospect, I consider my time at Electronic Arts as being incredibly valuable because I was part of an incredibly talented team and gained very interesting insights into game development. This time has shaped me as a UX Designer but also as a person and has broadened me professionally. It was also my first experience in leadership which has given me a lot of experience and knowledge, especially in my current position at Massive. I also worked very closely with the UXR (User experience research) department which I also see as a very valuable experience. Testing very close to the player and iterating quickly on their feedback is one of my basic principles as a UX Designer.
What are your responsibilities at Massive Ubisoft?
As a Lead UX Designer, my main responsibility is to lead and guide the UX team. I have to ensure that the team can work well, efficiently and independently. My task is to make sure that they get all the information they need or know where to get it from. It’s important that my team knows which tasks they should work on and how these are scheduled, for example in a road map. I encourage regular communication and reviews of work. For me it’s crucial that my team feels that their opinion is important and heard at all times. A core concept of leadership for me is coaching and training. Leadership is about protecting, serving, and developing others. It’s about creating a fertile environment, keeping it healthy and watching out for the things that undermine it.
Furthermore, it is essential to integrate a good workflow of UX in companies. In my experience, this is always a special challenge because in some companies this has not been integrated well and/or efficiently, yet. Vital for me is the close collaboration between game and UX design, as well as between UI, art and UX design. In particular, integrating UX design as early as possible in the development phase to enable UX designers to make an impact on the feature and not have to make time-consuming and costly adjustments to the design late in the development phase. Another important element is the close integration of testing into the development cycle. Putting the player at the centre of design thinking and using their feedback as a basic foundation.
All of that takes time, improvement and streamlined processes. And there is no “one size fits all” solution and has to be adapted depending on the team (-size) and project size and the company’s DNA. But the reward after all the effort is to see how these processes interact with each other and to recognise more and more improvements over time.
What is the favorite part of your job and what is the hardest part of your job?
I still have to get used to not spending so much time in the daily business, i.e. in the operational business. I have always enjoyed working on complex topics and trying out many ideas with the help of flow charts, wireframes and prototypes. There is definitely less time for that now, but I still actively work on some features. And it’s also a lot of fun and gives you a very good feeling to see how the team members take on more responsibility, grow with the tasks and continuously improve. So it’s totally fine to delegate some tasks further to the team. Besides that, I appreciate having professional discussions with them. Transfer and exchange of knowledge is important and a lot of fun. Furthermore, it is always exciting for me to speak directly with the stakeholders and to be able to communicate my input directly from the UX point of view. And because I am still working on some features, I can combine both positive aspects of my job.
Regardless of the lead position, it’s always necessary to bear the player in mind. Making sure that players have a good experience with the game is the central task of our job. I am particularly keen on ensuring that players with disabilities also have a seamless experience with the game that is just as good. Accessibility is a big issue.
What I like most about game development is the collaboration and teamwork. To develop a game together is a great and precious gift and sometimes a big challenge, as well. But to see how everything fits into each other and develops a unity from so many disciplines into a terrific game is simply awesome.
I think for me personally it is always a challenge to find the balance between daily work and lead activity. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the tasks, so you have to find a good middle ground. But after 9 years in the games industry and a total of 13 years of experience in the creative industry in general, it’s still a rollercoaster ride with ups and downs, but always a great overall experience and in the end, we always reach the end of that ride. Hopefully always with a great project or game that the players will appreciate and enjoy. At best, a game that inspires millions of players and maybe we can attract one or two of them to join this industry.
Where do you get your motivation and inspiration?
Several sources, but especially from current games and UX trends. I love games that have an exceptionally good user experience, that simply bring a total gaming experience. I recently finished Ghost of Tsushima and was very impressed with how the UX and the game, the fantastic universe, combined so many mechanics so well – keyword: Guiding wind. Or the UI of Horizon Zero Dawn: examining the environment with a diegetic assistant (focus), that gives information about the environment and informs the player as well as the main protagonist called Aloy, is a fantastic idea. The UI is a reflection of Aloy herself, a tribeswoman venturing into a world unknown. I’m particularly impressed because I know how difficult it is to make good games.
There are so many other examples that push us UX designers to raise the bar, to go even further and to become even better.
I am also inspired by extraordinary people and their biographies. This goes a bit beyond game development, but extraordinary people inspire me in my everyday work: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Philip Knight to name a few. Personalities who have opened up completely new areas and horizons with their disruptive technologies and views. I am simply interested in what drives these people, how they organise their everyday lives and which methods they use to implement things.
But the greatest motivation for me is to create a game or product that excites and caches players emotionally. Seeing the reactions on various platforms, seeing the joy and fun of the target group is my biggest driver. It’s also a bit like a journey back to the time when you yourself belonged to the target group and had such great experiences with this medium. That’s also one of the reasons why I like to go to events like gamescom. To receive direct player feedback and player experience on the spot is incredibly valuable and rewarding.
Internally, my inspirations and motivations are, of course, my team. It is simply very inspiring to work on complex topics and content with very good employees and to find solutions together. It is also fantastic to see a team achieving their goals and grow as people and through their work.
What does the workflow look like for a Lead UX designer in a large studio?
From my point of view it is important to have a clear road map. Either I create it on my own with the responsible leads or producers or it already exists. But I simply need a clear structure for planning and to better evaluate the workload of my team. As UX Designers, we often get a lot of feature requests from different departments/task forces. Therefore, we often have to check whether this still fits in terms of workload (scoping) or not. We have to make priorities accordingly. For me, that is the basis for planning. The rest is organised in project management tools such as Jira.
As already mentioned, close collaboration with other disciplines (especially Game Design, UI and Art) is necessary and there are tools to support this collaboration more efficiently. Good documentation and style guides are extremely helpful.
Internally in the UX department it is important that we all keep our work consistent. So I like to create libraries (atomic design approach) and templates that the other team members can and should use, thus making the work easier and faster. Transparency and a lot of focussed communication are also important elements.
I can give you an example of a feature design process in a rough and sketchy way (as I said, this is just an example):
Production side handles the feature by splitting the feature into specific tasks with the help of task forces or feature groups, based on different disciplines working on that feature. For example, a task force consists of a Game Designer, UX Designer, Artist, Technical Artist and Coder. After that, Game Design creates the feature design concept and requirements, ideally as a user story. Some Game Designers already think into UX design by creating rough mockups or flow charts. The concept should be documented, for example on confluence. So the task force is aware of the design intent. UX design is already involved in this creative process by giving input and representing the target group. They also visualise or help visualise the game vision from design side (wireframes, information architecture). In a sanity check, the feature team should give their feedback and input regarding the implementation and work of that feature. That feedback should come ideally from every discipline.
After that sanity check, Artists start to visualise the wireframes into more detailed mockups. They create the UI assets for the engine and hand them over or work closely with the Technical Artists, who implement those into the engine. Coders support, if needed. The feature is ready to be tested, at least by the taskforce, but better in a testing session (UXR). That depends on the complexity of the feature. Throughout the whole process, each discipline should document their work and design and/or update them to ensure that everyone from the team or new-starters have access to it and know the feature design.
Of course, depending on team structure, size and complexity of the feature this workflow can differ. But it is always an advantage if (UX) Designers and Artists also have knowledge of the engine, and can thus already help to develop the feature or design prototypes directly in the engine.
A useful method to develop new ideas and solve problems is Design Thinking. It is a process developed to promote creative ideas. Similar to User-Centred Design (UCD), the Design Thinking method focuses on producing innovations that are oriented towards the user and satisfy their needs.
If you are interested in Design Thinking and Lean UX and want to learn more, I invite you to read my article on my blog: http://creative-pixels.de/agile-development
But the bottom line is, you should use what suits the team and the company best.
Of all the projects you/your company have produced, which one are you the most proud of?
In general, I think every release of a product where the user shares a good experience is a success. But there are a few projects and also personal developments that I am proud of and worth mentioning.
On the project side I’m very proud to have launched Need for Speed Heat. Being able to experience the enthusiasm of the players on platforms like discord, youtube, twitch etc. is highly rewarding. But I also appreciate criticism and suggestions.
One aspect that made me proud, as well, was working as a Lead Designer on the crossplay feature for Need for Speed Heat. It was the first Electronic Arts game that supported crossplay. If you want to know more about crossplay in Need for Speed Heat, here is a little video of the crossplay presentation.
I am also proud of the trust and confidence of Ubisoft Massive to work as a Lead UX Designer on such an ambitious game as Avatar. I loved the movie and it’s even more fulfilling to be part of the team that will allow players to enter and experience the world of Pandora.
I love to educate myself and experience new things but most of all I just enjoy sharing knowledge and giving students an insight into the games industry. That’s why, besides teaching, I also did a short webinar on UI design in video games or enjoy writing articles for game magazines or for the platform “Medium”.
What’s your point of view on the future of gaming?
I think Virtual Reality still has room for improvement and continues to evolve. And further the rise and development of HoloLenses from Microsoft, but also Augmented Reality. Additionally the development of cloud streaming services, which will be very interesting, and gaming as a service will rise. Thanks to 5G, mobile gaming will also continue to develop and improve. But I also think social interaction will increase. The PS5 showed this especially during its presentation. Gamers can share and connect more easily, so there will be more room for bragging rights. ESport/Twitch is already making gamers into stars and gaming gets more popular for all kinds of target groups and has become an integral part of everyday life and an essential part of our culture, fortunately no longer just synonymous with youth and killer games. The hype is already showing with the launch of the new consoles, which like the PS5 are already sold out.
What would be some good advice to follow to become a UX designer?
I think my career shows that there is not always a straight path to success.
You have to take detours if necessary. In the end, it is often a question of will, motivation, persistence, but also work. Work on yourself. Believe in yourself and your goal. Hold on to it, even if it’s hard. But be honest with and reflect on yourself. Question what you want to achieve, what you like and, above all, what you enjoy. What do you like? Which area interests you? Dive further into. If it’s UX: Read about current trends, methods, scientific studies. In the field of UX and psychology (with a focus on gaming), a lot of material has been released in the last few years. Use all the sources of information that are available. Use social media, watch interviews, talks, documentaries by game developers and development companies. Try to understand how game development and game companies are structured, what the processes are like, the departments, the work areas.
My next tip: Since engines are now freely available, you should take a look at them and try them out. Be it Unity, Unreal or CryEngine to name a few. No matter if you are a Designer or an Artist, everyone should at least know the basic functions, as well as the structure of a commercial engine. This helps in the later process and in your team.
But most important: play games, of course! Play a lot but above all, look at the games more closely: how is the game structured? How is it narrated? How does onboarding look like? How does the game teach and how is the user experience? Why is the game fun? What are its features, characteristics and what makes this game possibly unique? What makes it good?
Last but not least, make contacts. Be communicative and visit exhibitions, conferences, etc. It has never been so easy to connect and exchange with others in the industry. Take advantage of this. Keep your eyes open for job opportunities and update your portfolio and CV.
But above all, believe in yourself! Don’t let setbacks stop you from going your way, but work on your deficits. Criticism is always the best way to improve. I’m convinced the industry needs you and the work is worth it. It’s a great industry with great studios, teams and projects. And the industry is growing and developing faster and faster.
And if you are already in the industry, give help and support. I think we all have a lot to learn from each other. There is still a lot of exploration and very good games to be developed.
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