Interview with Nicolas Kraj
UX Director at Ubisoft and Creator of GDKeys
Can you introduce yourself in a few words?
I have been in the industry for a little more than 10 years now. My shiniest medals involve being lead game designer for games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Immortals Fenyx Rising, and The Crew, and currently being UX Director for Ubisoft Bucharest. A year and a half ago, I also started a design community, called GDKeys, aimed at providing first hand advice on video games design and feedback for students, indies, and hobbyists that may not have access to this kind of support otherwise. We currently have more than a hundred creators supporting each other and growing!
How did you start in the industry?
When I started, the industry didn’t have the titles, structure, nor processes that we have today, so everything was very organic. I was an industrial designer back then, working on connected objects and the Internet of Things and got recruited as an “interaction designer” for one of the first Just Dance games. Interaction design was a position that today will encompass UX design, User Research, or even User Testing. In this period, the motivation and human side of an individual was everything: you are a creator? Do we get along? Then let’s make games together! It was a pretty exciting time where everything seemed possible.
Considering your cross functional design profile, can you tell us what motivates your design philosophy?
I will talk mostly from a Video Games perspective but my points can apply to any digital medium. Even though we are all pretty versed into interacting with the digital world, we need to realise that the means to do so are still extremely rudimentary: how are we suppose to create immersive experiences when we interact with these experiences looking at a cold screen on a wall, holding a plastic box with 20 buttons cramped onto it? How can we make you feel like a Viking warrior storming England? A fresh farmer building a new life outside the city? How do we make you feel connected to real humans and build trust and bonds? This is quite the challenge
Blending these two worlds, the physical and the digital ones, is really a question that drives everything I create: this will be core in defining the MetaVerse and Web 3.0, in designing tomorrow’s connected devices, and in shaping every digital experience in the future.
How did you find yourself at an intersection between UX design and Game design in your career?
UX Designer, Game Designer, User Researcher, UI Designer, Level Designer… Nowadays, we have quite the terminology and a fair amount of boxes. But we need to realise that these terms exist mainly to specialise the work on the enormous project we have today. In reality, we are all doing the same job: we are designers, we create products and experiences for living beings, and the qualities required and work processes are very similar from one title to another. We have a saying in French that is pretty dear to me and sums it all pretty well: “Le Design est du Dessin a Dessein”, Design is drawing with a purpose. So, in essence, Game Designers are UX Designers. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the title of UX Designer evolves, or even disappears in the future in favor of even more specialised titles. With this in mind, finding myself with a double hat UX/GD was logical and happened naturally.
How do you keep a focus on ever changing UX design requirements and game design requirements in your workflow?
This is a very interesting question. When you think of it, humans aren’t evolving that fast, so how come UX keeps reinventing itself over the years? In my opinion, this is due to the fact that we are still in the early ages of digital experiences, and the digital representation, constant connectivity, omnipresence and access to information is redefining what it means to be human on a higher level: social dynamics, individuality, motivations, sense of purpose… So, on one hand, we need to define what will be the digital human of tomorrow, to adapt to new usages, to embrace an ever growing amount of people and cultures getting access to technology, to follow new trends. On the other, as discussed previously, we need to remove as many frictions as we can between the user and the experiences we create: the industry-wide shift happening at the moment on Accessibility, and making sure no user is left behind, is an excellent example (and one I’m how so happy to see taking place).
In your opinion, what has changed between the start of your career and today such that UX design has gained so much importance for the games industry as a whole?
I believe that what happened in the Video Games industry is the same as what happened in the IT industry 10 year ago: we finally reached a point with technologies where we can create products for the users directly. When a technology is in its early form, creating something that works is the priority: users will learn how to use it, as inhuman it is. Now that we have passed this point, and that the process of creating games, websites, or mobile apps is completely unbridled and free-form, we can finally use our energy on making more intuitive, accessible, accompanying experiences, taylored for the users, their humanity, and their limitations.
Can you tell us what common ground do you find between UX design and Game design processes?
As mentioned before, I firmly believe that UX Design and Game design are the same job at their core. And this is reflected in the processes we use in both: target analysis, research, personas, mood board, empathy map, wireframes, low-fidelity prototyping, playtesting, iterations… Everything you know about UX or UI design can be used in a GD framework. Being a Designer permeates disciplines, and we have nothing to gain putting ourselves in labeled boxes. I would argue that the process of designing a chair and designing a mobile app is the same. Different materials, different industrial processes, same goal: the end-user.
Can you tell us an anecdote or story from any of your projects that you are really proud of?
This anecdote will be a Game Design one, but I trust you will appreciate it from a wider Design sense. It was a few years back, when I was lead Game Designer on Assassin’s Creed: Origins. We had to create a wide range of enemies to challenge the players throughout their experience and this was the moment we were tackling the design of the final bosses of the game: they, of course, needed to provide the toughest challenge, and ask our players to give everything they have.
One classic way to approach this design problem is to look at our players skills when the encounter happens and make sure we push the required thresholds to beat this boss: reflexes, coordination, endurance, focus, observation, resources management… But for one of these bosses, Akhenaten, we wanted to try something different, and not only challenge players’ skills, but also an innate specificity of any human beings: their sense of rhythm. I don’t know if you ever realized, but humans are wired to understand binary rhythms: “and 1, and 2, and 3, and 4. And…”. It is the first rhythms taught in school, the rhythms that are used in the overwhelming majority of today’s commercial music… And it makes perfect sense, we have two legs after all, and this sense of rocking back-and-forth is deeply ingrained within each of us. This human fact, of course, found its way inside Video Games design too. Almost every enemy you will ever cross swords with will be designed with these binary rhythms at their core: attack-attack-rest-rest, prepare-attack-back out-rest… It’s everywhere! Now, what if we were to bring a twist to this status-quo and create an enemy built on a different kind of rhythm: a ternary one. And so we did! This enemy has been wired to be ternary: “1 – 2 – 3, 1 – 2 – 3…” and this messed with our players: they came out of playtest describing this boss as “weird”, “unpredictable”, “odd”, “dangerous”, “chaotic”. Even so this is not a particularly challenging enemy on the players’ skills front, it is globally perceived as one of the toughest enemy in the game: all of that with a simple twist to make him feel less human to our human users (Trivia fact: Akhenaton was seen as an odd human, with conspiracy theories even regarding him as a proper Alien).
What inspired you to start a community around UX design and Game Design?
Video Games are booming. It is among the biggest creative industries, growing exponentially, and, every day, new aspiring designers are joining our ranks. This is fantastic news, but one that is weighted down by the relative lack of training, courses, theory, and resources available. Becoming a Game Designer today is a difficult thing, and I believe we have a responsibility to create these communities, this theory, in order to teach the newer generation of Game or UX Designers everything they need in order to push our medium even further.
Live design analysis and critique session of member’s ongoing indie projects
I only became a Designer thanks to the numerous mentors I found on the way. If I can be one to other designers as well, then I’d have paid my debt! Pay it forward.
How do you hope to help students, hobbyists, and indies with your knowledge gained from working in the AAA games industry?
Over the past 10 years, the industry has changed drastically, to the point where I can’t tell you for sure where it will be 10 years from now. We experiment, we learn from the past, we adapt to new ways of consumption and new life-styles… But there are some constants in this equation, and if I can at least put them out there, and write down the tools, theory and knowledge that I have accumulated over the years, then anybody can build on it, twist it, or tear it down entirely to build something new. There is just so much to learn already! But my experience is actually only a small aspect of what makes this community so valuable in my eyes. Having more than a hundred creators in one place discussing Design, debating, growing together, sharing their games and discoveries, giving feedback to each other… This is where the heart of GDKeys is, and here I’m but an enabler.
What have you learnt from frequently discussing with students, hobbyists, and indie designers that can be worthwhile to even AAA industry designers such as yourself?
So much! Design isn’t a deterministic science, and there is an infinite amount of possible answers to the same Design problem. I am bringing my truth to the table, which I believe to be a pretty educated one, but so is everybody else’s. Every designer brings his own self, and all these different points of view, design philosophies, cultures, sets of beliefs, experiences and desires collide and challenge the way we perceive things and view Design. This is what creation should be about, and we have so much to learn from each other.
What methods and processes of UX research and UX design would you like to make clear that seem high budget and exclusive to AAA but can be done cheaply and be helpful for a low budget project?
Testing. Without a doubt testing. A game, a website, a mobile app… All of these only exist in relation to the user interacting with them. Without the user, there is nothing. With this in mind, developing a product without the users playing a role in its creation is dangerous at best, foolish most of the time. There is a misconception that testing is complex, requires a lot of preparation and experience, and costs a lot of resources in order to get actionable results from it. There is some truth in this statement, but I believe that, with the right state of mind, carefulness, and humility, any user feedback will be better than no feedback at all. Make your friends and family test your product, ask Reddit, Twitter, complete strangers, put your game in physical shows or digital festivals… You will learn so much from it and your product quality will skyrocket.
What advice do you have for individuals hoping to be UX designers in the games industry?
Do not see yourself only as a UX Designer, you are Designers applying your skills to a specific medium, and everything you’ve learned from other mediums will be valid and actionable. Now you will need quite a fair share of new skills and experience in order to shine: join communities like GDKeys, get in touch with other Designers, play as many games as you can (either you like them as gamers or not), from every genre, and deconstruct them, study them. You will start developing your own Design approach and purpose in no time, and where and how you want to be a Designer will become a lot more clear!
What’s next for you and GDKeys?
I have no clue, and I find this both exciting and promising: I have a whole bag of ideas and desires, but the video game industry is very fluid, so let’s try and be as fluid and learn to adapt and reinvent ourselves alongside this insanely cool medium we are working with. Who knows, we may cross paths at some point, on GDKeys or elsewhere, and share a beer, debate Design, or make a game together!
How can anyone contact you?
They can write me an email at Nico@GDKeys.com
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