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Employee Spotlight: Alex Bean

Iva LindstromBy Iva Lindstrom -

The luckiest blog ever written brought Alex Bean to 343's door. As this month's Employee Spotlight, Alex shares the triumphs and tensions found in developing Halo Infinite, including the camraderie of game development, the pride of seeing his work in-game, and the appreciation for the vast number of skilled people it takes to create the newest iteration of the Halo franchise.

Alex also shares his passion for giving back to his community in the guise of a stormtrooper and an overview of the skills aspiring game developers will need to start their careers.

Iva: Would you share your name, pronouns, and your job title?

Alex: My name is Alex Bean (he/him), and I am a Multiplayer Designer on Halo Infinite.

Iva: What does your role include?

Alex: I work on many of the MP features that aren’t the obvious ones, like game modes, but instead fill out the rest of the experience in the game. This includes the match flow, Medals, the Death Cam/Spectator Experience, and several new features like Item Spawners and Personal AI.

Iva: Tell us your 343 origin story.

Alex: My origin story is kind of crazy! In 2016, I had just graduated after studying game design at the University of Texas at Dallas and was applying to different positions in the industry. I was doing all that I could to strengthen my design portfolio while working at an Alamo Drafthouse movie theater, and as a means of demonstrating my critical analysis skills, I began writing blogs on Gamasutra. I dissected levels from several games, including one about the Halo 5 multiplayer map, “Plaza.” That article got picked up as a featured blog on Gamasutra for that week. A few days later, while at work, I received a Twitter message from a multiplayer designer at 343 who enjoyed the article and said, “I’d love to get your resume if you’re interested in 343.” So, I didn't even apply here; I had just written passionately about Halo and tried to show that I could think critically about it. I had my first interview the following week and, within a month, I moved from Dallas to the Seattle area to start work at 343.

Iva: What's your favorite thing about working here at 343?

Alex: I first interacted with Halo as a kid and it had a great impact on me, not only as a gamer, but it was a pivotal game franchise that made me want to get into the industry as a creator. When Halo 2 and Halo 3 came out, that was right around when my passion for games was really growing. With those games, they released "Vidocs”: Halo 2 had a bonus disc that had documentaries featuring the team and then Halo 3 had stuff that came with the Collector’s Edition. They gave me a window into game development, a slight peek behind the curtain and put some faces and names to the people creating those experiences that I loved so much. That played a huge role in my decision to pursue games, and now that I get to contribute to Halo’s legacy, everything has come full circle. To me, that is the coolest part about working at 343.

Iva: What was it about those games that you found so engaging back then?

Alex: For Halo 2, I was very invested in the story. I didn't have Xbox Live because I was younger; I was eleven when that game came out and so I just got really immersed into the story. Halo 2 is where the franchise opened up in terms of the story scope. Halo: CE is very simple, but Halo 2 is a “heroes and villains on both sides” kind of tale -- that's what got me invested. I loved that. By the time Halo 3 came along I was playing on Xbox Live and that is when I got invested in multiplayer. The campaign was this epic thing that was great, but multiplayer is where I began developing friendships online, with people that I had never met in real life. That was new for me. And everyone loves the games from around the time they were 13. That's the magic age for any person. Ask them what their favorite games are and they will always tell you, if they were playing games when they were 13 to 15, those are their favorite games.

Iva: What games are you into now?

Alex: I’m into any game that can push the envelope for storytelling in games. Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us Part II are two recent games that I felt took risks and delivered on incredible narrative experiences. PUBG and Rainbow Six: Siege were the multiplayer games that stuck with me the most in recent years because of the amount of watercooler moments they could generate. And I’ll always go back to World of Warcraft whenever a new expansion releases to get my RPG fix.

Iva: What’s your earliest gaming memory?

Alex: My gaming start came from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, so I got to start with one of the best games of all time! We didn’t have video games in my house at that point (I was five years old) but going to my friend’s house to play Ocarina of Time was awesome.

Iva: What's the biggest challenge of your role and the biggest reward?

Alex: My biggest challenge is that this game is incredibly massive, even just the multiplayer part of it, and my features are peppered all throughout it. There's a lot of plate spinning that is hard to manage and so I always worry that something won't get done or something will get released that's not polished or doesn't meet my quality bar. We're working on a franchise that has a legacy of quality games that are important to people and so you want to make sure that what you're putting out there meets the expectations of fans.

The reward is knowing that everything I do, or my coworkers do, we're all going to be part of this greater legacy that will be enjoyed by many, many players. Day one, we will have a very engaged audience that will dig into the hard work that we've been doing. That’s a gift that many game creators don’t get to experience.

Iva: In your role, you work with nearly every discipline in the studio. What are some of the most interesting aspects of other disciplines that you've discovered?

Alex: The most interesting thing to me is getting to understand the people who work in different disciplines, their perspective, and where they derive their passion from -- you know, what is most important to them. Everyone who works on a game like this, or any game, is a creator. As a creative person, they come here to express that creativity in whatever way they can as part of a larger project. I get a lot out of that -- a weapon designer versus an audio designer or someone who works on UI -- seeing what they find passion in and what is important for them to deliver on. And then as a designer, oftentimes it's my task to implement how those things show up in the game. So, then it's my job to safeguard their hard work and make sure that the end product gets to shine. I enjoy getting to understand the lens in which other creative people view the same thing that you are viewing, but in a totally different way.

Iva: What aspect of your work are you the most proud of and why?

Alex: There are two things that I'm most proud of. One being the Personal AI, which was something that I pitched very early on in the project. I was still working as a level designer at the time and it was very nice of Tom French, the multiplayer director, to entertain my pitch for a system, which was the idea of players having an AI companion just like the Master Chief. And it would serve as the helpful voice in their head and could appear at gameplay objects, like Cortana does. It has since grown into this thing that dozens of people have all pitched in and given effort to make sure it sees the light of day. It’s awesome to see and I'm eternally grateful to all the people that have made that happen because it's a feature that, at any point, could have gotten cut. But I think it provides a unique flavor to our game and it's something fans are going to be excited about. On the other hand, the Death Cam and Spectator Experience was an immense passion project that I worked on with Nick LaCroix, who is a programmer on the narrative team. I stole some of the camera tech that they developed for Campaign and used it to make the Spectator Experience for players in multiplayer more cinematic. I kept going to Nick and saying, “I need this because I want to make this kind of camera” and he'd keep feeding me stuff and the result is a cool Spectator Experience that has unique behaviors depending on what the player is doing: if they're driving vehicles, or if they're sprinting, or if they're grappling. I've been fortunate to be able to do a lot of things I'm passionate about on this project.

Iva: What elements of the game do you think the fans are going to love the most? And why?

Alex: I think the fans are going to love the new art style. We've already seen that from what we've released thus far, but I think the fans have only seen the tip of the iceberg thus far and they're going to be stoked about that. I'm stoked about it and I’ve been seeing it for years. I also think when they lay hands on the game, they’re going to enjoy how the game feels. All the new animation work and movement updates the Sandbox Team worked on makes the game feel very modern and smooth to play.

Iva: In your opinion, what makes a good multiplayer game, Halo or non-Halo?

Alex: What gets me engaged is the ability to make decisions that impact both yourself and the state of the game, rather than repeating the same gameplay loop continuously. You're seeing that in the multiplayer landscape right now. That's why Battle Royales and tactical games are so popular; there are so many decisions to be made. In Halo, it's what weapons are you going to pick up? Are you going to find it on map, or hope to take it from an enemy? Are you going to go capture this Stronghold or that Stronghold? Will you pair this equipment with this weapon? All those decisions make it fun to play for hours and hours.

Iva: What do you love most about Halo as a franchise?

Alex: I love the Halo characters. I love the universe. Halo combat can be a thinking person’s shooter more than a very high paced, frenetic game. The player with the biggest brain, who uses map knowledge and all their tools at their disposal, can oftentimes triumph over the quickest shot.

Iva: Who's your favorite character from the Halo canon and why?

Alex: Easily the Master Chief, he's iconic. He's a symbol of video game heroism. He's the nucleus of much of what Halo is to me. Cortana, Johnson, the Marines, and all those characters come to life because of the way that they interact with Chief. And, obviously, Steve Downes's voice and performance in that role is legendary.

Iva: What's your favorite part of the Halo storyline and why?

Alex: For me, it's Halo 2. It took the simple humans versus the aliens story -- which works great for Halo: CE -- and gave it more depth. Getting to see the Arbiter’s perspective and the Covenant fleshed out as this living, breathing society was fascinating to me. There are so many characters that are all very different, whether it's Johnson, Miranda, Half Jaw, the Prophets, the Gravemind. Even the Flood got a background of more than just a zombie horde. I love what it did -- it just blew the universe wide open and took it beyond the initial premise that was akin to a video game rendition of Aliens.

Iva: Shifting gears into your job. If someone was aspiring to a career like yours, what sort of skills -- hard or soft -- are essential? What advice would you give that person?

Alex: As a designer, experience in working in game tools is important, and there's plenty of free stuff out there now for future designers to start working in and building things. But I would emphasize soft skills, because they will help you get hired and in your day-to-day. Building networking skills and focusing on written communication – your ability to say what you mean in written form – is important. And if you're going into systems design, being able to clearly articulate what you're thinking, that's not easy, and it's important to be able to do that. There’s also having strong in-person social skills. You don't need to be the most social person ever, but if you're a designer, you talk to a lot of people. You have to be able to understand what people are saying to you, get along with them, and work through compromises or tough feedback.

Then in terms of education, getting a formal education is fantastic for developing those soft skills and can provide people a path forward, but it's not required. If you feel confident in your ability to work on teams, to be social, and have strong design sensibilities with a portfolio to back it up – that’s what you need to achieve a design position.

Iva: You volunteer with the 501st. Can you tell us a bit about what it does and why you decided to work with them?

Alex: The 501st, and its sister organization the Rebel Legion, is a Star Wars costuming community that does an immense amount of volunteer work. Charities, organizations, or events request the appearance of 501st members and, in return, they typically make contributions to a charity or allow fundraising for one. With the 501st, costuming has a very high bar -- movie quality. So if you encounter the 501st, you're seeing costumes that look like they’re right out of the movie.

In college, I started participating in the Rebel Legion; they do Light Side costumes, whereas the 501st does the Dark Side. I had seen members of the Legion and the 501st at conventions and I thought that would be a fun way to give back to the community. So I started going to events with awesome people and raised money for cool causes. I’ve done that since 2013. Not so much lately because of Covid, but it's something I'm anxious to get back to.

And if any of that sounds fun, check out both groups and search for local meetups! Halo also has a similar costuming group in the 405th -- so for crafty Halo fans interested in costuming, that’s a great option as well. (If you’re interested in joining the 405th, check out the brand-new cosplay guide here!)

Iva: Why do you cosplay as a stormtrooper?

Alex: I like being in a full suit of armor. My experience being at events was that little kids love stormtroopers the most, which is initially surprising, but kids love them. Stormtroopers look exactly like their toys. Sometimes kids can get scared and they’ll hold the leg of a nearby Jedi when they see a Stormtrooper, but they still love them. I enjoy being a very common and iconic character that anyone on the street can immediately recognize. I did want to be a bit different than the average trooper, so I chose the Empire Strikes Back version which has a black mouth, different handguards, and they wear their holster on a different side.

Iva: Why is volunteering and raising money for charities important to you?

Alex: I've always wanted to find ways to be able to give back to the community and pair it with a personal passion in order to connect it with something I have experience with. Star Wars gets people excited about the idea of participating in events with charities involved and felt like the right fit for me. But it's not something I do constantly. I'm not out there week in and week out. Every few months I go and put on a Star Wars costume and make some people happy. I get to make a small contribution and, to me, that's just life enriching. There are people who do volunteer work that's miles more than anything I do, but it’s my thing and it feels genuine to me. I enjoy doing it and I'll never get over how happy it seems to make people. It's infectious.

I would also add for those reading this that it is magical to see fandom in person. I encourage anybody that spends maybe too much time online – which everyone is guilty of – to go and experience fandom in real life, because people love this stuff. No one on the street is saying, “Hey, I really didn't like that last Star Wars film.” They're saying, “Holy crap, that is R2D2!” I go to the San Diego Comic Con every year. You see that with all sorts of fandoms where people are away from the keyboard and the cynicism -- there's magic to the pure love for something. That is another reason why I do it; I enjoy seeing unfettered joy and passion.

Iva: What are some of your other interests outside of work?

Alex: I am a really big fan of film; it’s probably where I derive most of my creative inspiration. It's something I enjoy in my downtime. I maintain a Letterboxd account where I log all the movies I watch and, at the end of the year, I get to see all these stats of the directors and actors I watched the most. I like to rewatch stuff and pick apart the creative choices that the creators made. I don't really have a favorite genre or anything, I just like watching movies.

Other than that, I went to Europe shortly before the pandemic and that was my first time being out of the Continental US, so I got the travel bug. I visited London, Paris, and Bruges, Belgium. To tie into my love for movies, the reason I went to Bruges, Belgium, is because of In Bruges. Great movie. As a creative person, I feel I need to get out and experience other cultures and was all jazzed to do more of that, then the world shut down. So as things open back up, I want to travel more and see what's out there.

Iva: Who are some of your favorites, whether it's titles, directors, or actors?

Alex: Blade Runner is my all-time favorite movie – I have a Blade Runner shrine at home that includes prop replicas of Deckard’s whiskey glass and blaster. Right now, my favorite working director is probably Denis Villeneuve. He did the latest Blade Runner and Arrival. He's doing Dune this year, which I’m really excited about. Tarantino has made several of my favorite films and I was a big fan of his most recent, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Nicolas Winding Refn and Damien Chazelle are also two of my favorite directors. Ryan Gosling is my favorite actor, so anything that he appears in, I'm there.

Iva: Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you’d really like people to know?

Alex: If I could highlight anything, it is that making a Halo game like this is such a massive, herculean effort by an immense amount of talented people. And that’s under normal circumstances – Halo Infinite’s final stretch has occurred during a global pandemic with employees working from home. So, when you see credits for the game, take a glance and witness all the people who made this thing happen.