Continuing our journey across the various teams under the roof of 343 Industries, we take a look at an operations role which helps keep culture, diversity, inclusivity, philanthropy, and many other important facets of the human element behind game development, in focus. Ron Brown is the studio’s Quality of Life Program Manager, and it’s a big part of his job to ensure we’re doing what we can for the folks that bring their amazing talents into our games.
How would you describe your role and what you focus on day-to-day? (Give us your elevator pitch.)
I recently started my new role here at 343 Industries as its Quality of Life Program Manager, which is just a fancy way of saying that what I do is ensuring the people at our studio are given the tools to do their best work in a great environment. We explore ways to improve studio culture and maintain consistently high morale, which is vital to this or any industry. I also help coordinate our studio’s philanthropic efforts – and that outreach to our broader audience is one of our franchise pillars: Community. It’s personally satisfying to be part of the driving force that so many contribute to across the studio.
I also work with people all across Team Xbox, Microsoft and here at 343 Industries on Diversity and Inclusion efforts. 343 Industries has long been a place that I’ve felt comfortable just being myself and putting who I am into all facets of my work. So, it goes without saying, that I want everyone who is connected to the studio to feel they can do the same and be their authentic self.
As you mentioned earlier, “Giving Back” is one of 343’s studio values and it’s evident that it is something you’re very passionate about. How was that nurtured in your life?
I’ve always been like this. I blame my parents! A mantra repeated in our household was “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” I’m sure I’m not always kind. I’m still human. Yet, I can try each day, which is a part of being human. When you look at it like that, giving back is easy. I’m just being what I want other people to be.
I want to be a person that people can approach to collaborate, in creating a positive space for themselves. When people have a great environment, they can do great work. I’m currently working on our efforts in the areas of cultural inclusivity. It’s amazing to see just how supportive people are towards each other when they know they have a voice and are being heard – and of course we benefit from those ideas. It’s rewarding to help build the bridges to span those gaps.
What have been some of your favorite philanthropic efforts that you’ve contributed to here at 343?
It’s been super rewarding whenever I’ve had the opportunity to work with youth programs/schools and organizations, to open their eyes to the opportunities in STEM careers in the gaming industry. I probably lean towards this because I can remember my own ignorance and faulty assumptions about the gaming industry and I’d like for the next generations coming up after me to have more insight than I had. I really enjoyed going out to Seattle’s Garfield High School and speaking with students about what we do here at the studio. Our Make-A-Wish visits are always incredible as well, letting us share in the love of our universe with those children and their families. Honestly, I’m happy anytime we get to give back or share who we are with just about anyone.
It sounds like there’s a lot of ground you’re covering in your role…what made you decide to pursue this as a career?
As a gamer of well over 30 years, the idea of being in the gaming industry has never really been far from my mind. That being said, I was always under the impression that you had to be a software engineer or something technical to get in. I have a lot of respect for the people who can do the technical voodoo that I never really had an aptitude for. I’m a smart enough guy that can usually follow along, but some of our engineers are borderline magical. It wasn’t until I connected with different folks from within the industry that I found out about the wide range of career options in gaming. We have musicians, artists, accountants, lawyers, designers. We have people who focus on data and strategy or stats and patterns – and then there are folks like me, who work alongside these people doing all those things. When I realized that I could craft a space for myself in the industry, I really started to embrace the idea of making a legit career in gaming.
Makes sense…many of us here at 343 lovingly identify you by your boisterous positivity and constant smiles. What’s the secret to your energy and excitement?
I’d cite two things here. The first is a healthy amount of self-care and self-reflection. Not many folks would guess this at first glance, but I’m very introverted. Not an ambivert but a hard-core introvert. Yet I love people and at the risk of sounding naïve. I believe in the good in people. My introversion means that after I’m finished all that believing and sparking, I need to “fill my pitcher back up” so I can keep pouring out. I often recharge by gaming my face off, taking solo city drives and listening to all the music in my free time. This balance is an important part for me as it helps ensure I’m able to impart that positive energy into others, like a handsome, ambulatory phone charger!
The second thing I cite is my general outlook on life. I do my best to keep things in perspective. When I look at my life and some of the really nice parts, I like to be content. Now, I’d be lying if I said life was perfect, and I’ve certainly been in some dire straits, but I’m working at a phenomenal studio with some of the hardest working and good-natured people I’ve ever met. I get to see and experience things that 11-year old Ron would’ve fought a bear to get his hands on! (plus, I get paid to make people happy, a thing that I was doing for free for years!) The point is, life is good, even on days when it’s not. As long as it’s not what it once was, my smile will probably stick around!
We always find that we have a wonderfully diverse range of interests and hobbies that folks have here at the studio, what do you find yourself getting into when you’re not tinkering away on programs at 343?
I’m a gamer, through and through. I play during my lunch time (a perk of working at a gaming studio) and when I get home. You can find me playing RPGs, party games, Halo of course, and more. I also play board and card games. When I’m not playing games I enjoy working with my hands - building Gundam models in my man-cave and I just can’t lie, I’ve been caught belting out hits by Usher or crooning soulful melodies from John Legend for grateful adoring Karaoke audiences!
Is there a particular Halo, game mode, or moment from the Halo universe that is your favorite?
I admit I enjoy the chaos, randomness and blame shifting alibis of Super Fiesta. I can blame every loss on unlucky weapon spawns instead of my own mistakes! As far as Halo moment, it would have to be the end of Halo 3. We see the Master Chief floating through space wreckage after the battle. Both he and Cortana know that they’re marooned in space, despite their pyrrhic victory. And when he tells Cortana, “Wake me…when you need me.” it encompasses both their relationship and the Master Chief’s dedication to humanity. I love that Cortana acts as the expression of Chief’s humanity – something partially stripped from him through utter dedication to the Spartan program. So much is conveyed in such a brief, beautiful moment.
That’s a great moment you brought up between the Master Chief and Cortana. Are there any other characters in which you find yourself resonating with from the Halo universe? Give us the story that brought them closer to you.
Well, The Master Chief, obviously. He’s such a quintessential hero and he’s one of the few “everymen” that doesn’t feel inherently empty. Spartan Locke also gives me the feels, because it’s not often that I get to see a leading black character that isn’t rooted in stereotypes. Halo has continually created diverse characters that aren’t caricatures. But I’m also fond of old school heroes, Sgt. Avery Johnson, Spartan Edward Buck, and Cortana. Johnson reminds me of my younger US Air Force self: loud, rowdy, and mission-focused. Buck is great because he’s such an atypical Spartan while still making it work, with his undaunted sense of humor and levity that often makes otherwise dire situations hilarious. I respect that he always tries to balance doing what’s right with following orders. He’s definitely the most “human” Spartan.
Cortana is tops, though. The idea of an AI that stands in as Chief’s connection to humanity is sheer brilliance. She brings good humored calm to chaotic situations. She’s always got a plan for the Chief to execute on. She’s this fascinating contradiction of sterile ones and zeroes - yet capable of real emotion and has a symbiotic relationship with what is essentially a living weapon. Jen Taylor brings Cortana to life in an incredible way. I’m a fan, for real.
So, going back, what inspired you to find a path leading to the game industry? Was there even a path, or like some, was this a sweet dollop of serendipity?
Prior to this, I was working in educational software sales, which wasn’t a bad gig, just not one I was passionate about. A friend of mine, who works with Xbox Research, noticed a playtest coordinator role on 343’s career page and suggested I throw my hat in the ring. She didn’t directly influence my hiring, she simply pointed out a job posting that was visible to the public, that I had missed. Another lesson: Check the listings! In fact, I didn’t even get the job initially. Serendipitously, a second position opened two days later. So, I ended up starting a week behind the person who initially beat me out, as their teammate.
Let’s talk a bit about your time as a playtest coordinator. What were some of the challenges there, and what did you gain?
My biggest challenge was a lack of specific industry knowledge. As a gamer, I naively thought that meant I knew how games worked. I mean, I play for hours on end so I had to have learned something by watching all those credits scrolls – which I do, for every game I finish. Like movies, it’s one way to show respect for the craft and crafters. My time working in the Playtest Lab gave me a rude awakening though and a newfound respect for the game development process. I even find myself treating “less than positive” gaming experiences with more appreciation. Sometimes stuff works, sometimes it doesn’t. And being on the inside, I now see that some ideas in other games that I haven’t enjoyed, are likely still the best decision based on engine or schedule constraints – and that sometimes the best solution is being used for a problem, in spite of whether I think it sticks the landing subjectively. It’s difficult to see that process from the other side of the screen.
I loved my time as a playtest coordinator, primarily because I got to meet and work with a huge swath of the studio. I got to forge a lot of great relationships with several different internal teams, as well as work with external guests: tour groups, students, Make-A-Wish kids and more. Any time I had someone visit the lab, internal or external, I wanted them to feel comfortable being in our space. It was those connections that inspired me to apply for my new role. All-in-all, I like to think my place in the industry was a cocktail of hard-work, optimism, networking and a little bit of luck. It is hard to break into the industry, but if I can share a lesson to folks trying to enter gaming, it’s that persistence and effort can pay off, regardless of which discipline you shoot for.