Charlene Atlas

The introduction of the metaverse to the general public was one of the biggest topics in tech last year. As we all learn more about the metaverse and what it means for the future of the Internet, I thought it would be a fantastic idea this year to talk with some of the folks out there who are involved with the metaverse in some capacity.

Meet Charlene Atlas, an interaction designer for undoubtedly one of the biggest companies to stake their claim in the metaverse — Meta. We started off our conversation talking about her resolutions for this year, and she spoke about her work on the Reality Labs team. From there, we discussed the metaverse and some of Meta’s plans, and Charlene shared how she became interested in technology, gaming, and eventually got into the AR/VR space.

Charlene is just one of many people who are helping to create the future of the Internet, so I hope you get inspired by her work and discover a way to chart your own course!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Charlene Atlas:
Hi, my name is Charlene Atlas and I am on a mission to break our content free from flat screens. As an interaction designer in Reality Labs research at Meta, formally Facebook, I work with scientists, researchers, and engineers to envision and create the far future of virtual and augmented reality.

Maurice Cherry:
Break our content free from flat screens, I like that. It’s funny, I’ve had some folks on the show before that have done AR and VR, mixed reality. And I always keep bringing this up about, I don’t know if you remember this television show in the ’90s called VR Troopers.

Charlene Atlas:
No, I’m not familiar.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, people that listen to the show are probably tired of me mentioning it. But there was this show called VR Troopers, very much in the same vein of a Power Rangers, it was very much like a Japanese like Sentai, Karate Kid show. And they were basically these kids that fought in virtual reality. It’s so interesting because I think about that time and then I think about the topics that are discussed now around virtual reality and the metaverse and how that was fiction when we were kids. And now it’s reality as adults, which is just wild to think of.

Charlene Atlas:
There’s a lot of things that we thought in the past we couldn’t do you that we can do now. And so I’m hoping that in the future too we can achieve the impossible, what we think is impossible now, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
So we’re recording this right before the new year, just so folks know. But I’m curious to know, how has 2021 been for you, any grand discoveries or anything like that?

Charlene Atlas:
Well, it’s been pretty interesting for me because in late 2020, I had my first child in September.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, congratulations.

Charlene Atlas:
Yes, thank you. So he’s about 14 months old now. So it’s been a pretty interesting year for my husband and I, having our first kid. And he’s just changing so much every day and it’s great to watch him grow. And doing that all during the pandemic has definitely been another layer of challenge and adventure. But we’re doing good. Yeah, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice. I guess going forward, thinking about 2022, do you have any particular plans or resolutions or anything?

Charlene Atlas:
I think the main thing for 2022 is that we really want to see our families. So none of our family has actually met our son yet. So really want to figure out all of this pandemic stuff and be able to see our families back home.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine that’s, oh, wow, with a new baby. I’m sure your parents and other family and stuff. And then his his dad’s parents also probably want to see him too because wow. Hopefully you all can make that happen.

Charlene Atlas:
Thank you. With his age, he can’t get vaccinated, that kind of thing. And then you have older parents and so it’s like, it’s not the best combination for the current situation. But I feel hopeful that we’ll get to see each other next year.

Maurice Cherry:
Fingers crossed, I hope that happens for you, I really do. So you work as an interaction designer at Meta, which, of course, most people know about as its former name, Facebook. What does interaction design mean at Meta in terms of the work that you do?

Charlene Atlas:
So I’m particularly in Reality Labs, the organization that focuses on augmented and virtual reality. And within that, I’m in the research organization. So even though I’m called an interaction designer, it’s different from what you might assume of web design or 2D interface design. It’s more about how are we going to interact with this new medium of virtual and augment interfaces. And so that’s what I mean when I say interaction designer. My team that I work on with research design is a different field from product design, in that you’re not focusing on making a product that you’ll then release in a few years, it’s more that you are working directly with scientists and engineers who are making completely new technologies to look at what is the user value, potential user value in the future of these technologies, what are things we could change to have more impact in the future, and maybe even what are new technologies we should invent to really meet the needs of people in the five to 10 year timeframe.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine it’s probably really interesting to think that far out as it relates to technology and what you want to accomplish and things of that nature. What does a typical day look like for you?

Charlene Atlas:
I’m involved in a lot of different projects. And so of course there’s meetings with the research teams, there’s doing the usual designer things of making specifications for how an experience should be built. So we build experiences that use some of these new technologies. We often also have to build what we call time machines, so this idea of creating an experience that’s simulating things that we expect will exist in the future so that we can better evaluate things that we want to create. So there’s a lot of prototyping and also a lot of writing. So at Meta in general, we value writing a lot. So there’s a lot of writing of what are people’s future visions, what are ways to approach work. Also if you have any new ideas, you usually have to write a one pager of some kind to start getting traction around it. So it’s mostly a lot of writing, making mock-ups, talking with researchers to understand what question we need to answer to really get the technology in the right direction to really make the impact we want to have in the world in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about Reality Labs. You mentioned a bit about what the makeup of the team is and I guess the technology that it works on. But can you just go a little bit more in depth about that?

Charlene Atlas:
So rally labs, so we have more of the product side that focuses on our current work. So things like the Meta Quest, Meta Quest 2, VR devices that we have out in the wild. But then the research side, we have a lot of different research teams inside that focus on a variety of topics like graphics. So cutting edge graphics research, optical research, display systems, perception science, like how do people perceive what they’re seeing. So we really have a team for each piece of what we think will be necessary to build the future for VR and AR that can really become the next wave of technology for the world.

Charlene Atlas:
So if you think about that shift that happened from command line interfaces to the GUI, that’s the level of shift that we’re trying to make with AR/VR in the future. So basically we’re trying to cover all of the different senses that humans have, all the different things that people might need to be able to do. We have world class researchers in each of those areas that we can work directly with and see how we can put all that together into something that can hopefully be a transformational change in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the metaverse which Facebook debuted at Facebook Connects a few months back. On a high level, so our audience can understand it and also so I can understand it, what is the metaverse?

Charlene Atlas:
The metaverse, as we’ve talked about in the public, is an embodied internet. So this idea of connecting with people that you care about and really feeling present with them is one of the key pieces of it. And this isn’t something that is limited just to my work in AR/VR, but it’s really something that exists and can be accessed by lots of different devices. Just like now, we are in a call or if we’re in a video call or if you’re on the internet, there’s lots of different ways to access the internet and lots of different ways to join a call or what have you. So it is really about putting the pieces in place so that we can move beyond where we are right now with just having these mediated surfaces right between us and instead feeling like we are together and can really engage as we would in real life.

Maurice Cherry:
So it’s really just like, and then correct me if I’m wrong here, it sounds just like a natural extension or progression of say the internet that we know now.

Charlene Atlas:
If you think about the internet now even this isn’t real, what we’re doing now. It’s being replicated, there’s so many steps of audio being replicated and represented. So really we have our senses, we interpret what we receive and we feel or have a sense for what’s going on. And that’s the same thing with a metaverse, is just that it’s something that’s going to take years to build just because of the scale of what we’re trying to do. But you can think of it as that next step of how do we really feel like we’re together. This is a huge leap, what we’re doing right now of what it was like decades ago. So that’s the leap that we want to make into the future.

Maurice Cherry:
As you said, that reminded me of the scene in the matrix where Neo goes to meet the Oracle for the first time. So Neo goes to meet the Oracle and before he meets her, he has to sit in this little waiting area. There’s this kid that’s bending these spoons. You know what I’m talking about, this part of the movie?

Charlene Atlas:
Yes, I remember [inaudible 00:12:16].

Maurice Cherry:
And the kid picks up the spoon, he picks up the spoon and then he hands it. Well, he bends it then he hands it to Neo. The kid is like, “Don’t try to bend the spoon, instead try to bend yourself and then you’ll realize that there is no spoon.” So for me, I’m going a little esoteric here, so bear with me, to me, the way that I think about that with the metaverse is that just like how you’re saying this isn’t real because of the recreation of voice across electrons and distance. We’re not talking really in real time, it’s like a simulation of that. So when you think about the metaverse and that extension of that, it’s taking what we already know now with the internet and it’s ways and culture and stuff like that, I would imagine. And thinking about what that means on just a grander scale.

Charlene Atlas:
It’s helpful to think about, what are the barriers that exist now? And going back to your question before for of, how do you project that into the future? That’s part of what we think about. Is like, what are the things that people have issues with now? What are the technologies that exist that are on track to land at certain points in the future? And so then now knowing those technologies are going to be in place, what can we enable for people? What are the experiences we can enable? And these are experiences that, as I said, it’s not going to be that you can only access it on a particular device. It’s going to be, anyone can access it on their own device, in their own way. And all of those different access points have to be available experience for people.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad you mentioned that about the access. Because what I remember from Connect is that most people were using the Meta Quests 2, which people know also as the Oculus Quest 2, that was its old name. But people have seen that device in terms of, oh, this is how folks are accessing it. And like you said, there’s going to be different ways to do it in the future because the Meta Quests 2 is, of course, not the only device that you can use to access virtual reality and stuff. You can use a cell phone or you could use another device from another company or something like that. So it sounds like as this builds out into the future, there’ll hopefully be more of a, I don’t know, like democratization of technology to access it. But I don’t know if that necessarily all has to stem from Meta, it sounds like.

Charlene Atlas:
Yeah, right. And as we’ve said, in the different releases, we’re not trying to… It’s not that it’s like we are making the metaverse and nobody else is. We’re building for the metaverse, we’re getting ready, we’re getting ready for us all to be at that point. Just like the internet isn’t owned by any particular company.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s helpful to think about it that way, in that Meta is building for the metaverse and that Meta is not creating the metaverse. I’m trying to make sure I get that distinction down.

Charlene Atlas:
This is like nobody is making the internet. Yeah, exactly. You’ve got it.

Maurice Cherry:
I get it, I get it. I’ve been around on the web for a long time. And I remember even in the early days of the web going from web 1.0 to web 2.0, just the big shift, especially as it related to social media and how do we communicate with each other now in these new ways that we didn’t before. Because web 1.0, and I’m dating myself here, it was basically just research. All you did was just look up things and read them. Email existed back then, but it was in a very rudimentary state. And there certainly weren’t a lot of social spaces unless you thought about maybe a forum or Usenet or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And then social media really started to take hold, let’s say what, maybe in the mid 2000s or so with Facebook being one of them, but Twitter and other things. And then as those platforms and experiences grew, this whole other culture arose with it as these things grew. So I see now, it sounds like we’re starting to transition from web 2.0 to web 3.0 or web 3 with the metaverse. There’s going to also be that same type of culture change in a way.

Charlene Atlas:
And definitely similar to what you just described happening on the internet, is what I hope at least will happen, and what we talk about a lot at work will happen in the metaverse of creators having the chance to create new things. That’s one of the reasons even that I’m a designer, is that I just love that you can put something out there and people can find new ways to use it and find new ways to express themselves. So I think it’s going to be really great for giving creators that chance to find new ways to express themselves.

Maurice Cherry:
And even with that expansion and culture, there’s a lot to think about in terms of just like… It’s weird for me to think about it this way because I distinctly remember how the web really clicked over from one to two. And now how it’s about to click over from two to three. I even from one to two, there were so many new things that were created with the advent of social media and user generated content. The whole economy around online advertising, that’s a whole industry that did not really exist in 2000. And now you do Google ads or whatever. There are people that have made millions just off of advertising on the internet. Now you can think of, with the metaverse, there could be different economic opportunities like that, or how do brands get in on this? And what about intellectual property and all this stuff? Like how do you factor in all those considerations in your work?

Charlene Atlas:
Some of the things we’re doing now that are a peek into the future is that Spark AR. So we do have AR that you can do face filters, that kind of thing on your phone. And we recently hit 700,000 creators on that platform. So people are already finding new ways to use these new mediums to create. As far as all these other things that we have to consider that you mentioned, something I’m really proud of that our group has done is release our responsible innovation principles that you can look up online. So we’re really laying out these are the principles we’re going to have as we build this new thing. Because we know that there’s going to be all of these questions and we want to build out in the open and we want to address things out in the open with everyone. So there’s definitely a lot to figure out and we’re doing our best to make sure we do it responsibly.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so exciting to really think about the path that you all are really forging with this and to take all these considerations and things in mind. It’s interesting you mentioned that about Spark AR because I just saw a tutorial on TikTok, of all places, on how someone can easily make like an AR drawing, a Spark AR drawing using Procreate. So this person had a Procreate drawing. And for people listen, Procreate is a drawing application on the iPad. Basically they took those layers and dragged them into a Spark AR thing and was able to… It looked really easy. It was a TikTok, so they illustrated it in like 60 seconds. I was like, “Oh wow, you can easily make AR things just like this?” Yeah, I can see how that economy or even that just opportunity for creators to make new things in this space will really unfold. Especially once more people start to understand the technology, are able to get their hands on it and really just understand the possibilities behind what can be done.

Charlene Atlas:
You can download Spark right now and make stuff. I was making stuff the other week, just it’s pretty easy. So that’s really great, what you just mentioned because you never can fully imagine all the things that people might use it for. And it’s really great to watch people discover new ways, new mediums of art and expression.

Maurice Cherry:
So we’ve been talking about the metaverse, let’s bring it back to the real world. Let’s talk more about you because, of course, you’re the guest for this episode. So tell me more about where are you’re from, where did you grow up?

Charlene Atlas:
So I am from Maryland over on the East Coast and my family is from Haiti. So my parents are from Haiti and they met in New York and moved to Maryland and had my brother and I.

Maurice Cherry:
Growing up, were you exposed to a lot of technology?

Charlene Atlas:
I think my earliest memories are in school using a huge floppy disc to play games in the computer in the library, so there was that. My brother was really into video games and so I played a lot of games. It was through that playing games with my brother that really got me interested into technology. I really wanted to make games since I was pretty young because I just loved how much fun it was to play with him. I remember looking in the manuals back when there used to be manuals in the games, there’s a list of names there and it’s like, “Oh, I could do this? I could do this, make games?” So I just started a journey of trying to figure out how I could do that. And I wrote a letter to Sega asking what classes I could take all of these things. So it started me off there.

Maurice Cherry:
Did they write back to you?

Charlene Atlas:
They did. It was a really nice letter they sent. And they said take math and this and that. So when I went to high school, I actually did a science and technology magnet program that I got into for high school. So I did a lot of science and technology courses there.

Maurice Cherry:
Very cool. And of course that interest and passion eventually ended up leading you to USC, where you double majored in computer science games and East Asian languages and cultures. That sounds like quite a course load. Tell me about your time there, what was that like?

Charlene Atlas:
It was pretty interesting because… well first of all, I applied and accepted without ever visiting it. Because I was living in with Maryland and I was applying to schools. And this school, they had this computer science program that focused in games. And it wasn’t even that they had it yet, it was going to be ready in a year, and so I’d have to do the regular computer science and transfer into it. But I was just so excited to be able to go to a four year university where I could learn about other things, and East Asian languages as my other passion as well, and get to focus on making games. And it’s this great program, it’s a joint program between the cinema school and the computer science school. So I just was like, “I have to go there.”

Charlene Atlas:
Then I also was in marching band in high school and the USC Trojan Marching Band is one of the most famous bands around. I was like, “I got to be in this marching band.” So I convinced my parents like, “I got to go to this school.” And I went there. Something interesting is that I actually did get to go there before the school year started because I got into a program at USC for high school students for making games separately. So I went there over the summer, did the high school program, and then continued on to attend the school.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like doing the marching band at USC? Because they’re a pretty well known band, the Trojans, right?

Charlene Atlas:
Yes, Trojans. So yeah, it was definitely intense. It’s a full-time job almost, especially since I was in the drum line. I was in the drum line so there’s extra practices for drum line and then there’s practices for band. Then you’re getting up at 5:45 every Saturday before the games because you got to do practice in the morning, then you got to do the marching all the way to the stadium and doing performances on the way, then you got to do the pre-game, you got to do the halftime show, the post-game. So it was a lot of time and so it was tough doing the computer science major, the band, the East Asian languages with the focus in Japanese major. I did some part-time work to help pay for school. So it was pretty busy, but it was so fun being in the band. And I got to do all kinds of…

Charlene Atlas:
In addition to doing the Rose Bowl, going to the Rose Bowl four times in the Rose Parade four times, I was able to also do various LA gigs, since we’re known as Hollywood’s band. So I’ve been on the Grammy’s, I’ve been on BET Awards, game shows, and stuff. So it was just a really interesting thing to be doing in college and just getting to have these experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
And then on top of that, you also even got a chance to study abroad too.

Charlene Atlas:
So I did take five years to finish because with the two majors plus I went to study abroad in Tokyo. So went to Jochi Daigaku, which in English they referred to it as Sophia University. And it was really fun. I stayed with the host family, I took my classes. The classes were pretty hard, maybe I shouldn’t have studied so much, I should have traveled around. But I was like, there was a lot of classes that I was taking in addition to Japanese language. So it was fun, a great learning experience. And I assumed that I would be back, I always thought I would live in Japan long term. But it was a lot of fun and it was great to reconnect to Japan because I had also gone there in high school as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, what brought you there in high school?

Charlene Atlas:
So my school in Greenbelt, Maryland, I basically had a sister school relationship with a school in Japan. And it’s called Yokohama Suiryo High School. Basically there’s an exchange program. So we would have exchange students come in and stay with us and we would sometimes stay over there. So basically every summer, there would be a trip to Japan. So one of the years I went. And the years that I went, one of my friends actually convinced our Japanese teacher to take us on an extra part of the trip where we would bike across the country. So there’s this road called the Tokaido Road, and it’s an old route and has a lot of historical significance. There’s an art print series that’s based on it. In any case, my teacher had done that trip with someone before because it’s a trip that people just take either walking or biking. And my friend convinced him to take us on it. I don’t know how he got the approvals for it, but he basically took us, a bunch of 15 year olds, across the country for two weeks on bikes, 400 miles.

Charlene Atlas:
That was really, I think, a turning point in my life because I had never biked more than a block before, then I had to bike 400 miles. So it was important for me and then also honestly to help my relationship with my father. Because my father was like, “You can’t do this.” After the first practice ride, I was collapsing into his car. He drove a cab at the time, so I get in the back of his cab and I’m like, “My legs.” And we’ve only gone like four miles and he’s like, “You can’t go to Japan, you’re going to hold people back.” All of this, he’s saying all this stuff.

Charlene Atlas:
But then we came back and my teacher told them how well I did. We did tons of practice rides basically before we went. So I got so much better and my teacher was like, “Hey, she really can do this.” My teacher, Mr. Suison, I can’t thank him enough. He really convinced my dad and showed him she can do these things. And ever since then, he’s behind me 100% for anything that I do, including when I said I needed to go across the country to USC. So that was helpful.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s quite an experience. I’d imagine that really builds fortitude, especially in high school.

Charlene Atlas:
And it’s pretty hilly at certain parts. Have you ever seen those Japanese prints with the huge mountain? It’s extreme in the picture, but we were on that thing. So it was pretty hard, but I really of tried to push through. Around that time, Eminem’s Lose Yourself song was popular. And so I was just repeating that in my head like, “This is your shot. Come on, this is your opportunity.” I’m just trying to get through.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like a Gatorade commercial or something.

Charlene Atlas:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s really helped me, I always feel like I can do anything.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course, as I did my research for the interview and saw you had a lot of great experiences in college. I can imagine even just doing the band is a lot, with all of the different appearances that you had to do. But studying abroad. One thing that I mentioned before we started recording is that you interned at NASA in college. I interned at two NASA facilities in college as well. What was your internship experience like there?

Charlene Atlas:
Actually my internship was during high school. So my high school, that I mentioned Ellen Roosevelt, it had, as part of the science and tech magnet program that I was in, you had to do a senior project. And you could do it either as your own project or as an internship. And fortunately, right next to my school is NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. So I was able to do a computer science internship there, that was really cool. I’ve always loved space, and so it was great to work there. I worked in the cryogenics lab. And basically what they do is they reduce the temperature on sensors. It’s a technology for reducing temperature on sensors so that they can be sensitive enough to receive what the sensors need to receive from space. So the intention is that these things would be sent out into space and they need to be kept cold enough to do their job basically.

Charlene Atlas:
So the project was to… They had this program running their machine, their cryo machine, and it was called a, what was it called? It’s a very long name, it was like adiabatic demagnetization refrigerators or something like that. They were running this program on it, but it was super slow. So my project was to rewrite it all in LabVIEW, which is this sciencey way of doing programming, a visual programming language. I think they were using, I forgot what they were using before, but… So I rewrote it and it worked a lot faster and they were so happy. It was supposed to actually get sent to space, but then all of the funding got pulled. I think something about George Bush happened and then all the funding was pulled for all of their stuff. But that almost got to go to space. But later on, a holo lens was sent into space with some of my work on it. So I feel like I’ve been vindicated there.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s so interesting. When I interned at NASA in college, I did two internships. I did one at AMS, which is out in Moffett Field near Mountain View. What was interesting is I interned there and it was around the… I think when I got there, first of all, it was my first time in California, but I got there and I remember people on the NASA campus where buzzing about this new search engine called Google, have you heard of it? I remember all of that because it was right around, it was summer in 2000. And people were really buzzing about this new, yes, this new thing it’s down in Mountain View called Google or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Then I did Marshall Space Flight Center in Normal, Alabama, my junior year. But then they also pulled the funding for our program because 911 happened. So they pulled it and then the funding went towards Homeland Security. So the goal initially was oh, you intern at these two places. And then when you graduate you’re set up to work for NASA, that was what I was going to do. But then they pulled the funding and it’s like, well, sorry, good luck. I’m trying to find something now. So that’s interesting that that ended up happening or a similar thing. I don’t know, maybe this might have coincided around the same time, I don’t know. That’s really interesting.

Charlene Atlas:
Because I graduated around, let’s see, 2005 or something. So maybe, I don’t know. But I think probably it’s likely that projects funding gets pulled all the time maybe.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true.

Charlene Atlas:
[crosstalk 00:31:35].

Maurice Cherry:
There’s one thing that NASA is really known for, is not getting a lot of funding. So that makes sense actually. While you were in college, you got a chance to intern at a gaming company, Electronic Arts. Was that your first foray into really working on games in that way?

Charlene Atlas:
Yeah, it was great. I went down to San Francisco area, worked at Electronic Arts. And yeah, it was my first gaming company job. So I was a software quality assurance test intern. So basically testing the game, creating automation, and doing programming for testing the game and improving the quality. It was really fun, I worked on, let’s see, I think I worked on SimAnimals on the Wii, and a little bit on Dante’s Inferno. It was a great experience to get that chance. I guess a similar situation what you just described, they were going to hire me full time. They were saying like, “Oh, we’ll come back to you and hire full time.” But then they froze hiring. So it was another thing where I felt like, oh, maybe I’ll work here, this will be where I work, but then it didn’t work out.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting how that stuff ends up happening in college. And then for me, I had to scramble and find oh, well what’s going to be the thing that I end up doing? Because I was in school on a certain path like, yeah, I’m going to go this way, and then you get this big curve ball thrown at you. In your case though, you ended up getting hired by a pretty big tech company right around the time you graduated is that right?

Charlene Atlas:
Microsoft came to our campus, came to what we call the game pipe laboratory in the games major and talked with us and asked me if I would come interview. So I ended up working at Microsoft as a software development engineer in test or an STET, which is a role that they don’t have anymore. But basically the role, how they describe it, is that you are the last line of defense for the user in terms of the game. So working on Xbox, working on the Connect game. So connect is the first motion controller, if you remember it, of basically you could use your whole body to control the game. And so worked on the launch titles for that as my first work there.

Charlene Atlas:
And then while I was there, we started working on HoloLens. So HoloLens started and it was a pretty nascent project when I got involved, to the point that the test team was basically the only people who could run the demos. So I was involved in a lot of high level demos, just making sure things would go right and all of that. The HoloLens is basically a headset mixed reality computer. So while I was working on HoloLens, I actually switched to design, and I can get into that story if you want. But yeah, Microsoft was my first corporate gig.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about that because you were there for a little over eight years. So you had a long time to really settle into the work that you were doing. But you started out, as you mentioned, in engineering, you started out in engineering and then you transitioned to design, what brought that shift about?

Charlene Atlas:
So as I mentioned, the test role was advertised as you’re there to protect the consumer, you’re their advocate. Then while I was on HoloLens supporting HoloLens, my test team was assigned to the studio that had a really great design design team, and I started learning more about design. Also around this time, one of the creative directors in the org started posting pages from universal principles of design in the bathrooms for some reason, in the bathroom stalls. I was like, “What is this?” This is the most interesting thing I’ve ever read. Because if you know that book basically each page, you can learn this whole, a principle of design and how it’s shown in the real world. I was like, “This is amazing, what is it?” So a few things came together there.

Charlene Atlas:
I had also been looking into, how long do I want to stay in test? I started literally going around interviewing people who had been in the test field for 20 years to see, what are you all working on? I want to be you someday. And then after talking to them, I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” That’s what I’m doing now, but just on a bigger scope project. So all of these things came together and I just talked to my manager and I was like, “I think I want to switch design.” I talked to the creative director for the studio we were supporting about and he started giving me some tasks to do and I did well with those. I had been helping one of the designers with user tests. So having people come in and try out the application. And we started this list of metrics for how much people were enjoying it. And I really loved seeing those metrics like go up.

Charlene Atlas:
I was supposed to be in charge of putting in code into the build to collect data on how things were going, filing bugs, all of this. But I was like, “Who cares about the bugs if it’s not fun?” So I realized that I cared more about, and I always have cared about experience. But apparently at this moment I was like, “Oh, design is the one, this field design is the thing that I thought I was doing or that is accomplishing the goal that I actually have of making an experience for people that matters, that they feel, and that they have fun.” So they gave me a chance. And funnily enough, the creative director, he said part of the reason he gave me a chance was because I’m a musician. So he knew that I had at least some creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting.

Charlene Atlas:
So I was like, “Oh, I’m glad I did that.” I guess, do music my whole life. So I interviewed and then I haven’t looked back. So that was back in… Basically I’d been in test for about four years and then 2015 or so is when I switched to design. So I got to work on the launch experiences for HoloLens and then go on to work on incubation projects and windows before I came to Meta.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting how something that you were doing as a, I don’t know if I would necessarily say it’s a hobby, but like another interest of yours, music, ended up being in a way this entry point for you into design. Which I think hopefully for people that are listening, illustrates how important it can be to be well rounded when it comes to the work that you do. It’s one thing, of course, to focus on what it is that you know, but then if you have these other interests, they can often guide you in many different ways. Like growing up, when you mentioned the science and tech stuff, I was captain of the maths leagues in high school, I majored in math in college, and I was also a musician. You mentioned musician, I was a session musician in my 20s and stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting how eventually design ended up becoming my career, because I didn’t want to be a math teacher. I liked math, I didn’t like it that much to go and teach it. But I certainly liked it enough to get a degree in it, which that’s probably a whole other story. But it’s interesting how those other parts of yourself or those other interests and things that you have contributes or can contribute to other opportunities and things that you can pursue.

Charlene Atlas:
And that’s actually what I’ve always loved about game development because games are something where it’s a mixture of art and science. So I’ve always wanted to make sure I had a lot of interest and things I could pull from to create in my game development. Then I also feel like both music and design are about making people feel something. My approach to design is that I think of this magic moment of, what is this feeling I want to have someone experience by using this prototype or using this thing someday when it’s a product? What is that feeling I want them to have either in what they’re trying to do or connecting with someone else in this? Music is like that too, where you can make someone feel something. So I think it’s a really interesting connection that they have.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what are you excited about at the moment? This is probably a vague question considering what you’re doing with Meta and all of that. But what’s the thing that’s really exciting you right now?

Charlene Atlas:
Like the group that I’m in at work, an interaction design group that I talked about earlier, I think we really have an opportunity. And I think we’re go going down some really interesting pathways as to, how do we actually move forward? Like I said at the beginning, how do we move away from how we do computing right now? So I’m really excited about some things that we’ve released publicly recently on our tech blog about our tenure vision for AR and about some of the things we were building such as a haptic glove for being able to actually feel virtual objects, to wrist based interfaces that can be controlled by EMG or electromyography in your wrists so that you can do very simple interactions. So I think it’s just a really big opportunity we have to finally, after decades of doing things one way with computing, of keyboard and mouse and standard way of doing things, we actually have an opportunity to really improve just how we do things in general. So I’m just really excited to be a part of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, your career to date, just one, going through what we’ve discuss so far, has been super prolific working for Microsoft, working for Electronic Arts, and even all of your other activities with music and going to Japan and everything like that. As you look back at your career, who are some of the people that have like really stood out and have helped you as mentors?

Charlene Atlas:
What’s interesting, I’ve touched on some of them in this talk, which I guess is saying something. My teacher back in high school, Mr. Suison, who took us on that trip. He didn’t have to…. I assume he took on a lot of risk taking a group of teenagers across a foreign land. But that really helped develop me as a person and define me for a long time, so I really appreciate that. I mentioned that person who took a chance on me, Cameron brown. So the first creative director I had who hired me as a designer, and he really took a chance. I think there’s a lot of times in our lives when people just…

Charlene Atlas:
If you make the right connections, people will give you an opportunity that if you take that opportunity, it really can change the course of your life. I really appreciate being able to do this design work from that opportunity because it really is aligned with just how I think about how I want to make an impact in this world. So I really appreciate everyone who’s contributed to that. And really takes a lot of people over a long period of time to get us all to where we are right now.

Maurice Cherry:
If there’s someone that’s out there that’s listened to your story and they want to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Charlene Atlas:
Well, as far as following my footsteps, I think it’s really important to figure out what makes you excited and what makes you feel passion for what you’re doing. One of the things that got me the Microsoft job, I learned at some point, was that they really wanted me make sure I show the passion for what I’m doing. They gave me advice through the different rounds of like, “Make sure you show that your passionate for what you’re doing.” Because that really will drive everything you do after that, and so that’s what I focus on. I just focus on wanting to make… What is the impact I want to make? And how can I do that? And how can each day go towards that?

Charlene Atlas:
As far as getting into this field, the AR/VR field it’s surprisingly easy these days to really jump in and learn things. There’s Unity game engine for building experiences. For example, we actually have a program called Oculus Launchpad. So promising VR creators from underrepresented backgrounds, we actually give support to them to build experiences, put their products out there. So there’s a lot of resources at Meta for people to get involved. But there’s also just a lot out online. Spark AR that I mentioned, build something. So like in general, I would say figure out what your passion is and then actually start just doing something, bias towards action. So if you have an idea, build that idea. If you don’t know how to do it, figure out how to do it. There’s just so much you learn from just trying to build something. Because if you just try to learn a topic without actually building something, you’re going to be missing out on a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would have went into if you didn’t go into tech?

Charlene Atlas:
It’s interesting. I feel like depending on which point of my life we’re talking about, I think it would’ve been different. So I’ve always loved space, so sometimes I think about maybe even someday in the future, working more in the space field. I just really love the idea of humans going to another planet and all that. I don’t know how I would contribute necessarily at this point. But I just love that idea. Also with the interest in Japan, which stemmed from my interest in video games initially, I sometimes think about, I could have gone into, of course, with the other major, I could have gone into translation or being maybe a Japanese teacher. But probably if I was going to go down that path, I’d probably go into translation because I really loved the idea of helping people connect.

Charlene Atlas:
And that was one of the biggest things I learned from my exchange experience. Was when we would have students come visit us or we would visit them, we were all just high school students, we were all silly laughing high school students, even though we were from different countries and spoke different languages. That’s something I learned really early on about people, that we’re not as different as we think. So I love that idea of helping other people communicate between each other, even if they’re speaking a different language. So just in general, anything that involves connecting people is something that I would go into.

Charlene Atlas:
And I’ll just also say AR, VR, augmented reality, one of the things that excites me so much about it is this idea of being able to be present with people, like I talked about earlier. Basically I feel like AR, VR is the next best thing to teleportation. So I wish I could teleport to go see my family or go to places I haven’t been in a long time. But I feel like I’m working on the next best thing. So I guess also if teleportation ever becomes a thing, I would definitely work on that.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting you mentioned that about space because one, space is super, super interesting. But like right now, I feel like there’s this whole thing around governance of space. Because no one owns space, it’s space, nobody owns space. But you have the international space station, you have other countries that have launched satellites and things like that. And there’s tons of space junk just orbiting the planet or in the planet’s fairly low orbit or something like that. And it’s like there’s no real governance around space or cleaning up space, I mean space in terms of just what’s around the earth and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Because there have been some times I think this year where a couple of people were talking about, “Well, how come we can’t just take all the planet’s garbage and launch it into space?” I’m like, “That’s ridiculous.” If you think about it on a logistical level, humans create a lot of waste. Do you know how much time that’s going to take, how much fuel that’s going to take? And like just dumping it in space doesn’t solve the problem. Anyway, space is infinitely interesting. And I do feel there are a lot of opportunities there even with the whole new Space Force thing. But from research capability, certainly with other planets and things. But if earth is our home, which it is, then our yard is filthy, there’s toys and stuff, it’s a mess. So maybe, I don’t know, focus on that, I don’t know. But that’s a whole other thing.

Charlene Atlas:
I think space exploration and the work that we do on augmented reality, virtual reality relate in that there’s a lot of uncharted territory. That’s one of the things that make it really exciting right about space, is like, who knows what’s out there? We got to get there, we got to see stuff. And that’s what my group does. Is we got to go out there and figure this out. Because basically every day there’s a long list of unknowns that we’re dealing with and it’s just a very high ambiguity space. So honestly, it can be frustrating sometimes. But it’s also exciting because the potential for what we can learn is just so huge. And that’s what I like about both of those areas.

Maurice Cherry:
High ambiguity spaces are a lot of fun because you then really get to carve out what you want to do and figure things out. The fact that nothing is really concrete means that you can do what you want, but also establish rules and things. So I like working in those spaces, it’s really fun. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I think just based on the work that you’re doing, of course, it’s going to be future focus. But if you really could look into 2026, I think two, five, six, what kind of work do you see yourself doing or what work do you want to do?

Charlene Atlas:
Like I said, we work in the five to 10 year timeframe. And so I’m hoping that five years from now, we’ll be in a place where some of the things we’re working on have landed or we’ve figured out what we shouldn’t be doing. I just really want to be helping us get to that place where things are getting more defined and we’ve landed in a good place. So right now, I… So I’m an individual contributor, I don’t manage any people, but I do drive a lot of, what we call, cross group collaborations. Like you have an idea and you can drive it with a lot of different people.

Charlene Atlas:
So I would love to keep doing that work but at a greater scope. And just really helps carve out the strategy for how are we actually going to land this thing? Because even once we’ve figure out a lot of things like, “oh, we figured it out,” we have something in the lab that works, is great. But then it’s like, okay, now we really have the work do of how do we actually transfer it to something that people could actually use? So I think five years down the line, I’d love to be a leader in the organization that’s helping to find some major piece of this future we’re trying to create.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, all of that? Where can they find that online?

Charlene Atlas:
You can go to charleneatlas.com and on there you can also find the link to my LinkedIn. Definitely hit me up if you’re interested in working in Reality Labs. Also the tech.fb.com, the Tech Facebook blog has a lot of our latest research information posts.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Charlene Atlas, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. As I was doing my research for all this, and I mentioned to you before that I’m going to this metaverse conference thing tomorrow, that I’m super excited about. But as I was putting all this together and really just digging into your background, you have accomplished so much. It’s mind boggling to see the work that you’re doing now, and because it’s such an uncharted space. I hope that people will get a sense of your passion for this, as you’ve mentioned before, about people being passionate about this. I hope people get a sense of what your passion is for this. And hopefully that can fuel them to see what new possibilities might be out there for them, especially as we embark upon a new year. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Charlene Atlas:
Thank you so much, Maurice. It was great talking to you.

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Derrick Fields

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of video games, so when I learned about Derrick Fields and Waking Oni Games from the Wholesome Direct Indie Game Showcase back in June, I had to have him on the show.

We talked about how 2021 has been going so far — a new gig and a new baby! — and he spoke on why he created his own gaming studio and gave some history behind the studio’s first title: Onsen Master. Derrick also shared his inspiration behind getting into game programming, the indie gaming scene for underrepresented designers, and he gave some great advice for anyone looking to start making their own titles. If there’s a video game out there that you would love to see, hopefully Derrick’s story will inspire you to create it!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Derrick Fields:
My name is Derrick Fields. I’m the founder and studio director or game director of Waking Oni Games, also the assistant professor at Northwestern University, teaching 3D modeling and game design.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I’d ask how your 2021 has been so far, but I mean that sounds like a pretty big announcement right there, teaching at Northwestern. Congratulations.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you. 2021 has been a series of transitions. Formerly, before leaping into Northwestern this year, I was the lead artists over at Uplift Games which is responsible for a really popular Roblox game by the name of Adopt Me! And so it was a significant portion of my life being able to create a title that contributed to kids. But now, I get to teach some of those children in an academic setting and all the while working on games and creating projects for myself.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So I guess as you settle in to your new role, do you have any other plans that you might have had for the rest of this year?

Derrick Fields:
One is in the oven or I should say, I’m thinking of a pun that doesn’t sound so morbid. I’m not sure like in the oven. The package is on the way. And my partner and I are expecting a little one in November and so it’s been a lot of at home, nesting and preparation as we invite a small human into our lives or another small human into our lives, I should say.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations. Look at you.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
A new job, new human. 2021 sounds like it’s your year.

Derrick Fields:
It has been my year. I am very thankful.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about the Northwestern gig. How did you get that?

Derrick Fields:
Sure. So through some work and prior to working at Uplift, I had always maintained doing some freelance work and working on side projects and other projects. It’s like simultaneously balancing a lot of plates there. The one that came along was through a friend and colleague who was creating a grant-funded project out of Northwestern. And they were, at the time, the assistant professor who held the position. And so I have done some talks with him and his class and met some of the students to discuss aspects of game design and 3D modeling. And a little later on, this individual ended up leaving the position for another university out of state. And so I was very surprised to see an email arrived from Northwestern asking if I would be interested in interviewing for the position.

Derrick Fields:
And that’s when I carried on the discussion with the same individual who was leaving the position. And he was very excited that they ended up reaching out off of this recommendation. And so from there, it was a lot of paperwork. I did a job talk which was new to me, which feels like giving a TED Talk to other teachers, faculty and students and to discuss the aspects of why I would enjoy teaching, what I hope to bring to the space and sharing bits about my past. And everything worked out for the better, so I’d be starting with them in September.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Is this your first foray into academia.

Derrick Fields:
I’ve always been on the periphery of the space doing other conversations. I’ve done some talks over at the University of Chicago in their Media and Arts Design Lab, I believe the name is. So yeah, always tangential to this space, but yeah, this will be the first time that I’ll be responsible for my own class, my own syllabi and a handful of students in that capacity. Prior too, I am a board member of the Japanese Arts Foundation where, before we transitioned to this quarantine and pandemic state, I was teaching how to draw anime classes to people of all ages. And so education has always been a really important component. And so I’ve been very fortunate to be able to provide that in certain spaces and this really just became the crux of it all.

Maurice Cherry:
Very nice. That should be a really good gig. I don’t know, forgive me for saying gig, I used to be a musician years ago, so I call every job a gig.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely. I’d use that too.

Maurice Cherry:
But that should be a really good thing to settle into, especially because I remember just when I was in school 20+ years ago, goodness, this kind of stuff wasn’t really taught. I didn’t go to an art school. I just went to a regular liberal art school. I know now technology has allowed for so many different types of things to be taught. So it’s really good that you’re going to be able to teach this, because I would imagine, this is probably you passing that knowledge on from your own personal experience with 3D design.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely, hopefully, being able to lens an avenue for students who are interested in that space and give them direct feedback based on my experience within the industry, I think is going to be really great and I’m excited to be able to share that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s talk about Waking Oni Games. How did you decide to start your own studio? Where did that come from?

Derrick Fields:
Right. So I was, I think, definitely mid store at the beginning of some freelance work. And some years after, I’d say, I don’t even know at this point, but definitely some time after, would be a more accurate description, some time after university and not finding the career placement that I wanted in games that I had grown to expect, I started mingling with other friends. And we got to brainstorming about what would it be like to create our own project and what type of experience could we get out of that just with limited resources. And at this time, it was just myself, my friend and a friend of his and so just the three of us, whom is now a very great friend of mine as well.

Derrick Fields:
The three of us, we were brainstorming, we played around and I said, “We should,” so pausing real quick to rewind, just a tad, but Spirited Away, the Ghibli film directed by Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite movies and has left a lasting impression on me. And so I had always imagined what it might be like to play a game that takes place in an onsen or hot spring as what we might know it as. And so that was really the origin of the idea and the motivation to wanting to create something for myself. And so with that came the need to have an LLC formation and go through all the legalities to make sure that we can be eligible to receive various licenses and things like that. And so then Waking Oni Games was invented or generated.

Maurice Cherry:
So how long has it been since you started?

Derrick Fields:
It has existed, I would say, from the signing of legal documents for six or seven years and Onsen Master was a hobby project throughout that time period. And so it wasn’t until two years ago, I believe, two almost three years ago that we decided to take that project and actually pursue it as something of an actual game, a game that we wanted to share with audiences, a game that we wanted to put up on Kickstarter for crowdfunding and see what the interest would be. And so very thankful that in September of the year that we did Kickstarter 2019, that it went successfully.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you. Since then, we continued working, of course, maintaining full time jobs and any other commitments outside of that to get this game out to audiences that were interested in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me a little bit more about Onsen Master for those that might not be familiar with the concept, you mentioned as being hot springs. Talk to me about what the game is about.

Derrick Fields:
Sure. I’ll say I can’t explain it without getting past the elevator pitch part. So it’s a hot spring strategy game about healing. You play as a character who has been tasked with managing their own bath house, their own hot spring. And that managing component comes by way of various customers who will arrive to your hot spring. And they each have a different ingredient that they desire. And so it is your job as the player to sort them into one of four baths that are located in the hot spring, locating the ingredient that matches to their needs and then mixing it up and tossing it in there with them. And so you play this mix and match game while moving through different environments that may change in scale or layout.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like it can also be partially educational as well because I’m assuming this is based off of how onsens actually operate.

Derrick Fields:
In a very broad stroke, some details are true, some details are not. I would say there isn’t the component of somebody procuring an ingredient for you and lofting out into the bath. What is true to reality is that when you go to an onsen, a hot spring is a naturally heated water and there are many towns and prefectures in Japan, across Japan that have onsen and bathhouses that are, I should say, sento. So there’s a difference there. Sento or bathhouse is artificially heated and onsen or hot spring is naturally heated. And so it’s like small detail. So those are the types of things that really what I hope players will get other experiences that when they play Onsen Master, I hope that it will spark interest in wanting to find out what real onsen like or what real sento are like and learn about those.

Derrick Fields:
Another component in the game that I hope will spark interest in players is, as you’re playing through the game, you’re visited by these spirits called yokai. And they are essentially personifications of the unexplainable. If we hear a creek in the night, we might say, “Oh, that is a creek monster that is responsible for making this noise.” And so when you play Onsen Master, not only will various customers be arriving, but these various spirits that take the form of one that looks like a turtle, one that looks like a skeleton and so on will also be visiting the onsen. And they’ll come bearing with a couple antics to them. One might spill water all over the place, for example, or one might try to come after you and grab you as another thing that you have to deal with while managing these different customers.

Maurice Cherry:
It definitely sounds like you put a lot of thought and care into the game and with all of these different mechanics and such. It sounds really cool.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you. It’s definitely my experience in … I’ve spent a lot of my time learning about Japanese history and culture and mythology and so wanting to build a game that can spark that same interest and hopefully lead others to wanting to educate themselves about what yokai are, for example, is really the desire out of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I think anyone that has kids under 15 probably knows what yokai are because they’ve seen Yo-kai Watch or something like that. It’s amazing how much, I don’t even want to call it American shows because they’re just Japanese shows that have been in many cases dubbed over, but there’s so much anime from Japan that gets dumped over that now are, in some cases, cultural staples in this country like Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, etcetera, but then there’s a lot of newer shows like Yo-kai Watch and others that that’s how people tend to find out about Japanese culture through these different shows and through videogames as well. I remember playing videogames as a kid and that’s how I really learned about small things about Japanese culture. I’d probably say I got more from anime, but videogames definitely played a part in that as well, even through localization.

Derrick Fields:
And I really agree with that, we’ve got to say the sort of subtext to Waking Oni Games and Onsen Master and the projects that are to follow that are intended to explore specifically the intersection of Japanese and African American culture because there are many BIPOC individuals that have had their experience in childhood and through their adulthood, tangent to all sorts of pop culture and media. But mine specifically intersects a lot with Japanese culture and continues to even in my adulthood, being a board member at the Japanese Arts Foundation and teaching anime drawing classes. And so wanting to explore that and hopefully articulate that at my age now has led me to learn that there are many Black individuals that also have that sort of intersection.

Derrick Fields:
And wanting to find representation in the media that doesn’t necessarily originate from our culture can be a challenge depending on the circumstance, but it has led to other outcomes. And things like when we watched Dragon Ball Z, this is why we might code Piccolo as Black. Having those shared experiences with other Black individuals is something that’s very specific. And so with Onsen Master and with other projects, I would really like to continue to explore that conversation and build content that is derived of anime and the pop culture that surrounds the medium, but also insert people that look like us and be able to center that conversation a little bit more.

Maurice Cherry:
Right around this time last year on the show, we had Arthell Isom. He’s a Black guy who owns an anime studio actually over in Japan called D’ART Shtajio. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this.

Derrick Fields:
Yes, I’ve heard of this.

Maurice Cherry:
So a lot of what you’re talking about, it’s funny because this interview was literally about a year from now, a year ago from now. And what you’re saying mirrors a lot of what he also said in terms of working within the culture but also working to bridge that gap and tell these stories in a way that is not only, I would say, culturally relevant but also is appealing to customers. So that makes a lot of sense.

Derrick Fields:
I was just going to say hello to Arthell in a year ago. I wish we could cross paths, but I do. I love a lot of the work that he and his studio are doing.

Maurice Cherry:
So what do you think it is that people misunderstand when it comes to being a game designer?

Derrick Fields:
Sure. I think the term game design can be a little bit obfuscated. If you aren’t readily in school and learning about what the role might entail. It isn’t just thinking about all how one might want to create a cool thing and just enacting on it, it can become a lot more granular than that. And there has to be, and I can explain further, but there has to be a willingness to want to pursue getting very nitty gritty about details but also hoping to drive and create certain or, I should say, elicit certain experiences out of the audience that you intend to interact with your media.

Derrick Fields:
And so taking that to a game, let’s say, Mario or Final Fantasy, any of those things, everything that you do in that game that you don’t necessarily notice per se, the reason why the text, the font looks a certain way or the reason why when Mario jumps, a very specific height or just help conveniently placed that height and that distance from when you jump off a ledge and land on a platform is just so far away or just close enough that it creates ease or difficulty. Those types of things are thought about by somebody else and labored over constantly to make sure that you as the player can have ease of access or have experiences in difficulty but not difficulty that’s hard enough that turns you away from the game and makes you not want to play it.

Derrick Fields:
There has to be that balance in wanting to engineer an experience that maybe makes you feel just close enough to a reward that you are now driven to want to achieve it. I will say that that’s one component of game design. There are many ways to create experiences and engineer outcomes in a way that you are trying to impart that on somebody. I’ve been trying to stray away from falling into just spouting off nothing but buzzwords, but it really is. It really is that. You’re thinking about the player. You’re thinking about what type of experience you would like to give them while also wanting to share entertainment and fun and cool things happening.

Derrick Fields:
And maybe it’s swords, maybe it’s horses, or fairies or robots, but also wanting to make sure that your vision for it all is concise among those components that you’re trying to sort out.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like there’s a lot of testing that has to happen with game design. It’s not just as a simple as Mario Maker or something like that. But even that, I think also, I love how Nintendo has really abstracted a big part of the game design process when it comes to a game like Mario Maker or this new game that they have called like Game Garage or something like that. They make it seemed pretty easy because you’re just dragging and dropping sprites onto a canvas, but there’s so much logic and testing that has to go behind that to make sure that it’s playable, it’s enjoyable, hopefully that you’re guiding the player along and you’re making sure that they’re having an enjoyable experience as well.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely. And what I really love about both of those software is that they create accessibility to individuals who may otherwise not have the background in programming or have the background in 3D modeling or 2D art or everything else that comes along with creating a game. There’s so many resources there that they can, as you said, drag and drop and immediately get a reaction on whether or not it works. And I think those types of systems are great because it allows burgeoning creators and players to be able to explore those limitations and hopefully build something out of them and test, test, test away.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, this might be a bit of a easy questions. I think anyone that’s grown up in the United States in the past 30+ years has been exposed to videogames, but tell me about your history with games. Were you always into design in videogames? Tell me about that?

Derrick Fields:
Yeah. My experience in games has definitely been lifelong. I grew up with Nintendo and Sega and Sega Dreamcast and etcetera, leading all the way up to now, but wanting to contribute to games wasn’t always a component that … It wasn’t always something that I had considered. There was a disconnect. You bought games or you receive games as a gift. You loaded them up, you played them to the end of the credits and then you look for the next one. But I, for a long time, never really bridged the gap that somebody else was behind a computer, somebody had labored over this to give the experience that I’m now having in my bedroom or on the couch.

Derrick Fields:
When that happened, I think that’s when things really, really shifted for me and wanting to envision, creating worlds that I could interact and that other people could interact and what that might be like. Prior to that, my background has always been in drawing and illustration. And so I used to always want to create comic books and create cartoons. And so I spent a lot of time drawing and imagining worlds and imagining characters. Getting into high school, I think that’s when things started to transition and I understood that there was a pathway to being able to create these games that I was playing on PlayStation 1 and 2 at the time. And then I started to reengage with these worlds and imagine them as virtual spaces and seek out opportunities as we start getting into university in how I might be able to achieve that.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember, like you said, growing up in Nintendo and Sega, especially if you were a child of the ’80s. I would say even like a child of the early ’90s. It was inescapable. I don’t even know if it’s really so much now because kids have the internet to contend with and social media and stuff. But it’s hard to really understate just how much of a vice grip Nintendo had over your childhood. If you were like a child of the ’80s or the early ’90s, there was television, there were videogames, there was breakfast cereal, there was clothes. You really could not escape it.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say Nintendo probably more so, I’d say probably more so than Sega, but even still, as both of those systems grew in popularity, you really could not avoid the Console Wars, I should say. You really had to be in one camp or another. And games often would come out for one and then come out for the other one later. And it’s just amazing how much of that really is, because of course, the foundation for what we see now in gaming, but also what it’s done is it’s helped to create a whole new generation now of game designers and people that want to work in games and comics and similar fields like that.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely. And I got to ask, you mentioned the Console War, which side did you find yourself on, whether intentional or unintentional growing up?

Maurice Cherry:
So definitely Team Nintendo 100%. I had a Gameboy I had a regular. I remember when the NDS came out in ’80, I think it came out in ’85, I think, ’85, ’86 and I got it me and my brother. I have an older brother, we got it. And the cartridge was like the combination of Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, so you put it in and then you choose which one you wanted to play and whatever. It was Nintendo for a long time. My cousin, I have a first cousin named Jeff and he had a Genesis. And so I got to go over his house and play a little bit of Sega. I always thought the three button controller was really weird. I didn’t quite understand that like, “I’m going to go back to Nintendo where the buttons have an even amount of numbers. That makes more sense to me.” I’ve been trying to do that. But yeah, mostly Nintendo. I think I’ve had every Nintendo System except the 64 and the Virtual Boy. I don’t think anyone really had the Virtual Boy.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember when the Virtual Boy came out because it was around, I want to say ’94, ’95. And the Walmart in our town had one as a display. So I did get to play it, but I’ve never had one. But yeah, I was firmly, firmly Team Nintendo until probably around college and then I diverted to Dreamcast. Although, well, someone of my friends’ floors had a 64 and we just play GoldenEye all the time.

Derrick Fields:
You got to play GoldenEye. Absolutely. My upbringing did find itself seeded in the Sega route and it was a bit of the opposite for me where my first cousin was the one who had the Super Nintendo and …

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Derrick Fields:
… the Virtual Boy. And I will not spend any time just discussing how VR has been an exploratory tangent to videogames for so long with something like the Virtual Boy and seeing where it is now to a device like the Oculus. But Sega led me to Sega Dreamcast and all of those, unfortunately short-lived experiences on a very cool system. I headed down the path of PlayStation and I got to say it I probably never looked back. I’ve loved PlayStation ever since.

Maurice Cherry:
What was the game that hooked you into gaming?

Derrick Fields:
Final Fantasy IX. I definitely played plenty of games prior to that, but Final Fantasy IX and just the PlayStation 1 console in general, I think, is bookmarked as a significant part of my life. I think I played tons and tons of games on the PlayStation. And there were so many when you think of the time period, this is why I love PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 especially, but when you think of the time period of both of these consoles, there’s so much development and exploration on both of the consoles from the beginning of their release to the end of their cycle when the next generation of that platform is coming out.

Derrick Fields:
And so looking at it a title that released on the beginning of PlayStation and looking at a title that released at the end of PlayStation 1’s time period is significant. There’s really vast differences. You find games that explored with voiceover and games that have walls and walls of text, games with sprites, games with Final Fantasy stuff, blocky 3D bodies and everything else. So it was a time. It was a time that all these different companies were trying out new things. They’re always trying new things. There’s always iteration and development, but something felt really cool about that transition to 3D and everybody trying to figure that out at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
The game that hooked me into gaming, there’s a few. I think if I think about what was on the regular Nintendo, the game that probably hooked me was, it’s a very rare choice, there was this board game on NES called Anticipation. Have you heard of it?

Derrick Fields:
No, I haven’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Look up Anticipation NES on YouTube. I’m sure there’s probably videos of it, but I remember I would check that game out from what we had a Blockbuster adventure, but we had back home this little place called Movie Gallery. And I would check out Anticipation or I get my mom to check out Anticipation, let me correct that, to check out Anticipation every two weeks or so and keep playing it. And it’s essentially like a, I don’t know, Pictionary-style game …

Derrick Fields:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
… where it’s like for players. You’re either a trumpet, an ice cream cone, a pair of pink high-heeled shoes or teddy bear.

Derrick Fields:
I see that now.

Maurice Cherry:
And there’s these different board configurations. And you roll the die and you land on a certain color. And then there’s like this pencil that just starts drawing and you have to guess what it is that it’s drawing. And usually like at the beginning levels, they’ll give you some sort of hints like the number of letters or something. So you get a sense of it or the category, I should say, that’s drawing. But then as you go up to the higher boards, there’s no clues, no category. It just starts drawing and you have to figure it out and you have to get four of the different colors to proceed to the next round. And I loved that game. I think my brother hated it, but I loved that game. And that game sort of hooked me into like, “Oh, this is cool. This is like a board game, but it’s on videogames.” That blew my mind.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I’d say also, was this NES or SNES? So this is SNES. The SNES game that hooked me was also a Final Fantasy title. It’s Final Fantasy II which is Final Fantasy IV in the Japanese line of games. But that game, it’s sunk its fangs into me deep.

Derrick Fields:
Great.

Maurice Cherry:
And it is to this day, I don’t know if it’s my favorite Final Fantasy title, it’s top two. It’s top two definitely. I love that game like no other. Because that game aside from just the story aspect of it and you had the double-crossing character and all this sort of stuff. Also it’s my foray into music. I really liked the music and tried to learn how to play the music. I have little keyboard or whatever. And I would record it on my little tape recorder and then go back and try to play it on my keyboard and stuff like that. But Final Fantasy II and Anticipation. Those were the two games that got me into games, just like, “Oh, man, this is such a great, great medium to tell stories in.” Because Final Fantasy II, I had never run across a story like that before.

Derrick Fields:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s like on this thing and you play as these people, it’s like, “What is this?” It was my first role-playing game too. It was great. Absolutely great.

Derrick Fields:
That’s a really great story in it. I think that’s why Final Fantasy IX sits with me so well. And again, there were plenty of games that I definitely interacted with. Leading up to that, I fondly remember playing Rocket Knight on Sega which was a really cool side scrolling, incredibly difficult game. Wow. I think a lot of us have memories with titles like Aladdin and The Lion King and Animaniacs on that system as well, but it wasn’t until PlayStation and Final Fantasy IX that, again similar to what you said about for the character, the story, the very imaginative world that is being set in front of you. And it just raises the bar on, “Oh, this is what fantasy can be when …” Prior to this, it’s just been Dungeons and Dragons and medieval shows and medieval fantasy, but that presented an entirely new world.

Maurice Cherry:
Or you’re like Mario or Sonic, you’re just playing this linear left to right, up and down sort of thing. And Final Fantasy really came along and just like, I don’t even want to say it shattered expectations, it certainly shattered my perception of what can be done now with the medium. And my God, that was 1992 I think. Wow. It’s amazing what they were able to accomplish with so little back then, just in terms of the technology that tells us the vast story and with such few elements. I think now with computers and with software and everything, there’s no telling what you can create, even just on your own without having to do it through a big studio.

Derrick Fields:
We have so many possibilities now. And I think developers AAA all the way to indie, we continue to share and show reinvention within this space. And I love marveling at it. Every time there’s a new game trailer or game event that is coming with a handful of announcements, I cannot help but tune in because I know it’s going to come up with some indie game or some other studio that’s revealing an experience that you just didn’t imagine could happen with a controller in your hand or with something like an Oculus VR headset.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m trying to get more into Oculus. I got one fairly recently. And I’ve been just playing around with it, sitting on the couch or playing around the living room, but I need to get more into the VR experiences because I know there’s probably some really great stuff there.

Derrick Fields:
I’m trying. I’m trying as well. And I think right now felt like a time that was okay to leap in because the space is starting to hit its stride and starting … It’s hit its stride and it’s definitely developing and creating all these cool experiences now that the devices have so much fidelity to them which was always limitation leading up to what we have nowadays. Now, there’s three, four different pieces of hardware that you can acquire and create that experience for yourself and dedicate an entire room to VR if you wanted to. So I too have an Oculus and I’m dabbling on the store. I got to say, I’m very interested in a title called Demeo, I believe is the name where you are … Essentially, my favorite part of D&D where you have the D&D dungeon, you have your character sheet, but you have a miniature representation of your D&D dungeon in front of you and you’re playing through this campaign with little figurines that are an indication of your character and your party members.

Derrick Fields:
Well, there’s a VR version of that now and I got to say the way I’m passively just recruiting people to want to play that game, some handful of time from now is my side mission, but it looks very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you went to school for design. You went to Columbus College of Art and Design. You eventually graduated from Kent State. When you think back on your education studying design, how much of that has really helped you out now, as a game designer?

Derrick Fields:
I think some of it came from not getting the experience that I was hoping to have and some of it came from gaining way more than I even thought could come of it. Getting into university at that time, the discoverability of spaces that were teaching games was still new. There was, I think, a lot of advertisements around this time for the art institute and going to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh or whichever state [inaudible 00:36:35] that it had and trying to explore, “Where am I going to get that? Where am I going to get the experience? At the risk of loans and everything else, where will I find my seat in all of that?” And so it’s bizarre. I remember going to the Art Institute of Chicago or sorry the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for a preview. They invited … You could register for a summer preview camp and stay there for, I think it was like three days or three or four days or something like that.

Derrick Fields:
But the idea was it was to introduce students to the campus, their experience, get them hands-on experience and playing around with game engines and tantalizing or giving the movie preview of what game development might be. Instead, what that experience for me was connecting with a bunch of very cool students, but ultimately never getting that experience. I remember distinctly we went into this game lab and the teacher who was supposed to be providing preview of education on Unreal Engine was absent. They were just gone and nobody knew where they were.

Derrick Fields:
And so the entire class just played Unreal Tournament. And that’s what we did. I remember thinking, “This is cool, but this isn’t what I came here for.” So I was so frustrated because I thought I came in, the veil was yanked away in what I was supposed to expect when I got there. So yeah, I ultimately went to Columbus College of Art and Design. I pursued illustration. I said to myself that I’m going to find entry into games, doing concept art. I still was feeling really keen about 3D modeling and wanting to do something with that. And so I remember asking my advisor if I could switch to 3D modeling because I wanted to pursue game development. And they said, “Well, we only have 3D animation. We don’t support game development here.”

Derrick Fields:
And I thought it was another moment that was disillusioned and I’m going, “Oh, man, am I thinking about this wrong? There’s got to be other spaces where people are really driving for this outcome that they too want to create games, that they too want to 3D model and rig characters for videogames. I love Pixar films, but that’s not where I’m trying to land.” And so I transferred to Shawnee State University. That is where I was introduced to this really amazing game development program that was still in its earliest stages, but the community of teachers and students really brought an experience together that continues to thrive today.

Derrick Fields:
I think, if you go to their website, they’re doing all sorts of really cool in-university events to support their students and give them that experience that I think a lot of us were going for at that time. So shout outs to them. I ultimately ended up transferring yet another time and graduating out of Kent State University with a degree and I don’t remember the name, but I graduated there and here we are with some gaps and other stories in between there.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say though, what you’ve mentioned though is actually, at least from my experience with talking with others on this show, it’s pretty common because the technology in the industry changes so quickly that schools aren’t really able to keep up and be able to have curriculum and stuff like that. And then, as you say, because it’s so new, different schools are going to have different just types of programs. It’s not really standardized. You can go to any college in the country and learn English, but you can’t go to any college in the country and learn game design. Different programs are definitely going to be just better suited to what’s currently in the industry. They might have a better alumni program. There could be a whole bunch of other things. There’s a guy I had on the show. This was, I don’t know, maybe 2017 or so. His name is Michael Hollander. Do you remember the ’90s show, VR Troopers?

Derrick Fields:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
He was the Black guy on VR Troopers.

Derrick Fields:
Oh, cool.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s a game designer now.

Derrick Fields:
Oh, wow. What a track record. That show is amazing. And there’s a side note, but the genre of tokusatsu, VR Troopers, Power Rangers, Kamen Rider, all of that stuff, there’s a really cool story, I think I saw it on Netflix, just the whole process of how that gets localized and arrives to us and then this relationship that we have with, I think it’s the … I forgot the company that licensed Power Rangers here, but they have a specific relationship with the original source that they are allowed to take the fight scenes and reedit it to add in actors from the US and-

Maurice Cherry:
That’s Haim Saban, right?

Derrick Fields:
Yes, that’s the one. Thank you. If you end up watching shows like VR Troopers, shows like Kamen Rider or Power Rangers, the original content has a completely different story, but the battles will be the same in a lot of ways or they’ll be … You’ll recognize certain battles or certain confrontations, experience in the US version. And so cool thing there, but that’s amazing. What a life to live to go from VR Troopers to game designer.

Maurice Cherry:
But a lot of what I remember him saying from that interview was about how he had to jump from place to place to really almost cobble together the skills that he knew he was going to need once he got on in the industry because one school maybe didn’t have this or another school had it. So it’s that process of transferring. And for him, it sounded like he just learned more working in the field as opposed to going to school to prepare to be a designer.

Derrick Fields:
I relate to that in a lot of ways that I think in that time period, when you said that there were a lot of universities trying to figure out how to do it correctly, I think similar to who you just mentioned … I’m sorry, what was the name again?

Maurice Cherry:
Michael Hollander.

Derrick Fields:
Michael. Thank you. Similar to Michael’s experience, we weren’t the only ones knowing that. I think we could see that universities were also trying to figure this out and we’re trying to figure out where can we get the best education with limited resources as far as research goes. It’s not like there’s a university out here just being championed by others in the industry saying, “I graduated from here and this is the space that taught me the best.” Everybody was flying by the seat of their pants. Unfortunately, for some people who are seeking education in that space, you flew by the seat at the risk of your wallet, so there’s that aspect there and you landed somewhere and you said, “This is close. So maybe this is the one that I’ll go with because I don’t want to go through registration again.”

Maurice Cherry:
He said the same thing. It can get expensive doing all that transferring from school to school, especially because it’s such a specialized field.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
So you freelanced for a few companies after you graduated from Kent State. And it looked like your first big long-term game design gig, you’re at William Chyr Studio, is that right?

Derrick Fields:
That’s right. And touching back to what we were just talking about, after graduating, it was still trying to find placement in the industry, trying to figure out what to do with my portfolio and learning how it stood up against other candidates that were getting positions in 3D modeling and so on. And so that process led me to having to, again, reevaluate where I was and pursue continued learning, taking to YouTube and books and everything else to continue to make sure that I’m developing content that was on par with what the industry was asking for.

Derrick Fields:
I had a lot of difficulty trying to find career placement. And so this is where I began to seek dabbling in creating my own world, playing around with engines like Unity, but constantly going to events and networking with other individuals whom were already in there and already creating and developing projects, sharing my portfolio and ultimately landing freelance gigs from time to time.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you remember most about working at that studio?

Derrick Fields:
With William Chyr and the other team members, everything was fun and it was great. We mostly communicated digitally because people were across time zones and different locations in the US. It was very just casual, “Hey, can you model this or animate this thing.” And I had a lot of fun being able to contribute to manifold garden, which was the title that ended up releasing. And so my primary role there was creating a lot of environment objects. There are a lot of doors that I did the animations for and some other objects that are throughout that space.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I know we’re recording this right now at the time when there’s a lot of news actually in the videogame industry, particularly around certain company known as Activision Blizzard which people may know from some of the big games that they put out like … Oh, God, I’m blanking. Like Crash Bandicoot and things of that nature. I’m curious, as a Black man that’s in this industry, have you ever been privy to any discrimination just working at studios or showing your portfolio or things like that? What sort of things were you surprised about when you really started to get out in the industry?

Derrick Fields:
I think most of all, that came down to finding an entry level position, trying to weigh the quality of my work against other potential candidates for positions that I was applying for. And as an outcome to that, not finding a lot of opportunities where I felt like I was good enough to apply to a lot of spaces. I received no a lot, a lot when I was at the beginning of trying to become a 3D artist. And I would oftentimes turn to other portfolio websites, spaces like Art Station, what we have today, to look at the quality of my work and again weigh that against what other people were doing, other people in roles that I was trying to apply to.

Derrick Fields:
It just never made sense to me why I wasn’t even getting past the interview phase. I tried going to job fairs and sharing portfolio and receiving very poker-faced feedback on the content that I was sharing. And then would watch peers and other people who had also exited university game positions. And it wasn’t fair to myself or to them to want to go, “Well, now I got to look at their portfolio and see what did they do and what did I not do.” It’s never fun to have to draw those types of comparisons, but I couldn’t help it at that time because I wanted so badly to be able to be in this space and really, really had this dream that I can …

Derrick Fields:
The veil has very, very much been lifted to since then, but I used to dream so much of sitting next to a colleague in a game studio and working on 3D models and discussing which piece of armor should this character have or stuff like that. Back then, it was the labor of videogames, was something that was romanticized. I, not only has that but the space in general, continue to receive their scrutiny that it should to redefine what it means to work within that space, that creating games and creating experiences should not come at the sacrifice of your time in a way that is a detriment to you by way of how individuals used to romanticize overworking themselves in videogames.

Derrick Fields:
And that is still a narrative that we’re trying to separate from and relating to what you said with Activision Blizzard. The constant harassment that women and other marginalized folks experienced within these industries are other things that continue to need the scrutiny that they are receiving in order to hopefully get the change that we’re all asking for.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if this is a good follow up for this, but I’ll just throw it out there. Do you think that that is why we’re starting to see so many indie developers and games out there because they’re just not meshing with this AAA title, big game studio kind of culture, they’re just striking out on their own and doing their own thing?

Derrick Fields:
Yeah, I think there’s many layers to why indie developers create the games that they do. One is absolutely they themselves could not find placement within the industry. One is, we’re not ever fairly represented within the industry. One is the experiences that were being set on store shelves, weren’t the experiences that they wanted to have and that, just the word experience can mean so many different things in terms of gameplay or narrative or style and aesthetic. I think all of those things motivate indie developers to create their own games. And I think, just as you said, that’s absolutely why there’s so many of us out here now creating cool things.

Derrick Fields:
And now there’s so many more avenues to be able to access the experiences that they are delivering with platforms like itch.io for people who just want to create something small or fairly sizable and distribute that out to their own audience. We now have publishers and platforms that vocalize their support for indies and now have a much more visible pipeline for indie developers to be able to release games on spaces like the Switch and so on. So I hope and I always had my fingers crossed that that will continue to grow in the way that it has and that more indie developers will be able to receive the support that they want.

Maurice Cherry:
What games are you currently playing right now?

Derrick Fields:
I was revisiting Final Fantasy VII Remake after purchasing it when it came out and then not touching it for a long, long time. The announcement of the, I think, it’s called Intergrade DLC, was enough for me that it sparked motivation to want to return to the game and I said, “You know what? We’re going to finish this.” So yes, I’ve been casually pursuing that and I think I’m about three quarters of the way complete with it finally. But aside from that, I spend a little bit of my time streaming on Twitch various stealthy games. It’s another genre of games that I just really, really take to and enjoy playing. So titles like Thief … One of my favorite games is Thief Deadly Shadows which is this older medieval fantasy stealth game replays this thief called Garrett. I almost said the main character of The Witcher, Geralt. I mixed them up there, but great game.

Derrick Fields:
Immersive sims is the genre, so other games like Hitman or Dishonored, any of those things where you’re presented with a level and you have to decide how you are going to solve the level and get from point A to point B are some of my favorite types of games to play. So I’ll dabble with one main game and then pursue other ones in the background. And so that’s what I’ve been doing. How about yourself?

Maurice Cherry:
What am I playing now? That’s a good question because, and I said this before we record it, I am really big on buying games and then never playing them. I’m more of a collector at this point. So the games I’m currently playing now? So on PS4, I don’t know, I guess about halfway through Persona 5 Royal, I think. I think I’m halfway through. I’m in July because the game starts out in April and then it like goes to I think January or something, but Royal has a third semester. So I think I’m about maybe not half, I’m probably about a third of the way through that when I think about it because I’m in the summer. So I’m playing Persona 5 Royal.

Maurice Cherry:
And then on my Switch, I have Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I feel like I’m just tending to that, I don’t know, neglected child. I’ve gotten my island to a point where I’m not going to change anything. My villagers are at a point where they’re not moving out. So my island is just in stasis, and because Nintendo’s not really rolling out a whole bunch of new content for it, I just log in every day, speak to people, dig up fossils at the islands. I just bought The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, which I look forward to getting into that this weekend.

Derrick Fields:
Great. I’ve been looking forward to that one.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking to get into that pretty soon. And that’s what I have now. I’m a big fan of puzzle games, so I also just recently bought I think it’s Picross S5 I think is the latest one in the series. So I bought that. I haven’t played it yet, but I know eventually I will. Picross is just one of those games you just, I don’t know, you play it in the airport. You play it while you’re waiting for the train or something like that. It’s one of those games you can easily pick up and put down because it’s a puzzle game. Have you heard of Picross before?

Derrick Fields:
I have. I’ve not played it. Honestly, most puzzles I usually keep to something that’s like haptic, though I’m not opposed to them. They’re usually not my go to, but yeah, I’ve heard of Picross, but I didn’t know that they released a new iteration.

Maurice Cherry:
Jupiter cranks these games out every three months.

Derrick Fields:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
And they always have 150 puzzles or more. At least 150 to 200 puzzles, they just crank them out regularly. It’s insane. I think they just recently announced there’s going to be a Picross with, I think Sega and Master Collection. So it’s going to have Sonic sprites and things of that nature, Puyo Puyo, that kind of thing. I saw it and I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to buy that,” because also the games are like 10 bucks. So they’re like really cheap, they have a ton of replay value and they’re long games. Each puzzle is maybe anywhere from like a few seconds to maybe an hour, depending on the size of it and putting it all together, but that’s what I’m playing right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking forward to … What did I preorder? I preordered Metroid Dread. I think I pre ordered No More Heroes III. And I also pre ordered Advance Wars 1 and 2, the remakes that are coming out because I love some Advance Wars. I recently bought, not that I’m showing my age here, but I recently bought a, there’s this guy on Instagram that does these custom Gameboy Advance builds.

Derrick Fields:
That’s very cool.

Maurice Cherry:
They are pristine. I’m not going to say how much I paid for it. I paid too much for it, but they are pristine. And I bought one of those and I bought some games off eBay because I was like, “I love the form factor of it, plus I just love those old games. And now that Advance Wars 1 and 2 is coming out on the Switch, I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m getting that. Absolutely. No questions asked.” There’s a couple of games that I don’t even have to think about it. My credit card’s already out like magic. I don’t even have to think about it like, “Oh, yeah. I’m getting that.” That’s what I’m playing right now.

Derrick Fields:
Cool. Cool. Those are definitely some exciting things to look forward to. No More Heroes, especially, is one that I am a big fan of that. I’m trying to think if there’s anything that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. It is on the tip of my tongue. Elden Ring, From Software, so the new From Software title has been one that is definitely on my list, definitely looking forward to that. And then Deathloop from Arkane Studios which again talking about how as a fan of immersive sims and games that include the option of stealth. The creators of Dishonored are releasing a new title and this one looks like a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Derrick Fields:
So I’ll be getting that one right away.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course, you’re creating your own game, Onsen Master, but what videogame would you love to see developed one day?

Derrick Fields:
When it comes to the games that we experienced now, I’m just touching on the arc of indie games and how there are so many developers who have taken to their own to create experiences that they aren’t seeing. I would love, love to see a game that centers just like an Afro fantasy or Black fantasy or like Afro futurist game that is at the scale of a Square Enix title. If I could play a game that feels like Final Fantasy XV or any of those titles with that sort of fidelity and story and amount of hours dedicated to creating an original world and high-fantasy narrative, but it centers on Black people and the genre of Afro futurism. I think it would be phenomenal that I would preorder that before.

Derrick Fields:
I would somehow hear about it before the studio made formal announcement and be sitting at their front door just saying, “I’m ready. Just hand me the disc whenever you’re done.”

Maurice Cherry:
Now, say someone’s listening to this, they’re hearing your story and everything and they want to become a game designer themselves. What resources or things would you tell them to check out to try to start that journey?

Derrick Fields:
So we briefly talked about things like Mario Maker and the Nintendo’s, I believe it’s the garage, I don’t remember the full name of it, but resources like that, going back to PlayStation 1, there are games like RPG Maker and stuff like that. There are avenues to be able to create games and use systems that are available now. You may not be able to completely realize the version of the game that you are seeking, but I think it’s important to remember that vision, that lofty vision that we all have for the game we dream of creating is an iterative process. We have to create the small games and the other experiences to get ourselves there. And so use these platforms, use these systems.

Derrick Fields:
Dreams is another one from Media Molecule, creators of Little Big Planet, where you can now create your own assets, your own experiences using their platform. That might be one avenue. Another one is the Unity Engine that we use for Onsen Master is free. And there are a lot of resources not only on YouTube, which I affectionately call YouTube University, but Unity itself offers courses that are available for free for individuals who have no background in either programming or creating or 3D modeling, an avenue to be able to get access to those. One of the most important things that I want to acknowledge in saying all of that is the availability of resources is not equal. It’s not across the board for everybody and not everybody has the computer or the game hardware to be able to leap right into creating those things.

Derrick Fields:
I imagine that if they do, a lot of the times, they’re already exploring those possibilities already, taking to Google and figuring out which one of these might be the application or software for them. And so if pencil and paper are what is available for you, creating tabletop games and board games is game design. And I always think to myself that if it works on paper, it’s going to work digitally, but we just have to trade some of those paper systems for code and some of those cards or drawn assets for 3D models or 2D pictures and etcetera, but practice game design, creating board games between yourself and your family, creating card games.

Derrick Fields:
These are ways that still lead you to becoming a game designer because you’re creating experiences that you’re trying to elicit that from somebody else and have these sorts of fun moments with other people and design those fun moments. Use that. Use that as a platform. And so those are the things that I would say for individuals who are looking to explore game design, looking to leap into it, take one of those things and just try a little bit every day because those moments that you spend in it in doing it, that you’re just getting closer and closer to it every moment and it’s going to take time.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look at the work that you’re doing now and you look back at your career and you think back to a young Derrick who was getting into Final Fantasy IX and was really starting to learn about game design and everything, are you where you want it to be at this stage in your life?

Derrick Fields:
I am. This is like one of those things that a … Very recently, I was all sorts of emotional about it and stuff because I was talking to my mom, whom … She is my number one hero and she has helped create an environment that has allowed me to thrive creatively and watched me evolve into the person that I am now and have the hardships and the hiccups that have led through to that. When it comes to creating games and what I would like to be doing in this space with Onsen Master on the way out and seeking to fund, our next project and most recently stepping into Northwestern University, I’d say I think I hit everything on young Derrick’s checklist.

Derrick Fields:
And so the only other thing left is to make sure that everything that I’ve earned sustains and that I can extend it to another young Derrick or a young individual out there who has their own checklist brewing.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Derrick Fields:
I want to stay in education. I want to be able to continue contributing to Northwestern and hopefully help build a space that is comprehensive. Right now, I’m just one individual within the department who will be providing games education. And I would love to find ways to collaborate with other faculty and student across like interdisciplinary opportunities for faculty and students to be able to share experiences. I’ll be in like the radio, TV, film department. So there’s a lot of creativity that’s across these spaces, but the other thing is wanting to bring in other faculty or hopefully be able to advocate for bringing in other faculty to touch on other experiences and facets of game development.

Derrick Fields:
There’s music, there’s narrative, there’s so many other components to be considered and I think developing a space that feels conducive for all of those is really important to highlight for burgeoning creators or writers or musicians. As far as Waking Oni Games goes, Onsen Master is not the only title that I want to build and I want to develop a studio that can create games and create them sustainably. And when I say sustainably, I mean support every individual at their choice of part time or full time and not have to burden anybody with a decision of balancing life in a part-time job and a freelance gig on top of that.

Derrick Fields:
I hope that this game studio can be a space that somebody can, not only lean on for support, but feel as though they are contributing to the type of games that they want to see represented as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and your studio and your game and everything? Where can they find that online?

Derrick Fields:
So for the games, that is like waking up in the morning, wakingonigames.com. I can be found as WakingOni on Twitter and those are primarily the two main spaces that you can find us interacting between. There’s a Waking Oni Games Twitter as well. And I mentioned earlier that I stream on Twitch, sharing not only gameplay, but game development from time to time under the name Waking Oni.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Derrick Fields, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, one, sharing the work that you’re already doing through your studio and the game that you’re creating. I just have a soft spot in my heart for indie game designers. I just think it’s so cool that you all get to do this kind of stuff. And even just the Black community around gaming is so good to see. There’s developers, there’s designers, there’s musicians, there’s artists, game artists, voiceover, etcetera. It’s just so good to see all of that, but then also to really hear about your story of getting into it and the type of games that you want to see out there in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope that this interview is a way to introduce what you’re doing to our audience, so more people can discover what it is that you do and hopefully can help support your work. So thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to be here.

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