Good Science’s Shannon Loftis: Gaming as critical work

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Geek in question: Shannon Loftis

Job title: Studio Head – Good Science Studio

Shannon Loftis can barely walk ten steps on campus without someone waving to her, saying hello or shouting her name. Since starting as a temp at Microsoft in 1992, Shannon has spent almost 20 years rising through the ranks of gaming and making more than a few friends and admirers along the way.

As the head of the company’s prestigious Good Science Studioher team was tasked with creating the original games for Xbox Kinect. Good Science’s first release was Kinect Adventures, which shipped with every first-generation Kinect.

I met up with Shannon to find out the secret of her ongoing success in one of the most desirable and competitive areas in the tech industry.

How did you get your start in gaming?
In the mid 90s, I was doing database design and project management for Microsoft. The story I heard was that Bill Gates was really into playing online bridge and decided that we should have a version of the game on the then-emerging technology of MSN.

I came to games to work on that project, which evolved into a virtual card table, which evolved into an online gaming service, which evolved into a lot of other new things. At the same time, Microsoft was ramping up in sports games, flight simulation games, and was inventing new ways of PC gaming.

You must have seen gaming change quite a bit since then.
Gaming is big business these days. It is huge compared to other types of entertainment – even movies. The industry has a lot of creative brilliance and with Kinect we are really pushing the boundaries of technology. The technology is just so much more powerful now, and we can do so much more for people.

While some people dismiss gaming as too violent or just for kids, there is much more to it than that. It’s critical work. Entertainment is a fundamental human need, and gaming is a great way to give people a moment of pleasure and enjoyment in an otherwise stressful day. Life gets faster and faster paced and interactive entertainment is a great release.

There are a lot of other game studios out there. Why have you stayed with Microsoft?
I fell in love with the culture and still find it intoxicating that everyone around is so smart and is somebody you can learn from.

That and Microsoft’s huge range of opportunities. You never find yourself at a dead end here. There’s always something new and exciting and the company keeps evolving. For example, it is the only company that could pull off something like Kinect.

How did Good Science start?
A bunch of people started working on Kinect when it was still “Project Natal” back at the end of ‘08. All that we had at that point was a rudimentary camera duct-taped to a very expensive PC with a high-end graphics card. It was up to us to turn that into a consumer-friendly product.

I was working for Microsoft in the United Kingdom at the time and the company asked me to move back to Redmond to start Good Science in ‘09. Our goal was to figure out what kinds of experiences were best to introduce Kinect to the world.

And how did you structure the studio?
Good Science bridges the gap between incubation and research. The goal was to make a team of flexible creative generalists. We wanted to find the best way to introduce the world to full-body, no controller gaming and no-barriers UI. Hence, Kinect Adventures. And we’ve got some great new stuff in store too.

How many people work at the studio?
The size of Good Science is wildly variable as it expands and contracts depending on the projects at hand. At the smallest it can be 45 people and at the largest it is about 75.

So, it’s like its own startup within Microsoft?
Microsoft is a fairly fractal company, so teams must know how to stand on their own. Good Science has a ton of creative freedom, like a startup, but we’re able to tackle big challenges and boldly move forward with the support of Microsoft.

Unlike a lot of startups, we have the focus and depth to make really big bets.

Did you know right away that you were onto something huge with Kinect?
We had lots of challenges to overcome but knew pretty quickly that what we had was magic. Seeing the crowd reaction when we showed it off at E3 in 2009 was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.

Do you plan to stay in gaming for the rest of your career?
It’s likely too late for me to cure cancer or go the moon, so this is still my shot at deep, fulfilling work.

Kinect is already profound and will be even more so in the future. For example: there is a Kinect “hack,” Jewel Mine, that helps rehabilitate people who have had strokes as the interactive movements can repair neural damage.

This is all just the start. I look forward to being along for the journey.

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