Sam Charchian is a video game industry veteran, with 10 years of service at Microsoft and five more at Sony. Originally from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Charchian knew from a young age that he had to be a computer programmer. His passions for programming and video games led him to a career that included launching Xbox Live, and working with some of the biggest developers in the industry.
What did you dream of doing for your career?
I started programming really young, when I was nine or so. Being a big-time technophile, my dad brought home an Atari 800 home computer. He knew a little BASIC and got me started. By the time I was in high school I was a decent programmer. I was an awful student but the computer science courses were my jam – I knew by the end of 10th grade that I had to be a programmer. I was a huge gamer too though, and I dreamed of making games but it honestly felt out of reach to the barely-passing-high-school young me.
What was your first console?
I’m slightly embarrassed to say it was the Mattel Intellivision. My family decided on the Intellivision over the Atari 2600 primarily due to it having better sports games and being a better machine on paper. The 2600 ended up with a far better catalog of games though, and ultimately would have been a smarter purchase.
Since the Intellivision, I’ve owned all of the main generational consoles with the exception of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System which I skipped because I was neck-deep in great Genesis games (NHL and Phantasy Star!). I similarly picked up a Sega Master System over the Nintendo Entertainment System because it had a more impressive spec sheet. I realized my mistake pretty quickly and saved up for a NES too. I’m also really into handheld game systems so I spent quality time with all of the GameBoy variants and even the Atari Lynx. Speaking of Atari, I have a Jaguar collecting dust somewhere around here too.
Nintendo or Sega?
This is a tough call! Sega always had better hardware (with “Blast Processing!”) but Nintendo had the games. The right answer is “both” but if I have to pick one, it’s Nintendo. Mario/Metroid/Zelda are pretty impossible to compete with.
What was your college journey like? Did you always want to study computer science, or did you have other ambitions in college?
Even though I graduated from high school a little late and with something like a C average, I was determined to become a programmer. Programming was the only thing I was genuinely good at. My hatred for school burned white-hot by the time I actually got my diploma. I knew I wanted to go to college and study computer science but I was not mentally prepared for success so, being a freshly-minted adult, I made an executive decision – I was going to take a year off of school and just work full time. My parents weren’t thrilled but they ultimately supported the decision so I spent a year working at Sears Auto, selling tires, batteries and air fresheners. Knowing that my high school transcript wouldn’t exactly sweep even the lowliest university admissions boards off their feet, I took the only real avenue I had – community college.
I found community college to be surprisingly easy – far easier than high school. I spent two years there, long enough that colleges would only look at my community college transcript and not care about my laughable high school performance. From there, I got into Mankato State University (now Minnesota State) and earned a degree in computer science with a minor in math.
Did you work anywhere before landing with Microsoft? Were you hoping to work in games? Or did gaming kind of fall into your lap?
In my final year of college, I landed a paid internship at the only local programming house in Mankato at the time. As graduation loomed, they offered me a full-time job coding C++. I spent my final semester of college also working full time as a programmer. Six months after graduation, I was contacted by Microsoft and offered an opportunity to fly out for a day of interviewing.
This was 1996 – there was no Google or Facebook, Apple was a complete joke. Microsoft was coders heaven back then. The job was working on Outlook and Exchange (email/messaging tech), about as far from gaming as you can possibly get but it was nonetheless a huge upgrade from the small-time shop in Mankato. Through college and my first few years at Microsoft I was still a complete game addict – mostly playing Starsiege: Tribes and Diablo with friends online. After about two and a half years of Outlook and Exchange, I desperately wanted to get closer to games so I applied to the DirectX team and landed a job in DirectPlay (online/network gaming unit of DirectX). DirectX is the splinter of tech that lives inside of the Windows team and is 100 percent dedicated to gaming technology on Windows. It wasn’t making games themselves, but it was a huge step in that direction.
After working on Direct Play, you moved over to the gaming side, working with game developers on Xbox Live 1.0. Tell us about this role.
This was the most exciting part of my entire career! I consider it my “big break” into the games industry. It was late 2001 and the Xbox team had just completed the original Xbox and sent it off to manufacturing. The team’s new focus was to develop a revolutionary online gaming service called Xbox Live. The problem was, the Xbox team was mostly comprised of “Microsoft guys” who knew software and service development cold, but knew very little about actually making games or building services to serve the needs of games. They needed someone who could meet with our third party and first party (well, let’s be honest – Bungie) game developers to determine what they’d need from Xbox Live to really make their games special on Xbox. Somehow, I managed to land that job.
I was brought up to speed on the current plans for Xbox Live – called “Xbox Online” internally. We knew games would want things like matchmaking, leaderboards, downloadable content, patches, ubiquitous voice communication and a friends list. We lacked, however, any notion of specifically how games would use these services. How many leaderboards would a game need?
We asked a bunch of teams and they all thought 100 or so would be enough, until we talked to racing teams who would say, “well, we have 12 tracks and 40 cars…so let’s call it 500?? Oh wait, maybe we’ll release some DLC too. Is 1,000 too many?” We talked about integrating ELO Rating (see chess) directly into matchmaking to help find appropriate skill-leveled matches for players. We originally told developers that patches and updates were not going to be normally allowed on Xbox Live – the “console experience” was going to remain as it traditionally was. Pop in the disc and play, anytime, always. Developers openly laughed in our faces upon hearing that proclamation. Honestly, we knew it was BS too but we didn’t want developers to adopt a mentality of “just ship it and we’ll fix it later”. How’d that work out?
Developers knew that online was going to be a huge part of the future of gaming so they generally liked the overall direction of moving to online but they weren’t completely sold on our vision. In particular, there were two really contentious facets of Xbox Live that developers had lots of input into. First was the price point of $9.95 per month or $50 annually. At that time, early 2002, Unreal Tournament was the top online game and it was free just like every other online game. Developers could not believe that gamers would be willing to pay any amount for access to online gaming, especially while PC gaming would remain free.
The second main point of contention was that we were only allowing broadband connections, no dial-up. Back then, the majority of online PC gamers were still playing on dial-up. Developers thought we were crazy to exclude over half of the gaming market. I vividly remember visiting Epic Games (then developers of Unreal, the Unreal Engine, and later Gears of War and Fortnite). After sharing our vision of Xbox Live with them, Tim Sweeney who founded the company and is their technical director, chuckled and said “that’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard”. He wasn’t entirely wrong either, we were taking some serious gambles.
At this time, we really wanted to engage with Bungie. They were in the building next door and Halo had just launched and set the console world ablaze – everyone said FPS could never be done “right” with a gamepad. We knew that Halo 2 (or even an online version of Halo) would be a massive boon for Xbox Live. Bungie is a pretty deliberate machine though, and they didn’t yet know what they wanted to do with Halo 2. We designed the initial release of Xbox Live without their input. Over the next year though, as their plans for Halo 2 solidified, they started making some very serious requests. They’d designed a group-based matchmaking system that allowed players to choose who they wanted to play with, and then enter that entire group into matchmaking together. They called this system “Parties” and that design still reigns supreme today. It just completely broke Xbox Live though.
Xbox Live tracks what players are currently doing so it can show friends what they’re playing and handle things like invites and joins. Parties however, needed the player information in two places at once – one playing in the actual game, and second as a member of the party. This simple notion broke just about every service in Xbox Live – matchmaking couldn’t handle the multiple activities, invites were broken because the service didn’t know which activities to invite the other players to, friends list couldn’t show two activities at once.
This small simple change rippled through just about every aspect of Xbox Live and forced very significant redesigns throughout. Xbox Live teams, who had already planned their year of service/feature updates were none-too-pleased. Sometimes they’d refuse and fight Bungie.
When this happened, we’d call a meeting, invite Bungie over, and hash it out. Bungie (usually Max Hoberman and Chris Butcher) would calmly lay out a very compelling vision, and argue why it was important for Halo. Most teams would capitulate at this point, I mean, it’s not easy to tell Bungie that their vision for Halo wasn’t valid or important, right? A couple of times though, the Xbox Live team still resisted.
This was always fun because Bungie would bust out the “Bungie Hammer” which entailed them looking at the Live feature owner and saying “Do you want to be the reason we don’t ship Halo 2 on Xbox Live? Are you willing to stake your career on that decision?” They’d universally relent after that question. By the time Halo 2 shipped, we’d basically re-written all of Xbox Live. It was totally worth it.
What did your role as a producer entail? What was it like working on new IPs Mass Effect and Gears of War? Where did you come on in these projects?
It was super interesting for a bunch of reasons! We were very early in the Xbox 360 life cycle and hungry for Xbox-exclusive AAA content. Our strategy was to sign incredibly favorable publishing deals with these teams in order to lock down their games onto Xbox and Xbox only. We were offering generous royalties, large and highly qualified game test teams, massive marketing budgets and most importantly giving the game teams nearly 100 percent creative control of the games. It was crazy and unheard of. I mean, the contract basically said “just ship a game called Mass Effect or Gears of War sometime in the next three years, and we’ll fund it, test it, market it and distribute it”.
Honestly, this is every game developer’s dream deal. It was my job as the Microsoft-side producer to keep tabs on the game, ensure its overall health, work with marketing to ensure they’re getting everything they need, navigate the game through Xbox certification and report to the executives on the status of the game (i.e. will it ship on time?). The nature of our generous contracts made my job tricky. I’d call up Casey Hudson (game director, Bioware) and have to negotiate to simply see a build of the game we were funding. We had a great relationship so it wasn’t a big issue, but it’s an incredibly unique situation in the industry.
As far as Mass and Gears being new IPs, it really wasn’t like most new IPs. These games were coming from some of the most respected game teams in the world so there was very little of the normal sense of having to prove the game concept and mettle of the team. Mass Effect was a particularly easy sell – “A new RPG from the team that brought you Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.”
What is it like seeing a franchise evolve after you worked on the initial installment? What are your thoughts on the direction of Mass Effect and Gears since the original titles?
Honestly, this is kind of hard for me to answer. I’m ashamed to say this but I never played any of the Mass Effect titles beyond the first one. Let me explain. During development of Mass Effect, the game was rough – broken and missing content, horrible frame rates (single digit), crashes, the combat loop wasn’t particularly fun until late in the cycle, load times were atrocious, etc. I spent a lot of time in Mass Effect, basically slogging. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it very much once it released but I’d spent a lot of time in the game plagued with frustration. That comes with the job in nearly every case…which brings me to Gears.
I joined the Gears project when it was one year from releasing and it was already super fun. I really didn’t suffer that same frustration that Mass Effect presented – the game was consistently great from the day I joined. I couldn’t wait to play Gears 2 and Gears 3, and I don’t think I experienced them differently than anyone else who enjoyed the franchise. I didn’t play Gears 4. I was working at PlayStation by then and dedicated my time to PS4.
Was it a different experience working on an established franchise like Halo?
The stakes were just incredibly high with Halo 3. It was the first Halo on 360, and Xbox needed it to be a home run not only to sell copies of the game, but to sell consoles and even more importantly, Xbox Live subscriptions. The biggest difference was the incredibly broad level of support we received from every corner of Microsoft. No request was too big, and none were denied. The mandate was to “move heaven and earth” for Halo. Even Bill Gates showed up unannounced to the Halo 3 launch party to play Halo with the team – cool stuff.
What were your thoughts when Bungie split from Microsoft? Was it a surprise that Microsoft kept Halo and turned it over to another developer? Do you think that was good for the industry?
It is both confusing and understandable that they split. Microsoft was incredibly supportive of Bungie, and that support honestly made a significant difference in Bungie’s ability to ship a great product. Bungie leadership spoke often, and freely, of their general disdain for their corporate Microsoft overlords nonetheless. It’s worth pointing out that Microsoft was quite generous, in my opinion, in letting Bungie keep the name “Bungie”. Microsoft owned that name, and would have had an easier time hiring a new team into the skeleton of “Bungie” than starting over with a completely unknown studio. Phil Spencer made the right call here, but he could have easily been embittered by their leaving and left them brandless.
It’s hard to say if Bungie’s departure was good for the broader industry. I don’t think it hurt the industry (besides Microsoft, of course). The number of studios that could pull off that kind of publisher-developer divorce is very small – it requires a huge amount of start-up capital, a highly talented and proven team, business acumen (which the publisher normally provided), and a killer game concept/demo to shop around.
Having worked with both companies, did you think Bungie and Activision were a good fit together?
In that Bungie needed a big-name publisher with a lot of cash, and Activision met that criteria quite nicely! Seriously though, Activision was a great fit for Bungie. First, they brought the cash. Activision famously invested $500 million into Destiny! Second, Activision has some of the best rendering/performance talent in the world – they have this tiny team of brainiacs in Maine (“ACME”) who live and breathe game rendering performance. They find clever techniques to shave fractions of milliseconds from each frame rendered. Historically, they spent all of their time making Call of Duty look great at 60 frames per second. When Bungie joined forces with Activision, they too gained access to this brain trust.
Third, Destiny was a new type of game for Bungie in that it incorporated loot and MMO-lite elements into their traditional FPS wheelhouse. What game has loot and MMO-lite elements completely nailed-down? Blizzard’s Diablo team. Activision provided access to that team too, and boy did Bungie leverage it.
What do you think of Bungie ending their relationship with Activision and going out on their own?
These top-tier developers are never happy with their corporate overlords (publishers). You have creative and technical geniuses butting heads with number crunchers and marketers. Bungie wants 100 percent control, and it’s a respectable position to have. I’m sure they’re looking forward and imagining a world where distributing your game digitally only (ie, no physical media anywhere) is feasible and acceptable. One of the main benefits a publisher can offer a studio is the disc replication, packaging and distribution into world-wide retailers. With digital-only, they simply push the game up to the console stores and Steam….easy!
Do you have an opinion on Destiny and Destiny 2? What are your thoughts towards the “games as service” business model?
I’m a HUGE fan of Destiny 1 and 2. In my mind, they are still Halo products, far more so than 343’s offerings. They are undoubtedly the games I’ve played most this generation. They brought the fantastic control and feel of Halo to a more robust and community-driven world with a pretty huge variety of gameplay. It’s funny to listen to the community gripe about Destiny while looking at data saying they’re all playing three or more hours per day.
As far as “games as a service”, I don’t really think about it in those terms. For me, it’s a simple value proposition – is the game fun? Am I getting value for my dollars? When I sit down to play, I just want to have a good time, I don’t think much about the business model behind it unless it’s an egregious money-grab, which is rare and harshly punished by the community.
Four months after leaving Microsoft you were recruited back to manage relationships with Activision and other studios. Why was this a priority for Microsoft? What were your main responsibilities?
This was at Christmas 2007 and both Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare released at the same time. Their combined weight absolutely swamped Xbox Live and took it down on Christmas morning. Excited kids worldwide opened their new Xbox 360 with Halo/CoD and literally couldn’t play.
There were multiple oversights that led to this problem. To get slightly technical for a moment, when CoD connected to Xbox Live it would ask Xbox Live if it had a game server for it to connect to. If Xbox Live didn’t respond within a second or so, the game would immediately ask again. And again. And again….until it got an answer. When Live got overloaded with players, it couldn’t answer that question in time so every console would ask again, fail again, and keep right on asking over and over.
Before long, the Xbox 360 consoles running CoD were very effectively DDoSing Xbox Live into oblivion. It was a simple code oversight that better testing could have avoided. Not ever wanting to experience that again, the Xbox team brought me in with the responsibility to work with the CoD development teams in every way.
Over the next 10 years, I was involved with every CoD release – five years at Xbox and then five years at PlayStation. I knew the teams well. They trusted me and would share their plans for upcoming games, make feature requests, ask for technical assistance, haggle over certification issues, etc. I similarly worked with all other Activision studios: Guitar Hero, Skylanders, Destiny, Transformers, James Bond, etc.
What led to you relocating to Minnesota? Was it difficult walking away from Microsoft again?
My wife and I both grew up and had family in Minnesota. We never planned on staying in Seattle for more than five to seven years, but that turned into 16 years before we knew it. We had kids that didn’t know their grandparents or extended family. I really loved working for Microsoft, they’re an fantastic employer; yeah, it was very hard to walk away. I still miss many of the great people there.
In 2012 you went to work for Sony. What was your role there? What were some of the projects you worked on?
100 percent the same role as at Microsoft. I would have stayed with Microsoft, and actually tried to convince them to let me work remotely from Minnesota, but that bid failed. Microsoft is generally not friendly to remote working. Sony, on the other hand, was very remote-friendly and happy to have me on board. Sony hired me to literally work with the same Activision teams where I already had great relationships. Several teams specifically reached out to PlayStation (Respawn, Activision/CoD, Blizzard) and encouraged them to hire me. I won’t lie, that was a career highlight.
What is it like making a move like that after so many years with a major competitor?
It was also a pretty dark time for Xbox when I left. We were one year away from launching the Xbox One (then code named “Durango”) and things were not looking great. The decision to put Kinect in every box was insane. The GPU was under-powered. The marketing messaging, and bravado behind it, was horribly off-putting to gamers…and developers.
I was working directly with our top developers at the time and while I was explaining “Durango” to them, Sony was similarly sharing their internal plans for PS4 (aka “Orbis”). The developers would pull me aside and say “Sam, I don’t know if I should be telling you this but….Sony’s going to wipe the floor with you guys.” I got this speech from multiple developers, and always relayed their concerns up the chain. Xbox leadership was convinced, however, that they had a grand vision and they knew what they were doing. This made it much easier for me to leave Xbox.
It was about a year later, as the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 were launching, that I joined Sony. Do you recall the E3 where Microsoft announced the Xbox One and just bungled every aspect of the announce? It was all about watching TV and Kinect, very little about actual games. The fans and gaming press were outraged. I was home in Minnesota at this time, unemployed and watching in horror. Just as the E3 Xbox press event ended, my cell phone started lighting up with text messages from various corners of the industry – “Wow that sucked!”, “What the hell did I just watch?”, “Have they lost their minds!?”. A few also expressed that they wished I was still at Xbox, they missed working with me.
Knowing that Xbox wasn’t going to let me work remote, I hit up one of my closest industry friends, Jonathan Greenberg (graphics rendering lead, Mortal Kombat team), and asked him if I should apply at PlayStation. “Hell yes you should!” was his answer and he followed it with “our guy at Sony works remote, so I know they’re open to that kinda thing”. I sent Jon my resume, and he submitted it directly to Adam Boyes (PlayStation’s VP of developer and publisher relation) along with a strong recommendation. A couple of days later, I got a call from Sony and an offer to fly down for an interview. They interviewed me for 11 hours straight, and offered me a position and allowed me to work remotely from Minnesota.
Was it difficult to work remotely for Sony? Was this a big transition? Is it something you would do in the future?
When you think about it, it really makes sense that Sony is so good about remote work. After all, PlayStation headquarters is in Japan and in a sense, everyone in PlayStation America is “remote”. When I joined Sony, there were four of us doing the developer account manager position and all four of us were remote.
The transition from Xbox to PlayStation was actually super easy. I was working with the same people at the same development studios. The big difference was learning about the PlayStation libraries/APIs, how PlayStation Network worked (vs Xbox Live), and understanding the internal processes. The biggest challenges for me were cultural. Microsoft tolerates (maybe encourages?) a more “cowboy” approach to solving problems – just get it fixed, don’t care how, don’t break stuff, own any mistakes. PlayStation is far more bureaucratic and process-oriented. You aren’t allowed to draw outside the lines at Sony. I almost got fired once.
I’d definitely do it all again!
You have two kids, ages 12 and 15 – how do they feel about your career? Is it cool that dad works on video games? Or is it just what Dad does?
Oh god, it’s so frustrating! I mean, if my dad worked on video games and brought home, literally, hundreds of video games per year, I’d have lost my mind as a kid. My kids couldn’t care less, it’s just routine life to them. While both play games, and have what is essentially an unlimited flow of free games and DLC, they have nearly no appreciation for it.
What are the challenges of working in the video game industry and raising a family? Is working for console/hardware developers different from working for game studios?
The “death march” or “crunch” required to get a game out the door is very real. In the case of Halo 2 at Bungie, they crunched for about a year to get the game out the door. We’re talking about most employees working 60 hour weeks at the beginning of crunch and ramping up to insane 80-plus hour weeks in the final months. There were multiple divorces. Harold Ryan, who was the test lead back then (and later studio head) was working 20-plus hour days for the last month or so.
Personally, when I was producing Gears of War, we were nearing release when my daughter was born. I was back at work that same night she arrived.
Regarding working for the platform teams (Xbox/PlayStation) versus working on the actual games: the platform work is FAR more sane. Most people on those teams work pretty regular 40 hour weeks with the occasional need for a little overtime. It’s about the same as working on most other non-gaming software projects.
Do you see yourself going back to work in the industry someday?
I don’t see that happening. I’m content to simply enjoy the games at this point!
What advice would you have for aspiring game designers? What skills would you consider the most essential?
Everyone working in the industry gets asked about this all the time, and every kid wants to be a game designer. The problem is, everyone in the entire industry thinks of themselves has having great game ideas and instincts. EVERYONE. If you were somehow able to score a job interview at a game studio for a position as a designer, you’d need to convince the interviewers that not only are you better than the other candidates, but that you know more about game design than anyone else on their current team.
You’d better walk in that door with a library of games that you’ve designed already – ideally, this comes in the form of a USB stick with games you’ve already created/designed. If you don’t know how to create/develop/code games, learn. There are relatively simple game development tools which will suffice to showcase some design chops. Check out Unity or RPG Maker. If that’s asking too much of you, you’re not a designer. Sorry.
Anecdotally, I’ve worked with a few top designers over the years and these guys were born to make games. When they were 10 they emptied all the game pieces from the various board games around their house and invented new games with them. They found index cards and started designing card games with them. They created rule sets, played them with friends, and refined them. It was simply in their blood.
Do you have recommendations for educational pursuits?
The good news is that there are a several different of types of positions. One of the things that makes the video game industry so interesting is that it’s the combination of art and engineering. On the art side, there are audio engineers, texture artists, 3D modelers and game designers.
On the tech side, you have programmers who mostly code in C/C++. Then you have producers, testers and marketers. If you’re young, and don’t know what you’d like to do or what you’d be good at, I recommend you dabble in all of it. Take a course in texturing, take a course in 3D modeling, take a course in programming. Or even better, if you have the gumption, teach yourself. You might find that you really hate it all or that you really love programming and have a natural skill for it.
Any other tips for breaking in to the industry?
It’s critical that you create. When you walk into your first job interview, you need to be able to hand them something that shows what you are made of. A resume alone will not cut it. Actually, your actual education isn’t all that important as long as you have an interesting portfolio. You can imagine two job candidates where one has an impressive education and just graduated and the other flunked out of high school but hands them a CD and said “check out this game I’ve been working on for the last year…” CD-guy gets the job 100 percent of the time.