If you’re a Game Pass subscriber or obsessed with Xbox achievements, you know the work of Chris Novak.
The head of Xbox research and design is leaving the company after nearly 20 years. Novak led user experience research and design efforts for more than five years and previously held positions as Xbox Design Director and Xbox Design Architect. Across these roles, Novak was responsible for user experience in many of the company’s biggest projects, including Xbox Game Pass, as well as cloud gaming and Xbox Live.
“Microsoft is where I learned in the crucible of gaming, from the best in the world in the industry,” Novak told Polygon. “I have to see him in his best and his worst moments. And this learning process, I cherish it very much.
Novak took over Xbox research and design from Microsoft at a turning point for the company and its flagship console. When the Xbox One was launched in 2013, Microsoft’s marketing strategy failed on the console: the Xbox 360 had managed to capture a major gaming audience, but Microsoft turned to the Xbox One as an entertainment system complete. The Xbox One reveal was a notorious disaster, focusing on everything but video games. Microsoft quickly realized it needed to win back gamers, but never completely abandoned the entertainment platform either.
Novak became head of Xbox research and design right after Microsoft publicly pushed the idea that Xbox was primarily focused on video games. While consoles were still big, the most exciting idea for Xbox leadership was the freedom to play Xbox games on different devices, starting with the launch of Xbox Play Anywhere, which gave gamers access to games on a Windows PC or console.
Xbox leader Phil Spencer has come up with a singular idea: gamers should be able to play games anywhere, using the Xbox ecosystem. After PC, Xbox management focused on bringing Xbox to mobile devices via cloud streaming. Novak pointed out Microsoft Touch Adapter Kit for Xbox Cloud Gaming as a particularly proud moment in his career with the company.
“How big is that challenge when you’re trying to build entire game experiences on a device it was never intended for?” That was the challenge,” Novak said. “We spent a tremendous amount of time as part of the xCloud effort, with the xCloud engineers, researching this and making sure that all the technology allowed us to render this output on any device. […] It’s one of my proudest moments.
Another feature he fondly digs into is Xbox Photo Modes and Achievements; Xbox Live originally almost launched with a limit of just five achievements. Novak and his team realized with Project Gotham Racing 2 that the achievements reinforced Microsoft’s philosophy that different styles of play were acceptable. In Gotham Racing Project 2, most people wanted to win races and go fast, but some players wanted to take pictures of shop windows and explore environments; a wide variety of accomplishments reinforced the idea of playing it your way, a mantra that stuck with Novak and the company for decades.
Novak’s biggest challenge, he said, was balancing experimental changes while keeping things comfortable for the player. “It’s very easy to build things that are new but not better,” Novak said. “And most people want their gaming experience to be comfortable, familiar, and fast. It should connect them to what they want as quickly as possible, and every time you do something new, you might ask them to ‘use a different button or think of a different feed.’ And they might get frustrated by that.
Novak continued, “Getting that balance is an ongoing challenge.”
Novak said he was leaving Microsoft to take time off work and refocus his life. After losing someone close to him three years ago, Novak said he wanted to take time off to learn new things. He will not immediately move on to a new business.
“I’m about to be 20 years old with Xbox,” Novak said. “For me, some of the things coming up for Xbox, which are extremely exciting, would involve years of working there. That would be great. But do I want to commit to it? Or do I want to recognize that I’m happy with what we’ve shipped? Do I really have to go out on my own and continue my own learning journey, trying other things. If I don’t do it now, when do I do it?”