Meet Our Pilots: Dan J

Whether he’s sharing pictures of his pups or words of wisdom, we’re grateful to have an experienced and caring industry veteran like Dan leading all things Design for BBSG.

Thanks for participating today! What is your name and what do you do here at Big Blue Sky Games?

I’m Dan Johnson, and I started at BBSG as the Senior Game Designer but just recently became the Design Manager.

Now that you’re a manager, what do you hope to achieve with your new role?

I’ve always fancied myself as someone who’s good at helping others unlock potential. I was a raid leader and a tank for many years in World of Warcraft, where I found that my most valuable skill was steadying the ship so that others could do their best work. So that’s always my goal.

When I have the opportunity to direct others, it’s not so much to tell them what to do, but to find out what they can do that will have the most impactful, positive results. This is my first time managing anybody on a personal level and what I want to achieve as a design manager is to just be a good one. I have had many good and many bad managers in my time. A bad manager is someone who fails to protect the people who report to them or fails to help them grow.

I mean, a manager’s job should be to make the people who report to them better, even to the point where gauging a manager’s performance ought to be contingent on how well their reports are performing. So that’s the personal goal for me as a new design manager – to be a good one, and to learn what I can to help my people. But also, to get to know them so that I can help them as best I can.

How have you navigated being neurodivergent and having ADHD while in the gaming industry?

In some ways game development (in particular, game design) is one of the best possible career matches for a creative ADHD brain, because it is a job about encountering and solving new challenges every day, and ADHD loves novelty. It’s not a free pass; there are plenty of days where you have to just Do The Work and Get Things Finished, so discipline and organization are still necessary. ADHD has high roll and low roll days, and I’m thankful to be on a team that understands and accepts that.

And the downside is the volatility of the industry in a country that ties health care to employment. I was diagnosed in 2002 or so, but untreated for over a decade because I was uninsured, unemployed, or both. It’s something I wish the industry could be more responsible about, since there are estimates that 25% or so of games workers are neurodivergent.

Being a veteran dev, is there anything you have experienced in the industry that you wish to change?

I’m not gonna change the way Bungie or Xbox or Blizzard or Sony do their jobs because I cannot individually do that, but I can be the better version of the industry that I would like to see, which I think is kind of core to Big Blue Sky itself.

Let’s bring back the idea of a career, and not every two years having to jump to a new job because that’s the only way to get a raise or promotion. We should be nurturing someone along their career path at a single company because of the potential you saw in them when you hired them. Why would you let that potential walk out the door? I want to be part of the stability that I wish the industry had.

Can you talk about what inspired you to go down the career path that you had, and what made you want to work in design?

Honestly, I went through the whole gamut. I started in the industry in 2007, which was during the explosion of the modding scene, especially around Quake and Half Life. My first job in the industry was actually as a community manager for the Half Life mod, Natural Selection, as well as a volunteer beta tester for it. I went into QA and didn’t quite know what to do since most of the work I’ve done to that point was modeling and level work, because those were the tools that people had access to.

At my first job, Unreal Engine 3 was getting going and that was a fourfold increase in graphical fidelity. You went from 800 polygon models to 3 or 4 thousand polygon models, and all of a sudden with my amateur modeling skills I was like, “oh, I can’t do that”!

Then when I was at Kaos Studios, I was honestly kind of casting around for what I wanted to do with myself because my contract QA job was very temporary, so I had to think about what I would do if I wanted to stay at this job or at this company.

I pursued production for a little while, but when I moved to Irrational Games, I had the opportunity to start building test levels in the engine with the intent of helping one of the prototype technical designers work out new systems that he was building. He built the zip line system for BioShock Infinite and said, “build a test level”. So that was my early shot of getting my hands on and into game design. That element of game development really kind of solidified for me that design was my thing. It’s creating fun, it’s creating experiences for people. Going back to the raid leader thing, I feel most accomplished when I’m creating happiness.

And I’ve also said if I weren’t in games, I might be a bartender because that is again, about creating positive experiences. It’s not about making drinks; it’s about connecting with a customer. That is always what’s driven my interest in life; creating positive experiences. And design for me is the perfect way to do that in game development.

What are some fun facts about you that you’d like to share that even your fellow pilots might not know about?

I went swing dancing as often as five nights a week for nearly a decade, during and after college. It’s where I met my wife! She shows dogs, Schipperkes specifically, so we have four of them now and they are a whole handful, but they’re delightful little guys.

I don’t do it enough, but I really love being outside, like the REI #OptOutside ad campaign. One of the top outdoor experiences for me was kayaking in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle. We saw bald eagles, we saw a leopard seal, but we didn’t see any orcas so we gotta go back! But this is just a gorgeous place, really serene experiences with a lot of natural beauty.

The other was snorkeling on a coral reef, which I did back in, wow, 1998! I spent a week in the Virgin Islands and went snorkeling several times. Not just like, you know, off of the beach with a snorkel, but actually took a boat out to some reefs and went into relatively deeper water. The explosion of life and variety was an incredible experience.

Close third place on that I think is when we went down to Tulum, near Cancun, and the area there is littered with cenotes, which are subterranean flooded cave system lagoons in the forest and jungles. They’ll take you through a series of adjacent surface caves that you can explore with a snorkel. It’s pretty amazing.

But yeah, I love getting outside and seeing the natural beauty of the world. And one of my favorite things about moving to the Seattle area is just how gorgeous the countryside here is.

What are some of your favorite pieces of media that you would recommend to someone?

Jurassic Park, which is still my favorite movie of all time. I honestly say that incredulously because I struggle to imagine that it continues to hold that spot, but it really is just a triumphant piece of filmmaking, even 30 years later.

More recently, I think The Good Place is one of the most earnest, positive, and funny shows that I have ever watched. I’ve definitely shifted a lot of my media enjoyment towards things that I will enjoy watching. I don’t wanna sit down for a relaxing evening of TV and be dragged through trauma, I can do trauma on my own!

So having a show like The Good Place, which is still about imperfect, people struggling sometimes, but it is about them becoming better, like literally the point of the show is people becoming the best version of themselves. Runner up on that would be Ted Lasso, but The Good Place is one of the best shows I’ve watched in a long time, and I would happily recommend it to anyone.

So, what kind of non-gaming hobbies do you have? I know you’ve recently gotten into building gundams!

Oh, that’s brand new, yeah! I love building things. I was a Lego kid and also had tons of model planes and stuff as a kid back in the 80s. But yeah, I got into it actually because I had heard such good things about The Witch From Mercury, so I was like okay, I gotta watch this. And it was great!

The gunpla industry has been going for like 30 years at this point and they’re so good at what they do. They know they have this juggernaut and they’ve built it perfectly. The standard kits that everybody gets are 15 to 20 bucks and it takes you an evening to put together. You’re like, oh, that was fun, I’ll do another one! And another one. Just one more. But it is really rewarding, and also a lot cleaner and simpler than the model planes that I made as a kid.

Other than that, I got this ukulele for Christmas. I played violin as a kid in grade school and didn’t take it on past college, but I have retained just enough transferable skills that I can kind of hit the ground running on this thing.

I remember a poster, this list of 50 things to do in college, and one of the things to do was “Learn guitar. Trust me, you want to be that guy.” And I was like, yeah, you know, I would want to be that guy, but guitar sounds really hard. And I just never did it. But the ukulele is tiny, it’s simple, it’s only four strings, and it’s just fun. I only got it for Christmas, so it’s definitely still got that that new, the new toy vibe before it. We’ll see if it sticks, but it’s a lot of fun right now.

Okay, I’ve asked everyone this so far – if you could put your favorite food in our game, what would it be?

My favorite food? Honestly, it’s kind of a tossup. Like, if you ask me for a single dish that I had to eat for the rest of my life, I’d probably say a well-cooked steak because I LOVE a well-cooked steak.

For the game, I would I think I would say one of two things. First on the selfish side, I have horrendous sweet tooth so it would be candy or ice cream. Just a whole different whole bunch of varieties of candy or ice cream. We’d be making a sweet shop game instead of a [REDACTED] game.

But to call back to my idea of the general worldview of creating positive experiences, the other thing would be cocktails!

What have been some of your biggest inspirations in your life and career?

Both as an inspiration and just kind of a thank you – Brian Holinka. He was the connection that got me my first job in the industry but has also been kind of an aspirational target throughout my entire career. He was a lead combat designer and lead class designer at Blizzard but is now at a new studio called Fantastic Pixel Castle. But yeah, he helped me get my first job and he’s also just a supremely nice guy.

Outside of that, if I could point to a single moment in time when I realized I wanted to be a game designer, it was actually playing Bastion by Supergiant Games. Bastion has a weapon in it called the Bullhead Shield. It’s a shield you always have that you can use to block attacks, but with precision timing it could also deflect them, and it was the first time I had ever encountered that mechanic. It being a defensive item but could also be an offensive item if I’m willing to risk it and am that good with it, just kind of opened my eyes to what good game design can look like.

It’s giving a player that floor of a good experience and then giving them the space to build that into an even better experience. That moment now years and years ago for me was like, oh, this is fun, this is neat. This is something I could do for the next 20 or 30 years.

Interviews are edited for content and clarity.

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