Meet Our Pilots: Kevin H

Writer of words, pilot in command, and director of games – Kevin Hovdestad is the one who brought us all together and helps us keep our eyes on the horizon.

What is your name, and what do you do here?

My name is Kevin Hovdestad, and I am the Game Director at Big Blue Sky Games.

Not only are you our fearless leader, you are also our friend who is always understanding and supportive of us. Was this always intended? Is this hard for you to navigate?

I mean, a little. I feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity to build a game studio from scratch and kind of hand pick the people I wanted to work with on this project. I spent a lot of time reading books on how to manage effective teams and learning how to work with people.

The overwhelming thing that comes back over and over again is people bring their whole selves to work, right? I’m going through this right now because my kids have been sick. I would love for Kevin at work to be a totally different person who isn’t dealing with having sick kids, but that’s impossible. And I think acknowledging that these people can be my coworkers but also my friends and people I care about that I know aren’t going to be the maximum number of productivity units any given day is okay, but there’s definitely parts of it that I worry about.

You know, it is tough sometimes to feel like I want to call somebody and talk about my life, my family, my hobbies, and everybody kind of steers everything back to work a little bit right now. But that’s okay, I can’t imagine doing anything else anymore. I love the team we’ve built and the work that we do, and I hope I’m still doing it 30 years from now.

I hope so, too, that we both are! What you described is a challenge in itself, but is it the most challenging part of your role? Did you foresee that when you originally stepped into being the game director of the studio?

No, I think the hardest thing about the gig is everybody thinks that what I do is design our video game and that I’m responsible for the creative vision because my title is game director. And for a long time, I was at this point where I would say the team owns that, not me. We’ve entrusted all of the people who do this job with different parts of it, so everybody has ownership and agency over the part of the game that they are the expert on.

The hardest part of my job is actually building up the studio. You can see that historically, many small game studios will try this out for a couple of years, and then say, “Okay cool that was a lot of work, we’re good.” They set out to make a video game and that’s all they set out to do, but what I set out to do is build a studio. So, I spend the majority of my time at this point really concentrating on how to make sure that we are running a stable, effective, financially solvent business five years from now. Which has a lot less unfortunately to do with being involved with the day-to-day checking in with the teams or helping make game design decisions. And I still do those things, but what caught me off guard was how little of that I get to do because I spend so much of my time on building the future of the studio, which, if we’re all being super honest, is more important.

I know that our video games have to be awesome. I know that we wanna make stuff that we’re proud of that we can share with players, but I can point to dozens of examples of studios that set out to make a cool game, made a cool game and then, success or failure, they just weren’t prepared for what came after that. Nobody spent any time thinking about what happens when the game is done, and that is the hardest part of my job.

What is the most important thing that you want to accomplish while you’re in this role, whether it’s with Big Blue Sky Games or just our industry in general?

There’s a lot of answers to that question. I would say right now in terms of what we set out to accomplish, we have already done just that by giving people opportunities that deserved them, but they weren’t getting them anywhere else.

Another challenge we’ve overcome is having an accessible place for people to work by having a fully remote team. We can and do support work that’s being done by folks who have limited mobility or other challenges associated with in-person work, which is great for a lot of people who thought that working in games was never going to be an option for them because of where they live. We’ve been able to hire people from like 10 or 12 different states, couple different places in Canada, so that we can let people be where their families and their support networks are, or wherever they need to be for personal reasons or safety reasons and still do the job.

I was very cognizant going into who we hired into this studio. I’ve heard every version of why it’s “so hard to hire women” or that it’s “so hard to find women who work in games” over the course of my career, and that’s just false on its face. There are a ton of brilliant and talented women out there, and when we went public with the studio, our staff was 50% women. And it wasn’t that we selected for women, we selected for people who added to our studio, and who made us better.

What I have concentrated on when we talk about, you know, hiring the best person for the job, the best person for the job isn’t necessarily the person who is individually the best at that discipline or can do the most tasks per time period in that discipline. They’re the person who makes the whole studio better, who adds to what you know as a group, what you’re capable of as a group, what you’ve experienced as a group. I don’t pretend that we’re done, and I would never in any way suggest that diversity has been achieved so that box is checked. But right now, I’m so proud of the work we have done in that aspect so far, as well as to have people on our team who have told us point blank – you gave me a job I would never have got any other way. Or that we lifted them and their family out of poverty.

If nothing else good comes of this ever, I have those things to look back on and I can carry the pride of having given that to those people with me the rest of my life.

So, I think you had a very interesting background before you got into the games industry. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Oh boy, I’ve worked exclusively in games now the last decade-ish, but it was a winding, winding path that got me here. I have a degree in political science, so if anybody ever wants to get real weird about tyranny of the majority in John Stuart Mill, I’m your guy.

But there’s a ton of stuff that I did in my career that was just kind of all over the place. I worked in post-secondary education for a while, I ran the office for an accounting education organization, I worked for the government for a period of time on and off again. I mean goodness, there’s just been so many things.

Like being a professional ballroom dancer?

Amateur, not professional! My mom’s sister is a ballroom dance instructor, so I did amateur competitive ballroom dancing for seven years. I went to some competitions and won a couple of awards at one point there.

But it all kind of came to this weird head when I owned and operated a music school with my ex-wife. That was what I was doing when my first marriage ended, and that was kind of the point where I looked around and went okay, what do I wanna do? At that point I had done all this work in education and government, I had owned a small business, and I’ve done all these things but what if I could pick anything? And what I picked was to work in video games.

So, my first couple of years there I was doing a lot of freelance writing, and I was involved in a lot of esports organizations. I got a job working with an esports firm, a consulting group that helped establish the Rocket League Championship Series, and partnered with a bunch of organizations to pull stuff off for different esports events on Twitch or in-person that I traveled to. I was actually a speaker at a couple of gaming industry conventions in like 2016, game events that were in Indianapolis, Vegas, Ottawa, and a handful of other places. I got to do a lot of bizarre, bizarre stuff before I ended up landing a job at Blizzard.

And then after leaving Blizzard, again I looked around and went okay, well, I’ve seen what I wanted to see in regard to how AAA games work. What can I do with this knowledge? So, at that point I just started working with indie devs and other entertainment companies trying to help them get stuff done. I helped ship an indie game and worked with a bunch of people on a ton of really cool stuff.

There’s a very brief window in there where I worked on the US presidential election. I was the communications director for Tom Steyer’s campaign in Colorado when he ran for the Democratic nomination. It was only for 10 weeks but it was the wildest experience. But yeah, it has been a very, very weird path, and I think most millennials or people our age can look back and say very similar things, right? Not many of us can say they picked that one thing they wanted to do, like “I wanted to be a lawyer and I’ve just been a lawyer for the last 20 years.” I’ve worked for two dozen companies, and some of those jobs I held for years while some of them I held for weeks. I don’t want that for our people. I don’t want people to have to feel like they have to change jobs every 18 months just to survive or get ahead.

Is there any universe, whether it’s in a book, a game or a movie, a show that you wish you could live in?

If I don’t think of it as what’s fun to watch or play, but where would I actually wanna be, it’s probably Star Trek. If you think about other settings in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones, they’re fantastical and amazing, but they’re also places where there’s just a ton of violence and conflict.
There are people who can cause you harm willy nilly because they’ve got a dragon or magic or whatever. Yes, in Star Trek there’s still conflict and situations where there are disagreements because of differences in perception or culture, but they have this largely post-conflict society.

They have this world where you can go and experience things on the holodeck. Everybody talked for all these years about the promise of VR and I was like, I don’t give a crap about VR, but you give me a room where I could turn it into a jungle and suddenly be there, I would never leave that room.
In Star Trek, I can go talk to a microwave and say, “tea, Earl Grey, hot” and it just appears? Give me that.

I think the promise of a world where we tried really hard to do better, we solved a lot of our differences, and we use technology to have positive experiences to make things better and easier for people? I would want to be there in a heartbeat, absolutely.

Okay, so I try to ask everybody this. If you could put one food in our game, what would it be and why?

Uh, I think it would have to be ramen! I didn’t have ramen until I was in my 30s, and the first time I ever had ramen was with Kate after I started at Blizzard. We weren’t dating yet, but we were just talking and getting to know each other. So, she was going out for lunch one day and wanted a break from being on campus, so she said, “I’m gonna go get ramen, do you wanna come?” And I was like, I do! I don’t know what that means, but sure, let’s do that. And I loved it!

I love the cuisine, I love all the ways that it’s experimented with.
I think it’s just such a fascinating thing to see how it turned into this incredible multifaceted, multidisciplinary fusion cuisine that all sorts of different cultures have done a take on. But, yeah, feed me ramen anytime, anywhere. I will eat it.

In work or in life, what has inspired you or even continues to inspire you to just do what you’re doing today?

Ah boy, I think a lot of it comes back to my family. I know lots of people have tough relationships with their parents or don’t feel like they have support in their lives from those kinds of people, but that was not my experience ever. I have been very fortunate my whole life in that aspect. I grew up in a house where I got everything I needed from my family. I never saw them fight, I never heard them argue, I never had to worry about wanting for anything, and I think a lot about how much having that kind of stability meant to me. When I needed help, I always had somebody I could call, I always knew that there was a person to fall back on and I think we are, as a people, really struggling with this because everything is so precarious.

People are always like $400 away from going broke. So many people are one surprise expense away from not being able to make it. People can’t live that way, and I want to prove that, yes, you can build a company where people earn a living wage, can take the time they need to rest and recover, to be with the people they care about when something important happens, and still ship products and still make money. Everything that you’ve been told or sold about why it can’t be this way is just a lie. We can run a company that works and also looks after its people, so then we become the people my parents were for me, too.

The number of people I know in my life who have had struggles and needed help, they’ve been able to call me, and I have been mentally, physically, financially capable of helping them – I wouldn’t trade that for anything. After we started Big Blue Sky Games, I had a friend who called me and he was going through an unexpected, very painful divorce and was threatening suicide. So, I told him that I was putting him on a plane now, and he could come and stay with me as long as he needed. He ended up living with us for three months, but it gave him time and space to look after himself and get better.

But how many people wouldn’t be able to make that phone call? How many people don’t have someone that would help them when they were in that spot? So, I wanted to create a work environment where people don’t carry so much stress and so much anxiety and so much fear, so they can start to be stable and strong for the people around them. I spend a lot of time worrying about how we can build a life for people that allows them to look after those they care about in the same way the people I care about looked after me.

You are super understanding and supportive when it comes to us needing to step away because of family issues. And I think it extends to this normalization of parents at work, especially moms, that I don’t really see in any industry. We get to see your sweet little kids all the time because that’s your and Kate’s life, and that’s okay.

Yeah, we’ve got people on our team right now who have kids of varying ages. We have people who are trying to be supportive of siblings who are going through hard times, but everyone here brings their whole selves to work. I’m under no illusion that people who have kids won’t have bad days, especially if their kids acted out or their kids were sick. I’m under no illusion that people who have family in need of help because of health or mobility issues can’t just put that on the shelf when you clock in at the start of the day. I certainly don’t, so I don’t expect anybody else to.

But to this point, everybody on the team who has needed to step away because they’ve had a death in the family, needed to move, problems with kids, personal health issues, and so on, we’ve just given them the grace to deal with the things that are more important than their job, because nobody’s going to pick work over any of those things, ever. We all know that and there’s no sense lying to ourselves or each other about it. But if we’re honest about it and say, cool, that thing you’re dealing with is more important, please go deal with it every single time. People who didn’t have to worry about if they were coming back to a job, who knew they were coming back to a team that would pick up and keep going in their absence? They come back swinging, and they try so hard to be here and to give back to what I would call a community.

I don’t think that was an accident. I don’t think we just lucked into a group of people who are all respectful and genuine. I think we worked very hard to build that, and it will be monumentally more difficult for it to feel that way when we have 100 people or 1,000 people than it does now. But that doesn’t mean we won’t try.

And I’ll be there trying with you.

Interviews are edited for content and clarity.

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