In this edition of the Laker Log, we interviewed Sean Stahl ’04, who was the Lead Game Designer for the Amazon Glow, to learn more about the recently released product from Amazon and how his education at LSSU prepared him in his career.
What originally brought you to LSSU?
I’m extremely grateful for Michigan’s Tuition Incentive Program for giving me the opportunity to be the first in my family to attend university. After receiving that aid, I visited a few in-state schools and upon touring LSSU I immediately fell in love with the views of the locks, campus layout, and facilities. Many of my extended family grew up in the U.P. and I jumped at the chance to attend school in such a beautiful part of the state.
What were your favorite parts about attending LSSU?
There were so many amazing opportunities to participate in organizations throughout the university. I couldn’t help myself and wound up working with as many as I could make time for, including The Compass newspaper, the Student Alumni Involved for Lake State organization, and the WLSO radio station, among others. Each organization was a community of talented individuals and I made lots of great friends.
How has your education from Lake State helped you advance in your career?
As a video game designer, I’ve benefitted greatly from the skills developed while earning my Computer Science degree. I’ve built campaign mission objective scripts for Shadow of War, procedurally-generated content for Microsoft Minesweeper, and multiple from-scratch prototype games for Amazon Glow – all influenced by learning computer programming at LSSU. While designers can come from any background, I’ve found that programming has enabled me to bring my ideas to life in ways that would not be possible on my own otherwise.
If a prospective college student asked you why they should attend LSSU, what would you tell them?
I would say that when I attended, LSSU’s greatest asset was the small class sizes which made it easy to get to know fellow classmates and professors. I was extremely grateful for the welcoming faculty whenever I was in need of advice or support. There’s also a lot of fun things to see and do, from hiking multiple nature preserves on the state side, to snowboarding and concerts on the Canadian side. Lastly, I would also make sure the prospective student is comfortable with snow and cold! There’s a definite sense of camaraderie when everyone gathers together for games or movies while temps outside dip 20 or more below.
What are your responsibilities as a Lead Game Designer at Amazon?
Simply put, my ultimate responsibility is to ensure that the games for Amazon Glow are fun. This is an interesting challenge because many people have very diverse and strongly held beliefs for what is fun, so a lot of what I do is investigating what our customers’ needs are and focusing our efforts on meeting those needs. Achieving this requires managing a team of game designers and together we work at a micro level to “find the fun” for each game as well as at a macro level to ensure the breadth of games available provide something for everyone.
What is Amazon Glow? What role did you play in this product’s development?
Amazon Glow is a device which connects children with remote loved ones through video calls and projects interactive games and creative activities on a child’s tabletop, while remote adults follow along through a free Glow app on a tablet or phone. I joined the team early in its development, so I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to brainstorming, prototyping, customer focus testing, games portfolio curation, and many more areas of the product’s design. I’m a passionate believer in our goal to deliver something that would have a life-long positive impact on children’s development, and I’ve strived for that through each game we create.
How if at all did COVID impact the product development cycle for Amazon Glow? Did your team have to work from home?
Oh yeah for sure! Like many other tech companies, most of our team has been working from home since early March 2020. It’s been a difficult challenge, especially when developing new-to-world hardware. The biggest impact has been the lack of incidental social connections, so making sure everyone has the right information tends to involve more meetings when working from home than in the office. Sometimes it feels like the success of my job can be measured by how many heads I can make nod during any given virtual meeting!
What advice would you give a student looking to get into the video game industry?
Make a game! This may sound overly reductive, like a firefighter telling someone to run into a burning building (disclaimer: please do not do that), but the truth is that making games is hard, and you will learn a tremendous amount about game development and yourself by just diving in and building one on your own. These days you don’t even need to know programming to get started. There are many accessible game engines such as GameMaker or Godot as well as communities of independent game developers to ask for support. Most importantly, start small (like Tic-Tac-Toe small) and finish it before starting another one. You’ll have a sense of accomplishment and a portfolio piece you can show off to recruiters.
What is your favorite video game of all time? Why?
Ask any game designer this question and you’re bound to get a novel-length response, haha. I doubt many folks have heard of it, but the game which inspired me to become a game designer was Eternal Darkness. In it, the player attempts to unravel a Lovecraft-inspired mystery as they encounter terrors from the deep. What makes the game truly special is that it has a literal “sanity meter” to track the mental strength of the main character, and as it diminishes the game starts to break down the fourth wall by creating illusions that make the player themselves question their sanity. The game would pretend the controller had disconnected during a tense combat encounter, or display a black silhouette of a bug crawling across the screen, or even act as if it was deleting all of the player’s save files! This game showed me the potential of games to have an emotional impact beyond simply connecting with a story or overcoming an obstacle and continues to inspire me to challenge preconceptions.
What has been your favorite video game so far this year?
Despite having never played any of FromSoftware’s hugely popular Dark Souls games previously, I admit that I bought into the hype for Elden Ring and it did not disappoint! The level design is best in class, with staggeringly massive environments rich with hidden passages and secret treasures. The combat in Elden Ring is often punishingly difficult, however, so I’ve also been enjoying playing Vampire Survivors for a more approachable, bite-sized experience. In that game, you control a vampire hunter’s movements while they attack automatically, earning unlocks and upgrades with each 15-to-30-minute-long session. That’s two games, but it’s hard to choose just one!
(Following his interview, Sean started a new position at Amazon as the Lead Game Designer for Prime Gaming on July 25, 2022).