If you’ve subscribed to Game Pass or obsessed over Xbox achievements, you’re familiar with Chris Novak’s work.
The head of Xbox research and design is leaving the company after nearly 20 years. Novak has led the 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, along with cloud gaming and Xbox Live.
“Microsoft has been where I’ve gotten to learn in the crucible of gaming, from the world’s best across the industry,” Novak told Polygon. “I’ve got to see it in its best times and its worst times. And that learning process, I tremendously treasure.”
Novak took over Microsoft’s Xbox research and design at a turning point for the company and its flagship console. When the Xbox One launched in 2013, Microsoft’s marketing strategy failed the console: The Xbox 360 had succeeded in capturing a major gaming audience, but Microsoft looked to the Xbox One to become a full-on entertainment system. The Xbox One reveal was a notorious disaster, focusing on everything but video games. Microsoft quickly realized it had to win back gamers, but never entirely gave up on the entertainment platform either.
Novak came on as head of Xbox research and design right after Microsoft was pushing hard, publicly, on the idea of Xbox being focused primarily on video games. While consoles were still important, the more exciting idea for Xbox leadership was the freedom to play Xbox games on different devices, beginning with the launch of Xbox Play Anywhere, which let players access games on a Windows PC or a console.
Xbox leader Phil Spencer dialed into a singular idea: Gamers should be able to play games anywhere, using the Xbox ecosystem. After PC, Xbox leadership focused on bringing Xbox to mobile devices through cloud streaming. Novak pointed to Microsoft’s Touch Adaptation Kit for Xbox Cloud Gaming as a particularly proud moment in his career at the company.
“How big is that challenge when you’re trying to build experiences of entire games on a device that it was never designed for? That was the challenge at hand,” Novak said. “We spent a huge amount of time as part of the xCloud effort, with the xCloud engineers, chasing that down and making sure that all the technology allowed us to render this output to any device. [...] That is one of my proudest moments.”
Another feature he looks back to fondly is Xbox’s 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 achievements reinforced Microsoft’s philosophy that different styles of play were acceptable. In Project Gotham Racing 2, most people wanted to win races and go fast, but some players wanted to take photos of shopfronts and to explore environments; a wide variety of achievements reinforced the idea of playing your way, a mantra that stayed with Novak and the company for decades.
Novak’s largest challenge, he said, was balancing experimental changes with keeping things comfortable for the player. “It’s very easy to build things which are new but not better,” Novak said. “And most people want their gaming experience to be comfortable and familiar and fast. It should be connecting them to the thing they want as fast as possible, and anytime you do something new, you might be asking them to use a different button or to think about a different flow. And they might be frustrated with that.”
Novak continued: “Getting that balance is a continuous challenge.”
Novak said he’s leaving Microsoft to take time off from work and refocus his life. After losing a person close to him three years ago, Novak said he wanted to take time off to learn new things. He won’t move on to a new company immediately.
“I’m just about to be 20 years with Xbox,” Novak said. “For me, some of the things that are coming up for Xbox, which are tremendously exciting, would be committing to years worth of work there. It would be amazing. But do I want to commit to that? Or do I want to acknowledge that I’m happy with what we’ve shipped? Do I actually need to go out on my own and continue my own learning journey, trying some other things. If I don’t do that now, when do I do that?”