Meet Sara McPherson, Jam City’s Director of User Experience. In our latest Employee Spotlight, Sara breaks down the innovative steps she and her team take that allows players to become completely immersed in a Jam City game.
What drew you to Jam City?
I was impressed with Jam City’s IP partnerships. At that time, the studio had two games in development (Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow and Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery); I joined the company in the hopes that I would get to work on one of the games in development, and I ended up working on both.
Describe your role on the team.
I’m the Director of User Experience for Jam City’s San Francisco studio, and I also run the UI department. For the past 10 months or so I’ve spent the majority of my time on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, working on features, UX, UI, and user testing. My team and I collaborate with all the departments on the game development team—particularly Game Designers, Project Managers, and Producers—to make the experience of playing the game as engaging and rewarding as possible. We also try to make our games intuitive so that a player knows what their goals are and how to accomplish them, and so they understand how well they’re doing based on the game’s feedback.
What goes into making a great user experience? How do you go about making sure players feel the emotions you and your team have designed for them?
User experience is essentially the intersection between user needs, business goals, and information. Creating great UX in a game is a multi-stage, multi-faceted process that includes user research, psychological principles, prototyping, information architecture, user flows, feature design, and UI design. The thing is, none of this matters if you’re not in tune with what your target audience wants; awesome UX for one demographic can be terrible UX for another. That’s where testing comes in. Great UX designers have excellent instincts about what the players want, but at the end of the day, user testing is the only way to be certain the product is heading in the right direction and hitting optimal levels of both usability and engageability. For both Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow and Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, I worked closely with our rockstar Consumer Insights team to gather and interpret user testing data that informed the decisions we made on the development team.
What do you find most rewarding about your role?
The most rewarding aspect of my role is working with my team to create an awesome user experience that allows the player to become completely immersed in the game. A game can have great engineering, or beautiful art, or well-written narrative, but if the player feels confused about how to interact with it, what the goals are, what they’re supposed to be feeling, or how well they’re doing, the player can never be truly immersed. I love designing an experience that lets the game draw the player into the world.
What sets Jam City apart from other mobile gaming companies?
I admire Jam City’s fearlessness when it comes to trying new things. They had expertise in developing casual match-3 and bubble-shooter games, and once they acquired TinyCo they had the expertise in builder and character collection games, but no one tried to restrict Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery to any of those genres. Instead, Jam City was supportive of us creating HP:HM in the way we knew it should be created, as a casual narrative RPG. Many game companies wouldn’t be willing to risk trying an unfamiliar genre for such an important IP, but Jam City trusted us to make the game we believed in.
To date, what projects have you been most excited to work on?
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery has definitely been the most exciting project I’ve worked on.
One of my favorite parts about working on HP:HM has been getting to know the IP’s fan base and what’s most exciting to them. Basically every Harry Potter fan wishes he or she could attend Hogwarts, and their expectations for the game were sky-high—they wanted to feel like they were truly experiencing the magic, mystery, and friendships of Hogwarts.
Initially I wanted to work on the game because it’s such a strong IP, but after I got to know the fan base a little more I became deeply invested in the responsibility of delivering the game they’d been waiting their whole lives for. I take that responsibility very seriously, as does the entire game team, so during development we found ourselves in this magical space where we just wanted to make something truly special, something that would live up to the fans’ expectations.
What advice would you give other employees about how to succeed in their role?
Take your job seriously, and be enthusiastic about taking on new responsibilities and confronting new challenges. So many of us in this industry started out in random entry-level positions and managed to grow our careers in incredible ways; no matter what your role is, if you produce excellent work and do your job with integrity, you’ll probably be given amazing opportunities to elevate your career.