Chris Novak, one of Xbox’s great creative forces, is leaving after almost 20 years

If you’ve subscribed to Game Pass or are obsessed with Xbox performance, 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 user experience research and design efforts for more than five years and has previously held positions as Xbox Design Director and Xbox Design Architect. Across these roles, Novak was responsible for the user experience in many of the company’s largest projects, including the Xbox Game Pass, along with cloud gaming and Xbox Live.

“Microsoft has been where I’ve been told in the game melting pot, from the world’s best across the industry,” Novak told Polygon. “I have to see it in its best times and its worst times. And that learning process I really appreciate.”

chris novak leafy post-its

Chris Novak leaf blows Post-Its from a wall
Photo: Chris Novak

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 large gaming audience, but Microsoft saw to it that the Xbox One became a complete entertainment system. The Xbox One revelation was a notorious disaster that focused on everything but computer games. Microsoft quickly realized that it had to win back players, but also never completely gave up on the entertainment platform.

Novak came on the scene as the leader in Xbox research and design just after Microsoft publicly pushed hard on the idea that the Xbox should focus 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 allowed players to access games on a Windows PC or a console.

Xbox leader Phil Spencer came up with a unique idea: Players should be able to play games anywhere using the Xbox ecosystem. After the PC, Xbox management focused on bringing the 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.

Project Gotham Racing 2 screenshot with a white car

Project Gotham Racing 2
Image: Bizarre Creations, Ltd./Microsoft Game Studios

“How big is that challenge when trying to build gaming experiences on a device it’s never designed for? That was the challenge at hand,” said Novak. “We spent a huge amount of time as part of xCloud. the effort along with the xCloud engineers to chase it down and ensure that all the technology enabled us to render this output to any device. […] It is one of my proudest moments. ”

Another feature he happily looks back on is the Xbox’s photo modes and performance; Xbox Live was originally almost launched with a limit of only five performances. Novak and his team realized with Project Gotham Racing 2 that performance reinforced Microsoft’s philosophy that different playing styles were acceptable. IN Gotham Racing Project 2, most wanted to win races and run fast, but some players wanted to take pictures of storefronts and explore environments; a wide range of achievements reinforced the idea of ​​playing your way, a mantra that followed with Novak and the company for decades.

Novak’s biggest challenge, he said, was to balance experimental changes with keeping things comfortable for the player. “It’s very easy to build things that are new, but not better,” Novak said. “And most people want their gaming experience to be enjoyable and familiar and fast. It should connect them to what they want as quickly as possible, and every time you do something new, you can ask them to use a different button or think of a different flow. And they may be frustrated. “

artwork for Project xCloud with the Xbox logo and Xbox controllers

Image: Microsoft

Novak continued: “Getting that balance is an ongoing challenge.”

Novak said he is leaving Microsoft to take time off work and refocus his life. After losing someone close to him three years ago, Novak said he would take time off to learn new things. He does not move on to a new company right away.

“I’m about to be 20 years old with the Xbox,” Novak said. “For me, some of the things that come to the Xbox, which is hugely exciting, would be to commit to many years of work there. That would be great. But will I commit to it? Or will I admit that I am “Satisfied with what we have sent? Do I actually need to go out on my own and continue my own learning journey, try some other things. If I do not do it now, when do I do it then?”