MJ Johns is a game and experience designer, Unity developer, and founder of Astire Games. MJ previously worked in AAA on COD: Modern Warfare Remastered and Mafia III, and they also worked in VR creating show demos for the Virtuix Omni. As the studio director for Astire Games, MJ develops educational and family-friendly apps and games for mobile, VR, AR, PC, and web. MJ got their start in software and web development before moving into games and entertainment in 2012.
What did you do before coming to UT?
I started out my career in Game Development working for smaller companies, mainly developing VR and mobile applications. I worked as a game designer and game programmer.
One of my first jobs was making VR demos for the Virtuix Omni.
Then I got my big break and entered AAA game development at Certain Affinity where I got the chance to work on big-budget franchises like Call of Duty and Mafia.
What led you to shift from software development to games?
When I first graduated with my CS degree, I didn’t even know Game Development was a job option. I worked in multimedia tech for a while making training tools, but I always knew I wanted to work in entertainment, so when the opportunity came along I entered grad school at the Entertainment Technology Center of CMU. While I was there I learned about game design and how I could combine my technical background with my love for art and entertainment. I also learned how to juggle.
What classes will you teach in the Spring?
In the Spring I will be teaching Level Design, Game Prototyping, VR for Games, and Scripting and Modding. Although each of these classes has a different focus, they all have a common core of using the Unity game engine with C# scripting to create game experiences.
How did you go about founding your own game studio?
While I was working in AAA, I started teaching part time at the Art Institute. With 2 jobs I was able to set aside a nest egg to use to fund my startup. I also started a lot of small prototypes in my spare time to help determine the direction I would go with my company. Finally I felt I had built up the needed skills, picked a direction, and saved enough money to avoid a financial risk, so I left my AAA job and formed my LLC - Astire Games. In the beginning we were just releasing small projects, mainly mobile, and all were released as free games. Having the experience of shipping completed games got us noticed though, and we landed a couple of contract gigs where a client company would pay us to develop a game for them. We’re now in the process of developing our first major PC title, Cosmos Arena.
What’s your favorite video game of all time?
This is a tough question because it has changed so many times. The very first game I ever played was a DOS game called Pickle Wars, and since it was the first game I was exposed to it still holds a special place in my heart.
My childhood was also hugely impacted by the original Sims game. Probably my longest-running favorite is League of Legends, which I played obsessively for a long time, but it has now been a couple of years since I have even launched the game so I think it’s time for a new favorite. More recently I’ve been getting hooked on indie games, mainly multiplayer games I can play with my partner like Craft the World, Towerfall, and 7 Days to Die.
What was your experience working in AAA?
While I worked at Certain Affinity, I was credited as a designer on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered and Mafia III. It was pretty exciting to work on such large, well-known titles, but the drawback of working on something so large is that there were hundreds of developers; my work is such a small piece of the larger picture that you can barely spot any impact I had. It’s a stark contrast to the smaller projects I worked on where my presence had a huge impact on the final product.
What advice do you have for young gamers interested in pursuing game design?
There is a common misconception that if you love games then designing games is easy. My best advice is if you want to design games, be prepared for a challenge. Designing games is a lot more than having ideas - study art, audio, and programming in addition to design. The best game designers are well-versed in all areas of game development. It’s also extremely important to be able to communicate your ideas, so practice public speaking and writing at every opportunity. Game design is a very competitive field because so many people are interested in it, so if you choose to pursue this as a career, be prepared to work hard to set yourself ahead of the pack.
Has teaching changed you in any way?
Teaching has been an amazing experience for me. By sharing my skills with others, it has allowed me to practice and fine-tune those skills, and explaining concepts has given me a better understand of them. I believe teaching has made me a better game designer.