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Casually Speaking Interview: Jason Mai
February 21, 2007
Casually Speaking: Jason Mai
Welcome to Casually Speaking – a new interview series that will introduce you to the brilliant designers, artists, and developers who make MSN Games such a great gaming site!
Our first interview is with Jason Mai, a star developer whose latest project – Solitaire In Motion – will change the way you think of computer solitaire. Jason will also discuss what it's like to work for Carbonated Games, the developers who've brought you the new versions of our classic card & board games, as well as Hexic, Mozaki™ Blocks, and UNO®!
MSN Games: Thanks for sitting down with us, Jason. Would you mind talking about what you do at Microsoft Casual Games?
Jason M: I'm a lead program manager, or in the gaming industry what many people would call a producer. My overall job is to guide a game project from start to finish. I also head up a team of programmers and artists, which means I have to be part coach, cheerleader, shepherd, and trainer. My latest project is called Solitaire In Motion, one of the first video versions of solitaire where the cards are constantly moving!
MSN Games: What led you to a career in casual gaming? Were you a huge video game fan?
Jason M: Well, I loved playing board games like Stratego and Risk. Also, everyone in my family loved playing Pinochle. But I wasn't really allowed to play video games growing up, so I spent a lot of time making my own games in Basic. My first projects included Blackjack and a "bomb catcher" arcade game. I guess my association with video games has always been with making them, not playing them. Still, some of my all-time favorite video games include Sim City, Sid Meier's Pirates!, Pinball Construction Set, and Lemmings.
MSN Games: So how did you get started as a game developer at Microsoft?
Jason M: I interned at Microsoft in 1991 and later worked on the MSN Zone team. This was when the Zone used to be a matchmaking site for commercial games, like the Age of Empires series. I found though that I really loved casual games, so I left Microsoft to start my own casual gaming Web site called Haversack Software. I decided to come back when MSN Games started to focus on casual games too. In 2004, the Carbonated Games team asked me back to start working on new versions of classic Zone games. Many of those popular games had gotten a little long in the tooth and were due for a remake. One big improvement is we now store our multiplayer card and board games on a secure back-end server, which makes cheats and hacks much more difficult to do. I also think we did a great job improving the look and feel of our classic games. For example, Hearts now has a very French rococo look, while Spades has a jazzy nightclub look.
MSN Games: Our readers may not realize that Microsoft has its own casual gaming studio. Could you talk a little more about Carbonated Games?
Jason M: We're the ones who actually build all the casual games Microsoft publishes. The name Carbonated comes from the fact that we make games that are light, refreshing fun. Some of the single player games that our team has worked on include Hexic and Mozaki Blocks, but the team's also worked on the latest multiplayer versions of Chess, Spades, Hearts, Wheel of Fortune, and Texas Hold'Em. And of course, we're coming out with new games all the time – from UNO to an upcoming new version of solitaire called Solitaire In Motion!
MSN Games: So what's life like for a Microsoft program manager?
Jason M: My overall job is to see a project from the first Green Light to finish. I work with a team of artists and developers to pitch an idea to management, build a core version of a game, then start marching through development milestones. Everything's tracked using these huge flow charts – I have to make sure pieces within the game move correctly, that the art drops come in on time, that outside players test the game. But the biggest part of my job is getting a feel for what a game should be early in the process, then making sure the end product survives with that core essence intact.
MSN Games: Is there a past project that you're particularly proud of?
Jason M: Texas Hold'Em was a true shining point. Our game definitely looks different than other online versions, and we offer a neat tournament style of play. Also, you can see digital tells whenever other players look at their cards or chip pile. I haven't seen any other poker game that shows tells.
MSN Games: Speaking of cool projects, let's talk about Solitaire In Motion.
Jason M: Certainly! If you look at it, Windows Solitaire is one of the most popular games on the computer. When designing Solitaire In Motion, I wanted to build on that success but also offer a game that you couldn't play on a real-life table. So I thought, "What if you could play a version of solitaire where the cards slowly move?" Our first idea was to start with a summer beach theme, where players could click on cards as they drift by (see screenshot on the left). Summer solitaire would therefore be one of four different games tied together with seasonal themes.
MSN Games: So how did the Solitaire In Motion project change over time?
Jason M: First of all, we didn't want to be stuck having to make future games based on the four seasons. And let's face it, there are a lot of casual games that have the whole "summer break" theme. We wanted to do something a little different and decided on a Spanish theme. The background switched from a beach to a fountain that you might find in a Spanish plaza, but of course the cards still move as if they're floating in water.
MSN Games: Could you talk about Solitaire In Motion's gameplay?
Jason M: The name of the game is to clear all 52 cards, just like in regular solitaire. You must collect cards as they float slowly past and add them to your build pile. The cards start face down, but if you click on one, a ripple will turn that card and all nearby cards face up for a short time. If the selected card is one rank up or down from the top card showing in your build pile, regardless of suite, you start a "run." You also get fun bonus items like flowers, rubber duckies, and toy boats for building runs!
MSN Games: How will Solitaire In Motion appeal to both players who want a challenge versus those who just want to relax?
Jason M: No level is easier or harder than any other level – the only difference will be the shuffle. But if you want to play Solitaire In Motion for a challenge, you will get constant feedback on how fast you're making runs, how long you've made continuous runs, etc. At the end of each level, you can check your stats to see if you've "beat your high score" from previous shuffles. There's also a more laid-back mode where the cards move slower, tranquil music plays, and there's no time pressure. The whole idea is to let you relax and unwind as you play.
MSN Games: What do you do to unwind after a long work week?
Jason M: Well, I've been playing a lot of solitaire lately. (Laughs)
I still like card and board games, especially ones that make you think about decisions instead of just rolling dice, but also don't make you think too hard. My wife and I also like going to museums and art shows, attending music performances, and traveling. What's funny is my hobbies are nowadays mainly artistic, while all my professional training is very engineering-focused. But since I work with both developers and artists on games, it really helps to have both left-brain/right-brain sensibilities.
Thanks Jason for taking the time to talk about your job and your experience working on Solitaire In Motion!
You now have the chance to play Solitaire In Motion before the final game version is released. Join the open beta today and give us feedback on what you like about this exciting new twist on computer solitaire!
Play Solitaire In Motion now!
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