Back in the late 1990s, Austin Krauss had just finished an undergraduate degree in computer science and mathematics at a small college in Cleveland and was looking for a master’s program that was a good fit. Back then, researching programs still involved browsing through paper course catalogs, and most of what he found in those were really traditional computer science programs. But buried in the description for one of UM-Dearborn’s programs, Krauss spotted something unexpected. “Video Game Design — it was just the one class,” he remembers. “But there was just nothing like that back then, especially in the education space. I grew up very immersed in the world of video games, and it was my dream to make them. But anyone I talked to about that, especially in academia, they would just roll their eyes. They were doing the serious stuff. You were just playing games.”
Based on that one course description, Krauss decided to drive up from Cleveland and meet with the professor who’d recently created the class. In Bruce Maxim, Krauss found a kindred spirit. Like Maxim, he saw gaming as a rich tapestry of art, sound, narrative and programming — and an industry poised to explode beyond its then niche audiences. Krauss says it’s not exaggerating to say he chose UM-Dearborn based on his impressions of Maxim and that one course, which he audited once as he impatiently waited on some prerequisites, and then took again for real the following year. Even twice around, it was still just a single class. But with Maxim’s mentorship, Krauss stretched his study of the discipline beyond the catalog. For his master’s thesis, he set a goal of making a real video game, start to finish. Looking back, he says it “wasn’t very good”; the game play mostly consisted of driving a taxi around and picking people up and dropping them off. But it gave him a portfolio piece, and as graduation approached, he burned CD copies and mailed dozens to game design companies, complete with homemade packaging intended to emulate the boxes that retail games came in at the time. Tucked alongside were overly earnest letters declaring his dreams to work in the industry.
A couple times, somebody called him back, but mostly there was lots of rejection. His best lead came not from his carefully boxed pitches but a career and internship fair at the Ann Arbor campus. There, EA, the early 2000s gaming giant, had a table and Krauss remembers it being overrun by “nerds like me who wanted to get into the industry.” They were hiring for The Sims, a quirky life simulator game that his taxi game was probably a decent resume item for, and they announced they’d be selecting three students for interviews the following day. In the afternoon, when he got the call that he was one of them, it felt like the chance he’d been working for. He stopped by Maxim’s office on the way to the interview to get a pep talk and crossed his fingers. But the interview was “a disaster.” “They basically asked me a bunch of technical questions that I hadn’t prepared for,” Krauss remembers. “I was crushed. I kind of thought this was going to be my way in, and now I didn’t really know what to do.”
After graduation, he ended up taking a software engineering job with a company in Sterling Heights. He said it was a good place to work, but the traditional eight-hour work day grinding away at something that provided a paycheck but not much else wasn’t a good fit. One day, he looked at his bank account and calculated he had at least a few months of savings. So he gave his boss notice, sold his house, sold everything except his computer and his books and packed up his car and headed west to LA, the epicenter of the gaming industry. While on the road, he kept in contact with a recruiter, who didn’t quite get what his life plan was, but she was kind and helped him set up some interviews with Activison. There he interviewed with two teams. One was working on a sequel to an offbeat Spiderman game; the other was with the creator of Call of Duty, a World War II-themed first-person shooter game. This time, the interviews went better, and a few days later he got a call with an offer to work on Spiderman. “Honestly, I would have signed anything. I think the offer was for $60,000 a year, and I gave no thought to the fact that $60,000 doesn’t go as far in LA as it does in Michigan. But it didn’t matter. For me, it was a chance to do what I wanted to do.”
Krauss had his in, but he was about to learn how volatile the industry was. About three months in, Activision pulled the plug on the Spiderman game, and he braced himself for a layoff. But the team saw a lot of potential in him, and they offered him a choice between working on a different Spiderman game or moving over to the Call of Duty team. Krauss was so relieved to still have a job he said he’d go wherever they wanted him. In retrospect, he says it was crazy to have left that decision to someone else. The new Spiderman game ended up being another flop. Call of Duty was on its way to becoming one of the biggest video games ever. Luckily, the person choosing for him put him on Call of Duty.
Krauss would be there for the next nine years, and he describes it as a period of huge highs and huge lows. Call of Duty was already pretty popular, but shortly after Krauss started, the game completely blew up, selling tens of millions of copies of the “Black Ops” title that he helped build. At times, the popularity even felt personal. When he’d go out in public sporting the custom jackets that were only available to the employees, he’d almost always get approached by fans of the game. They’d usually want a photo with him, after which they’d share their favorite parts of the game or suggestions for tweaks to the next release. Call of Duty's success also came with life-changing financial benefits. Their contracts were written such that they got to share in the success of popular titles, and game’s ubiquity meant Krauss was getting annual bonuses many times the size of his salary.
But work on the game was also completely absorbing, and the frequent 16-hour days took a toll on the rest of his life. Krauss says he and his now wife, Meagan, almost split up four or five times while he was at Call of Duty. Half the time he was in their morning couples counseling sessions, he didn’t know what day it was. Looking around the office was like looking in the mirror. “I would overhear phone conversations with my coworker and his spouse, and he’d be promising that he’d be home by 8. Then I’d look over and he was still there at 11. Guys, and they were mostly guys at that time, would bring their families in for dinner, because that was the only time they were going to see their kids. I was younger, but some of them had been at it a while, and the success of Call of Duty was rare. I think they saw this was their chance to make some wealth for their families, and then you’d just hope you still have a family around when it was over.”
During his time at Call of Duty, Krauss made several important contributions to the game. Artificial intelligence was one of his strengths and he and a friend were the key programmers for the game’s “Zombie mode,” a cooperative multiplayer option where “you get together with a bunch of your friends and shoot a bunch of Zombies.” He also contributed to the engineering of the controller, making it feel perfectly harmonious with the onscreen action, which he says was always one of Call of Duty’s secret ingredients. But though the game continued to be popular, it started to run its course for Krauss creatively. When he left in 2014, he says it took him a full year to shed the “brain fog” and learn to think about his life as something separate from the game. Since leaving, he’s gone on to work in a variety of spaces, including designing indie phone games and a new virtual reality endeavor. None of these have exploded like Call of Duty, but the rewards have been obvious. Most notably, he now has a life that has room for other things. He counts himself lucky that he and Meagan made it through that period of their lives, and he can’t really imagine a version of himself now where he doesn’t have time on the weekends to play with their two kids.
Krauss’ latest project, in fact, is all about togetherness. A couple years before the pandemic, he and a couple colleagues started kicking around ideas for a project that would involve playing old-school board games in virtual reality. Counter to some of the strongest prevailing winds in the industry, which focus on simulating physical reality or creating experiences for solitary users, their vision was to use VR to allow geographically far flung friends and family to do something they might do if they were all together in-person. Neverboard, which launched in mid-2021, at the height of pandemic isolation, seems to have struck a chord. The game now has more than 300,000 unique players, who use the platform’s laid-back living room environment to play trivia games or Crazy Eights, all while cloaked as cartoony avatars. While hanging out, you can also throw popcorn at each other, play the flute, bounce a beach ball around the room, or mow down on VR tacos, which are programmed to fling crumbs out of your mouth. Krauss says the goal of these “concessions” aims no higher than silliness.
They’ve heard from all kinds of people who are using Neverboard as a salve for the physical distance that COVID has created between loved ones. One mom says she now looks forward to a board game night with her kids, some of whom are still home and some of whom have moved across the country. Others say they’re using the space, not to play games, but as a fun non-Zoom way to hang out and chat with friends. “Some VR applications focus on doing all these really complicated things with your hands and head and body, and we laugh because ours is literally just sitting in a chair,” Krauss says. “But it seems like maybe we’ve tapped into this human need for people to be around each other. Personally, I think there’s a lot more potential for VR to do things like that. And if we’re helping people feel more connected, that’s something I can show my kids and be really proud to say that I made that.”
Story by Lou Blouin