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Meet Midwinter’s Head of Studio, Mary Olson

Thanks to our recent acquisition of Midwinter Entertainment, Behaviour will now benefit from the talents of people like Mary Olson, Midwinter’s super cool Head of Studio. We sat down with Mary to ask her about her career path, her gateway video games, how experimental music helped her career, her thoughts on Behaviour so far, and her love of soldering.

Tell us about yourself – where did you go to school and what was your first job?

I grew up in North County, San Diego in a little beach town called Encinitas. It was a great place to grow up. I moved up to Washington in 1990 to go to a small liberal arts school in Olympia called Evergreen. As to my first job, it was pretty sweet: it was at the snack bar at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas. It was right on the beach and it was awesome. I was 14 and we would take breaks and jump in the ocean. I also worked at the YMCA, where my mom was a program director.

What was your gateway video game?

It was definitely Pac-Man, Frogger and all those early arcade games like Tempest and Asteroids. I’m the exact age of the Stranger Things kids. I grew up going to the arcade on Friday nights – the arcade was in the same parking lot as the movie theatre and we would get our allowance and get dropped off, probably at way too young an age because it was the 70s and 80s. I look back now as a mom and I think, ‘huh – wow, we were doing that!”

Did you have a console growing up?

I had an Atari 2600, but it was mostly just going to the arcade. We had a full-size arcade game at the first house I lived in after college – the Journey video game. You play as members of the band Journey, who are trying to recover their instruments from alien groupoids. If you make it to the end – and this is so wild – you get to a Journey concert and there was a cassette in the back that would get triggered and play a Journey song! We usually swapped out the cassette and played other stuff, but still.

What did you study at Evergreen?

I started as a political science major but I switched to performing arts and got into sound engineering and music composition. I was doing electronic music, but way on the experimental side. And my hard skill was sound recording. I thought I would work in a recording studio after school – I did an internship in my last year. I was interested in experimental recording techniques and experimental music.

How did you end up in video games?

Sound design programs for games didn’t really exist then, but it turned out my weird mix of skills was perfect for that, which is basically a mix of experimental music and recording. One person I graduated with figured out that we had been accidentally perfectly educated for sound design and they got a job at Microsoft, followed by most of the 20 people from our graduating class.  At the time we were working on all the games that Microsoft was making then – a couple of versions of Flight Simulator, sports games, Close Combat… It was a huge variety of games and it was really fun.

What was the last big recording project you worked on?

Just before I left 343, we did a large-scale water explosions session. We found a place where we could do explosions in water – an abandoned juvenile detention centre out in the middle of nowhere. I think we had 90 microphones set up. There’s a philosophy of sound design that I subscribe to, which is the better the source you’re working with, the more breadth and variety, the more creative you can be and the better the results. This session was a good example of that. You can simulate the sound of explosions but it’s harder to do without the source. And games are very different from movies in that you have to have the sound from different perspectives. It provides for much more versatile material.

How did you end up at Midwinter?

I knew the founders really well – I had worked with three out of the four at 343. I started working with the main founder, Josh Holmes, on Halo in 2012. We shipped Halo 4 and 5 together and worked on Infinite and then Josh left to found Midwinter. I was at 343 for seven years and was part of 500-700- person team before I left for Midwinter, which was 30 people. It was exactly what I was looking for at that time. I was ready to be much more connected to what I was working on, to try out the indie thing. That was important to me.

What was that change like?

What was so refreshing about Midwinter was just how much you could strip away with a small team – the overhead and all the stuff that can get in the way of development and allowing a team to thrive. I also saw the importance of culture – which I always knew – but it was so refreshing to see the positive aspects of it play out. So, when you take the time to go slowly when you’re hiring, to really have the intentionality around what you want your culture to be – not to wake up one day and say you want it over here when it’s over there and form a committee to try and steer it back. I don’t even know if that’s possible! Culture is set in numerous ways – by the leadership team first and foremost – how you model etc. It’s also how you hire and the team you’re going to build and how you’re going to uphold that is important. You’re going to get in a hurry and face deadlines and it’s very easy to put that aside and lose sight of those values if they’re not established early on. There’s a piece about Midwinter that I never want to lose. If you start compromising on those things, on the urgent over the important, it’s going to fall apart in different ways.

How does Behaviour fit this vision?

Up front, I was totally pleasantly surprised by how much alignment we had. I didn’t know there was a company out there that was so aligned with us. We’re in sync culturally and in the way Behaviour approaches development. Every conversation I’ve had I’ve walked away thinking, ‘huh – it’s like talking to us!’ There are some cultural differences, as much as we like to think Canadians and Americans are so much alike. But with every visit, every conversation I feel like the bond has grown between us.

What else has surprised you about Behaviour so far?

I’ve been very surprised by the consistent humility from people – the ego thing is just not there. I’ve always been one to seek out the people who don’t have egos – because I feel like I can get more done with them – and at Behavour it’s across the board! It makes it so much easier. And it’s so refreshing – usually you get a balance of big egos and no egos!

Tell us something surprising about yourself

I build modular synthesizers. I’ve built hundreds of them, and love to solder.

The other thing is I can fall asleep anywhere. You could put me in a crowded, brightly lit meeting room and, if I felt comfortable doing it, I could fall asleep. Or at a concert, anywhere if I felt like it was appropriate to do so. I can’t stay awake during take off and landing on planes. I have to tell co-workers that I will fall asleep – I can’t help it!