Making video games her business
Video games are serious business for alumna Olga Zinoveva.
Zinoveva, A.B. ’12, a computer science concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, recently left her job at game developer 343 Industries to co-found the startup AllMyGames, a platform that helps users organize and prioritize their cross-platform game collections.
“It’s great to be working on something that I care really deeply about,” she said. “Being a gamer is very helpful because I understand the problems people face and I can connect with customers on a deeper level because we have this shared experience.”
Although she grew up playing video games, Zinoveva never expected to work in that realm. Her family immigrated to Chicago from Uzbekistan when she was 12, and the ambitious teenager set her sights on becoming a doctor. She took a few biology classes at Harvard, but couldn’t find the right fit.
The summer after freshman year, a medical technology internship at DePaul University set her on a different path. Zinoveva built machine-learning software that could help physicians diagnose lung cancer from CAT scan images.
“I spent most of that summer doing coding, which was not what I expected, but it turned out to be a lot of fun,” she said. “I enjoyed the problem-solving aspects. If something goes wrong in your code, it’s usually your fault, and you can find it, troubleshoot it, and fix it.”
After taking Introduction to Computer Science (CS50), Zinoveva was hooked and declared a computer science concentration. She was captivated by the complex problems computer science could solve. For instance, while taking a course on social choice theory taught by Yiling Chen, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science, Zinoveva worked on a final project to distill complex voting systems from academic literature into a simple website anyone could use to make everyday decisions. Her partner, computer science concentrator Matthew Chartier, A.B. ’12, would later become a co-founder of AllMyGames.
Through an internship on the Microsoft Windows team, Zinoveva connected with the company’s games group, and later accepted a job as a games producer at 343 Industries, established in 2007 to oversee development of the Halo franchise. For a video game aficionado, it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“Working on games has quite a few benefits, and some downsides, too, but the best thing is the people,” she said. “You’d be hard pressed to find another group of 300 people who are so passionate about a project.”
Zinoveva drove production of the effects, lighting, and systems teams, and also provided long-term and capacity planning for the game franchise.
As an engineer, she was able to communicate effectively with developers doing the actual coding. Often, gamers fail to realize the staggering amount of complexity involved in each development decision, she said. A seemingly simple gameplay change could take six months or more to implement, since the game’s immense code base dates back to the 1990s.
“I think video games are one of the most complicated software projects you can put together, because not only are you bringing together 100 engineers to work on the technical systems, you also have 200 artists who are often a completely different type of personality,” she said. “The cross-disciplinary implementation is the most challenging part.”
Soft skills proved most valuable as she encouraged and coached team members to do their best work. It was fun to work together on such a popular game—the franchise has sold more than 65 million copies since 2001—and although she didn’t grow up playing Xbox, she quickly became immersed in Halo.
But as an avid gamer, Zinoveva began to encounter a growing problem.
As more games are released through an increasing number of storefronts—from online repositories STEAM or Battle.net to physical consoles like PlayStation and Xbox, people buy and play games on many platforms, but often can’t keep track of every game they own, she explained.
“Ten or 20 years ago, it was possible to play every game you wanted, but there are just too many games now,” she said. “When you are presented with a lot of choices as a consumer, at some point, you become very unhappy and it is difficult to make a decision. Choosing a game can be pretty stressful. Instead of enjoying my hobby and playing fun games, I’m scrolling through my different platforms and devices to try and figure out where to invest my gaming time.”
So Zinoveva and Chartier launched AllMyGames in July. The startup offers users a one-stop-shop where they can view their entire collection, and also create a prioritized backlog of games to play and a video game wish list.
For Zinoveva, the biggest challenges of going from employee to co-founder have come from the increase in responsibility. Being in charge of product development, marketing, public relations, and sales is a lot to juggle, she said.
She and Chartier are now focusing on gathering feedback from customers as they fine-tune their product. They are also applying to startup accelerators, looking to take advantage of networking and advice from other entrepreneurs as they prepare for future funding rounds.
“I would be super-excited to grow AllMyGames to a million customers,” she said. “If we can let people save the time they would spend figuring out what to play next, they could spend that time playing games instead. Really, we want to make playing games fun and easy for people, which is the way it should be.”