“I don’t think I would still be at Microsoft or in technology if I hadn’t found gaming.”
Bonnie Ross, Microsoft Corporate vice president and head of 343 Industries, will be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in February 2019 for her work in video games, in helping to expand the reach of the Halo franchise, and the time she spends promoting diversity efforts across the game industry.
But Ross says that it’s gaming that helped her, and she’s just working to make sure others see its power and influence.
“I think a lot of it comes from my own personal experience,” she recently told Variety. “When I realized that gaming is technology empowering art or creativity or storytelling, that’s the thing that clicked for me. But why didn’t I know that before? What I’m passionate about, where my efforts start, is connecting those dots for others”
It was that realization and the power it had to help shape her career, that drove Ross to work to help STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) efforts focus on middle school girls, a place Ross said studies show a loss of interest in the topic.
Her own career started as a technology hire at Microsoft but took a turn to gaming in 1994 at the company’s PC sports gaming division, where she worked on “NBA Full Court Press” for Windows. As her career advanced in gaming, she began to attend events like E3. It was at E3 where Ross came upon the idea of having a regular meeting for women in the game industry.
“We were having dinner at E3 in Atlanta one year and noting how few of us there were in the industry and wondering if there was something we could do to connect us,” she said. “So we started networking and connecting women across the industry.”
The group hosted a small cocktail hour at the next Game Developers Conference and a couple of dozen women showed up. That, she said, evolved into a luncheon and the Microsoft Women in Gaming community.
“We’ve been doing it now for 15 to 17 years,” she said. “The last event was about 1,500 women. It’s such an amazing network from all different parts of the industry.”
Ross said the event continues to evolve with a goal of getting as many people into the event as possible. This year’s event included speakers at an all-day event. This year will likely be a more focused event, she said.
Over her career at Microsoft, she’s worked on a number of games including “Counter-Strike” for the Xbox, “Dungeon Siege,” “Mass Effect,” and “Zoo Tycoon,” but it was 2007 that saw her career refocus onto a single franchise: Halo.
“At the time Bungie wanted to amicably spin-out from Microsoft,” she said. “We were talking about what would happen next. There were thoughts on where Halo was going. Should we keep doing Halo games? We were looking at maybe ‘Halo 3’ as the end”
Ross, a huge fan of the Halo fiction, put together a proposal arguing that instead of mothballing the franchise, Microsoft should reinvest in it.
“I put together a proposal about how we could create a canvas upon which we could tell stories for the next 20 years,” she said. “This was just the start. I looked at it more like Star Wars. It’s an epic sci-fi world that people want to escape into. How do we do it justice? Would could tell hundreds, thousands of stories.
“Shane Kim was my manager and he gave me the keys to the franchise.”
Those keys came in the form of Ross founding 343 Industries, an entertainment studio built in 2007 to grow the Halo franchise not just in terms of new video games, but as a fully-realized transmedia property.
Under her direction, 343 Industries developed eight Halo properties for the console, PC, smartphone, and arcade. There has also been toys, books, comics, and work proceeds on a Showtime TV series and the next big Halo game.
“‘Infinite’ is our next big release,” Ross said. “The team is heads-down working on ‘Halo Infinite.’ We haven’t really talked about it much, but that is the thing most people are working on.
“I am incredibly excited about ‘Inifnite’ and continuing to ensure you can experience our universe the way you want to regardless of medium.”
Ross also noted the release of the latest Halo book and its exploration of the backstory for franchise protagonist Master Chief.
While the Showtime series just lost a director, Ross said that work on the show is moving along nicely as well.
“We moved the schedule around a bit due to production and that didn’t align with other projects he had going on,” she said. “He did amazing work to set the foundation and for world building.”
Ross said the show is in full pre-production and that she just had a meeting at the Showtime offices earlier this month about the project.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “It’s definitely telling a different part of the Halo story.”
Ross’ obvious passion for the Halo franchise translates well to her work across the game industry and technology, allowing her to focus not just on making great games, but using games, art, and technology to reach out to a broad group of people.
More than 90 percent of people polled according to Microsoft research, Ross said, identified themselves as being creative, but didn’t see technology as being a way to express that creativity. That’s something Ross thinks she can help fix.
“I look at gaming as a great platform for being able to have that bridge to talk to young people about STEM,” she said. “In the game industry, we have the ability to teach in a language that they understand. Having video games gives me a platform to talk to young people about why technology is so important.”
The 2019 Hall of Fame Award will be presented to Ross during the 22nd Annual D.I.C.E. Awards ceremony on Wednesday, February 13, 2019, at the Aria Convention Center in Las Vegas by Phil Spencer, executive vice president and head of gaming at Microsoft.
Past AIAS Hall of Fame recipients includes: Todd Howard (2017), Hideo Kojima (2016), Leslie Benzies (2014), Dan and Sam Houser (2014) and Tim Sweeney (2012).