She found 'her people.' Then the fun began.
Naz Hartoonian’s career might have ended up looking very different if she hadn’t found a like-minded community of game lovers.
It’s always the cool cousin, isn’t it?
No one in Naz Hartoonian’s immediate family knew the first thing about gaming. But then that one cousin came along and lit the fuse that would lead Hartoonian down a path of lifelong gaming and into a career she never thought would be possible.
“My older cousin was into PC gaming—he was playing Diablo, he played Warcraft III,” says Hartoonian. “The fact that you pressed something on your keyboard or moved your mouse and it controlled something on the computer—that just blew my four-year-old mind!”
Before she even knew the words “PC” or “console,” Hartoonian was begging her parents: “That thing my cousin plays, can I do that?”
Hartoonian is now a producer at Blizzard, specifically for the Diablo series of action role-playing games. The gig fulfills a dream that seemed to be heading towards derailment before she found a community of gamers and a renewed sense of purpose. More importantly, Hartoonian is now the cool cousin to a whole new generation of budding gamers in her family.
When did a fascination with games become a drive to get involved in the game industry?
When I was around 13 or 14 years old, I knew I wanted to do this for a living. But it was funny—for someone who knew they wanted to be a part of the games industry, I had no idea what I was actually going to do. I'm like, "Yeah, I love playing games and I really want to make them because they look very cool and super creative." Then I kind of just stopped there. When I got into college, I was like, "I think I need to actually figure out what I'm going to do in the industry."
It's surprising how frequently you hear that in this industry—people who know they want to work in games even if they don’t know how or what.
Yeah, that's exactly how I felt. Before graduating high school, my counselor said that the best way to get into the games industry is to get a degree in computer science. I'm like, "Okay. I guess that's what I'm going to do." Then I started applying to computer science and software engineering programs at different colleges. I ultimately decided to go to UC Irvine because I heard that their computer science program was pretty good. When I got there, I learned the hard way that I do not know how to program nearly as well as I thought. For the first year I just kept trying to work it out. I thought for sure it would get better. But it just got worse and worse. It got more and more difficult.
I'm like, "This isn't something I can do. I don't enjoy it." I had an epiphany moment where I sat down and thought, "Ultimately this path isn't something that I want to pursue. What are some other ways I can get into this industry without having a technical background? Is that even doable? Is that possible?"
Epiphanies are one thing, but how did you go about turning it into a plan of action?
I looked into every video game related club that UC Irvine offered. I ended up finding a group called the Video Game Development Club. That was my winning ticket. I was like, "This is the group that I have been searching for," because what I was looking for in my classes was what I got from that club. There were people from different majors, different backgrounds. The idea was that you could be in biology or psychology or whatever—that shouldn't stop you from being able to make games together. That's something that really inspired me. We banded together and we started making independent games. I realized, even though at the time, I wasn't much of an artist, I wasn't much of a programmer, but I was very much the one to take the initiative and be like, "Hey, let's all come together and make something really cool that we're proud of, that we're happy to put on our portfolios."
I was helping my group with the scheduling, with the communication, with the tasking of different responsibilities—I didn't know at the time that there was a name for something like that in the industry. Lo and behold, I found out about production, about game production. I'm like, "Oh my God, that's what I can do. That's something that I have experience in and I'm pretty good at."
How did that lead you to Blizzard?
When I was working on my graduate thesis, I applied for a role just with the idea of getting a sense of the interview process. And then when I got that call from recruiting, saying, "Hey, here's a job. We're offering you this position. Do you want it?" I was pinching myself. I'm like, "Are you for real right now? Yes, absolutely I want it. When do I start?" The role was as an associate game producer for the Quest Design team on [the forthcoming] Diablo IV. That was the title. I was reporting to a senior game producer for the Quest Design team.
What exactly does a “quest designer” do?
Quest design touches literally everything in Diablo IV. We request and use various assets created by our interactives team for important interactions in the campaign. We assist the narrative team in hooking up our written lines and our VO [voiceover] team with voiced lines. We work with Dungeon Design and Art to curate dungeons used for our campaign and side quests. We provide creative briefs for all unique campaign and side quest NPCs to the character art team for modeling. The list is endless!
Quest design intersects and interacts with pretty much every other team on Diablo IV. That's what makes this group so unique—you work with everybody. Often when it comes to production's role in quest design, it's about coming in and making sure that those conversations with downstream teams are as smooth as possible, that everyone is getting what they need, and that the process goes as best as it can. Luckily, everyone working on Diablo is really fun and super easy to work with.
So what do you do to unwind after a long day of keeping the production pipelines moving?
Outside of games, I also love boxing. It's something that I got into right before COVID hit. It's an intense workout, but it's so rewarding. Outside of boxing and video games, I love to spend time with my family. It gives me a chance to talk about a lot of the stuff that I do here at Blizzard with my younger cousins that want to get into games. Now they're coming to me, and they're like, "Well, now we actually have a person in the family who has made it, and we want to follow in your footsteps." To me, that is incredibly inspiring.
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