Read through our AMA with Hilary and Chris, who generously agreed to spend an hour with us answering questions about Hidden Door, AI, and their beautiful open roles they had at the time!

Hilary, Chris, thank you so much for being here and sharing your insights with the Work With Indies community!

👋 Hi! I'm Hilary, Co-founder and CEO of Hidden Door. I'm a technologist with a business hobby, who has founded a few other organizations, including Fast Forward Labs and as well as past roles like being the General Manager of Cloudera's Data Science and Machine Learning business, as well as Chief Scientist at places like Bitly and Accel Partners. I also deeply support diversity and equity in tech and volunteer on the board of the Anita Borg Institute. I currently lead the engineering team at Hidden Door, where we're thinking about large language models, procedural generation, dynamic visual story rendering, and building scalable platform services.

👋 Hi all - I'm Chris, Game Director at Hidden Door. I'm a designer, creative lead, and programmer (of last resort) who's worked in games for nearly thirty years, including stints at Harmonix (The Beatles: Rock Band) and Turbine (The Lord of the Rings Online). I've also been a teacher of game design, and in my limited spare time, I work on an indie game titled Loose Nozzles with my son. At Hidden Door, I oversee the overall creative vision for our first game, helping to plan game mechanics, user experience, and story content together with the entire team. Nice to meet you!

🤔 I am really impressed and interested by your diverse technical background. Looking back at your experience across a variety of different fields and cultures, how has that prepared you to successfully build and grow a team and business at Hidden Door?

Or, putting it another way, what are some of your unique skills and perspectives that will provide you and your new team with a competitive advantage in this new space? - Nate

Hilary: Ha, thanks! To get right at the heart of it, the product we're building is using an emergent technology, in this case, machine learning, right as it's becoming possible to do so, to invent a new kind of entertainment experience. To do this requires both deep technical expertise, as well as empathy, and sensitivity for the delight that we're trying to create.

That's why I'm personally in love with this project (I was an English/Computer Science double major at a hippy liberal arts school, so have been toying around here for YEARS), but also why [.c-highlight]we're building a team that's half folks from tech and half folks from gaming, all with different experiences and perspectives on what makes amazing social story experiences.[.c-highlight]

😍 Love this! Confession: I am selfishly asking these questions because I see a lot of benefit in diversifying our games teams by complimenting them with people and perspectives from outside of games, something that I'd like to see more risk-averse teams lean into. - Nate

Hilary: I agree with you! It's been surprising to me as someone coming from 'tech' broadly how different even fairly straightforward things like engineering or management approaches can be between the gaming industry and startup tech (which is also different from enterprise tech, and so on).

I'm also a big fan of diverse teams in many dimensions having broader experience and perspectives to build better things.

🤔 Can you tell me about the dynamic on your team, marrying your game experience with Hilary's varied technical background? And specifically, what excites you about bringing those worlds together? - Nate

Chris: I came to Hidden Door as a kind of "games whisperer," helping marry the team's objectives for a cool AI-driven storytelling experience with the sorts of dynamics that make games work. It's been a thrill to collaborate with people who are this smart and creative, and to be able to apply what I've learned at various game studios in this new domain. Maybe what's most exciting is that what we're building is so new and unprecedented, and leverages the story in a way I haven't done since I was an aspiring screenwriter.

🤔 That is a good lead into what you are doing now. What can you tell us about your current project at Hidden Door? And for our job seekers, what excited you so much about the project that you decided to start/join this team? - Nate

Hilary: We're building a social game for playing stories with your friends. You choose a world to play in or create one, make characters, and go on story adventures that are dynamically rendered through text and art. The player controls their characters by a mad-libs/magnetic poetry UX, where they build sentences, eg., "I leap behind the plant".

The vibe is kind of like a TTRPG, while the look is like a graphic novel. We're using a mix of a typical game engine and simulation tech, procedural generation, and machine learning on the backend to create a Story Game Engine that improvises with you.

It's like collaborative interactive fan fiction, and we also allow players to create worlds and stories to share with their friends (or with others)!

Chris: What was exciting to me was (to continue from before) it's such an unexplored space. When we started a lot of the work was identifying what sort of experience would leverage our technology and appeal to kids; nothing was really taken for granted or had an obvious precedent. We're making new things up every day, and I've never had a game development experience like that. The fact that the final result is social and creative is the cherry on top.

[.c-highlight]For our readers, you can read more background the project in their "Worlds With Friends" (clever title) blog post earlier this year: Blog | Worlds with Friends[.c-highlight]

Hilary: As to why I'm excited about it, story play has been with us as humans forever, and it's already a big part of gaming. It's just usually the side channel because the technology to mediate and guide stories convincingly is juuuuuuust becoming possible.

I've personally worked on a variety of machine learning-powered products, and this is one where we get to use the capabilities of the system to enhance our creativity, not just optimize some ROI. Put another way, people are creative, not machines (even machines that have analyzed millions of stories), so how do we build something that makes it easy for anyone to create?

🤔 How did Hidden Door decide on this product? What ideas and steps led the team to say, "This is what we want to make"? - Shelby

Hilary: We had a lot of ideas! And a lot of bad ones (we have a #badideas channel in our team slack). Some of them looked really different at the beginning, but we started the company knowing there was a nugget of something really interesting here. We then spent a bunch of time identifying the biggest product risks (opportunities?) and prototyping and playtesting to figure out what our game would be.

For example, our first prototype had plain text entries. That has a bunch of problems. One player told us it felt like homework. It's also very hard to make sure it's safe. So we built a few designs and then prototyped one that got us to our current "build any sentence you want but with words out of our dictionary" approach.

😆 I would love to see the #badideas slack channel for entertainment purposes haha.

[.c-highlight]But I also love that you made one and have kept it because you never know when you can take a "bad idea" and turn it into something good! - Shelby[.c-highlight]

😅 We need one of those in our team Discord so I can just sit in there and talk to myself. - Nate

The best ideas usually start out as 'bad' ones 😆 - Hilary

😆 Chris mentions appealing to kids. Are kids the primary audience? Looking at Loose Nozzles as potential inspiration, is it aimed at kids playing with other kids, kids playing with their families, or a combination of both? - Nate

Chris: We're focused on tweens and young teens, playing together. That's an age when many people are engaged with story - reading, possibly writing, or roleplaying - as well as focused on carving out their own identity. Stories are a compelling place to explore identity, and that's one reason it's important for us to make sure our game enables a diverse representation of characters.

Hilary: On the technical side, we realized early that if we design our architecture around safety and control and with moderation in the design, we gain the ability to start with young players (who we imagine are playing with their real friends, but a bunch of family members is interested, too, which is great!). We've also done the work to be legally compliant for players <13 years old. We're not stopping there, though, and everyone will be welcome to play.

🤔 While we're on the subject of Loose Nozzles, it is super cool to see you making games with your son! What was his role on the project? Is game dev in his future?

(I have an aspiring game designer/programmer in my 11-year-old daughter. Mostly, she just wants to create and tell stories. And she is wanting to learn design and code so that she has the tools to be able to tell her stories, her way.) - Nate

Chris: Ha! My son came up with the initial idea for Loose Nozzles and provided the core art. I also recorded him making most of the game's sound effects.

Now he's mainly an "executive producer," offering creative feedback and critique as I wrap up the game. His instincts are good, even when they mean I end up having to do more work.

I don't know if he wants to make games for a living - I've made a point to keep this feeling more like play than work for him - but based on what I've seen him constructing in Minecraft and (more recently) Stormworks, he might be an engineer when he grows up!

🤩 That's awesome. I am also not pushing anything on my daughters. I may have loaded up a bunch of things on her iPad, but she has self-selected into art, animation, and coding apps on her own. Oh, and she's also a recent Minecraft convert. - Nate

Chris: If you have a Nintendo Switch, I highly recommend Game Builder Garage as a great way for kids to get experience with game development. Its tutorials are excellent; my daughter went through all of them and it gave her a good sense of how to build a variety of different games. (For now she's not pursuing it, but that knowledge feels valuable in any case.)

🤩 I love your branding. Can you tell us who the designer is? - Nate

Hilary: Thank you!! That's all the work of Daniel Abensour, our Art Director: Daniel Abensour doesn't know what he's doing.

Chris: (he actually DOES know what he's doing)

Hilary: Uh, preview text aside, he knows what he's doing 😂

Animation Industry Podcast

The Lowerworld

Sago Mini Space Blocks

🤔 Let's move the conversation towards your open roles. First, how big is the team today and how do you see the team growing over the next 12 months? - Nate

Hilary: We are eight right now, including Em who just joined us yesterday as our Community Manager!

I should also say we're fully remote, and we're open to working with folks in time zones from the Western US to GMT+1 (we're five in North American time zones now and three in EU). We do travel every few months to get together in person.

We're currently hiring a Gameplay Engineer to own and build the next generation of our client, most likely in Unity and Javascript (React), and a Platform Engineer to help us develop and scale the Story Game Engine and the services that run it (Python/FastAPI/Postgres/etc.)

We're currently building towards a winter Alpha release, which will be a formative time for the game. We'll expand the team more after that.

Chris: This moment in development is when we're nailing down some crucial parts of the experience; it's a great time to come aboard and help shape the game.

🤔 What kind of art direction will the game have? Are you guys going more for 3D, 2D, or something else? - Maeve

Chris: We're going for a 2D look, that's got its own style but is suitable for a wide variety of fictional universes and tones. One key thing with our art direction is to make things evocative while leaving plenty of room for players to project their imagination into the spaces they visit and characters they meet and portray. It's an interesting challenge!

🤔 I feel like kids tend to do that anyway, so it shouldn't be too difficult to evoke their imaginations. Were you planning on a simpler style, to make it easier for the audience to project? You mentioned earlier that one of the team member's sons made some of the concept art, which is really cool. - Maeve

Chris: The style is simpler, to enable that projection, as well as to support the wide variety of entities that could arise from a story that's so open and generative. (The child's concept art was for my personal game Loose Nozzles, though. 🙂)

[.c-insight]It's also worth noting that one thing cool about working at Hidden Door is that they allow and encourage side projects like my game! - Chris

😲 You mean your employment contract doesn't stipulate that Hidden Door owns 100% of your thoughts, ideas, and being while you are employed? That's a new one! 😆 - Nate[.c-insight]

🤔 How would each of you describe your company culture, in your own words? - Nate

Chris: [.c-highlight]Collaborative, constructive, and compassionate.[.c-highlight] We work hard at finding the best solutions together and are deeply humane about how we figure out how to get things done.

And there's a healthy space for debate and "constructive friction" as we come at things from different angles. We're able to synthesize new ideas from our diverse backgrounds. And we're not jerks to each other while doing it 🙂

Hilary: A great question. I've worked on and led teams from hundreds globally in a public company to small groups like ours, and there are a few things I care about deeply.

[.c-highlight]First, our team runs on trust.[.c-highlight] We trust each other's expertise, intuitions, opinions, and abilities. We're all here to do something great, something we can only do together.

[.c-highlight]Second, we are kind.[.c-highlight] One of the best bits of management advice I ever got (from my friend Cate, so many years ago was that [.c-highlight]99% of good management is being a decent human being.[.c-highlight] She was so right! That means both making sure people have the support they need to thrive, personally and professionally. It also means having honest conversations about our work, and holding each other accountable, and making each other better.

🤔 Em! Thank you for the offer [to answer questions about the interview process]! What did you learn during the interview process that told you that this was the right opportunity for you?

And as a follow-up, was there something about the interview process that surprised (or delighted) you that would be useful for other applicants to know? - Nate

Em: It's my pleasure! Probably the first thing that alerted me that this was the right opportunity for me was the goal of Hidden Door to provide a new, creative way for people to make stories and share those stories with their friends, while also being vigilant about safety and inclusivity.

🤔 "...being vigilant about safety and inclusivity" This has come up a couple of times. Love it! But, what does that mean, in practice? - Nate

Hilary: Safety and inclusivity for our game mean that our players are able to role-play and experiment with identities they want to explore in a safe place, meaning free from bullying, discrimination, and abuse. We really see our game as a scaffold for a creative social experience for our players with their friends. If we can make a space on the internet that's about making creative story experiences together that allow our players to explore ideas and interactions they're interested in, we'll have succeeded.

Practically, this means we're building our system around those principles, and also allowing for human-in-the-loop in our ML systems, and finally having live moderation.

🤔 What are you looking for in your Software Engineers that might not be evident in your job descriptions? What are you seeing in applications that are resonating with you and leading to follow-up phone calls? - Nate

Hilary: Great question. I assume any smart technologist can learn anything, given the time and guidance. I look for good taste and judgment. One of my screening questions is, "Tell me about a time you were working on a project where a technical design could have gone in more than one direction. What were the tradeoffs? What did you decide?"

Second, and this has nothing to do with the individual applicants, we're looking for folks with the expertise we don't already have on our team, who can bring up our overall level of competence. So we're great at ML development right now and have several folks with that experience, but we don't have anyone with SRE/DevOps experience, so that skillset would be a big plus.

[.c-insight]💡 I LOVE to see behavioral interview questions ("Tell me about a time..."). It is a hallmark of a good interviewer, a reduction in bias in interviewing/hiring (note reduction, as elimination is not possible), a company where cultural fit (aka people) is important, and a sign towards higher quality prior and future hires (i.e. better, smarter, more capable teammates). - Nate[.c-insight]

🙏 Hilary! Chris! Em! This has been great!! Unfortunately, we are already all out of time! (That snuck up on me.)

Thank you so much for sharing your story, your opportunities, and your insights with us. I was already excited about what you are working on, but I leave this conversation even more intrigued and impressed.

Where can we learn more about you, Hidden Door, and find all of you online?

Hilary: Thanks so much for having us -- y'all ask great questions, and this was a lot of fun!

Chris: This was fun! Thanks for the thoughtful questions.