My name is Ethan Pasternack, and I’m the Daily Challenge Designer for the Microsoft Casual Games team. As the title suggests, my primary job is the creation and deployment of the Daily Challenges in all our games. So whether you’re giving your brain a light workout on an Easy level Jigsaw Jam or grinding your teeth trying to beat one of those evil 4-suit Expert Spider Solitaire challenges, the buck stops here – I’m the one you get to credit and/or blame!
But don’t think of me as an evil little game design troll who sits in a darkened room devising the cruelest mental tortures all day… well, ok so I am that but I’m lots of other things, too! Around here I’m also part data analyst and part technical writer, and outside these walls I’m also a graphic designer, writer, artist, musician, hiker, skier, driver, sailor, gardener, tinker, salvor, gearhead, rock hound, cat person, dog person, and of course, gamer geek.
I grew up on games of all kinds. My family played classic games like Chess, Pente, and Ur. We loved family tabletop games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Parcheesi, and Yahtzee. We put together puzzles. We did crosswords. We played cards. Then early game consoles and primitive computers started finding their way into the house, and after that teenage me discovered RPGs like D&D and Shadowrun and BattleTech, so of course I’ve been a devoted gamer and computer geek ever since. I may have studied art and philosophy in college, but my real major was X-Wing (with a dual minor in Solitaire and Minesweeper because hey – 90s college computer labs).
Many people think of video games as a hardcore, solitary pursuit, but for me they have always been both a casual and social experience. Yes, even Solitaire! Back in college before internet gaming had become a thing, my friends and I played endless multiplayer games of Quake and StarCraft together on the 8-port LAN we had set up in the apartment where we all kept our machines. We all gathered around the TV as somebody played Final Fantasy to ooh and aah at the amazing effects and gorgeous cut scenes. We rotated through round after round of Soul Caliber or Tekken, broke out the Dreamcast to play goofy little Japanese bootleg games like Puzzle Fighter – we basically viewed video games as just another form of group entertainment, like a movie or a TV show.
Sure, I have spent MANY hours playing games alone – stretching my brain on Solitaire or Minesweeper, or immersing myself in a single-player RPG like Freelancer or Mass Effect – but while these games are solitary explorations, like a good book they give people a common set of personal experiences they can draw upon socially.
And that’s what I love about casual and other kinds of mass-market games – like a new bestseller or a beloved classic, they reach out to so many more people than the more hardcore and geeky titles I enjoy. They’re the icebreakers of the game world. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the lost look of “oh I’m sorry I asked” on somebody’s face when they asked me what games I’d worked on. I can’t blame them – if they’re not into Star Trek no amount of explaining from me is going to make Fleet Captains something they’ll understand. But Microsoft Solitaire? Now that’s something everybody can relate to.
I’ve been at Microsoft for a couple of years now but the road here was very twisty. I got my start in the game industry completely by accident over 14 years ago, at a tabletop game company called WizKids Games. Tapped initially as a freelance production guy, my game background and native curiosity quickly found me a niche (and a full time gig). I ended up spending over 7 years there, producing and designing collectable miniatures games, card games, and board games alongside the very people who had created some of my favorite RPGs. With industry veterans like Jordan Weisman and Mike Mulvihill as my mentors, I got to see my work contribute to some of the great geek culture intellectual properties, from cult classics like Shadowrun and MechWarrior to big licenses like Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, and Star Wars.
After WizKids my career evolved pretty organically into casual games. Tabletop collectable games led me to Facebook games (which follow similar business models and are almost all casual), and Facebook games led me to casual mobile games, and then casual mobile games led me to casual PC games at Microsoft. A lot of designers might find working on such classic games boring, but not me. I played a lot of Solitaire and Minesweeper in college (though I will confess I used to suck at Mahjong) so I find it incredibly rewarding to be a part of bringing those classics back to Windows and transforming them into modern casual games that are even more engaging and rewarding than the originals were.
So that’s me. I’m very proud to be a part of this team full of industry veterans, serving a franchise that stretches back over 25 years and has intersected with so many millions of peoples’ lives, and I love creating the challenges that you fine folks spend your free time figuring out how to defeat.