March 25, 2019
Bonnie Ross didn’t grow up playing Atari or Nintendo or Sega or PlayStation. A Mattel handheld game of football was about as immersed as she got. Today, though, she’s in charge of one of the video game industry’s biggest franchises.
Ross heads 343 Industries at Microsoft, a unit whose sole focus is the Halo franchise. But it all started with basketball.
She joined Microsoft in 1994, originally working on the company’s Windows operating system. While video games weren’t a passion of her youth, physical sports were. So when she heard Microsoft was working on a basketball video game (NBA: Inside Drive), she joined the team. And she quickly learned that everything she had thought about video games was wrong.
“To me, a game is technology and power and art,” she says. “It’s one of the most creative outlets for technology.”
While she might have been late to the video game world, Ross quickly became immersed. And Halo was the game that completely captivated her. When series creator Bungie was preparing to leave Microsoft, the studio wasn’t entirely sure what the next move for the series would be. The Master Chief was presumed dead at the end of Halo 3 and there was some talk of having a third party developer craft the next chapter. Ross approached Xbox management with an idea to act as the steward of the franchise.
“When I look at Halo, Halo 2 and Halo 3, it all takes place over three months in the game’s fiction,” she says. “I look at Halo as Star Wars—and I love Star Wars—in terms of the possibilities for the huge canvas of that universe. I do believe that Halo is a universe worthy of that devotion.”
She’s hardly alone in her devotion to the franchise. Halo‘s intensely loyal fan base can be 343’s biggest cheerleaders and biggest critics.
“It can be intoxicating when you do something right and devastating when you do something wrong,” she says.
Microsoft has a huge presence in Washington, the nation’s third largest state for video game developers and publishers, but it has some high power neighbors, including Nintendo, Unity Technologies and Wizards of the Coast. All totaled, 242 video game companies call the state home and 29,000 people have jobs tied to the industry.
It’s also home to 12 college and university video game programs at institutions like the Art Institute of Seattle, DigiPen Institute of Technology, and Eastern Washington University. And Ross has a special interest in not only those students, but young children, who she tries to steer towards STEM programs by showcasing what she and her team do. Her goal, she says, is to help them discover that by focusing on things like math, science and computer skills, they can help create video game worlds and adventures of their own.
“They’re our farm team,” she says. “We need to think about the funnel of passionate people coming into games and tech. If we can’t help young people think about tech differently, we’re not going to have enough people to fill the jobs.”
She’s just as passionate about fostering diversity in the existing workforce. She co-founded Microsoft’s Women in Gaming community in 1997, a way for women in the industry to network and support each other. It started as a small cocktail event with less than two dozen attendees. In 2019, the now annual lunch, held at the Game Developers Conference, welcomed more than 1,500.
“Entertainment is for everyone and we’re growing up as an industry,” says Ross.
Learn more about the thriving video game industry in Washington: