ESA Foundation

A Rock Star Is Born

Liz Kirby, an ESA Foundation Scholarship alumna, grew up in a tech household. But it wasn’t until she attended a Halo launch party that she decided exactly what she wanted to do.
By Rich Shea
April 29, 2020

Liz Kirby wanted to be a rock star, and now she is.

She remembers, as a student at the DigiPen Institute of Technology, attending a launch party for the Halo: Reach franchise in a town not from the college’s Washington state campus. “And they had bused in the game devs to the town center, where they were greeting fans and handing out T-shirts,” Liz, now 32, says. “They were rock stars to the crowd. And I remember thinking, ‘That would be super-cool if I could be on a dev team like that and one day go to a launch of my game.’"

I had so many difficulties just getting a video game testing job back then. So being able to win a scholarship was a huge boost of confidence.

That’s exactly what happened two years later, when Halo 4 was launched, and Kirby, as part of the dev team at Halo’s maker, 343 Industries, attended the launch. The former ESA Foundation Scholar has now been with the company for eight-and-a-half years, working as a 3D animator. In a recent interview, she shared how she originally got into game-making and, with a boost from the Foundation, landed her rock-star, triple-A gig.'

Getting Into Video Games and Game-Making

Q: How’d you first get into video games and video game design?

A: I was in middle school, and my brother was really into video games and trying to make his own games on this program called RPG Maker 2000. Just watching him do that, I got super-interested and just downloaded it myself and spent all day making really bad, tiny RPGs. And I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is what I want to do.”

We also played a lot. My first console was the classic Nintendo. We’d play the classics — Super Mario and any of the competitive ones, like Super Mario Kart, and a lot of Pokémon.

Q: Your father, Don, is a longtime hardware engineer, and Richard, your brother, has worked for Microsoft. Did you learn a lot growing up in that household?

A: Absolutely. My brother has a rich knowledge of video games, and my dad’s a genius. He knows how to fix or make anything. My mom’s not involved, but she is a constant source of support. Most kids, when they say, “I’m gonna go to college to make video games,” parents are like, “Maybe you should have a Plan B.” But she never questioned it and threw her weight behind me. That’s one of the reasons why I pursued it.

Becoming a Scholar and Landing the 343 Gig

Q: You received the ESA Foundation Scholarship your senior year at the DigiPen Institute of Technology, 2011–12. How did you find out about it, and what were you hoping it would do for you?

A: I found out through DigiPen. The primary goal was to help with tuition, since it’s very expensive there. But it was also a confidence boost. DigiPen was very daunting, and I had so many difficulties just getting a video game testing job back then. So being able to win a scholarship was a huge boost of confidence.

Q: Before working at 343, you worked as an intern at Arkitek Scientific?

A: I did a lot of work on medical innovations. When I worked there, we were trying to get funding for doctors for medical treatments. And they needed help demonstrating their treatments. So we made animations that illustrated what they were trying to accomplish, which was pretty nerve-wracking.

Q: So how did you get a job at 343?

A: Arkitek asked me whether I wanted to extend my contract, but I left them to go to 343, since video games were my dream. A guy I went to DigiPen with had just graduated and started working at 343, and they needed environment artists to help finish up Halo 4. So he recommended me, and I got in while I was a senior in college.

Working at a Triple-A Company

Q: What do you do at 343?

A: I’m an environment artist. For Halo Infinite [due for release later this year], I’ve been mostly working on animating foliage. For previous games, I’d do everything from hard-surface art to organics to animating the rigging. And during production, I’m finalizing all those assets. I also do a lot of testing and development of tools when working with engineers.

Q: And your husband, Tim Diaz, works in the same department?

A: He does, though he works a different palette, we would call it. In the Halo universe, there’s a lot of different factions. There’s the Covenant, the UNSC and Forerunner. Every faction has its own palette, and then there’s Organics, which is more of a general palette. Tim is Forerunner, I’m Organics. I make trees, grass and bushes, and he makes all the sci-fi/alien sorts of assets.

Q: When did you two meet?

A: We met in 2011, when I first started, because he took me out to lunch. Then we became friends, got married in 2015, had a baby in 2019. His name is Leon.

Q: Before working on Halo Infinite, you worked on Halo 4 and 5?

A: For Halo 4, I was hired as an intern. I wanted to do anything I could to prove my worth. I started out doing outsource integration, taking the assets we’d outsourced and getting them into our game. Then I started modeling and animating environment assets. For Halo 5, I worked my way up to an artist role.

Q: 343 is a diverse company supervised by many women executives. One goal of the ESA Foundation is to help women and minorities get into the industry. Is that happening?

A: I’m very fortunate to be at 343. It’s really amazing to see the growth in less than a decade. When I got hired, they did a “women at 343” photo shoot. There were maybe 10 or 11 women in the photo. But fast-forward to today, they took that photo recently, and our entire hub area was filled with women.

As for the industry, we need more women and minorities to make more diverse games, and that’s slowly happening. But our job’s not complete.

Advice for Aspiring Game-Makers

Q: Any advice you can give young people who want to make video games?

A: Your portfolio is very important. Most people tend to use a scattershot approach when they’re in college, trying to hit every kind of style or asset to get into the industry. But I find it’s usually easier if you focus. For example, if you’re trying to get into 343, your portfolio might have hard-surface or sci-fi elements more than anything else. Or if you’re trying to get into Blizzard, you might focus on a low-poly, painterly style.

And if you find an artist or game developer you like, message them. A lot of us are willing to be mentors to people who haven’t quite broken in. Tim and I get messages all the time from young people, asking what they should do and for portfolio critiques. Just make sure you’re open to being critiqued. Otherwise, you can’t work in a creative field.

Q: How about for those underrepresented in the industry?

A: Women or minorities looking to get into the industry — just try. You might be intimidated by a triple-A studio or even applying for a scholarship, but what is the saying? “You miss all the shots you don’t take.” That’s very true in the video game industry. Never be self-defeating. There’s a lot more value in you than you might think.

Rich Shea is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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