iterating and Improvising His Way to Success
Grant Hoechst Jackson '14
by Lori Ferguson
When Grant Hoechst Jackson ’14 begins a project, you can almost bet it won’t follow a predictable path. Picture instead a jam session, with jazz musicians riffing off one another, responding and reacting in the moment to create something amazing. And that’s exactly the way Grant likes it.
A senior game designer with Naughty Dog, a subsidiary of Sony Interactive Entertainment, Grant is also an accomplished musician, composer, and improv comedian who thrives on spontaneity. He says, “Whether you’re developing games, playing music, or telling jokes, you need to be able to improvise and set others up for success. You have to be flexible – no one idea can dominate – and you must collaborate to succeed, which I find incredibly powerful.”
Embracing unexpected moments in pursuit of a common goal is one of the things Grant loves about his work as a game designer. He observes, “Games demand that the developer let go of the wheel. Because once the game is released, players are going to use it however they want.”
Finding focus through flexibility
Grant’s path to this career was hardly linear, though in retrospect it seems almost like a foregone conclusion. After graduating from The Potomac School, he attended Harvard, where he leaned heavily into the freedom and flexibility a liberal arts education offers. “I took all sorts of courses, but eventually found myself gravitating toward computer science,” Grant says. “I was less interested in heavy-duty programming and drawn instead to design and higher-level entertainment applications. But I wasn’t clear on how I could use a computer science degree in a non-technical way.”
A summer teaching job provided his lightbulb moment. Grant recalls, “I was teaching computer science to high school students and found myself constantly using video games to illustrate relevant concepts.” A gamer since childhood, Grant explains, “In my family, games were loved and trusted as much as, if not more than, books or movies, and their lessons in storytelling and problem solving became embedded in my mind.” Suddenly, Grant saw how he could unite his interests in entertainment and tech with his penchant for improvisation – game design. “It’s the perfect mix of storytelling and computer science technology,” he observes.
The next step was to figure out how to configure his coursework to get the education he knew he needed. Grant explains, “At the time, Harvard didn’t
offer any courses in game development or design. So I spent my junior and senior years taking computer science courses that were adjacent to my interests – user experience and software design – and enrolled in English and psychology courses to bolster my storytelling skills.”
He also did a deep dive into self-directed learning, playing games with a more analytical eye. He notes, “I began focusing on design rather than play, examining what makes a game engine tick.” It was an uphill climb, but just the sort of challenge that Grant delights in tackling. He observes, “I’m a generalist; I like knowing a fair amount about a lot of things.”
The work paid off. After graduating in 2018, Grant landed a job as a game designer with Naughty Dog, working on The Last of Us Part II, the sequel to the wildly popular original released in 2013. Grant says, “The Last of Us is a single-player action-adventure game series that takes place in a post-pandemic world. When I was a kid, it was a personal favorite. I still remember my sister and me racing up the stairs to our parents in tears the first time we played it; the level of immersion it offered was that amazing. Everything – the writing, the characters, the lighting, the animation – coalesced to create a fully realized world, and that translates to a powerful interactive experience for the player. That game provided a direct channel into a deeply emotional ride. And now I understand how difficult that is to create.”
Embracing the flow
These days, Grant works to provide others with the same powerful interactive experience. He explains, “My role is to help talent come together to enhance the interactivity of our games. I use our in-house programming language to place assets in the game; bring audio, design, and animation elements together; and help team members iterate toward the experience we want players of Naughty Dog’s games to have.”
Leading a diverse group of creatives is a balancing act, he confesses, but it’s the kind of challenge Grant loves. He says, “It’s fun to empower others, giving them the autonomy to create while simultaneously keeping everyone excited about being on the same page. At any given moment, I’m considering the needs of the player as well as the priority of the game overall, while also encouraging the designers to do their best work.”
And doing their best work is critical for those employed in this high-stakes industry. In June of 2023, the online platform Statista reported that there are some 212 million gamers in the U.S., with annual growth expected to remain stable through 2027. The dollars generated are similarly impressive; the video game market in the U.S. alone made over $85 billion in 2022.
Today, approximately 36 percent of gamers in the U.S. are between the ages of 18 and 34, and 48 percent of them are women. “In my experience, there was a time when the perception was that games were primarily for young boys, but that’s no longer the case,” says Grant. “Today’s gamers are diverse in age, interests, and motivations. Some people play to escape and some to triumph, while others seek to lose themselves in an alternate world or create something new.” And games aren’t monolithic either. Grant notes, “There are role-playing games, life simulation games, and action-adventure games. There’s no one type of game or player, and it’s this breadth and the rapid pace of change that make this industry so exciting.”
Asked what future developments he most eagerly anticipates, Grant scarcely misses a beat. “I’m always excited about particular games coming down the pike,” he says. “It’s fun to see what new concepts developers are exploring. My current obsession is Baldur’s Gate 3, which channels the Dungeons and Dragons concept into a full-fledged role-playing game – an experience where the player controls the actions of the character in an imaginary world.” But, Grant quickly adds, his tastes vary: “I like to bounce around from one type of game to another. It sounds corny, but I still feel a sense of childlike wonder when I pick up something new that excites and engages me.”
Grant has other pursuits that delight and engage him as well. A gifted pianist and percussionist, he performed with the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and the American Youth Percussion Ensemble while in junior high and high school, then joined the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra as principal percussionist his freshman year, holding that seat throughout his undergraduate career. He continues to perform as a percussionist, doing turns as a soloist and guest ensemble member with the Silk Road Ensemble under the artistic direction of renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He also flexes his creative muscles as a composer, writing scores for films and games.
Grant says he was encouraged to indulge his wide-ranging interests throughout his time at Potomac. “I was constantly invited to explore different avenues of study,” he recalls. “I pursued my interests in music and also in science with AP computer science courses and AP physics taught by my advisor, Mr. Lindsay. And my creative writing courses with Ms. Bailey showed me the joys of delving into storytelling; there’s something incredibly engaging about coaxing a story into life on a blank page. I still think about that a lot in my current creative work.”
It’s the use of storytelling to tap into players’ deep emotions that continues to motivate Grant as a game designer. He observes, “Games as a medium have access to the full range of primary and secondary human emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, triumph, and many more. There’s a cool, added layer in a game that allows players to conjure those emotional reactions that I find fascinating.”
And finally, there’s the collaborative team aspect of the work that Grant embraces in everything he does. He notes, “Every game that’s created is greater than the sum of its parts. I think one of the reasons I enjoy bouncing around between disciplines is that I find myself thinking about one experience when doing another. When I’m composing music, I’m thinking about the narrative elements of a game, and when I’m working on a game, I’m thinking about music.” At the heart of it all, he concludes, is improvisation: “Being able to listen, build on ideas, and set other people up for success – for me, that’s what it’s all about.”
Giving a Game Its Groove
It’s easy to see the importance of nailing the storyline, lighting, and animation in a video game; these elements are clearly instrumental in conjuring an immersive world for the player. But the audio component is equally critical. Grant Hoechst Jackson, a senior game designer at Naughty Dog, observes, “Music does a lot of the same heavy lifting in a game as it does in a film; it heightens the potential for narrative moments and contributes to the overall mood of the world being created.” He adds, “A strong soundtrack assists the player in entering a ‘flow state’ of play. The tempo, cadence, intensity, and density of the music all contribute to that sense of immersion in an alternate world.”
Grant, who has himself composed game and film scores, adds that the soundtrack for a game needs an additional layer of thought. “The music must be dynamic and interactive in response to the player’s actions,” he says. For example, if a game includes a combat encounter, the music will be quieter when a player is moving surreptitiously to remain undetected. The moment that player is discovered, however, the music needs to change to reflect the new circumstances. “Scoring a game is complicated,” Grant notes. “The soundtrack must honor the player’s choices, as well as the overarching storyline.”
Sound effects are another critical component of a game’s audio package. Grant explains, “When you’re creating a game, you’re working to develop an immersive soundscape. So the sound effects have to be aesthetically consistent with the overall environment, while also serving important functions such as telling a player what to pay attention to or signifying something new to process.”
While Grant concedes that there’s no hard-and-fast rule for when a soundtrack is addressed in the development process, his preference is that the audio component be considered early on. He notes, “Some of my favorite gaming experiences have resulted from cross-pollination between the game design and the music. I find it particularly compelling when I can tell that the music has been an integral part of the development process from the start.”