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A Hunger for Design

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Game designer and founder of Undead Labs recalls Classical Studies course as most influential in his Trinity career

by Anne Delisi

Like most kids growing up in the 1980’s, Jeff Strain spent a fair amount of time lining up quarters on the painted shelves of video game machines at his local mall arcade.

Favorite games? He had lots. Tempest. Defender. Tron. “More than that,” “he says,” l loved the graphics, the music, the gameplay. I wanted to know everything about those machines. I guess that’s what started everything, really.” 

Strain’s journey from childhood hobby to the creation of two video game studios, hundreds of jobs, and lifetime product revenue of over a billion dollars, has been amazing.  “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” Strain admits, “but I was also ready to take advantage of opportunities as they came, something I attribute to my time at Trinity.” 

Born in Oklahoma City, Strain grew up in Temple, Texas, hardly a high-tech center at the time. Fortunately, Strain’s parents gave him one of the earliest home computers, and he learned programming by studying the code, modifying it, and achieving success through trial and error. His father good-naturedly allowed his son to take apart and reassemble everything electrical in the house and tinker on his first-generation Texas Instruments home computer to his heart’s delight.

An honors graduate of Temple High School, Strain was thrilled to accept a place at Trinity, his first-choice college, and Trinity turned out to be everything Strain wanted and more. Under the watchful eye of his adviser and mentor, professor Maurice Eggen, he sharpened his computer science skills, made lifelong friends, and happily ate several late-night meals a week at the original Taco Cabana.

After Trinity, Strain was recruited by Hewlett-Packard and worked in Texas, California, and Oregon before accepting a position with Blizzard Entertainment, then a fledgling company of 30 people, in Irvine, California. At Blizzard, he had a key role developing some of the biggest and best-selling PC games of all time, including Warcraft 2, StarCraft, and Diablo. His final project at Blizzard was to build and lead a small team on a new type of game that allowed players worldwide to play with each other simultaneously. That game, the  groundbreaking World of Warcraft, became the top-grossing game of all time with a peak player base of 12 million global concurrent players and 100 million accounts created over the lifetime of the game.

Strain left Blizzard and moved to Seattle, where he founded an independent game studio named ArenaNet to refine the experience of online games. “I love building,” explains Strain. “I love the climb from one person in a spare bedroom to a studio filled with people.”  At ArenaNet, Jeff and his two co-founders launched the Guild Wars franchise, which has generated lifetime sales in excess of 10 million units. ArenaNet was purchased in 2002 by NCsoft, the South Korean creators of the global online powerhouse game Lineage, and Strain accepted a position as president of product development overseeing NCsoft’s U.S. and European development efforts.

By 2009, Strain was feeling a strong pull back to his roots in creative game development and left NCsoft to launch a new studio focused on bringing the online game experience to game consoles. The studio’s first game was a simulation of life after the zombie apocalypse, and he playfully named the company Undead Labs.

“In some ways, launching a new development studio in the middle of a horrendous recession seems like a crazy idea,” Strain laughs, “but in other ways it was a huge motivator. I was hungry. I’d had plenty of time in boardrooms and sitting in front of spreadsheets, and sinking my teeth into the design and art and music of games again was completely intoxicating and motivating. I wanted this game to succeed in a way that’s hard to describe.” 

In 2013, Undead Labs launched State of Decay for the Xbox 360 game console and PC. It was a commercial and critical smash hit, breaking Xbox Live sales records and receiving rave reviews for unique and creative gameplay. At 45 employees and growing, Undead Labs recently announced a multi-year partnership with Microsoft Studios and is currently at work on two unannounced games.

Now a veteran of two successful technology startups, Jeff is a passionate advocate for small business owners and is a sought-after industry adviser and speaker. He most recently delivered the commencement address to Trinity’s Class of 2014. 

Aside from his business success, Strain is proud of his family: Annie, his wife of 20 years, and their four children. He’s an active volunteer in his children’s schools and coaches Seattle Little League.

“Now is the time in my life that I’m getting the opportunity to give back — to my family, to the city of Seattle, which has provided such a robust economic environment for my businesses, and to my earliest influences like my parents and my alma mater, Trinity University.”