An interview with the most influential women in MMO development: Part 3

Shawn Schuster
S. Schuster|02.24.10

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Shawn Schuster
February 24th, 2010
An interview with the most influential women in MMO development: Part 3
Throughout this entire week, we're presenting one question a day from an interview we did with the top women in MMO development. We asked them how they got into the industry, how public opinion on women gamers is evolving and what advice they have for female MMO players who want to make that leap into development.

So starting last Friday and continuing throughout all of this week, we'll present one article a day with one of the questions we asked these key developers. Look for each post to drop at 5pm EST every day until Friday. Keep reading below for today's questions.

What would you say is your crowning achievement in MMO development?

Carrie Gouskos: The direct answer to your question is that I ran the teams that developed and implemented the User Interface and Tome of Knowledge in Warhammer. In some way, I get the credit and blame for all of the pieces of those two features, though it was really a hardworking team of 30+ people who made them become a reality.

The indirect answer is that I have survived. When you read and talk about games from the outside it can seem so easy and obvious. When you join a company to work on a game, you assume you can change the world and you alone can make that difference. But computer game making is hard, needs a lot of people and there are all manner of things that get in the way. These challenges can often break the spirit or make you jaded. I feel like I have come out the other side every bit as excited about what my team is doing right now, and with even more energy and passion for the stuff we're working on next. A lot of people make video games, so this achievement isn't mine alone, but I find myself continually impressed with people who maintain a high level of passion after years and years in the industry.

Melissa Bianco: You mean besides becoming the Lead Designer on a very popular MMO? That feels pretty amazing, actually. I'm proud that Paragon Studios has the trust and confidence in my abilities to promote me to this position. It's a huge responsibility. Huge! Having said that, I've only been at this for about a month, so up until this point, I'd say the crowning achievement would be the fact that I went from no game developer experience to a lead designer position in eight years. This isn't a bullet point on a resume, but, to me, it's important. I started as an office manager and transitioned to an associate designer, from there I moved to designer in the World arena, and then promoted to staff, then senior. Each step forced me to take ownership of the work I was doing, mentor other staff, and step outside of the neat boundaries that I had placed before myself.

I laugh about it now, but when I first started, I was probably the quietest person in the company. Advancement forced me to mature as a leader, a designer, and a mentor. It also forced me to step out of my comfort zone to deal with things like: public speaking, running meetings, etc. I laugh now, but if you'd asked me ten years ago, would I be here? I wouldn't have believed you. Never in a million years.

"A lot of people make video games, so this achievement isn't mine alone, but I find myself continually impressed with people who maintain a high level of passion after years and years in the industry."

Marissa McWaters: Lineage II has been live in North America for nearly six years. An exciting challenge of such a veteran game is making it relevant to current MMO players. As a team, we are constantly searching for ways to accomplish this and I feel like my influence in changing some of the routine is an achievement. We're finding ways to be more transparent with our community so we can minimize the disconnect that players often feel towards the developers of a game. It's going to be a learning process and there are many things for us to consider, but I feel like this is an important thing for us to offer.

Jessica Downs: I think I've been able to realize many of my goals in the localization of Aion. I was part of a truly great writing team that helped bring life to Atreia, the world of Aion, such as you rarely find in a localized product. I still feel like I have many things I'd like to do in game development, though.

Lani Blazier: I'm tremendously proud to have helped create a world for people. The Aion community has given us wonderful feedback, and I've read some amazing stories about player experiences in the game.

After all the blood, sweat, and tears that were poured into making Aion what it is, I have an overwhelming feeling of pride that our game is well received by the community that we made it for.

Katy Hargrove: It's important to understand that every aspect of a game is a huge collaboration, especially with an MMO. The greatest successes have come from seamless execution between concept, modeling, animation, writing, design, and programming. Of all of these, I feel that the charr, our feline warrior race, have been the biggest achievement. The charr were the villains in Guild Wars and are returning as a playable race in Guild Wars 2. We've made a completely brutal race of violent cat people and yet players love them. That feeling of connection is about the best thing that could happen to a monster.

Linsey Murdock: Does getting the job in the first place count? I feel pretty lucky to have even come this far, and to have worked with so many amazing people. It's hard to pick out a favorite achievement and call it your own when everything here is such a collaborative effort. Of course, all my work on Guild Wars Live is near to my heart. Through our work we've shown how much support there still is out there for Guild Wars, which has allowed our team to grow from just two people to an entire tight knit crew.

Laralyn McWilliams: Free Realms is the first MMO I've developed, and I'm really proud of how it turned out. SOE and the team took a big risk together, believing that you can make an MMO that's easy to understand and play without compromising the quality or fun factor. We've learned a lot from it, and the live game has changed as a result. I really want to find ways to open up MMOs and virtual worlds to larger audiences, and Free Realms was the first step in that direction.

"I really want to find ways to open up MMOs and virtual worlds to larger audiences, and Free Realms was the first step in that direction. "

Emily Taylor: When I joined the EverQuest II team, the former tradeskill developer had been gone for some time and the direction of the tradeskills system was not left well-defined. It looked as if the tradeskill system might become just a sideline to adventuring, the way it is in EverQuest, World of Warcraft and many other MMOs. However, I felt (and still feel) that one of the greatest strengths of EverQuest II is the fact that tradeskilling can truly be a completely independent, rewarding career path without ever requiring adventuring. When I took over, I worked very hard to ensure that it remained that way, and developed it into a viable and interesting playstyle choice both for those who adventure and those who don't. I believe that EverQuest II's independent tradeskill leveling path is a unique strength that allows the game to appeal to a much broader audience than purely adventure-focused MMOs can do, and particularly appeals to more casual gamers and women.

Rosie Rappaport: Well of course EQ was the most persistent and successful game I ever worked on but artistically I really wanted to do more. When I first saw WoW I was really inspired by the Art Direction and I started to keep an eye out for an opportunity to direct something new. Eventually I had the opportunity to Art Direct Free Realms which was a brand new title and had flexibility in terms of art style. I wanted to get it right, and be part of making something beautiful. So I guess the Free Realms art is what I feel most proud of!

Kate Paiz: I am incredibly proud of the free to play transition that DDO made last year. We were able to open the game up to a lot more players while improving and polishing the gameplay to make the game even more fun. While some people have concerns that free-to-play games in general have weaker gameplay or are inherently less fun, I think what we have done with DDO shows that is simply not true.

Sara Jensen Schubert: I've had the opportunity to give conference lectures and play guest pontificator at other events, talking about efficient systems design and gameplay metrics, and I dearly hope that those lessons helped the listeners. Maintainability isn't a popular subject because it sounds boring, but it's absolutely crucial to the long term success of a project. I stick my neck out and talk about it because somebody has to remind everybody how important it is.

I'm not working on the implementation side so much these days, but I still love to talk about it and give advice. I hope that talking about my experience can continue to inspire other teams and their approach to systems implementation.

Do you feel that there is a disproportionate amount of women working in MMO development versus playing the MMOs?

Carrie Gouskos: In my experience, there are both more women in MMO development, and more MMO female players than other types of games. Are they proportional? Probably not, but everywhere I've worked (or ever thrived in video games, such as the Counter-Strike community), with the exception of Mythic, I felt like I was in danger of being the "token girl". Here, and at other MMO studios I have visited, such as CCP, there is no worry of that. The women I have found working in MMOs (and MMO journalism!) have been some of the most respectable, fearsome women I've ever met. I don't know if it's just because the industry is older now, or because I'm older, but it definitely feels true.

Melissa Bianco: There's a huge disparity between men and women in the MMO development space, but I know tons of women who love to play. I think City of Heroes, in its own way has helped to bring women to games because it can appeal to casual as well as hardcore audiences and is an excellent avenue for meeting other people and making friends. I'd like to say the costume creator is pretty appealing, too, but I wouldn't say that only women enjoy that aspect of games because I've seen guys spend hours on their characters, too.

There aren't as many female developers in the MMO space as I'd like to see, but I have noticed that since I got into the industry, more women have moved into game development. Back in 2002, I was the only female at the company and I held that title for quite some time (if you discount administrative staff), but as I look around at Paragon today, I see more women around me. Not a lot, but a few.

"Back in 2002, I was the only female at the company and I held that title for quite some time"

Marissa McWaters: I haven't personally noticed much unbalance. There are many women working in my office, holding positions throughout many different teams. It wouldn't surprise me if there was an official count that showed more males than females, but it isn't terribly disproportionate. I also don't tend to think about the gender of people I'm working with. I think about the tasks we have to do and the obstacles we face and how we can overcome them. Spreadsheets have no gender.

Jessica Downs: It's always hard to get a true sense of who is playing MMOs, because all the surveys I've seen have tended to be voluntary, and self-reporting. My experience has definitely been that my gaming groups are at least 50% female, while my co-workers have been overwhelmingly male. I understand that my gaming experience doesn't necessarily reflect the wider demographic, because female gamers tend to band together, but the discrepancy is pretty marked.

Lani Blazier: The short answer is yes. However, I see the industry evolving every day. It's important that the industry continue to move toward increasing women's visibility in gaming, which will give their input more weight in the game design phase. We'll start seeing more games that appeal to women and therefore increase the number of women playing games. When more women play games, I think that it will encourage more women of all ages to go after creative/technical opportunities available in the gaming industry.

Ultimately, though, I'd love to see more women in executive positions, joining boards of directors, and working in other positions of power within the industry. Seeing women in such positions is inspiring for young women who are crafting their career path. I know that while I was in school, I looked up to Executive Producer Lucy Bradshaw at EA. I consider her one of the most influential women in games, and she is one of the reasons I decided to focus on production.

Katy Hargrove: Yes, though I think that gap is becoming smaller every day. It seems that playing video games is becoming an accepted part of culture. We have giant public gaming conventions now that weren't around even a few years ago-PAX, for example. I think this acceptance and exposure to games creates awareness in people who may not have otherwise become interested.

Linsey Murdock: Absolutely, although I think the situation is slowly improving. Four years ago, I was the first female designer at ArenaNet, and though I'm not the only one anymore, the department is still dominated by men. That's not because of a bias towards male designers, that's because there just aren't that many female designers out there compared to men. On the other hand, the ratio of female-to-male MMO players is actually a lot more balanced. Tons of women are playing these games now, and the industry hasn't caught up yet. We've taken a lot of strides towards making games more widely accepted, but we still have a ways to go.

Laralyn McWilliams: Yes, in terms of MMO developers versus MMO players... but not in terms of MMO development versus game development in general. Most of my background is in third party console game development, so I can say from experience that there are more women on MMO development teams than in traditional development environments. At one game developer, our team had "a lot" of women on it because there were two of us, and at another developer, I was one of three women in the whole company (over a hundred people)! Free Realms had 15 women on the development team (out of over 100 at its peak), and there are many women on the customer service, QA and community teams as well.

"Things are getting better all the time, though. I actually had to wait in line for the restroom at GDC 2007! "

Emily Taylor: That's a hard thing to evaluate since the statistics aren't fully known. However, a 2006 Nielsen survey found that women make up 64% online gamers in the U.S.; a recently published paper based on an EverQuest II in-game survey indicated that 20% of players who responded were female; while information gathered by the International Game Developers Association in 2005 indicated only 12% of MMO developers are female. Those numbers do seem disproportionate, but a lot more data needs to be gathered before we can really draw conclusions about why that is, how it's changing, and what effect a change would have.

Rosie Rappaport: The number of women on the development teams had been steadily increasing over the last decade, and there are now more women on the dev teams now than ever before. The last art team I worked on was about 30% women.

Of course MMOs in general have massive potential for kids, men and women. Look at the genius of Free Realms, Club Penguin, etc.! Girls and Boys are both playing together. It's true that the "not casual" MMORPG genre games such as WoW and EQ traditionally attract more men, (last I read was 20/80) and personally I think that's fine. Imagine if Die Hard hadn't committed to being an action flick and tried to inject "feminine appeal"... it's just downright wrong. In the same way, it's critical for games to commit to a core play style.

At the same time I think female game artists have different ways of looking at the art they create and they naturally inject female appeal. It's not so much intentional and obvious like say, making pink armor (although I do like a good fuchsia chainmail now and again), the best examples can be subconscious. For example I'm very picky about the way the player characters faces look; I want the appropriate females to look "pretty". I like character creation to feel like an art project. I'm also interested in using harmonious color palettes in the environments, increasing stylization and letting go of the whole photorealism thing. It's not that guys disagree with those goals, and it won't necessarily make the game girly.

Kate Paiz: Well, that is a tough one to answer, given that the majority of MMO players are men. There are certainly fewer women working in the games industry (especially in development) than in other industries, but I think that is also due to the fact that there are fewer women in software development in general. I would love to see more women pursuing education and careers in science and technology fields, as I can guarantee that all the women I met at MIT were more than capable of holding their own when working with their male counterparts in those areas.

Sara Jensen Schubert: I haven't seen hard numbers in a while, but I think the percentage of female players is pretty high now, and the percentage of female devs per team is almost certainly less. Things are getting better all the time, though. I actually had to wait in line for the restroom at GDC 2007!


As we approach more specific questions later in the week, look for tomorrow's question to be "Do you feel that there is enough of a push to encourage women to enter the field, i.e. the G.I.R.L. scholarship program?". Stay tuned!
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