An interview with the most influential women in MMO development: Part 5

Shawn Schuster
S. Schuster|02.26.10

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Shawn Schuster
February 26th, 2010
An interview with the most influential women in MMO development: Part 5
Throughout this entire week, we've presented 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.

Today is the finale to that interview where we ask our last two questions: "Do you see a change in attitude towards women developers, both from co-workers and the MMO community?" and "What words of advice would you have for women looking to make that leap from player to developer?". Keep reading below for their answers.

Do you see a change in attitude towards women developers, both from co-workers and the MMO community?

Carrie Gouskos: I'm certain there has been a change, but it's hard for me to quantify it, as I think the biggest change has been within me. I do not accept that my power might be diminished or enhanced simply because I'm female. Ironically enough, the time in which I least wanted to talk about it, was probably the time that I played into it the most, intentionally or not. And back then, there were fewer of us, so maybe I had to. Now, I am comfortable with talking about it, and embracing it, and completely ignoring it, not interchangeably to suit my own purposes, but all at once, to make me a complete person.

Melissa Bianco: I've heard this come up before and I never thought that it applied to me, but I did notice that I took on the unofficial role of "mom" many times and people came to me for things that I'm sure they wouldn't request of a male peer. But at the time, I was still subconsciously putting it out there that that was the role I was most comfortable with. I was much more comfortable serving than I was leading, listening rather than speaking, and being mentored rather than mentoring. I don't know if that is a "culture" thing or if that was a Melissa thing. I'd probably say it was a bit of both. These days, I don't think it matters as much if you're male or female; if you're good at what you do, you're respected for it. If you suck at it, then you take the hit.

The community, especially our City of community, has always been exceptional to me. (We'll see how that changes now that I'm lead. Ha ha!) They have always been nothing but respectful, opinionated (in a good way, because they love the game), and loyal and it shows in all interactions I've had with them. I don't see other developers' private messages and I'm not always there for the conversations, but most interaction I've had with our player community has been gender-free in terms of attitude. Okay, fine, I get some players that think I'm cute, but I think that's my avatar, War Witch, that they like. Having said that, I'm sure SexyJay probably has some Jayettes somewhere.

At the end of the day, I believe that a good leader and a good designer comes down to skills, both intuitive and learned. It does not matter what the picture on the restroom says.

"At the end of the day, I believe that a good leader and a good designer comes down to skills, both intuitive and learned. It does not matter what the picture on the restroom says."

Marissa McWaters: Ten years ago, this was probably a much larger topic, but as gaming itself has emerged as a normal form of entertainment, I think the gender discussions have started to die away with the negative connotations of gaming. Parents and grandparents are purchasing consoles for themselves, not their kids. Television shows are depicting gamers as normal people, not elusive basement dwellers. And game companies are being led by women. I think the change in attitude has already taken place.

Jessica Downs: I've definitely seen it becoming more desirable within MMO companies to have a woman prominent on the dev team, often in some spokesperson type capacity. I've also seen companies getting far more conscious of having women visible, whether on their community team, sitting on panels, writing dev blogs, and so on. As for the company demographics and who wields the most power, we still have a ways to go, but a lot of that goes back to the imbalance in the number of women going into the field and being involved in the culture to begin with. Things are changing though.

The community tends to be fairly neutral or accepting of women in development, but, sad to say, the initial comments when a woman is featured on an MMO dev video are always about how hot she is.

Lani Blazier: I really have to give kudos to the women in the industry who pioneered working in games throughout the '80s, '90s, and even the early 2000s. I've been fortunate in that I haven't experienced or endured negative attitudes from coworkers. The community, on the other hand, can be a tough crowd! A few outspoken individuals always seem to target me because I'm female, but you learn to ignore negative comments and focus on the community members who want to talk about what's important: the game.

Katy Hargrove: Since I began working in games ten years ago, more female employees surround me now than before, but the male-to-female ratio is still extremely unbalanced. When I first started out, my place of work had nearly one hundred men before another woman was hired on. Still, my experience in games has been overwhelmingly positive. I've never felt gender bias at the work place. People at ArenaNet respect you for the work you do and how you treat others. It comes down to people being people and relying on one another to accomplish the tasks at hand. I think the only strong issue that I've felt in games has been the attitude towards the female characters in the games themselves. Much of the industry has a "sex sells" philosophy, but it always seems skewed towards the female characters. I'm fine with making sexy characters and outfits, but I want balance. If you're gonna put her in a thong, he should be in one too!

Linsey Murdock: I don't really feel any kind of bias in the work place. It's all about the quality of your work and what you can bring to the game, regardless of your gender. In-game is a bit of a different story. A lot of people seem to go a little easier on female devs than male devs. You might get chewed out a little less and be more likely to have little fan clubs. It's similar to just being a player and being female. You still do get some hardcore guys assuming that you suck at PvP or obviously must play a healer since women are nurturing and such. I've seen that attitude less and less as more women are kicking ass in games.

Laralyn McWilliams: I haven't seen a change in development attitude, personally, because I tend to take things at face value. I don't look for motives behind changes and setbacks, because ultimately the motive doesn't matter as much as the outcome. Succeeding in a creative field is always a challenge, and it doesn't really matter whether you're meeting resistance because you're a woman, because you're inexperienced (in the genre or in general), because you're not expressing yourself clearly, or simply because your work isn't good enough. Ultimately, the result is the same: you have to have the drive, the passion and the commitment to keep trying, keep taking chances, and keep working toward your goals.

In terms of the attitude of the MMO community, I think you can compare the situation to the early years of D&D. Originally, D&D was mostly played by young men and it was usually pure "Monty Haul" dungeon crawls with very little story. As the men got older, they got girlfriends and wives who started to play D&D with them... and everything started to change. Story became more of a factor, character development was more important, and you started to see the rise of the "storytelling" RPGs like Vampire. In the end, D&D became better-more robust and more engaging-because a wider variety of people were making and playing it. The same thing is happening with MMOs and video games in general now. As more women, kids, older folks, and non-traditional players become involved, the medium responds by deepening, broadening, and presenting more options to players. It's just building up steam now, and I expect the biggest changes and (r)evolutions to come over the next 3-5 years.

"We're playing multiplayer, a lot of us play with voice chat, and female players are more obvious. We're almost considered normal."

Emily Taylor: That's a hard question for me to answer, since I've only been a game developer for about three years. I've never felt discriminated against or overlooked for being a woman at SOE, but I can't talk about what the industry may have been like in earlier years, and I can't speak from personal experience about what it may be like at other companies. I certainly hope that the industry is smart enough to pay attention to anybody who has the drive, the talent, and the interest, regardless of their demographic.

Rosie Rappaport: I don't think that's a game industry issue, it's more of a cultural thing. Girl power is alive and growing all the time and I love it! These days the industry as a whole has progressed to the point that we strive to be professional and appreciate professionalism in those around us. Ultimately it results in better production. And like anyone, I've certainly had struggles in my career, but I'd hesitate to blame them on being discriminated against. There's not much to be learned from that. If I feel, for example that I'm not getting the respect I want, I try to focus on ways to command more respect. It's win win.

It seems that the EQ player base has also progressed through life; they've gotten older, gotten married and started families. Many men want to play with their wives and their families. Will they still want their player characters to have giant polygon breasts? You tell me!

Kate Paiz: Not really. All the developers I've had the pleasure of working with are very egalitarian and care more about your contribution to the game and the team than what your race, creed, or gender happens to be. The community as well has always been respectful to all the developers, and I've never once thought that something said on our forums was inappropriate because of the gender of the developer.

Sara Jensen Schubert: Over 10 years, I haven't seen a lot of change from co-workers – most people are cool and have remained cool. The community certainly feels different, though. Back in the day, it wasn't always a good idea to "out" yourself as a woman. Now, if somebody disagrees with what you say, it's more likely they'll attack the idea rather than you as a person.

I think the MMO community, specifically, is more advanced in that respect than other game genres. We're playing multiplayer, a lot of us play with voice chat, and female players are more obvious. We're almost considered normal.

What words of advice would you have for women looking to make that leap from player to developer?

Carrie Gouskos: The advice I have would be the same for a man looking to get into game development, with maybe one extra caveat. This is a wonderful and painful industry. I love it because it's the kind of industry that rewards dedication and hard work. If you apply yourself, be proactive, refuse rejection, and put yourself out there, you can make the leap against any odds.

My special words for the female would be: You go girl!

Melissa Bianco: If you want to do it, do it. Go to school, network, learn more about the industry, CREATE. Companies are constantly seeking amazing talent, not mediocre talent. If you're an artist, be an excellent artist. If you like to program, get certified. If you're interested in design, do it. Come up with your own ideas. Take a game that you love and find something you don't love and redesign it. Examine games, don't just play them. Look at the nuts and bolts under the hood and really "see" what goes into it. Look for opportunities at conventions or player gatherings with developers because more often than not, studios have some form of recruitment available.

By the way, it's easy to say if you want to do it, do it. It's a lot harder to actually get the courage to step out into an industry that is predominantly male and find a place for yourself, but I have come to realize that every big thing I've ever done has started with the belief that "Why couldn't I do this" and gone from there.

"My advice to anyone would be to get involved and get passionate. Be willing to do anything, but don't be creepy."

Marissa McWaters: The same advice I would give anyone looking to make that leap: Take any opportunity you receive and treat it preciously. Learn as much as you can about how things really work. Be observant. Work hard.

Jessica Downs: Make contact with other women in the business. There are more than you'd think already out there, and whole groups on professional and social networking sites. Also, don't be surprised if they're more inappropriate and filthy than the gamer guys. Just think of it as necessary self-defense.

Lani Blazier: There are and will be a lot of good opportunities available for women in this industry as it looks to broaden its player base, and create deeper, more emotionally resonant experiences, and unique storylines. You gain a lot of skills in school, so don't shirk on that, but you also need to get out there and participate in more than just classes. Network! Find your local Game Developer's Association and meet people. Talk to people and ask them about different companies. Try to get a sense of what a studio might be like and how it works. Learn more about the general roles there are in a studio and what kinds of particular positions and job roles are currently available.

It's difficult to learn anything about a studio's culture and atmosphere just by playing one of its games. If you talk to people at a particular studio in a social setting, they'll be able to tell you things about where their team is located, what sort of focus the studio has (art, development, game design, and so on), and let you know about roles the studio needs to fill or qualities it values (creativity, drive, industriousness, business insight, competitiveness, collaboration, and so on). This will help you figure out how or if your strengths match the companies that you're interested in pursuing.

Katy Hargrove: The next time you play a game and are moved or excited by it, remember that moment and what it was. Think about what it is that gets you all fired up when you play. Notice what your friends respond to as well. Then start paying attention to the parts where you say, "I could do better." Then do it! It might be programming, design, writing, backgrounds, characters, animation, interface elements, lighting, fire and glowing clouds, translation, editing, etc. There are so many different jobs. Any kind of action puts you a mile ahead of the next person, but persistent, dedicated action and hard work will move mountains!

Linsey Murdock: My advice to anyone would be to get involved and get passionate. Be willing to do anything, but don't be creepy. Incredibly overeager can be a turn-off. For women specifically, don't be intimidated by the room full of men and don't be afraid to still be a woman while you're being one of the guys. We think differently than men -- use that unique perspective to your advantage!

Laralyn McWilliams: There are as many different paths into game development as there are developers. Some fields have more clear educational paths (like programming and art) while others still have a certain amount of voodoo and luck involved (like audio and design). The thing most people overlook is that this is, at its heart, a creative field. That's true for everyone on the team, regardless of your department or daily duties. Game development is about inventing the wheel this year, then re-inventing it next year, and then inventing the thing that will replace the wheel the year after. It's as creative in terms of work and as challenging in terms of breaking in as being a cinematographer for film or a music producer at a major record label. You have to be at the top of your game (no pun intended) if you want to break in, and then stay sharp if you want to work on interesting projects with great teams.

The biggest piece of advice I'd give women is to prove it! Prove you love games, you understand them, and you want to break into game development and help make something great. Play games and think about them critically, whatever field you want to join. How did they get such a fantastic look at a solid frame rate in God of War? What are the changes in the latest EQII patch, and can you figure out why the team made those changes and how they affect the way the game plays and players progress? Can you layer sounds and create a rich, immersive audio bed like the one in Bioshock?

Starting at some of the easier entry points can help, like QA or customer service, but that's no substitute for drive and passion. Get some cheap or free game development tools and build your own game. Work with a team, work alone, work after school, work on the weekends, work instead of watching TV... it doesn't matter as long as you work! A portfolio of homespun games is one of the best calling cards you can have. Given a choice between two equal entry-level candidates, we'll choose to interview the candidate with playable samples almost every time. There are lots of free or cheap tools out there (The Game Factory, GameMaker, Unity, Torque, Flash) or you can make levels/mods for existing games (Oblivion/Fallout, Dragon Age, Neverwinter Nights, Half-Life 2). Even if you just take an existing level and redo all the audio, or create a game that is a walk-around a 3D world you built, you're proving you can do it!

"Game development is about inventing the wheel this year, then re-inventing it next year, and then inventing the thing that will replace the wheel the year after."

Emily Taylor: I occasionally get asked this question by players of all types, and my advice is always pretty similar. I tell them to learn about the industry itself, not just play the games, and to try and narrow down what aspect of the industry they'd like to work in. There are many different areas you can specialize in, such as programming, writing, audio, art, and so on, and many types of games from console to PC, MMO to single-player, PvP to PvE, and more. So figure out as much as you can what specific area interests you, and find out what the requirements would be to get hired in it. And then, if you're quite certain that this is what you passionately want to do, focus on doing everything you can to earn your chance and don't ever give up.

Rosie Rappaport: You will succeed with good relationships, hard work and talent. The relationships are important, and you start forging them when you are a student.

These days working hard at a degree program aimed at game development is the most straight forward path to becoming a game artist. As more schools develop, the game industry is becoming reliant on the graduates to staff up. I used to hunt for artists everywhere and anywhere, in the QA department and other industries. It was hard to find talented and knowledgeable junior artists.

These days almost every new artist comes from a Game Arts college, so I've jumped in and started teaching. Working with students as a female industry professional is probably the most powerful statement I've ever made about what women can achieve in the industry. I have selfish reasons too; I can get a peek at the latest talent!

Kate Paiz: My advice to anyone looking to break into the game industry follows 5 key points (in no particular order):

· Interest in games – all applicants to a video game company should play games. It's helpful if they are the type of games that developer makes, but not necessary. Being able to point out three things any particular game does well is more important than having played all the games in the relevant genre and not being able to articulate what made them fun, polished, etc.

· Work Ethic – games are a job, just like any other (with the great added advantage that you are actually creating a game!). They require you to be on time, to show up every working day, and to be able to get your tasks accomplished. Work ethic isn't the fun or sexy part of game development, but it is important.

· Collaboration – game development teams are filled with different points of views and perspectives, and to succeed as a junior developer it is important to know when to talk and when to listen. It's great to be bold and full of ideas, but being able to be respectful about other people's opinions is critical in crafting a design that works for more than just players who are like you.

· Communication – hand in hand with collaboration, you have to be a good communicator to be able to articulate your ideas, let your leads know how you're progressing in your tasks, and ask for help when you need it.

· Problem Solving – while tools and technology vary from developer to developer, one constant in any game company is that you have to think critically about the work you are doing. Being able to analyze a problem and come up with one or two different ways to achieve your goal is a must regardless of whether you are building a level, taking feedback on your work, or planning a schedule for your area.

Working in games has been a series of amazing opportunities for me, and I really encourage any women who are interested to keep at it, even if and especially if you at first don't succeed. Taking jobs in customer service or QA can be a great way to get a foot in the door, but once in those departments, don't stop playing games, thinking critically about what makes them good, and communicating / networking with the dev team to make sure they know you are interested and qualified when a role opens up. I look forward to many more rewarding years in game development and to seeing more women on my development teams in the future.

Sara Jensen Schubert: Go to school, if you're not already done with it. Pick a subject and a school you love – it certainly doesn't have to be "game school." Make a name for yourself in the community. Post on message boards, start a blog. And then keep an eye out for job ads. Data entry is a really fantastic place to start – you get to work closely with decision-makers and you get to learn how everything works. It's good to be an expert. Just be sure to be good at data entry too. It's harder than it looks.
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