Women in Game Development: Anime and IRL

With the recent release of NEW GAME!, a show about a group of women in game development, the work of female game devs has been a topic of discussion here at the office. Though anime (much like games) can take us to the furthest edges of our imagination, art does often imitate life as well. After watching the show, we wanted to hear from women working in game development IRL, and share their stories with you all!

We reached out to Leigh Hallisey of FableVision StudiosCidney Hamilton of Transolar GamesMary Li of BonusXP, and Rayla Heide of Riot Games.

We’ve compiled some of the email interviews here in this article, but I definitely encourage you to check out their full interviews by clicking on their names and pictures below!

Leigh Hallisey Cidney Hamilton Mary Li Rayla Heide
  • Hi!  Please tell us a bit about yourself and the work you’re currently doing.

LH: “I’m Leigh Hallisey, the Creative Director of FableVision Studios. We are an educational digital media production company that creates apps, online and mobile games, animations and books for learners of all ages.”

CH: “Hey, there! My name is Cidney Hamilton. I’m a programmer at Transolar Games, an indie game studio founded by Lori and Corey Cole, the creators of Quest for Glory. We’re working on Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, the spiritual sequel to Quest for Glory.”

ML: “I’m Mary Li, a designer at BonusXP, focusing on UI/UX Design. Our studio just released “Stranger Things: The Game” last month, which has been absolutely amazing.”

“Right now, I’m working on Hero Academy 2, which aims to be out early 2018.”

RH: “I’m Rayla, a writer at Riot Games. I also go by “Jellbug”, my summoner name on League of Legends. I write stories about the champions in League of Legends through mediums like comics, short stories, character bios, and voiceover lines.One of my favorite parts of my job is taking a character from a video game and imagining what they’re like in everyday life – what are their dreams, fears, desires, what are they like in the mundane parts of their day – and then writing those explorations into a story.”

  • What is your background in gaming? What are your favorite games? 

LH: “My absolute fondest gaming memory is when I was about eight years old in 1980 and got a hand-held Space Invaders game for Christmas. It was practically surgically attached to me, and I loved hiding under the covers at night and playing for hours.”

CH: “My first game was King’s Quest IV. My father was an aerospace engineer and got me to play computer games when I was a toddler so that I could learn to read and write by typing commands into the parser. This was back in the old days of adventure gaming, where you had type all of the commands and couldn’t point and click. King’s Quest IV had some really unfair puzzles; so I never got that far in it until I was older, but I enjoyed exploring the world and trying out all these different commands.”

ML: “I’ve been playing games since I can remember – my parents always got the new systems for my brother, but I played them too. The first game I can remember playing is Tetris for the Game Boy, and Legend of Zelda for the NES. My favorite game of all time is Earthbound for the SNES, and some other favorites are the Persona series, Katamari Damacy, the Civilization series, Undertale, Secret of Mana, and Final Fantasy 3 (FF6 in Japan).”

RH: “This is my first job in the game industry – I came from film, where I got to read tons of scripts and learn about story development. It’s hard to pick my favorite games, but they’d probably include WoW, Don’t Starve (and Don’t Starve Together!), The Walking Dead, Gone Home, Dragon Age, and Stardew Valley. I’ve also been playing a bunch of RimWorld recently, which is super addicting – I enjoy micromanaging virtual people and seeing what they end up doing with their own free will. Not sure what that says about me.”

  • How did you get to where you are now in the game development world? 

LH: ” I’ve always been a media junkie. After growing up on a steady diet of Pong, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Saturday Morning cartoons, the Love Boat and Miami Vice, I went to Wellesley College and majored in American Studies (modern history and literature). I got my Master’s in Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University where I focused on representations of race, gender, and sexuality in television and film.

“I taught TV and popular culture at Boston University for many years, and helped start an entertainment company focused on creating positive role models for girls in STEM.

“FableVision was my development partner , and eventually we sold the company and I went to work at FableVision, first as the Marketing Director, then as Creative Strategist, and now as Creative Director.”

CH: “Kind of by accident! I backed the Hero-U: Kickstarter; in late 2014 I saw an update saying that they were looking for more programmers.”

“I’ve always *made* games, though. In high school I built a game called Ashara Online. It was a play-by-post RPG that I’d built a website and interface for. It was a lot of work, and I wasn’t making any money off it; but more recently, Storium has used the same model to a great deal of success!”

ML:When I graduated and was trying to find a job, some of my game dev friends helped me get a job doing various things at a mobile game company in Dallas called Game Circus. I left there after half a year thinking I’d do full-time freelance for UI/UX design, but one of my best friends working at BonusXP asked if I’d want to interview to be a designer there, so I went for it.

While I didn’t set out to be a game designer, I don’t think I’d trade it for anything else at this point. I love my work, I love the challenges and getting to actually get my hands on things and create and shape games, I love all of the people I work with, it’s just fantastic. When I leave home every morning, and see my dog looking sad that I’m leaving, I tell her “I’m sorry, I don’t wanna go….actually, I do really want to go to work, just wish you could come with”.”

RH: “I started out as a department coordinator doing mostly admin work, but have always developed my own writing in my free time – I think I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about six years old. I got to work on a few writing projects before I was officially a writer, which gave me experience working with game developers and writing in a group environment. Eventually I was able to move into a professional writer role at Riot, which definitely feels like an impossible dream job that I’m grateful for every day.”

  • What’s an average day for you? Can you walk us through some of the highlights and unique aspects of your day/job? 

LH: “I’m usually working on a dozen or so projects at a time, so every day is different and never boring. A lot of my day is impromptu meetings with producers and artists, problem solving, reviewing art, animation, and early prototypes.”

“I have client meetings to walk them through scripts and concepts, and meet  with potential clients for business development. I do a lot of voiceover direction for games and animation, and write proposals to bid on new work. A few times a year, I speak at various gaming and educational conferences about our different projects and unique approach and perspective on media development.”

CH: “I work remotely out of a home office. The other lead programmer is in New Zealand, so he tends to wake up right when I’m about to have dinner! Most indie startups don’t have brick-and-mortar offices; so that raises its own set of challenges.”

ML: “For me, an average day can be pretty hectic and involves me getting pulled in a lot of different directions. Most of the time, I’m working with Photoshop, Google Drive, my phone and iPad, and my sketchbook and a notebook.”

“For getting feedback, I often first send my design to the Art Director for his opinion, and iterate with him until it gets to a point where he likes it enough. Then I share it with another group of designers, the producer, the game director, etc, and we revise it there till it gets to a point we all like. This can be 1 iteration or 50, however long it takes till we’re happy. After that, we show the mockup to the whole studio, or we implement it into the game and show the studio the working version of the system.”

“Almost every single day, I work with the art director, programmers, other designers, the game director, animators, concept artists, etc. Everyone has a very different perspective and different kinds of feedback. It’s insanely useful, as it makes sure that anything I might’ve overlooked, someone will catch it.”

“We also playtest our games almost every day for around an hour. Everyone in the studio is involved, and we all get together and play matches against each other, or go through levels, whatever we think needs focus and attention, with everyone giving feedback. Basically, at any given moment, anyone in the studio can tell you the general progress of the game, what features are being worked on, where the company as a whole is heading and what we’re looking at developing next, etc. Everyone is kept in the loop and kept grounded.”

RH: “As a writer on the Worldbuilding team, I usually write about characters that already exist in the game, which means I have to thoroughly understand the current canon. My first step in researching the character is to play them in League of Legends and get a sense of what their gameplay kit feels like, and read any stories they’re featured in. I often talk to players who main that champion to find out what they love about that character and what elements of their personality are unique to them. Next I write a list of key features about that character, and brainstorm how a story might demonstrate these – whether they are magical abilities, personality traits, fighting styles, or key motivations. After I have an outline, I’ll go back to the list to make sure the story showcases the character.

For example, when I wrote about Orianna, a clockwork girl who used to be human, I wanted to show how she is wistful for her mortal life and dreams of fitting in with a family, yet maintains her distance from people, struggling to understand their emotions. I told a story of a moment where Orianna was overjoyed when she found someone like herself – the mechanical creation Fieram – only to find out that he had no more sentience than a toaster.”

  • When we first told you that we were releasing an anime about women in game development, what was your initial reaction? What are your thoughts on a show that highlights female game devs?   

LH: “I pretty much did the happy Snoopy dance,the cabbage patch, and raised the roof, simultaneously! Young women need role models, in real life and popular culture, to show them what’s possible.  When girls see negative representations in media—stereotypes about what girls can and can’t do or be—or when they don’t see themselves at all (particularly girls of color), it limits their dreams and aspirations. There is a lack of womenand diversity in the gaming and animation worlds. We are missing out on the unique talents and perspectives of a whole part of humankind, and our culture and the products of our culture are suffering because of this. Short answer: I’m a really big fan of this show.”

CH: ““This will either be absurd and hilarious– or extremely close to home.”

ML: “I’ve actually been a fan of New Game!! for around a year now – when I first interviewed at Game Circus, I binged the entire first season as sort of a motivation for my interview. I know a lot of anime right now have an all-female cast doing various things, but I did really like seeing it applied to game development.”

“While the show mostly focuses on the art department, it’s actually pretty accurate as to a lot of things we go through day-to-day in a studio, showing things like the number of revisions even the smallest design can go through before it gets approved, how those revisions and delays can affect multiple departments, the sense of camaraderie and random conversations that lead to awesome ideas, the kind of things that influence decisions, etc.”

RH: “I love this idea! I am all for making game development a more visible career option for women, particularly for those who may not have many role models in the industry so far.

“As a kid interested in writing, I could look to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, or K. A. Applegate (Animorphs forever!) as role models. I never questioned whether or not it was possible to be a female writer. But in the game industry, women developers are few and far between, and the ones that exist are far from household names. Increasing the visibility of women in games can be instrumental in encouraging young girls to see games as a possible career option.”

  • Do you think the visibility surrounding women in the gaming industry is growing? Are there still challenges? 

LH: “It’s beyond a challenge, it’s into the realm of absurdity. Go to a developers conference or gaming company or animation studio and there are very few women.

It’s not surprising how rampant sexism is in the portrayal of female characters, especially in video games, when we see who is telling these stories. We know girls and women make up a huge percentage of the audience for these products, and events like COMICON show us that these are passionate, dedicated fans. The stories that keep coming out about sexual harassment and misogyny at the highest levels of animation and tech companies, the trolling and threats that plague women who dare to create or make their voice heard in these realms, is horrifying.”

CH: “Women have always been making games. Sierra Online had Roberta Williams, Christy Marx, Lori Cole, and Jane Jensen in high-profile designer positions during the 1980s and 1990s. Lori was one of my heroines as a kid; it’s been thrilling to work with her. Nowadays, you don’t run across many games designed by women, and that’s a problem, since it discourages women from pursuing careers or getting mentorship. There’s unfortunately a lot of bias against women in tech; computers and math are seen as things that boys are good at, not girls. Girls internalize that bias and become less confident and interview poorly, and then there are fewer female mentors in leadership position if you do get a job. It’s a vicious cycle.

There’s ironically more visibility around women in the game industry because of the online harassment independent developers like Zoe Quinn have experienced. It’s a challenging subject.”

ML: “I think visibility is growing for sure, and it’s becoming far more normal for women to be in game dev. When I taught classes at UT Dallas, I always saw a pretty even male/female ratio in my classes, which is fantastic. I’ve been very lucky in that at both studios I’ve worked at, while women are still in the minority of employees, every single person has always respected us and treated us the same. I hate saying that’s a lucky thing though – I can’t wait until that’s the norm. It’s a shame that it isn’t right now – I think having a female perspective when making a game can benefit any game, no matter the anime genre.

I think as an industry as a whole, there are more and more games starting to shift away from the idea of gendered mechanics, where “this type of game is only for boys, and this type of game is only for girls”. We’re starting to see more focus on the mechanics being gender neutral, which is opening up gaming for a lot of people, and I love it. It may be starting in more niche, indie games right now, but I think it’s starting to open up to the triple-A industry as a whole.
For the general public, I think there’s still a way to go with that, but it always takes a while for any perspective change in society as a whole.”

RH: “I do appreciate that most people know that gender imbalance is an issue in the gaming industry, and like any kind of perspective imbalance, can lead to a lack of empathy and understanding of our player base. Creatively, this can mean products sometimes cater to a one-note or stereotypical male fantasy in a game, rather than exploring a wide variety of characters.

Not everyone is actively doing things to change this imbalance. We need to all become more self-aware of our own unconscious biases and realize that they affect how we treat other people every day. For people in positions of privilege, there are many opportunities to amplify the voices of minorities in meetings or help newcomers get a foot in the door.”

  •  Is there anything else tied to the topic of women game developers/anime that you would like share?  Do you have any advice for future women in game development? 

LH: “It’s not easy to be “one of the only…” wherever you are, and it’s a tougher road. But if it’s where your passion lies, and your work doesn’t feel like work, then it’s a worthwhile risk to take. Seek out other women, and like-minded men, for mentorship. Have pride in your voice, don’t be afraid to be ambitious, and don’t doubt your gifts.”

CH: “Don’t focus on “getting a job” in “the industry”– just make the kind of games that you want to play! The earlier you start, the stronger your portfolio will be. There are plenty of free tools that can help you get started. Twine (https://twinery.org/), Ren’Py (https://www.renpy.org/), and Inform 7 (https://inform7.com/) are all free and great places to start making text adventures and visual novels.

ML: “There are so many different roles that go into game development: sound design, programming, animation, 3D modeling, concept art, system design, production, the list goes on. If you love creating things, working with others, and helping other people have fun, there’s almost certainly a place for you at a game studio.”

RH: ” — make your own games! Get a bunch of friends together and do a game jam. Don’t wait for someone to say yes to you, go out and create things on your own. There are more resources available than ever before for people to learn how to make games, so take advantage of them. And go create awesome.”

Be sure to check out Leigh, Cidney, Mary, and Rayla’s full interviews for an even deeper look at the game development industry!

NEW GAME! released on November 21st, and is available on Blu-ray & DVD — check it out!