Women in Game Development: Mary Li

With the recent release of NEW GAME!, a show all about women in game development, we thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to hear from REAL women kicking butt in the game dev industry!

mary-liMary Li, of BonusXP, was kind enough to dedicate some of her time to giving us an inside look at her life and work!


  • Please tell us your name, position, and the work you’re currently doing/working on.  

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. The whole studio loved working on it, and we were so excited to work with a series we all love. I think the love definitely shows through in the game and is what makes it so much fun to play. Right now, I’m working on Hero Academy 2, which aims to be out early 2018.



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

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). Right now, I’m playing Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch, Kingdom Hearts 1 on PS4 (I never played it as a kid, but gotta get ready for KH3 coming out), Civilization 6 on PC, and Stranger Things: The Game and Mini Metro on my phone.



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

I got my BA from UT Dallas in Arts and Technology, focusing in UI and graphic design, while most of my friends were in the same program focusing on game dev. I later got my MFA in Arts and Technology focusing in UX design, specifically related to designing systems for users with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and how to display information and organize systems for those with various interpretations of information on a cognitive level.
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”. When I see myself in 5 years, if I’m still working here doing what I do (hopefully even better than now, with 5 years more experience), I’d consider myself pretty lucky and happy.



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

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. I get into work around 10am, and start with coffee, emails, the usual.
I then get started on whatever design on my plate most needs attention from other people, so that I can hopefully get out a design revision for them by lunchtime so there’s time for others to look at it, review it, and give me feedback to work on later that day. 

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. I try to keep 2 things actively on my plate at a time, so that when I send out one design for revision, I can hop onto the other one while waiting for feedback. I’m involved in all stages of a design from concept to final implementation, so I talk to and work with a lot of different people to see the design implemented. 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. When working in Photoshop, I’ve got my headphones in and I’m off in my own world. But I know I’ll show the design to others and get their help, so I never feel as though I’m working alone. At any point while working, I can just turn my chair around and ask someone else for an opinion when I’m stuck, and they’ve always had the advice or the insight to get me unstuck.

For lunch, it depends on what I’m in the mood for that day. Some days I go home for lunch and play with my dog and look after her, some days I bring lunch to my desk and either keep working or take a break and watch something while I eat, and other days I go out with people from the studio and we all eat together. Our office is part of a large complex with lots of stores, restaurants, etc, so we’ve got a lot of options for food within walking distance.

In the afternoon, I’m still working on designs, but that’s also when we tend to have company meetings (twice a week, everyone in the studio meets and we make sure we’re all on the same page and know what everyone is working on) and group meetings (small groups talk about specific designs or systems, make sure things being implemented into the game this update are the way we want them to be, etc). 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.

I typically leave work around 7pm, though sometimes I’ll leave earlier if I need to do something after work and make up the time later that night from home, or sometimes I’ll stay a little bit later if I’m on a roll working on something and don’t want to leave it right then. Unlike a lot of studios, I never feel like I have to crunch, or pull all-nighters – if I work late, it’s because I want to.

We all work Monday through Friday, with Friday being a work from home day. Having that day at home really helps everyone stay connected to their families, get things done around the house, run errands that need to be done during normal business hours, etc. A lot of people work throughout the weekend too, to help make up time from Friday they used for errands, or because they’re excited to keep hammering away at the thing they’re working on.



  • 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?   

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. One, it’s obviously very relevant to my interests, and two, it helps normalize the idea of all different types of women working on things, from your very quiet and shy girl to the girl who loves action movies and acts like a kid. A lot of people tend to say “female gamer” as just one personality type, but really, all kinds of women love games and work in 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.



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

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 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. I still get weird looks sometimes when I tell people what I do, or I get the response of “Oh, you must make cute things like Candy Crush! That’s so adorable!!” However, I’m starting to see more people think that me working in game dev is awesome, and I find myself getting connected to more teen and young adult women who want to get into game dev and want to know where to start. I have parents who will hear what I do, and tell me their daughter is really into games and ask me how viable the career is, is it hard, etc. I’m always really encouraged by those conversations.


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

I would encourage any woman who is interested in game development to seriously look into it, especially at the smaller, indie studios that may be in your area. Yes, there are still some companies and studios with a hostile environment for women, oftentimes unintentionally – many people just haven’t taken the time to think about how their words and actions may affect women or serve to cut them off and feel less valued. But the industry is definitely starting to come around, and things have changed a lot, even just in the last decade. I think the only way to truly dispel the idea that gaming is a boys-only club, and to get rid of the “boys will be boys” excuse often thrown around to justify bad company culture, poor marketing choices, shoddy character design, etc, is for us women to get in there. 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.