Originally posted on "Women in Games" Blog - April 2nd 2007
Before 1994 I can’t say I had ever played a video game. My professional career was focused on a combination of illustration, theatrical, and theme park design projects, for the Walt Disney Company, and the computer gaming industry was pretty much outside my radar. Over the next 13 years that was all to change and my experiences have given me a unique perspective that has allowed me to work in the physical and gaming worlds, and yet retain an outsider’s view of both industries. These experiences lead me to see that although we are currently living in what is arguably a digital renaissance, on the whole we are trapped in some fairly old ways of doing business.
My Introduction to the World of Gaming
In January of 1995 my family decided to leave the Los Angeles area and my job at Disney to seek a part of the world that would enhance our quality of life. Leaving southern California meant that I was going to have to find work in an industry other than theme park design, which insisted I remain local to the area. At that time I purchased my first computer with a CD-Rom drive, and a copy of the game Myst. I quickly realized that all of the skills used to create the virtual worlds in Myst were the same as those I used in creating theme park attractions. This lead me to begin courting various game companies, and eventually got me an interview with a small developer located in Eugene Oregon.
When I arrived and was toured through the small office of a dozen or so employees, I knew I would have to adjust to the culture shock of leaving a company of over a 1000 people, but there was one thing that was going to be hardest of all to adjust to…
“Where are the female employees?” I asked the head of the studio.
“Oh, it isn’t like we wouldn’t like to have women working here,” prospective boss replied, “but we just haven’t found any that have any interest in working on our games.”
The true impact of this statement didn’t fully sink in until later, but I will talk more about that later. Another surprise came when I mentioned my interest in working on games like Myst. I was quickly informed that the studio head hated Myst and couldn’t imagine why it had become so popular. He assured me we would not be working on anything even remotely like Myst. Still, I was offered and took the job, which was to become the lead art director for a series of kid’s educational titles, something not that far off from my experience as a Disney artist.
Learning to Become a Gamer, but with an Outsider’s Perspective
Between the time I took the job, returned home to pack and move north, the educational titles I was to work on were unceremoniously cut from the line-up, and I was relegated to designing a side-scrolling shooter, and a virtual fighting game. Over the next year I did my best to immerse myself in the world of computer game design, and inadvertently discovered the joys of the 5pm LAN games of Doom 2 with my co-workers, and became addicted to 3-D shooters. I made some very good friends, and was introduced to a whole new world of design. When I left my job I began an 11-year freelance career working for everyone from my past Disney employers to various computer game, toy, and theater design clients. I had become a hybrid artist, with enough knowledge of each industry to nimbly dip in and out of several disciplines. I was also able to return to Disney with a gamer’s eye, and with new knowledge of what is possible with the use of computers.
Dragging Horses to Water
Over the years I have become an evangelist for both industries, preaching the benefits of both design principles to aid in the creating of both physical and virtual entertainment. Theme parks have the advantage of entertaining people using a medium we all inherently understand… mainly what it is to live and interact with the physical world. The Gaming world of design is building an ever-increasing army of computer and consol savvy consumers. Each brings with them desires and expectations for how they wish to experience their entertainment. Unfortunately both disciplines are different enough to return my enthusiastic rants of design friendliness with blank stares. In many ways I have come to the conclusion that these two leviathans may never be nimble enough to change course and consider another way of doing business.
Gaming’s One Flavored Meal
Wanting to keep up with what is happening in the computer gaming world, I pour through the gaming magazines and websites in search of the “next big thing”. Unfortunately I have come to the conclusion that much that is being offered consists of ever more technologically sophisticated remakes of a hand full of genres. It is like going to a video rental store that only offers Action-Adventure films. The truth is that the gaming industry knows what sells, and I have had to come to the realization that these companies are not going to be risking their bottom lines on producing games that depart from this narrow demographic. Just as our movie and television offerings are catering to the bottom line, computer games will not become any more diverse as long as there is money to make in these tried and true crowd pleasers. The question is, whom are they leaving out?
The Tools are Plentiful, the Audience Diverse
Several years ago it could be argued that to remain in the game industry you needed to either have a developer investing millions in your project, or you worked inside one of the few gaming giants or their affiliates. These are all options, although the opportunities are few, and the competition great. Still, we live in a time when alternatives are inventing themselves all the time.
Blogs, and YouTube are proving that we each have a desire to creating content, and if we invest in the time we will find an audience, even if a small one, to consume our thoughts and ideas. Andy Warhol’s prediction of “15 minutes of fame” has skewed, just as our idea of fame is evolving. We aren’t as personally concerned about reaching an audience of millions, when dozens to hundreds of active consumers of our creations could conceivably give us enough feedback and income to fulfill our initial goals to create games for the computer. The other benefit comes from the fact that if our demographic goals are not being pushed by a bottom line, we are free to create content that appeals to a much more niche audience, ones that companies like EA or Viacom don’t dare limit themselves to. While these mega corporations fight for the wallet of males from age 12 to 24, we can dare to create entertainment that appeals to something more radical… games we would like to play ourselves.
We are in the midst of a shift that is offering powerful tools which are getting cheaper all the time, and inexpensive to free venues to help distribute our products. As companies like Adobe begin to create free, online versions of their applications, we are given a unique chance to get our hands on these tools without the customary investment of hundreds to thousands of dollars. This has allowed for independent developers to start small, frequently from their own homes, and by-pass the dependence on an employer to supplement the cost of your tools, or force them into a cubical to use them.
Rise of the Independent Virtual Entrepreneur
Another side effect of this shift is that no longer are we necessarily shackled to the tastes of such a specific demographic of male consumers, so we are less dependent on the need to know what these guys want in their games. Although I have worked with many women in the gaming industry, only a rare few actually play the games they create, but this is changing as well.
One of the new hopes on the horizon come from online social networks like Second Life and IMVU.com. These companies are braving a new idea regarding the relationship between the developer and his/her audience. Both projects are built on the philosophy that by giving their members the very tools they use to create their own products, often for free, they tap into a huge reservoir of talent. This has created thousands of micro industries, many fulfilling the needs of relatively small, but until recently invisible demographics and sub-groups. Companies like Electronic Arts could never focus their energies on purely Goth, Anime, Furry, or Faeries communities, but a small independent developer is beginning to see the potential of making a living catering exclusively to any one of these categories. By giving away the tools, and offering the venue for these independent developers to sell their creations, a new partnership is beginning to grow. It is now conceivable that an individual artist or engineer could create content for an engine they do not own or operate, but that allows them the venue to sell their products while retaining their ownership of the products copyright.
Another side effect of this relationship is the broadening of the tool offerings to this growing army of independent developers. While beginning as an opportunity to create virtual clothing, furniture, and environments, companies are now contemplating offering the tools to create mini-games. These may begin as simple Java or Flash based games, but could grow into the creation of 3D games within existing 3D environments. Independent developers could soon see, not only profits from the creation of the game itself, but from the revenue generated by people playing their games.
Looking for Niches in All the Right Places
It is now possible to imaging making a living solely creating clothing for the Goth/Blood community, or by building a brand of trendy tropical accessories, or a collection of contemporary virtual condo furnishings. It is also possible to envision creating virtual venues for arts festivals, film debuts, and competitive games. The more we allow everyone to create virtual content, the more doors of potential creativity are opened. One fundamental rule of business is to “Find a need and fulfill it”, well now that need can be very specialized. If there is something that specifically turns you on, there is without a doubt an audience numbering in the hundreds to thousands that are waiting to partake in your creation… and with luck, pay you for the privilege.
Making Games Should be Fun!
In the end, we all wish to be doing good work, making products that engage us. We all feel rewarded by a job well done, which makes us no different than anyone else. Still, we might find ourselves in the middle of a career creating textures for characters that we don’t respect, and building games we would never play, and in the end have to ask ourselves “why”? I encourage everyone with a passion to express themselves via the world of digital entertainment to start beating the bushes of these fledgling industries and challenge yourself to imagine that you could actually make a living doing what you want and having an audience eager to consume what you offer them.