Laralyn McWilliams, Design Director at The Workshop Entertainment, can’t imagine doing anything except working in the games industry. She says, “I love the challenge of understanding players and trying to create something that really affects them emotionally. That emotion can be simple – the joy of play, for example, or the rush of winning a competition – but striving to craft something that can create that emotion while still being profitable (or at least sustaining) is an interesting mix of creative and business goals.”
All About Games
McWilliams came to The Workshop Entertainment two years ago. She manages the design process across all projects. At the moment, because of the nature of the projects, she is primarily focused on one particular game. Although she can’t yet tell us about this game, she finds her experience in live game services, metrics, and free-to-play monetization very useful. As a designer, McWilliams spends most of her time either working on games or playing games. Her work no longer allows her as much hands-on time as she would like, especially when she is working on large teams, so in her spare time she tries to stay current on tools.
Free Realms and Taking Risks
The high point of McWilliams’ career to this point was the launch of Free Realms. There were huge challenges with this game. It was a game for an under-served audience; its mix of mechanics and systems had never before been used in an MMO; and the business model was completely new. Because so many aspects of the game were new, it was essential to listen to players, learn from their behavior, and invent new ways to appeal to them. McWilliams insists, “It was a special time for me, where we had an open road in front of us.” However, she notes that it has become harder and harder to find companies willing to take risks and believe every game should be unique.
McWilliams acknowledges that it has become more and more expensive to create games, and the way we think about games has changed. As a result, the mainstream industry seems to be on a path that has major studios willing to take very few risks. And she claims, “Being a producer seems to be more about creating slick presentations than about empowering developers and advocating for the team. Being a designer seems to be more about figuring out how other games work so you can better mimic their systems while being directed to include specific features required by marketing or product management instead of being about seeing through the player’s eyes and being his or her advocate.”
She recognizes that games development is a business, where it is critical to place the right bets, but she feels that mainstream publishers and developers are reluctant to place any bets at all. She insists, “If we all drive our decision making by looking at the past or looking only at competitors’ games, we end up in some kind of human centipede of game development.”
One of the reasons McWilliams joined The Workshop is that they are willing to take these risks. Currently, she is focused on a self-funded, independent project she calls “gutsy and innovative.” She states “The opportunity to take these risks isn’t just rare in mainstream development, it’s almost non-existent.” To change this situation, we must start questioning best practices and stop leaning on them as a crutch. She recommends, “Listen to players along with metrics. With the advent of community teams and player involvement combined with the availability of player behavior data, we are in a terrific position to make games that are profitable and fun.”
Variety is the Spice of Life
McWilliams believes the future of the games industry is about variety. Most game development companies today are limiting themselves in terms of both audience and medium. She feels game developers must acknowledge that games can appeal to audiences beyond “twenty-something white guys” and games that succeed in these markets are just as much real games as Halo or Call of Duty. In the next few years, she expects games for the under-served markets to finally be recognized as valid and valuable.
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.