Tara Mustapha is currently a consultant after spending over a decade in the game industry as a game designer at Playabl, EA, Microsoft and Foundation 9. Tara’s fascination with esports began with Starcraft: Brood War, to travelling to Las Vegas for IGN Pro League events, Madison Square Garden for League of Legends, and achieving 12 wins in Hearthstone Arena 1x.
Tara is also vitally concerned with the progress of women in the games industry and has been a board member of Women in Games Vancouver. At Casual Connect Europe Tara and Christina Dunbar participated in a fireside chat discussing the challenge of finding leading women in the industry and how they can thrive in the world of esports. Recently Tara described her life and career with Casual Connect in this exclusive Gamesauce Q&A.
Casual Connect: Tell us about the work you do as a consultant. How did you come to do this?
Tara Mustapha: I’ve been consulting on several projects and working on my own projects. Consulting is a natural and satisfying way for me to extend my experience in design and production.
I’ve built a diverse portfolio over the past fifteen years from the genres of games I’ve worked on to the roles that I’ve played on the teams. These range from game design to project management to production at a digital agency.
CC: How have your past career experiences been helpful to you in your current position?
Tara: I’m able to advise on varying types of projects because of the diverse experience that I’ve had. My experience in multiple roles lets me assess problems from different perspectives and work with the stakeholder to find solutions. Moreover, I’ve had the benefit of seeing how many teams work, how people respond to different management styles, and the trials and tribulations of small to large scale projects.
CC: What do you do in your free time? What are your hobbies?
Tara: Apart from being an avid gamer, I’m passionate about Pilates; it’s something I would love to study further – it speaks to my love of design and mechanics but applied to our bodies. I’m also interested in philosophy and personal growth so I’m rarely without a book. I also love a good story whether told in film or on the stage. Having spent many years in both the east and west coasts of North America means lots of quality time Skype calls. My day will often start with a call to my best friend in Vancouver while I walk to work in London and my walk home with catch-up calls to the east coast.
CC: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Tara: I love being able to work with different teams in solving problems. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to offer strategies that will help further a product or a team. It’s great to be in a position where you’re constantly learning and feeding off of the passion that people have for their projects.
CC: What inspired you to pursue this career?
Tara: My parents. My father was an early adopter; I spent hours shadowing him when he tinkered with computers. He would always bring me new games to play and I would lose myself in these worlds. My mother nurtured my love of stories, from travelling around the world on our imaginary magic carpet, to reading the classics – there would always be a story told. She always knew I’d be a designer, she just didn’t know what kind.
CC: Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing the same career?
Tara: Be passionate and never stop thinking critically. There is a choice in every decision made when you’re playing a game, and as a designer you should be driving that choice.
CC: What was your dream job as a child?
Tara: My dream job was to be a game designer or an actor.
CC: In your younger years was there anything that hinted at your future career path in gaming?
Tara: I was always playing games in the form of sports, board or video games. I loved creating stories, building things and asking why. I always wanted to know how things work.
CC: Did you expect to end up where you are today?
Tara: Yes and no. I was in my early 20s and didn’t have a clear career path – I was without expectation. I was studying Theatrical Makeup when the college I was going to advertised a new Game Design diploma. It was a no-brainer for me, My first diploma in Game Design focused on art and level design but I knew that my heart lay with core game design. My second diploma focused more on design and production methodologies and from there I was able to get my first job in the industry. From that point on it was more about designing the career I wanted and finding a way to achieve it.
CC: When and how did you first become interested in art/design/coding?
Tara: Some of my earliest memories are around art and design. I used to do a lot of crafts, building things out of tissue paper, cardboard rolls, lollipop sticks, Lego… truly analog! It grew from there, from taking Comp Sci at school to Design and Technology. I’m very proud of the wood mug tree I made that still stands today after 20+ years of use. It balances perfectly with any combination of mugs on it!
CC: What is your creative process like? Where do you begin?
Tara: First I like to know what the end goal is for the player experience, I like then to look at what constraints are in place from a technical, timeline and budget perspective. With those guidelines, I like to brainstorm with team members the ways to achieve the goal – then ask “What makes these ideas fun? How do we add challenge, push the constraints and enhance the core mechanics already in place?”
CC: Where do you find the most inspiration for your designs? What was the most interesting thing you found inspiration from?
Tara: Everything! And every project I work on informs how I look at the world – I can’t look at a surface and not think “Could someone skate on that? What does the line look like?” or “This would make an interesting choke point.” I’m loving what’s coming out of the indie community, there are so many great games created by passionate, brave people.
CC: If you had unlimited resources and time, what kind of game would you create?
Tara: There are way too many to list!
CC: What is the most challenging part of game development for you? What is the most rewarding part?
Tara: Concept is the most challenging; you must have complete faith in what you are doing. Finalling is the most rewarding but also the most brutal; it’s the light at the end of the tunnel, and you can see just how to get there and the impact every little decision has.
CC: What method do you use to handle creative blocks? Do creative blocks occur frequently?
Tara: For me, blocks tend to happen when I have lost focus or have spread myself too thin. There are small things that help unblock me, such as going for a walk, daily meditation, exercise. I also make lists – Swipes is a great app for this, prioritizing the most immediate tasks and removing the noise.
CC: What makes a game of esport quality compared to other games?
Tara: I believe it’s a diverse level of competition and accessibility. Players should constantly feel that there’s growth for them within the game and an opportunity for mastery, whether it’s the competitors they face or their own play. An elegant central core game loop is critical. It’s equally important for the player to have a clear understanding of how people win and where the competition lies.
CC: How do you sustain the interests of players toward the game?
Tara: Communicating to players where they stand and setting new goals for them is important to keep them engaged. Whether they are playing competitively or trying to beat their own personal best players have to feel a sense of achievement , of growth, and the challenge has to be scaled suitably. It’s the before and after and the after has to be noticeable.
CC: Esports are unquestionably dominated by men. What are the challenges women face in becoming involved?
Tara: I’d love to see stronger community support. We’re all aware of the toxic element of some communities, and we have a responsibility to nurture an inclusive, constructive online community. Professionally, women also have a financial challenge – the prize pools for female teams are woefully smaller than male teams, as are the opportunities for competitions. Going forward, I’d love to see mixed teams with equal pay at all events. Looking at what UFC have done with their events is a great start.
CC: Are the challenges women face in esports similar to those in the games industry in general?
Tara: Yes, I think it’s part of a broader, global issue across many industries. I do think that the recent drive to transparency will progress equality. We have to keep the discussion going and take action!
CC: What does it take for a woman to succeed in the game industry? In esports?
Tara: The best thing you can do is take pride in your work, know what you bring to the table and be confident about it. Build up a network of people that will support you and inspire you. Have a sense of humor. Be passionate about what you do and make sure you are heard.
CC: What do you think will be the next big trend in the industry in the next three to five years? How are you incorporating this trend into your future plans?
Tara: I’m excited to see where we’re going to take esports and how it will disrupt the traditional sports model. I think we’re going to see a change in team and player management as the competitions and networks grow. I’m also curious whether VR will change the numbers on female gaming, particularly with the scientific studies that show how men and women have different spatial perception.
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.