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Exclusive Interviews

Game Development’s in the Family: Meet the Duringers

January 22, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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As some lucky parents have it, the passion they hold for their own careers can end up rubbing off on their offspring. Maryann Duringer Klingman, a seasoned producer at Disney Interactive’s Playdom and a professional who has spent two decades in the videogame business, saw it happen with her daughter Theresa. Partially due to her mother’s career, but mostly out of her own insatiable appetite and interest for everything digital, Theresa Duringer followed in her mother’s footsteps becoming a versatile game professional. I sat down with Maryann and Theresa to talk about their shared passion for the game biz, where it all started, and what both generations were able to learn from each other.

One career rebooted, another one sprouted

Back in 1993, after almost 10 years of being an at-home mom with one of her two daughters in elementary school, Maryann Duringer Klingman rediscovered her appetite for a career again.

“I rejoined the workforce working full-time again as an administrative assistant at Electronic Arts’ educational software department in November of ’93 and quickly went up through the ranks as a producer,” Maryann recalls. “I was fortunate enough to work with the some of the best children’s brands and licencors, including Sesame Workshop, Marc Brown Studios, Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers and DC Comics. I produced educational games with such characters as Bert and Ernie, Spongebob Squarepants and Reader Rabbit.”

Theresa Duringer, the younger of two sisters and only ten years old at that time, grew up with quite the appetite for technology and a penchant for creative, technical tinkering. “As a kid I was pretty shy,” Theresa admits. “We always had a computer, and I would tinker on it for hours, dabbling with scripting, making websites, and meeting other kids on IRC a million miles away.”

Even with friends from school, we would make up our own board games, which was probably even more fun than playing them

Theresa would even start modding games and submit her own art to different projects. “It just clicked for me. I got this incredible energy from seeing the art I was making come alive on the screen. Even with friends from school, we would make up our own board games, which was probably even more fun than playing them. I still remember printing out our own adventure-game playing cards on an accordion of dot-matrix card stock my dad brought home from work.” Her passion for drawing since a young age could be seen everywhere, from the margins of her notes from school to books and mirrors at home. “Growing up in Silicon Valley, having a programmer father and video game producer mother, and being surrounded by creative tech types gave me a familiarity with the industry that let me dive in and thrive in game development.”

Through the ranks at EA, just like mom

Maryann Duringer Klingman happily at work at Electronic Arts in 1994
Maryann Duringer Klingman happily at work at Electronic Arts in 1994

Three years later, after graduating from Berkeley, Theresa went right back to testing games and landed a testing job at EA. After several months of working as a tester for EA’s The Godfather, she was appointed to being the main contact for her QA team to share their findings directly with the production team. “One thing that is also cool about working at EA is that they really recognize talent from the testing group and give testers opportunities to prove themselves with bigger projects to work themselves out of testing into production,” she says. “It’s from testing The Godfather that I was able to work my way up from tester, to community manager and end up in production at Maxis.”

According to Theresa, the most important thing a tester can do while working your way up from testing to development, besides working very hard, is to hang out with the developers as much as possible. This is known to be a tricky challenge, as testers and the ‘testing pits’ they work in are often segregated from the development teams. Theresa had her own way of making sure that kind of contact was possible.

“I started out on a dedicated testing floor, and didn’t have any development contacts at EA. I ended up buying popcorn for a fundraiser from one of the lead’s kids in order to have an opportunity to march over to his office, pick up my popcorn, and make my case for why I wanted to join the dev-test team over at Maxis.”

I ended up buying popcorn for a fundraiser from one of the lead’s kids in order to have an opportunity to march over to his office, pick up my popcorn, and make my case for why I wanted to join the dev-test team over at Maxis

Theresa’s one-on-one with the lead paid off and got her a foot in the door to a team she would later join at at Maxis. “I participated in Art Lunch, Board Game Night, rallied folks to go on Bike Lunch Fridays, and hung out in general with as many developers as I could who had common interests with me, even taking up a few new hobbies like Victorian ballroom dancing and even rock climbing.”

The more you interact with the developers, the firmer an idea you can form about which specific jobs would compliment your talents, and what kind of team you would mesh with,” Theresa suggests. “You’ll also have advocates when you go for that new opening. Try not to stagnate in testing too long.”

One way Theresa learned to break through the glass sealing of being a tester was to invest in herself outside of your working hours. “In my case, I learned to be proficient with JavaScript, CSS, Flash, and Photoshop, which were vital skills when I joined the Pollinated Ninjas [the online team for Spore]. At the end of the day, I really wouldn’t recommend my path from test to dev. A testing job is easy to land, and you’ll get your foot in the door, but you’ll spend valuable time in a sector you may not be passionate about. If I could do it again, I would find hackathons, game dev jams, and contests in my area to connect with other like-minded folks and build my talents collaborating on projects, then directly apply to a development position. The testing route was a roundabout way to get where I am.

While at Maxis, Theresa would first be put in charge of being a community manager for Spore, before she later became assistant producer on Dark Spore. “I once again got to see her bring that creativity to life in the little programs that she would write for her work,” Maryanne says. “She took on some responsibilities at Maxis that, as parent, you’re just really proud of.”

My mom’s gone through it all, so she really can help, lend an ear and provide advice when I need it

Having a mother who had grown through the ranks of the same company two decades before not only gave Theresa a source of inspiration and support, but also a place for comfort and advice. “I’ve learned to not take the first offer and really push ahead while still being professional. My mom’s gone through it all, so she really can help, lend an ear and provide advice when I need it,” Theresa says.

I’m very proud of her,” Maryann adds. “I believe Theresa was very quickly identified at EA as someone who could take all feedback and information, assimilate it, write a complete sentence and then share that with the entire team.”

As an assistant producer at Maxis, Theresa was able to explore the full range of strengths and weaknesses. “When I was working on Spore as a tester, I didn’t have a ton of influence on the game or decisions,” she says. “But once I moved into community management, I was able to craft that user experience from outside the game. It was a challenge because I’ve never done it before. “Another challenge for Theresa was to rely on someone else than herself. “I would find a community member who was really excited to put their energy in moderating the forums and then engage them, asking them to think about ways of ranking Spore creations made by community members. Eventually I would provide the community member with production tools and rely on that individual completely to moderate the forums. That was not intuitive to me because I’m a doer, but you can’t always do everything yourself.”

Learning together

The Duringers at the Playfirst offices

While Theresa is currently exploring the exciting challenge of being an indie game developer, her mother recently got back to her production roots. Previously working at Playfirst as their developer relations manager, Maryann saw an opportunity to find another challenge at Playdom.

“My previous position at Playfirst was more of a business position where I was out basically meeting and greeting with the development community,” She explains. “I was responsible for sourcing production talent to work with my organization. Over the years of working with external development studios, I learned about contracts, negotiations and the business side of gaming; all useful skills when working with external partners. Although I enjoyed business development a production opportunity presented itself at Playdom. I would get to work with talented individuals, many of whom I have worked with in the past and whose careers I have watched grow over the years. It is a pleasure to see individuals whom I initially met as testers or producers now comfortable and successful as senior producers and studio managers.

People often get surprised when they get to hear that Theresa’s mother is also a game producer. Most find it the most amazing thing ever, and it’s hard to disagree. “She is someone I can rely on, she’s one hundred percent honest with me and gives me the advice that might not always be exactly what I want to hear,” Theresa says.

I try to live my life as an example,” Maryann says. “What Theresa gleaned from her childhood and chose to pursue as an adult has more to do with how she comes to her life. I provided an environment where she could feel comfortable being herself and I exposed her to my work life. It was up to her to choose her path. Having said that, I did provide a home where creativity was appreciated and intelligence respected. And we played games! If I influenced Theresa, it was that she saw what I did for my work, and that I enjoyed it; the game industry was familiar and appealed to her.“

If I influenced Theresa, it was that she saw what I did for my work, and that I enjoyed it; the game industry was familiar and appealed to her

“Its exciting to see your child grow into their adult life and then move into a career and be successful at it,” Maryann adds. “Seeing my daughter moving through ranks from testing to community manager and producer and to see her teaching herself programming and being an artist, makes me very proud as a parent.”

“I want other women to negotiate more and not settle so easily,” Theresa says. “My mom is awesome at this, and I always love to hear her stories about mediation and negotiation. I push myself to follow her lead. Also, I think there can be a bit of a locker room vibe at game companies, often times just because there are so many guys. For me this was intimidating, but I’ve learned that my differences can actually help me set myself apart and be noticed. I’m so pleased to hear more and more women talking about their game development projects lately, so hopefully this will change soon. I also think women get nudged into marketing and management positions. If this is your passion, wonderful, but if you want to be engineering and get your hands dirty in game dev, hold your ground. Come up with a clear goal for how you want to contribute to games and go for it.”

Going Indie

DevelopmentExclusive Interviews

Elonka Dunin on Online Games, Keeping Up as an Online Gaming Pioneer, and Fantasy University

February 1, 2011 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Elonka Dunin
Elonka Dunin is a game developer who has twenty years of experience in the industry with her. She advocates for the online game genre and co-founded the International Game Developers Association’s Online Games Group. She shares her start in the game industry, reflections on a constantly changing industry, and her current work on Fantasy University for Facebook and other web portals such as Kongregate.

From Gamer to Developer

Dunin studied Astronomy at UCLA and then joined the US Air Force. There she worked on different tankers and spy planes.

Elonka Dunin has been playing games since a time before PCs. Dunin’s father was involved with IBM computers in the 1960s and programmed mainframes to play games with her. As computers started moving into people’s households, Dunin was one of the early explorers of online fantasy worlds. She played every MUD she could get her hands on. When the game industry moved in the direction of Bulletin Board Systems, she played those too, until the industry and her along with it transitioned to online services such as GEnie and CompuServe in the 1980s.

In the 1990’s, Dunin went to GemCon in St. Louis, Missouri, where she got to meet some of the people involved in writing one of the games she played—GemStone ][ on GEnie. They hit it off, and a few months later she quit her non-game job in Los Angeles, California to make the leap to Simutronics in St. Louis. She has been there ever since.

“I have a special fondness for each game in their own way.”

Since taking a position at Simutronics, Dunin has been in the game industry for twenty years. Some of her most-loved games she worked on include popular MUDs such as one of the longest-running online games GemStone, Orb Wars, DragonRealms, and Modus Operandi. In 1993, CyberStrike won the first award for “Online Game of the Year.” It’s hard for Dunin to pick a favorite: “I have a special fondness for each game in their own way.”

Social Games Development

Fantasy University intends to combine snarky humor, endless pop culture references, and the FUBAR (the game’s form of virtual currency) with solid RPG gameplay Simutronics has been known for.
Fantasy University intends to combine snarky humor, endless pop culture references, and the Fubar (the game’s form of virtual currency) with solid RPG gameplay Simutronics has been known for.

Dunin is currently most excited about Fantasy University for Facebook, which is Simutronics’ first game for the social networking market. The Open Beta launched in mid-October 2010. So far, thousands of players have poured in from all over the world. “It’s got such a great energy about it, with wonderful humor and writing, and I am very proud to be part of a team that is bringing such a high-quality game to the space,” says Dunin.

For Simutronics, the biggest challenge has been the way the industry keeps changing so rapidly. However, Dunin is equipped to tackle the shifts, because of her love for and growth alongside the game industry since its beginnings.

We couldn’t look to how other companies were doing things, because we were often the first!

Dunin elaborates: “We couldn’t look to how other companies were doing things, because we were often the first! And the business model kept changing out from under us, so we had to be nimble. When we started, games were provided on major online services that charged an hourly rate, of which we got a percentage. Then the online services started changing their business models to go flatrate, so suddenly our number of users skyrocketed, but we could no longer rely on hourly fees. Then we moved our business to the web and had to come up with an entire billing system from scratch, as we re-worked everything to go with monthly subscriptions.” Now, the industry is changing again, so Fantasy University employs a microtransaction business model.

“It’s like we have to re-invent ourselves over and over again, which is fun at times, but definitely challenging!” exclaims Dunin.

Elonka Dunin also happens to be an internationally recognized expert on the ciphers of the CIA’s Kryptos sculpture and authored The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms. Dan Brown named a character after her in his latest book, ‘The Lost Symbol’ called  ‘Nola Kaye’, an anagrammed form of ‘Elonka’.

Exclusive InterviewsIndie

Game Designer Erin Robinson on Free Games and Indie Life

January 27, 2011 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Erin Robinson is a game designer who blazoned her way in the game industry by making much-loved free games such as Nanobots, Spooks and Little Girl in Underland. It helps that she can make her own concept art, too.

Shareware For Life

Robinson being interviewed by Morgan Webb from G4TV
Robinson being interviewed by Morgan Webb from G4TV

Even in her early years, Robinson was a fan of indie games. She played every shareware game that she could get her hands on. “The first game I paid for was The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain and I did chores for weeks to earn the money. Maybe associating video games with chores was the reason I became a developer.”

Despite working in the publisher scheme nowadays, Robinson still believes strongly in her independent roots and free games. “For starters, your audience is significantly bigger. It doesn’t take nearly as much to convince people to check out an offbeat indie game if it’s free,” says Robinson.

“Free games can help a new developer build up a reputation.”

Further, working on her own free games helped Robinson find her style and share it with players. “Free games can help a new developer build up a reputation. The style of your work will become more apparent with each project you release, and can help you find your audience, or help them find you!” she shares.

The Indie Road

Robinson having breakfast with fellow indies during GDC 2010
Robinson having breakfast with fellow indies during GDC 2010
Even with these advantages, free games are not often a viable option for professionals. It can be a tough path to keep afloat financially while investing time and energy into developing free games. However, there’s a payoff. Robinson has been embraced by publishers because of her proven effort.

Finishing a game is a skill of its own, declares Robinson. “If you develop a reputation as someone who gets things done, it will only help you down the road.”
Most importantly, free games are a good way to get established and respond to feedback without incurring the risks of commercial game development.

“It’s the feeling of creating something from nothing that I find so engaging.”

Robinson has also discovered through experience that it is very rewarding to work on a commissioned project and pitch ideas. She experienced this first when designing Puzzle Bots and later when designing missions for social media company Akoha. “It’s the feeling of creating something from nothing that I find so engaging,” adds Robinson.

Into The Future

"Manning (ladying?) my booth at the PAX 10."
"Manning (ladying?) my booth at the PAX 10."

Lately, Robinson is learning how to program in Unity. “It’s going slowly but surely,” she admits. She is tackling programming because she understands how useful it is for game designers to be able to sketch out new ideas on their own.

Robinson is working on a small game that she occasionally updates people about using Twitter. “Nothing has been announced yet, but I can’t help but post concept art sometimes,” she admits.

Finishing a game is still the bane of her existence. “It’s easy to think a project is 90% done and then find your to-do list getting longer every day. It just happens,” Robinson shares. After all, releasing a game is only partly about ensuring a bug-free release. Creating promotional materials and sending a game to the press takes quite a bit of time and pushes budget constraints.

But in the end it’s worth it.

Erin Robinson recently talked about the neuroscience of gaming at GDC China, summarizing findings that video games are increasingly being used in medical and rehabilitative therapy and playing First-Person Shooters improves visual and auditory perception.

Studio Spotlight

Studio profile: Nikitova LCC in Kyiv

January 27, 2011 — by Vlad Micu

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Nikitova's Business Development Manager Natalia Makarova, VP of Strategy Maxim Zasov and CEO Olya Nikitova
Nikitova's Business Development Manager Natalia Makarova, VP of Strategy Maxim Zasov and CEO Olya Nikitova

Nikitova is not only one of the first art outsourcing studios in the Ukraine, but is now considered to be the largest game development services company in the Ukraine. They have built up quite the rep sheet with companies such as EA, Activision, Sony, Namco Networks, Oberon Media/Iplay, Trion Networks and Triumph Studios as their clients. Their main activities are not only art and engineering outsourcing for well-known titles, but also creating full games for PC and consoles. With the company prepping up to release a new line of casual downloadable titles themselves and a possible studio in China, we had the pleasure of paying their Kyiv studio a visit and find out how the company is dealing with moving from outsourcing to distributed development, what it’s like to have their own game development academy, befriending China and have a true 50/50 male/female ratio inside the office.

Distributed development > Outsourcing

Just when I visited the Nikitova offices, an entire new section was opened to accommodate a new division of programmers.
Just when I visited the Nikitova offices, an entire new section was opened to accommodate a new division of programmers.

Outsourcing has become quite the dirty word in Eastern European countries, even though it’s been one of the main livelihoods of most game studios based there. “Most of the studios here, they use outsourcing as help, to stay alive,” VP of Strategy Maxim Zasov says. At Nikitova’s offices, everyone has stopped talking about outsourcing and have started calling their work distributed development instead. “We feel that outsourcing is evolving into a more mature form of development service we see as distributed development,” President and CEO Olya Nikitova adds. “Clients started to realize that treating your development services partner as a part of their team will add a great value to the quality of the product . In certain ways, the team has to feel a sense of belonging.”

“They’ve finally started to realize that not treating us as a part of their team will influence the quality of the product as well. In certain ways, the team has to feel a sense of belonging.”

Vice president of production Michael Vatsovskiy has enjoyed the use of the word even more. His team has had a great boost in motivation seeing their names actually appear in the credits of some western games they’ve done distributed development on. “We are still something like 7 or 8 years behind software outsourcing,” he admits. “But with distributed development, in a production sense, we are partners now. It’s great for the team’s motivation.”

The Nikitova academy

 All the participants of the Nikitova academy receive a legitimate certificate once they graduate and the top candidates are offered to take up a position inside the company after graduation.
All the participants of the Nikitova academy receive a legitimate certificate once they graduate and the top candidates are offered to take up a position inside the company after graduation.

In 2006, Olya Nikitova decided to open a small game development academy to create more educational opportunities for young people in Ukraine that wanted to explore game development and become a part of an exciting industry. “Introducing something like an academy gives kids a chance to have a choice,” she explains. “If you compare it to the other job markets, game development itself is one of the highest paid industries here.” Nikitova’s academy is currently schooling 30 students at a time, testing people for their aptitude on both art and programming.

“We feel responsible for the lack of support for education on the government side.”

“We feel responsible for the lack of support for education in game development field on the government side,” she adds. “We aim to be a good example of a nice place to work, develop yourself and get excellent career growth opportunities.”

If you can’t beat em…

Senior staff inside the Nikitova offices can be easliy recognized by their abundance trophies and other spoils of battle.
Senior staff inside the Nikitova offices can be easliy recognized by their abundance of trophies and other spoils of battle.

With outsourcing to China becoming popular, even Nikitova is feeling pressure from the East. “They put a lot of money into education, and that counts as government-financed help,” President and CEO Olya Nikitova says. “So, that by itself requires us to be on our toes.” The challenge to keep costs down and retain a high-quality standard has become even bigger, especially since Ukrainian studios lack any kind of government support or quality education for game developers at all.

“You don’t compete with China, you just open up there.”

Aware of the quality of education and work in China, even an Ukrainian company like Nikitova is strongly considering to create a presence in China. The decision to open an office in China within the next six months is already on the table. “There are also advantages here [in the Ukraine] and the cultural connection is much closer to western clients,” Zasov adds. “You don’t compete with China, you just open up there.” The goal is to find a company that can complement their own skills and allow them to create a stronger international organization. “It’s a tendency for outsourcing companies to start and understand that we are stronger together than we are separately.”

Collaboration in Kyiv

Many starting game studios in Kyiv are founded by former employees who had their first taste of professional game development at Nikitova.
Many starting game studios in Kyiv are founded by former employees who had their first taste of professional game development at Nikitova.

According to many Ukranian developers, there appears to be a certain Ukrainian mentality still subconsciously active in the minds of some game studios that sharing information and being collaborative while exchanging ideas and visions is a bad thing. Five years ago, Olya Nikitova and some other developers took the initiative to start an IGDA chapter in Kyiv. “The idea of the IGDA chapter was to bring down those fences between studios and talk to each other to find the benefit,” she explains. “Anything that has a collective origin is always better than being individualistic. That has been my message for over 10 years.”

“The idea of the IGDA chapter was to bring down those fences between studios and talk to each other to find the benefit.”

For Olya Nikitova, it has become clear that in this day and age a collaborative attitude would allow her countrymen and women to achieve greater things than ever before. “You cannot stay by yourself, you need to look around,” she argues. “It’s all about being social. It’s a social environment, a social network: games for everyone.”

Girlpower

Nikitova's art department is dominated by female artists for a reason.
Nikitova's art department has recently provided art support for many big titles, inlcuding The Sims 3, Overlord I & II and Supreme Commander 2

Being at the head of her own company for almost 10 years, Olya Nikitova once took the plunge into the game industry after become tired or running a foreign exchange company. “I quickly realized it wasn’t my cup of tea,” she says. “I just like creativity and was looking for an industry that can get me inspired.” Applying her knowledge of how to start and run a business she aimed at game development industry with the goal of becoming a premium services provider and learn from the best game development companies creating best practices in the area game development outsourcing. The desire to learn has stayed with the company throughout its growth and has given Olya Nikitova the possibility to share attracts and fosters more female talent as well. The company possesses almost a 50/50 ratio of women in most of the teams in the company; a rather unseen feat for most western studios. “Being a female, and not being afraid to attract female talent, I have no reservation towards what females can do,” she says. ”The idea was to look at what women do best, because game development is such an abundant area where females can work.”

“Being a woman, and not being afraid to attract female talent, I have no reservation towards what women can do.”

Olya Nikitova especially noticed the value of a woman’s touch in the growth of her own art department. “Especially on the texture side, certain types of modeling work, certain assets, women flourish, they’re just so good at it,” She says. “They have better eyes and a better sense of color. Intuitively, they’re better on many levels. […] I really like the fact that women want to work in game development and aim to support it on every level.”

Nikitova recently celebrated it’s decade long existence. With one of Kyiv’s largest studios sharing her name, Olya Nikitova aims to move the company forward by letting her employees learn new things, make new new friends, explore opportunities and create their own story in the world of games.

Exclusive Interviews

Writer Toiya Finley Talks About Text-Based Games and Paths to Game Writing

January 25, 2011 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Freelance writer Toiya Finley discusses writing for Academagia and shares her story of hope for other freelance writers who want to write for games.

Text-Based Games Live

Text-based games are making a comeback in the world of smartphones, handhelds, and good ol’ cell phones. Finley, who fairly recently transitioned her writing skills to the game industry, started in browser-based games. She is now looking ahead to the future of texting games.

Finley writes for Academagia: The Making of Mages, which was released a couple of months ago by Black Chicken Studio. This PC game, aimed at audiences ages 9+, combines mechanics from life simulation and text-based role-playing games.

Academagia, although not a console AAA title, has been a great learning experience for Finley as a freelancer. Undoubtedly writers, especially those working online, often struggle to be fully included in the development process. “It’s a vast game, so I was able to add a lot of my ideas to the universe,” says Finley.

”I was able to add a lot of my ideas to the universe.”

Finley is currently writing the downloadable content adventures. Soon, she will be starting design work on the sequel. Above all, player feedback drives her as she thinks ahead to the sequel. “It’s been a pretty awesome experience watching the community on the forums respond to the game and discover the elements which I contributed.”

Shortly after working with Black Chicken Studio, Finley also picked up a contract as an Interactive Story Designer and Game Designer for Slooce Technologies. Slooce creates single-player and multiplayer text-based games over Short Message Service (SMS). She gets to spend her days writing choose-your-own adventure style stories, albeit within a tight word count limit.

”I’m also playing around with new game concepts, which enable friends to play with each other, even if they don’t have smartphones,” Finley shares. Of course, she can’t talk about those, but their impending releases will demonstrate the exciting possibilities of the text-based game genre.

Freelance Beginnings

Academagia: The Making of Mages is both a life sim and a text-based RPG. Players characters live through their first year at the Academagia.

Finley’s journey into the game industry started with literal journeys to the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco.

“I’m one of those ‘I’ve been writing since I was three!’ types and I’d been playing games since I was five,” says Finley. About four years ago, she began to explore how she could combine her two passions. A friend of hers who was an owner of a game development studio suggested she check out GDC. Although she enjoyed the event and met with several very helpful Human Resource representatives, there weren’t any openings for game writers, let alone studios with in-house positions or freelance contracts.

Despite the setback, Finley attended the event again the following year and met a community of supportive writers. “After spending time with them, I was pretty confident that I could work in the industry,” Finley shares.

It took time and lots of posting on message boards and mailing lists, but eventually Finley found a request on a writer’s forum for lore writers, which turned out to be Academagia. Her enthusiasm and skills led to a position and later promotion.

Freelance Life

Map of Mineta: A conceptual map of one of the game's major regions, the City of Mineta where the Academagia resides. Many of the landmarks appear in random events and adventures.

Now, Finley is balancing the age-old challenge of freelancing—continuously seeking new work while completing contracts. Each project is different, which means that Finley can’t recycle writing samples time and time again.

“When applying for a job, you need to create all new samples that show you tailor your work to the project’s genre, tone, and style,” advises Finley. This can take a lot of effort and energy, and doesn’t guarantee getting the position, but it does build a portfolio for future work.

” When applying for a job, create all new samples that show you tailor your work to the project’s genre, tone, and style.”

Notably, freelance writers also face the unfortunate reality that their supportive community can also be their competition. One strategy for handling this situation involves finding a unique niche and sticking with an established client base. The other strategy requires developing your skills by focusing on getting a position using tailor-made writing samples and then learning along the way. After all, writing styles for games are just as unique as the mechanics themselves, as Finley has learned.

Finley is looking forward to unveiling her latest writing that involves unique game concepts for phone-based games.

Development

Cellufun’s Sande Chen on Freelancing, Social Games, and Writing for RPGs

December 24, 2010 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Sande Chen

Writer and designer Sande Chen reflects on her journey as a freelancer, breaks down the budding field of social game design, and recalls memories of working on her favorite role-playing games.

From Serious Games to Social Games

With a background as a games writer and serious games designer, Sande Chen is currently navigating the fairly new space of social game design. She continues to consult on other titles but is content with a steady design position.

Although Chen went to film school at the University of Southern California, she aspired to work in the games industry from the moment she graduated. Her first contract position as a game writer was for Terminus, which won two awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.

“As a freelance writer and game designer, I have worked on pretty much every platform, games big and small, from serious games to MMORPGs,” says Chen. She relies on a wide range of ongoing and overlapping work, which is the lifestyle of freelancers.

Transitional work is key to a stable career as a freelancer. “Since some of my freelance work had been in social games, I had a pretty smooth transition into working full-time as a social game designer,” says Chen.

Aspects of Social Game Design

“Social Game Designer” is a title for designers who primarily design games to be played on social networks like Facebook. Social games require a unique approach to users. Chen explains, “One particular facet of working in social games is dealing with metrics and the immediate feedback from users. Of course, other types of games deal with such issues, but I find in social games, user impact on design is faster.”

“In social games, user impact on design is faster.”

Social games especially appeal to Chen because she can have a more direct relationship with players. To Chen, social networking trumps AAA titles, particularly when you take into account that Facebook social games can reach more than 500 million active users.

Chen deals with more than writing and design. She also has to consider the economical and marketing aspects of games as a consultant. Recently, she has been familiarizing herself with free-to-play mechanics paired with microtransactional elements in social games. “It’s very important to understand your monetization scheme or to build in ways to monetize when designing a social game,” Chen advises.

Before Social Games

CD Projekt's The Witcher
Chen: “I really loved the dark atmosphere and the richness of the world.”

Although Chen enjoys social game design, she does miss the richness of writing for role-playing games. By far, her best experience was writing for CD Projekt RED’s first large-scale game, The Witcher, which won Best RPG 2007. She had the opportunity to work with a unique story created by leading Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowsk.

One of her most interesting experiences was working on a Serious Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (or SMMORPG, now that’s a mouthful). Like pushing the boundaries of social games, “the most exciting and challenging projects are outside the norm,” says Chen.

“The most exciting and challenging projects are outside the norm.”

Chen explains what brought about the game: “My friend is a physics professor and an avid fan of fantasy MMORPGs. He wanted a fantasy MMORPG to teach university level physics. It also needed to be non-violent.” For this project, Chen had to figure out what the basic gameplay mechanic had to be, what the quests would be like, and how a physics curriculum could be integrated into a MMORPG.

It also had to feature magic and elves.

Sande Chen also coordinates the International Game Developer Association’s Game Design Aspect of the Month.

Development

Englobe Inc.’s Kate Edwards on Geopolitical Strategy, Culturalization, and Consulting

December 16, 2010 — by Gamesauce Staff

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As a Content Strategist, Kate Edwards has had the opportunity to work with game titles including Halo 1, Halo 2, Fable, and Forza. “Some personal favorites from a process standpoint were all of the Age of Empires titles, as well as Jade Empire,” she shares. Most recently, she just finished work on Dance Central and Dragon Age 2. Kate Edwards discusses the origins of Geopolitical Strategy at Microsoft, taking the leap to consultation, localization beyond language, and culturalizing.

From Geopolitical Strategizing to Consulting

Dance Central
Edwards: “The biggest challenge working on Dance Central was my lack of dancing skills. The geocultural review had to be done playing through the game using the Kinect, so my clumsiness was really put on display. Thank goodness it was usually only me in the room at the time!”

With the access to work with so many top titles, we have to wonder: What is a Content Strategist? Edwards was working at Microsoft as its Geopolitical Strategist (a position Edwards created within a team she called Geopolitical Strategy) to help the company prevent making geopolitical and cultural mistakes across all Microsoft products and locales. Edwards explains, “We wanted to avoid the kind of things that make governments and consumers upset, that then result in products getting banned and/or receiving very negative PR.”

” We wanted to avoid the kind of things that make governments and consumers upset, that then result in products getting banned and/or receiving very negative PR.”

When Microsoft Game Studios got started, Edwards got more and more heavily involved in helping them with unique issues that applied to games. “I worked on everything from UI design, to stories, to artwork, to character design, scenarios, and so on.” She provided proactive advice to help them avoid yielding major backlash in various locales.

Between 1995 and 2005, she performed a review of nearly every 1st party Microsoft game on PC and Xbox, and some 2nd/3rd party titles. She also instituted a “geopolitical quality review” process at Microsoft for every product, including game titles. For Edwards, it was the dream job. “As an avid gamer myself, this was an ideal job for me—melding my geography and geopolitical background with my passion for games.”

Now, she’s supported by a career as a consultant. “Once I left MS in 2005, I continued my focus on game content ‘culturalization’, started the Game Localization SIG in the International Game Developers Association, and have been entrenched in the game industry from the localization side,” Edwards says. She also co-organizes the Game Localization Summit at the Game Developers Conference, reminding us that localization goes beyond language.

From Challenges to Resolve

Star Wars: The Old Republic
Edwards: “Working on Star Wars: The Old Republic has been really gratifying from the standpoint that I once aspired to be a storyboard artist for Lucasfilm and really wanted to work on something Star Wars related. Years later, I’m finally getting the opportunity. Just in a radically different capacity.”

However, not everyone is warm to the idea of consultation. “As a content strategist who deals with touchy issues like religion, politics, and culture represented in games, I often get viewed with suspicion by game artists, writers, and designers.” Her biggest challenge is integration in a team. “They view me as a hindrance rather than a help. They often think I’m there to be the ‘PC’ police or somehow curtail their creative vision. With this kind of roadblock, it makes my job very difficult to do and it potentially endangers their work.”

Although it took time, Edwards was eventually able to overcome this by proving herself to game companies in two ways: “First, I’m a gamer and have been longer than many in this young industry have been alive. So I love games. I’ve played a lot of games, and I understand the important issue of context from a gamer’s perspective. Second, as they worked with me, I showed the creative folks that I share their vision and my ‘intervention’ is usually very minimal.”

All in all, Edwards’ feedback rarely changes major aspects of a game. “I strive to make surgical changes—maybe remove one symbol, word, or change one small thing here and there. Once they saw how I worked and the understanding I bring to their creativity, they accepted me as a value-add to their process.”

”I strive to make surgical changes —maybe remove one symbol, word, or change one small thing here and there.”

As a consultant, she still faces the challenges of overcoming perceptions and hesitancy from clients. She has overcome many of these issues, though. After all, she’s working on Star Wars: The Old Republic right now.

Kate Edwards is a Geographer and Principal Consultant at Englobe Inc. She happens to also work with Google on Google Maps and Google Earth.

Exclusive Interviews

Stephanie O’Malley Deming on Localization at Activision, XLOC, and Worldwide

November 29, 2010 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Stephanie O’Malley Deming XLOC’s president and co-founder Stephanie O’Malley Deming just wrapped working with Activision on a very high profile game coming out this holiday. “That end-of-the-project push is so exciting and exhilarating. For a game of that size, there are so many loose ends to wrap up. From a production perspective, you need to be quick, focused and on-point. It’s truly a worldwide team effort“ says Deming. She sat down with Gamesauce to discuss the importance of localization and her process in her work at XLOC, Activision’s latest title, and the games industry overall.

Roots and Branches in Localization

Bioshock
With almost 15 years of industry experience in her pocket, Deming has worked with worldwide, award-winning educational and entertainment products for companies including Activision, Electronic Arts, LucasArts, Capcom, and 2K Games. She started out learning production and programming in the early 90s at a company for kids’ games. A few years later, she moved to Activision and learned the intricacies of studio management. She organized internal studio talent at a time when Activision had several internal teams working under one roof.

“There is a true sense of accomplishment after putting so much of yourself into a game.”

Deming’s experience in localization began when she moved into an associate producer position on Civilization: Call to Power. Deming shares, “I loved working on Call to Power because of the camaraderie of the development team, but it certainly was hard work. There is a true sense of accomplishment after putting so much of yourself into a game.”

On Call To Power, Deming helped manage both the internal team and the simultaneous localizations. “This was fairly rare at the time,” explains Deming. “From there, I consulted on numerous projects and built the XLOC product along with my partner. Since then, we’ve partnered with many publishers and developers in their localization efforts.”

Growing Industry, Growing Need

Civilization Call to Power
Certainly, Deming has a wealth of successes in localization—including high-profile titles such as Guitar Hero, BioShock, Call of Duty, and Tony Hawk. “XLOC has been my favorite development, as I know we have been an integral part of many games and their localization success. Analyzing production and localization needs as they have changed throughout the years and then incorporating them into our product has been very interesting.“

“We love working with all developers, especially those that value their international market.”

The process of making internationally accessible games is iterative but also undoubtedly valuable to the games industry. “Outside of the obvious factor that having a global view of a games release means more revenue, I think publishers realize global accessibility of their games is inevitable, particularly because our digital world is so much ‘smaller’,” says Deming. “We love working with all developers, especially those that value their international market.”

As the games industry looks into the future of massively multiplayer and social networking games, localization is especially important. Deming explains, “[These types of] games link people from all countries together, but the life experiences of those in that world audience is not the same. We need to be sensitive to that and understand how we, as developers, can incorporate the fun and immersive elements of games to that audience.”

Education, Early Implementation, Better Localization

Prototype
The biggest challenge Deming has faced in the localization of games has two components: Firstly, there’s a need to educate developers to consider cultural differences in games and how those cultural differences can be incorporated into the core game to be appealing to worldwide audiences. This is resolved with “good old-fashioned education, understanding the game, and unraveling its goals and different territory requirements.” Secondly, and perhaps the greater part of the challenge, is in the actual implementation of these differences.

“Overcoming these issues is all about early education and international consideration…”

Deming describes: “As an example, strings developed in English may easily be concatenated (created by sentence fragments). However, concatenation is much more complicated in other languages that have specific gender rules. If this is the route taken, the developer will have to modify code to account for these expanded gender rules. This can be very complicated and unless discussed and planned early, can be very difficult to implement.”

Ultimately, localization is a layered process. “Overcoming these issues is all about early education and international consideration from people that understand from both a code perspective as well as an international one.”

Stephanie O’Malley Deming is enjoying the holidays at XLOC and looks forward to the international success of Activision’s latest game.

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