Tag Archives: Game Development

Game Developer Barbie

“It’s really not that big of a deal.”


I will admit, my response was probably not the most polite or appropriate for the situation. But I was not wrong. Mattel announced new Barbies today. And while the news of new body types (holy hell they added a curvy barbie!!!) was enough to draw me to the site, what made me gasp with joy was the Game Developer Barbie.

She’s got a computer accessory. She’s got long red hair, with headphones snugly in place. She’s wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a light jacket. She’s got sneakers on her flat feet. She’s me. (Actually, if they made the curvy version it literally WOULD be me.)

She’s me. I’m a game developer, and this summer, I will have a Barbie doll that looks just like me, dresses just like me, and DOES MY JOB.

When I was in High School, I was one of the smartest kids in my class. They made us talk to a guidance counselor about what job we wanted so we could plan out our college path to get there. After 30 minutes of her trying to convince me to be a Doctor, Lawyer, or Teacher, I finally just said, “Look, I am gonna go to college, I will figure it out there.” I was steered away from being a writer (“You don’t want to be a starving artist do you?”) They pushed the Doctor and Lawyer hard – as expected for a poor area. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something amazing.

I went to college and my “plan” became Take as Many Classes as Possible, and Figure it Out Later. 4.5 years later, I was planning on being an English Teacher. Then I discovered the Guildhall and literally said “Wait, I can make games? They have schools for this kind of thing? I am going THERE.” And I did. But that moment struck me because no one – in all my years of playing video games, ever once said “Why don’t you try to make them?” I owned a computer, and worked on them, but never once thought – hey let’s make a game. Hell, I BUILT LEVELS for Heroes of Might and Magic and Neverwinter Nights, and never once thought, I should get paid to do this. Because no one ELSE did. Games were a “waste of time”. Always.

Barbie makes it so people WILL think about it. I remember thinking about careers like being a vet, a stewardess, a tv anchor, all because that was what Barbie did – AND I DIDN’T EVEN PLAY WITH THEM.

Further, I remember way back in 4th grade when we were asked what we wanted to be when we grow up. I said something weird and my teacher responded with “Pick something Barbie could be.” Yeah, it was a bit sexist because she didn’t say that to the boys, but her heart was in the right place trying to direct me towards real careers. I then switched to insisting I would be a mermaid, because I had an Ariel Barbie doll.

This is important. Very important for the next generation of girls. I wish I had had that vision when I was a kid. I would have been making games since I was 10.

Understanding the Other Self

I remember the first time I showed my dad WoW. He didn’t really get it. I explained that the green named people were other players. I explained that the game couldn’t be paused. I explained how we moved through the world and did quests, killing monsters. He never seemed to quite understand. He kept asking me, but what was my character’s name? Was I saving the princess? His understanding of games was narrow, and I didn’t know the correct words at the time to explain the difference.

My son, by virtue of being a game developer’s kid, has been exposed to games from the very beginning. Before he was even a year old, he watched me play things like Skylanders on our living room TV. At around 11 months, he realized for the first time that putting something on the portal of power caused the TV to change. He did this for hours. Skylanders on and off, looking up at the TV to watch the change.

The next, the real magic happened. Tiny Pittman took the portal off the coffee table, set it on the floor, then carefully stepped up on it. He looked at the TV. Of course, nothing happened. Despite the fact that I call him a Skylander, he isn’t actually. He tried a few more times, even testing the portal with Skylanders, but he couldn’t get the TV to change when he stepped on the portal. He seemed disappointed. His understanding was that anything placed on the portal appeared on the screen. Our magic for Skylanders is limited, but it wasn’t in his head.

The next time he really began to interact with games was several months later, while he sat on my lap while I played WoW. I mounted up on a flying dragon and Tiny pointed at it, then loudly exclaimed “Birdy!” I laughed and replied, yes, that was Mommy’s birdy. I kept playing, and he reached out and pressed the space bar. My character reacted by jumping in the air. His response: “WHOA!” He began pressing the space bar repeatedly. Watching intently as my character jumped around Azeroth. Finally, I zoomed in on my character, and he said “Mommy!” Yes, my character is a red headed human, so it makes sense he would recognize her as me. I nodded, and agreed. Yes, that was Mommy.

What really got me was watching him completely understand and accept, not only that my online avatar was me, but that I was also in control of her. At 1 year, and 8 months, Tiny understood that the characters on the screen were merely extensions of the people behind the keyboard.

I look forward to seeing him grow and discover virtual worlds. I also wonder what kind of expectations this will create in him. What things will he understand that will be outside of my grasp? What will those virtual worlds look like when he gets there?

New Game Smell

I have many thoughts about Warlords of Draenor. I think there should be more women in the marketing. I think there is a noticeable lack of characters we can find heroic. I think their healing blog on the changes has me not wanting to heal.

When pre-orders went up for WoD though, I didn’t blink, I paid my $70 for the Digital Deluxe Version, and immediately started thinking about who I wanted to boost to 90. Today a Breakfast Topic on WI discussed the pricing of WoD. It’s the fifth WoW expansion, all previous expansions were $40, but WoD is $50.

The more cynical people think it’s “charging” $10 for the “free” level 90 boost. The more economics knowledgeable people point to inflation. But I am a game developer, so my first thought was – Yep, that price sounds about right, for a WoW expansion. But I was astonished at several responses, but none as much as this one “$50? That’s almost the price of a new game!” (Some used the CE pricing and said it was as much as a new game.) This was followed by claims of less content, subscriptions funding the expansion development, and comparisons to new games.

I am baffled by how many people commenting seemed to have no knowledge of game development, or even WoW’s development.

So here’s some food for thought, on why a mere expansion should cost the same as a “new” game.

First, I want to bring issue with the term expansion and the belief that our subs fund the development of expansions. Expansion is a word that is used to describe additions to a game that require the base game to play. Expansion does NOT necessarily indicate the number of hours of play added or the amount of content. There also seems to be some misconception about subs being used to support development, and while it’s possible they do, they are also used to pay for servers (and any upgrades over the years), server power, GMs, CMs, Customer Service, and all those other pesky things that come from running a massive live game like WoW. Then, any left over money likely gets split between investors and Blizzard, with a larger cut going to investors. (I heard rumors back in 2008 from a good source that indicated that the original deal of how sub fees got split actually meant Blizzard got very very little from it, but that is probably outdated now as those kinds of thing are occasionally renegotiated.) Regardless, that money doesn’t necessarily get spent on the development of expansions. Nor is Blizzard under any obligation to do so. Read the ToS. It says nothing about Subscription Fees or where they will be spent. You are paying for access, and nothing else. (Although the more I think about it, the more I expect that our sub does pay for the content we receive in patches, while the expansion price is paying for the huge drop of leveling content at the start.)

Second, the cost of everything rises and games are no exception. I remember when the price on console games went from 50 to 60, and everyone threw a fit. But it stuck, and eventually everyone accepted it. Even at the time, the developer response to the cost increase was art. I am a game developer and I have shipped 4 titles, in addition to knowing dozens of game developers from games of all sizes. One universal truth is – art is expensive. Exponentially so. The higher the fidelity, the higher the cost. Artists make up more than half of the company at every company I have worked at. Creating a single environmental object for a game, like a tombstone or barrel, can take 8 hours, based on the complexity of the model, the detail in the texture, how long it takes to unwrap, etc. Then every piece of art has to be reviewed and approved. Things like characters can take several WEEKS to model and texture, then a few more to rig and animate. Once a piece of art is finished, it has to go to programmers or designers to be implemented and placed in the game.

So from Skylanders, here’s how it goes with a SINGLE destructible item. I needed a barrel for the Darklight Crypt level. That was 4 hours of an artist’s time. Then he sent the barrel model and the models for the 5 pieces of it that show up when it breaks. It takes me about an hour to get them loaded into a destructible level, with proper collision and that’s AFTER a great deal of development time spent setting up the “pipeline” so I just have to plug stuff in, as opposed to scripting it up by hand. But then depending on the item I might have to do more special case scripting on top. Let’s say I don’t, so now it’s up to 5 hours. Then I send an email to vfx, so they can add particles when it explodes that match the item exploding. They spend about 2-4 hours doing that. (A barrel is likely 2.) Then sound has to go in and add explosion sounds and adjust those for the specific item. (About an hour.) And here we are, a barrel, in the game exploding, right at about 8 hours. Oh, but this was Darklight Crypt… and there is a world swapping mechanic, so I need that same barrel, only for the other world, so it’s going to need to look different… Two days, minimum of four employees, for TWO art assets that are as simple as it gets in games. Imagine doing hundreds of these. How many different barrels and crates have you seen in WoW?

As the items get bigger and more complex, they take more time. Oh and on a game like WoW, where they are updating the graphics engine with each expansion they have to go back and re-do art to make it look better and fit with the new graphics. Otherwise you have the problem all over the game that you can see by simply standing a human next to a panda. Not to mention that graphics engine that got updated probably had a few programmers working on it. (I would bet Blizzard has between 5-10 at least.) I know how many people work on Skylanders (although, that’s JUST TfB, technically people at Beenox and Vicarious Visions are working on it too…) so I can just imagine WoW’s team must be at least 150-200 people – JUST for development. Do you realize how much MONEY it takes to PAY that many people? And these aren’t minimum wage employees either. These are highly specialized, talented people. If Blizzard isn’t paying them well, someone else will, and they will lose their talent. Game Career Guide does a salary survey every year. Programmers with 6+ years of experience get ~106k. Artists – 76K. Designers – 82K. Producers 66K. Audio – 93K. So if we average that, we get (round down) 84k. 84k x 200 people… That’s over 17 MILLION a year – JUST on salaries. And I am positive that number is low. Really low. Because that’s not taking into account leads, people with 10+ years of experience, or things like QA. Obviously, if we had more data, we would have a more accurate picture, but making games is expensive! (Here’s another post on this exact same thing.)

Now, to my biggest bone of contention, and the one comment that made my teeth grind. “But it’s almost as much as a WHOLE NEW GAME!”

How do you know?

We haven’t seen all of Draenor yet. We don’t know how big the space is. We don’t know how many “skins” the garrison has. (Blizzard calls them kits.) We don’t know how many quests there are. We don’t know the number of new pets, mounts, armor, etc. We only know the number of dungeons and raid bosses. We don’t know the time it will take to get to 100. You are speculating on content size without having seen it! Okay, fine, let’s make the assumption it is as big as Pandaria. (With equal numbers of quests, dungeons, etc etc.)

Alright – but how big are new games? People like comparing it to ESO or WildStar, but those games aren’t out yet either. (I would like to cut the speculation down as much as possible.) I didn’t play SWTOR, so I can’t speak to it either. So let’s look at some new games I did play. Dishonored! Great game, I highly recommend it. It took me 15 hours to beat. Content wise though, it has about the equivalent of Jade Forest. What about Skyrim, another excellent game I highly recommend? (Thank you Reddit dudes for actually timing this.) It takes about 30 minutes to run from one end to the other. So if we run from one end of Pandaria to the other… and it takes about 30 minutes (on the ground, not flying or flight paths). Hum.

Okay okay, what about GAMEPLAY. That’s what’s important right? So Skyrim, I played for ~300 hours. My /played in Pandaria (since you can see how long it has been at this level) is… 22 DAYS? Honestly I expected more. I have 5 other characters at 90 too. Quests! Skyrim has ~300 quests. Here they are – all listed on one page. Pandaria has 1551. (I am skipping dungeons as they don’t really compare easily – Skyrim has over 100, but they are significantly shorter, use modular art, and do not generally have boss fights for all of them.) How many animals? Mounts? Pets? Buildings? All of these take time to make and then implement. You can’t just reuse assets either, or players complain, or it just looks silly. You can’t use regular mailboxes in Pandaria, they have to match the aesthetic of the world.

In the game industry, you will often hear the saying “Good, Fast, or Cheap. Pick two.” This is why Skyrim took ~5 years to make. It’s a great game. It’s a big game. It took a long time. (I’d bet money it wasn’t cheap either.) Pandaria, as a stand alone game, has just as much as Skyrim in terms of content, gameplay, and awesomeness. But took 3 less years to make and cost $20 less. That kind of turn around is not cheap. That means overtime. That means more people. That means talented people who cost more but do the work right the first time. Consider that Vanilla took at least 4 years to make. And yet they are churning out MORE content in the expansions than they did in Vanilla.

I also see people saying because there isn’t a new race or class, it’s not as “much” as before. UH. You’re getting effectively 5 races this expansion. When they “rework” models, they aren’t faster and easier because they have been done before. You have to start fresh and the new ones are so much more complex. And goodness, who actually wants a new class? I don’t have time to play the ones we HAVE! Monks are still a fraction of the player base as compared to the older classes. So logically, why would Blizzard spend 100s of hours making and balancing a new class when it’s not going to be played? Many decisions made in game development change based on how much something costs to do versus how many players actually do it. (Why 100s of hours? Well first you have to think it up, then implement it – which could take a month or so, then art it just enough to figure out if it works/is fun/feels like WoW, then iteration to make it GOOD, then more art to make it LOOK good, then more iteration to make it balanced… so much TIME! Wouldn’t that time be better spent on things people who don’t want alts can also play with? Like… Garrisons? :))

So is WoD worth the extra $10? Is it comparable to a new game? Of course it is. It has far more content and gameplay than most games. The comparable games, like Skyrim, are known for being “massive” among gamers. Honestly, Blizzard could be charging $60 for it. We call it an expansion because it builds on WoW, but in terms of scope, it’s bigger than most new games.

If you take into account the time spent in the game, the “return on investment” says they could be charging even more, and it would still be worth it. I paid $60 for Dishonored and got 15 hours out of it (that’s about $4 an hour, not bad). I paid $120 (two copies, xbox and pc) for Skyrim and got 300 hours out of it (40 cents per hour, really great return). My time in WoW though… $60 for Vanilla, $40 for BC/Wrath/Cata/MoP each (really $70 because I get the CEs), plus $13/month since August 2005… ($340 for the games, $13×103 months = $1339, grand total – $1679) with a /played across my account (we’re going to ignore the SECOND account I also have that has been subbed continuously since 2007) of 432+ days. That’s over 10k hours. It ends up being… about 15 cents PER HOUR of enjoyment in WoW. Is WoD worth it?

If making games were easy, everyone would do it. If making money making games was easy, you wouldn’t see things like studio closures. If making GOOD games like Blizzard does was easy, you wouldn’t see games with sub 80 scores on Metacritic. $50 for a game the size/quality of Pandaria is a bargain. It’s possible the sales of the expansion alone won’t even cover the full development costs (especially if the game is purchased as a physical copy over the digital versions – Blizzard likely gets 100% on the digital sales, but about 50% on sales through retailers). The people developing this game (all of them from Metzen down to QA dude #300) don’t work for free. They deserve to get paid. Game sales, mounts, pets, services, and subs make sure they get paid and the game keeps getting worked on. In the end, game companies are trying to make money which means charging enough to make more than they spent on their specialized product.

Just like every other creative art product, if you want the artist to keep producing new stuff, you have to buy the old stuff. It’s why I buy albums, movies, books, and games from people who’s work I love. It’s why I buy books on my iPad AND physical copies. It’s why I buy tv shows on DVD. I want the people who make these things to make more, and that means supporting them now. I want to be playing WoW when I am 80, and if that means paying $50 over $40 for an expansion now, shut up and take my money Blizzard.

Gender in Video Games

When asked to discuss this topic, I generally gravitate towards Women in the Game Industry, as opposed to Women Gamers. Today I did an interview for an article on gender and how it relates to women gamers, touching on the assault behavior towards women. It’s a complex topic. So too is women gamers and women developers, but in my mind, they are all interconnected and form a cycle.

The Mythical Unicorn

Any female gamer can tell a story of at some point where being a girl who plays games has attracted the wrong sort of attention. The belief in the rarity of women who play and enjoy mainstream video games perpetuates this myth and the responses. Start with a lonely guy that seems to be unable to find a girl who understands him. He likes books, movies, and video games. He meets a girl he thinks is cute, asks her out, and discovers that she couldn’t care less about these things that make up a majority of his passions and hobbies. She cares about clothes, shoes, celebrities, and makeup. Poor guy. Now he meets the one girl in his sphere of acquaintances that does like the things he does. She plays video games, she argues who is better Picard or Kirk, and she, miracles of miracles, revels in HIS knowledge of such topics. Queue the love at first geek scene. And suddenly this girl possibly has a problem. For some reason, lack of attraction, already taken, etc, she doesn’t want to date Lonely Guy. He tries to ply her with gifts, but despite the prevalent belief that women can be bought, it doesn’t work.

What is she to do? Break his heart? Be mean? Try to be nice, but knowing it is going to be awkward and likely will just “string” him along? It sucks for the girl. All she wanted was a friend to argue lore with! And unfortunately the skew of males to females makes this an incredibly common occurrence. Because of this women are more likely to attempt to hide their identity. By hiding their identity the problem is exacerbated and female gamers appear to be more rare than they really are.

We are not a mythical unicorn. Attend PAX Prime or PAX East and this will completely dismiss the belief that gamer women are rare. There are plenty of us running around. We just don’t like to tell people because they get stupid over it. Once I decided I would no longer hide my female status from WoW friends, I discovered something very surprising. Not only did “outing” myself lead to other girls being willing to do the same thing (it was quite a shocking day) but also we were able to develop friendships through our common trials and tribulations. According to various websites, though their numbers are speculative and not backed by Blizzard, it is believed that 1 in 5 WoW players is female. That’s alot of girls running around Azeroth.

The Greater Internet Dickwad Theory

Once people get on the internet, realize they are anonymous, they suddenly become a different person. Much like the Invisible Man changed radically when he realized he would no longer be punishable for his actions, so too do people on the internet believe they can say whatever without repercussion. This leads to XBox Live speak, Trolls, and all other number of wildly offensive things being said over public channels that would *never* be said to someone’s face.

Because of this truth, women often find themselves at the receiving end of extremely offensive behavior. I once had a guy in WoW tell me “Shut up b*tch. I will find you and I will rape you.” I recoiled in horror from my computer. It didn’t matter that this person had no idea who I was. It didn’t matter that I knew he had no way of actually hurting me. The fact that he would even physically be able to type that to a possible woman was appalling to me. I reported him, ignored him, and immediately left the guild (who’s leader responded with “well that’s just the way he is”).

For the most part however, I see these things as a new form of saber rattling, boasting, or puffery. It is a way for them to swing about their manliness. And just like in real life, I can be bothered by it, or I can ignore it. In WoW I generally ignore it and the player depending on what they say. On other sites I protect myself by having over protective security settings.

A Woman in a Man’s Field

Of course, my view of these social interactions is viewed from the eyes of a game designer. I work in a predominantly male industry. The last figure I read was 13% of the video game industry is female. This has been mathematically accurate, or lower, at every company I have worked at. Other than Guildhall women, of whom there are many, I have only met TWO other women designers in the industry. I spend most of my time with males.

The thing that always gets people is how much different I think than other designers, and they have problems realizing that most of my variant viewpoint comes from being a girl. It is different on this side of the fence. It gives me a different lens through which to look at games.

In my current game, we have a small number of female characters. I began attributing female characteristics and names to a few of the androgynous characters in an attempt to “pad” the number. Very soon after I noticed the guys followed my lead. Without a word they were willing to accept these characters as female, despite never having thought so before. When I pointed it out to a senior designer, he laughed and asked what did it matter? I pointed out the large difference in the number of female characters to male and he looked quite surprised. It never even occurred to him to think about equality in terms of sex among the characters. Needless to say, he even agreed it should be more balanced and made a point to start “female-izing” the androgynous characters.

Add to this the fact that at many of these companies I get to have “the talk” when I start working there. As if I haven’t been dealing with unwanted attention from guys for half my life. As if I don’t understand that if things get even remotely awkward I need to run, not walk, to my supervisor and nip it in the bud. As if I haven’t already had to have the conversation once where I was pressed on why I missed work and turned bright red as I explained menstrual cramps to a male. In fact it has become a rather large warning sign when I start at a new company only to find that they have a 3 hour presentation to go through about this sort of thing. Great, I can expect this to be a problem. (As a side note, there was no such talk at my current company and it was all I could do not to caper with glee.)

One step further, having to work on a game that has a woman in a metal bikini. People think it’s odd when I sigh at games that only include the mother, maiden, crone archetypes. Or the groan inducing things like in Uncharted 2 where every woman in the entire game is after Drake like he is coated in sex pheromones. They say, “But you play video games, you should be used to it. If you don’t like it, don’t make games with it in there.” I like having a job. I also like making games. You don’t always get to chose the projects you work on. It also confuses the guys I work with when I say, “Why can’t she be more like Lara Croft and less like Daphne (the princess/hooker from Dragon’s Lair)?” They immediately respond with “Lara Croft is exactly the stereotype you complain about!” A strong, brave, adventurous female that doesn’t spend her time chasing men but rather chasing history? Make her boobs as big as you want, she’s still awesome. And she is capable of having a relationship with a male that doesn’t assume sex.

The Cycle

The problem with all of these things is that they form a negative feedback loop. Women don’t play games because the traditional response of how to make a game for girls is “Pink it.” Women then don’t become game designers because they don’t play games, so it isn’t a career field they want to get into. Women aren’t the ones designing games, and so games don’t get made with women in mind as a valid market.

Add in that women and men view fun differently, seek different forms of enjoyment, and create different goals in games and the fact that it is hard for a guy to understand why his game idea didn’t appeal to women becomes very clear. There are not enough female protagonists in games. EA proved that games with female protagonists didn’t sell as well as games with male protagonists. I was stunned by their lack of ability to see that if you only have 20 games with female protagonists and 200 games with male protagonists, then it should be obvious that the male protagonists have had more chances to be in good games that sell well. Not to mention a female protagonist isn’t going to help if the game isn’t fun to women. They are still targeting a male audience and it is easier to connect with a protagonist of the same gender.

Why do MMOs have a better balance of men to women than other games like Call of Duty? Does it have anything to do with the ease of entry into MMOs? Or the ability to customize your character? That the design supports more cooperative play as opposed to competitive play? That MMOs are more social in a positive way than CoD? Or is it simply that the initial induction into an MMO, like WoW, is usually a hand holding one by a significant other, and this play style is supported, as opposed to CoD where it is a huge liability to play is such a manner?

I am a girl. I play games to the point I more than consider myself a gamer. I design games as a career, with the hope of making an enjoyable experience for everyone who plays my game, not just the target audience. I prefer to play a game I can take at my own pace. I prefer to play a game where I can play a female. Does this make me any different from any other gamer? Not really. Do I get treated differently because of the accident of my birth and my love for things outside of my social norm? Definitely. Should I, and do I want to be? Not at all.

The gender gap is closing. The social mores are shifting and games are slowly becoming mainstream. Every day some kid is turning 18 after a childhood of playing games and they aren’t chucking their Xbox just because they are an adult now. Every day another gamer family has kids or gets pregnant and plans how to raise their kid in the tradition of games. These issues will pass after time. And it will get better. After all, every year I have been in the industry, that percentage of female developers has gone up.