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Brenda Romero

I am the Program Director for the UC Santa Cruz Master's in Games + Playable Media and the CEO and Co-Founder of Loot Drop, game studio focused on fun. I have been fortunate to make games my whole life.

Breaking Into The Game Industry – The New Book’s Out!

June 14, 2011

After a whole lot of writing and help from dozens of my friends in the game industry, my new book is on its way to stores: Breaking Into the Game Industry: Advice for a Successful Career from Those Who Have Done It.

Like my last book, Challenges for Game Designers, this one was again co-authored with Ian Schreiber.

This book contains the 100 most common questions I’ve been asked about breaking in, staying in, switching jobs and moving up. It covers all disciplines. I hope you enjoy it.

GDC 2011: Social Game Developers Rant Back

March 3, 2011

Brenda Brathwaite
COO & Game Designer, Loot Drop
GDC 2011: No Freakin’ Respect! Social Game Developers Rant Back

[This rant was recorded by Dean Takahashi at VentureBeat: You can see the piece here.]

I resist this rant. I resist its leading title, and I resist the will to fight. I will not turn against my fellow developers who have supported me through 30 years of my career.

We have been through this before. For me, it begins in 1981.

“You’re ruining games, you know.”

My Dungeons & Dragons DM said this to me when I started working at Sir-tech Software on the Wizardry series of games. “Games aren’t meant to be played like that, not this game.” He had heard about Wizardry, how I could create 6 characters and take them on an Apple II adventure, without interacting with any other human beings. It wasn’t social like D&D was; it wasn’t even particularly intellectually challenging. The entire game had maybe three puzzles in it, and an absolutely endless series of button mashes – Fight, Fight, Fight, Parry, Parry, Parry. It would have been a clickfest, but we didn’t have mice on our machines back then.

I remember people writing letter after letter after letter when they found the Lesser Demons and Greater Demons that haunted the lower levels of the maze. They called us evil and said our games promoted Satanism. They didn’t, and we didn’t, but it was a reflection of the time we were in.

It was a challenging time. We stood together, you and me, because we loved games.

I remember when graphics started to replace text, and we worried that the game’s deeper meaning would be lost, and that soon, games would be nothing more than meaningless images incapable of transmitting any deep type of play, never mind the feared complete loss of story. I remember lamenting the loss of the text parser and absolutely railing against keyword conversations because, to me, they dumbed down the whole game to the level of toast. I remember when cutscenes first appeared in games and we committed the cardinal sin, taking the game out of the hands of the player, because we wanted to show something cool and wow them, even if they just sat there waiting for it to pass.

I remember these things, you remember these things, because we loved games.

I remember when we really started having fun and players were slapping each other silly in arcades and at home in Mortal Kombat. It seems so quaint now, the ripping out of your opponent’s heart. Thanks to a bunch of concerned legislators, Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were dragged to the floor of Congress in 1993, and that same year in front of the same Congress, Sega and Nintendo fought each other like two foolish characters in front of the world. Then DOOM was released and blamed for Columbine and every police officer stopped asking, “Did he listen to Ozzy Osbourne,” and instead wondered, “Did he play GTA?”. We stood together, most of us, because we knew that games were games, and that games didn’t shoot people. Real guns and real bullets did.  We’ve been called murder simulators, sex simulators, rape simulators, insensitive and horrible. In this very state, legislators have tried to class games with drugs as “harmful substances” in order to prohibit their sale.

I remember these things, you remember these things, because we loved games.

I remember when a cut feature was found and hacked, and the term “Hot Coffee” no longer referred to a steaming hot beverage but a steaming pile of shit as the game industry was once again threatened, re-rated, and subjected to over 100 new pieces of legislation in response. Some game developers made really bad games about sex and explored its frontiers. And I remember Elder Scrolls getting re-rated, because they revealed that underneath a woman’s bra, God forbid, there are nipples, even if you can’t actually ever see them through normal gameplay. More recently, Fox News called Mass Effect a virtual sex simulator.

We stood together, you and me, because we love games.

When the powers that be asked us to work a little bit more, then a lot more and then seven days a week, we supported one another. When seven days a week turned to months and sometimes months turned to years, we stood behind a lone courageous voice, EA Spouse, and forwarded her call to everyone we knew. When they came for our products, our creativity, for our companies, for our hours, and for our families, we did everything we could in public and behind the scenes to fight against the people in suits and for our games.

We stood together, you and me, because we love games.

I remember when on the floor of this very conference, we fought against allowing console game developers admission and vigorously debated letting our beloved CGDC become merely the GDC. I remember when I first heard games called “addictive”. I’d returned from a morning spent volunteering at an alcohol detox center. I wondered what their definition of “addictive” was. I remember the horrible month of September 2001 when flight simulators were blamed for the horror that was 9/11. Racism, hate crimes, violence against women, children, and animals: all of these have been our burdens to bear.

We stood together, you and me, because we love games.

And then we moved to Facebook.

I know the things that are upsetting to you, and I can assure you they are also upsetting to me. I have seen the strip miners and their entry into games. I have seen them exploit technology and new platforms not for the purpose of crafting beautiful creative works but rather taking the audience for all they can get. They are not one of us or from us, but rather from another space, and they do not understand this contract that we’ve had with our players since 1978, because we are our players. These people do not care about gameplay. They do not care about games. They do not care about players. They do not care about fun. And you know what? I dislike them just as much as you. I have witnessed decisions made not for fun but for fortune. I have seen games gutted, and players churned and burned. I have seen things I never want to see again.

And these game developers here on the stage? We are not like them, and we do not come from that world. Like you, we want good gameplay, we want compelling experiences, we want casual, and we want hardcore. We want to make a great game for the 43-year-old Facebook Mom, because – damn it – she deserves a great game, too. We are not the ones making what some of you call “evil games” but rather the first fucking wave, the Marines storming the beach to take our medium, our culture, and our potential back.

And as you look upon these games and curse them, know that we look upon the very same horizon and see a great space of possibility. I hope you will someday be the occupying force.

We stand together, you and me, because we love games.

Thank you.

Built on a Foundation of Code – Game Edu Rant

March 1, 2011

Brenda Brathwaite
COO & Game Designer, Loot Drop
GDC Game Education Rant 2011

[This talk speaks to the educators of entry-level game designers looking for a gig in the industry, not to experienced designers who already have their foot in the door.]

2009 was an interesting year for me. I left my job as the chair of a game design and game art program and returned to the game industry that I’d worked in since 1981.  It was an interesting and eye-opening transition for me.

During this time, game design programs popped up all over the place. Last time I bothered to look for the number, there were over 400 such programs across the world offering some type of degree or certificate in game design. I was, in fact, chairing one of them.

Since that time, and having watched a flotilla of resumes fall off my desk unqualified, I’ve come to an understanding I wish I’d had then. That understanding is this: Game design programs must be firmly rooted in a foundation of code. And when I say “foundation of code,” I do not mean a program which includes a few coding courses to give students merely a taste, like Intro to C++ or Beginning Flash or Java 101. What I mean is that students – prior to their entry into the program or as a condition of their graduation from it – are proficient coders who can make and have made their own games.

Consider:

  • Game art programs facilitate proficiency in the tools of the trade – 3DS Max, Photoshop, Maya or ZBrush
  • Level design programs facilitate proficiency in Unreal
  • Animation students work in Flash, After Effects or Maya

So, why then do we consider it acceptable to send game design students out into the wild without the tools of their trade? The tool of our trade, the tool that makes things realized, is code. We would not send art students out with pencils or level design students out with graph paper renderings of unrealized levels, but somehow, we find it acceptable – even common – to send game design students out with board games and design docs. This has to stop. We owe the students more.

The absolute best programs, I believe, put students through the same level of coding as a comp science degree or expect that they have that knowledge beforehand. This is, I know, a tall order, but such a program is a dream, and I would actually be interested in hiring its students.

Unfortunately, many programs – if not the great majority of game design programs – mislead their students into believing they will get game design jobs when they graduate, and that is simply not true. Handed a skillset of theory and bolstered with a pile of design docs and non-digital games, these students head out into the world and, with rare exception, are cast out into two separate entry-level piles – those who can code and those who cannot. The only saving grace are those with internships. There is a separate pile for them.

At this point, many of you are thinking that you do not need code to design games. That is, in fact, true.

You do not need code to design games.

There are many jobs in game design – from system design to narrative design to puzzle design – which don’t actually require coding. In fact, I am just learning how to code. But, wow, how times have changed. With 30 games behind me, I can get away with this. Were I fresh out of school? I’d have a shockingly hard time getting hired. Without code, without games, students are effectively saying,  “I’ve not actually made a game digitally, but I am asking you to trust that I can.” Why would I when there are 10 students here who know how to code and can illustrate their passion with proof? Look, their resumes are right here!

Naturally, some students point to design docs or non-digital games to prove their prowess. This will no longer do – a design doc shows one thing only – that you can write a design document. There are countless ways for a game design to go wrong, and what matters is not your ability to think of an idea, but your ability to execute on that idea and bring it to life. Code is how a digital game is realized. Without it – and no matter how you represent it – you have only an idea for a game and 100 possible ways it can go wrong. The true art of game design is not in the idea, but in its implementation and the ability, dedication and determination to carry it through to the end while finding that nugget of fun. I have seen – and ignored – countless resumes with bulky design documents in favor of those who have actual running games.

What about board games, then? These games show a completed design, and as some of you may know, I have designed a good number of them. However, board game knowledge doesn’t show ability to design anything but board games. I wouldn’t presume my work on hard core RPGs makes me a fit for the FPS space, and I have watched a good many traditional game designers struggle with their new digs in the social space. Game design for a medium or a platform is a specialization like any other. While I certainly think making games and prototypes non-digitally is an excellent idea, for those hoping to enter the video game industry, it cannot be a substitute for code. It cannot be all you do.

There is an obvious hole here, perhaps several. What of the student who works with a coder? He or she is a lucky student indeed, and having finished a game, she is ahead of most, with or without code. However, if I could get her to my desk, I’d point at the folders I have set up for game design applicants and show her the competition. I have a pile of resumes from students who are solid designers and coders, and other things being equal, a solid designer who is just a solid designer is going to lose, because the field is that competitive and because there are that many talented students out there. From a purely practical standpoint, students need something extra to be competitive. The students who can code will more easily adapt to scripting, to UI work, to XML tables and other small tasks I need them to do.

Toward a Better Curriculum

Game design is the low-hanging fruit on an otherwise tech-heavy tree and thousands of students want in. It requires no specific software be installed and no academic body requires its professor have specialized training. I think we can do better by our students, and this is the kind of program I whole-heartedly support:

  • A solid and substantial foundation of code upon which the students build throughout their career.
  • Regular practice of design, iteration and execution
  • An appreciation of game design history

Code is the tool of our trade, and we owe it to students to teach them. The programs that do not do this are lost.

GDC 2011: Slides for Metrics vs. Intuition Talk

March 1, 2011

Laralyn McWilliams and I gave a talk today at GDC. These are the slides for those who are interested: Intuition vs. Metrics: How Social Game Design Has Evolved.

Getting Players to Return to Facebook Games

February 9, 2011

Getting players to post to the viral channel is a challenge every game designer faces when he or she is making Facebook games. It’s known that players are most likely to post when they’ve just started a game, but what motivates returning players?

Four things:

  • It helps me. There is a particular item or objective that is core to the progression of my game with which I need your help. Typically, the game allows you to buy your way around the “Ask Friends For Help” option. If I need your help to progress, short of paying cash, I’ll post it.
  • I know it helps you. It’s key here that it actually does help other players. I am likely to post something to my feed if it gives you something I would want for myself. I understand the item’s value and scarcity. It’s also important to consider that over the lifetime of a game as well as the curve of player progression, the value and scarcity of an object may change. What I care about in an early game may not mean anything to me later on. Does that mean the viral messages should change? Not always, but catering to player’s needs and a player’s perceived value is critical. I have seen messages in feeds which offer stuff I have absolutely no desire for. There is just no reason I would click. Other times, I am prompted to post a feed which will give my friends something which I know has no value. Likewise, I am not likely to post through.
  • It helps us both. Parody though it may be, Cow Clicker suggests players post a message to their feed. Anyone who clicks on the viral message not only gets “mooney” with which they can buy “clicks” to add to their “click” total, but also gives the original poster “mooney” as well. It is an example of a mutually beneficial viral which trades in the only thing that matters in the game – “clicks”.
  • Pride. I will post if I am actually proud of what I have achieved, be it a quest, an item or something else. Generally, I am proud of this because I want to show off the great thing that I have done. Recently, I posted that I’d leveled to 17 in a game, because it took me quite a while. When I finish building the epic chapel I am working on in another game, I can assure you I’ll post about that, too.

Does this mean we should only include virals which fit the above themes? No. What makes one player proud could make another feel frustrated at the conclusion. For instance, an epic quest to gather a lot of materials could challenge and excite one player but irritate another. Likewise, some players abhor all forms of feed messages while others are happy to click through a wide variety of virals. In fact, there is a whole class of player for whom “playing the feeds” has become a pleasant meta-game to the game it supports. Of course, we also don’t want to limit a player’s viral opportunities, particularly when our games depend on it, nor do we want to overdo it.

Ultimately, your only defense against subpar virals is playing your own game. Do you actually feel motivated to click your own viral message? If not, why do you think others will? Are you aware of the click through? Have you investigated the good ones vs. the lame ducks to understand what hooks they’re using? Are you watching your competitors like a hawk? Remember, though, that you are only one player in your game. Watch how others play, too, particularly if their play style is different than yours.

Analyzing your own play, feeling the hooks in the game and watching the results via metrics offers the best chance of creating compelling virals which players feel motivated to click through.

Developing Self-Discipline

January 16, 2011
Several years ago, I was working for EA designing the lifestyle system for an urban fighting game. I had it FINISHED, and planned to send it off that day. Then, an idea occurred to me that would make it better – not massively, but maybe by 10%. It was certainly a better way to do it, the right way, I would argue. Now, I vividly remember thinking about how much time it would take me to make this change. It was going to affect EVERYTHING I’d already written. I was on contract for a fixed fee, so it didn’t matter whether my work took 200 or 300 hours. Done was done and $ = the same. It was the first time I had been in such a situation.

I vividly remember everything about that moment. Where I was sitting, what I was doing, what work the decision would affect. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. But then came an important moment of professional growth for me – my only responsibility was to do it right for the game. That is what I was hired to do. So, I took the massive amount of time, the stress on other things in my life (I was just starting at SCAD at the time, and that workload was nuts), and I did the job right. The critical thing is that had I not done it, NO ONE would have known. It was good enough, but I knew I could do better.

I return to this again and again. We must always do the right thing for design, allowing for the real constraints of THE GAME, not compromise the design because of our own mood, time or other non-game needs. I would have known that it could have been better and that I had cheated the game.

 

Design Truth 1

January 13, 2011

Focus on second-to-second play first. Nail it. Move on to minute-to-minute, then session-to-session, then day-to-day, then month-to-month (and so on). If your second-to-second play doesn’t work, nothing else matters. Along these lines, if your day-to-day fails, no one will care about month-to-month, either. 

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