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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.

Live but Limbo

March 7, 2017

Hi everyone – I’ve received numerous requests to re-open my old blog for reference to the old articles. I am too busy to update the blog at the moment, but if I get time, I’ll do so.


The Verbs of Game Development

April 15, 2014

I rewatched Indie Game: The Movie today with a group of young game developers just past alpha on their games. It is a good time to rewatch the movie. Often, alpha is reached with the same sense of relief one might feel when one reaches the end of the flu: glad it’s over, but completely worn out from the effort.

Game development is not for everyone. Our verbs are visceral, particularly in singular form.

  • Create
  • Imagine
  • Dream
  • Panic
  • Cry
  • Throw up
  • Scream
  • Worry
  • Sacrifice
  • Doubt
  • Launch
  • Wait
  • Watch
  • Let go

Not everyone will make it through.



TED Talk now live on

May 3, 2012

The talk I gave on my non-digital games in the Mechanic is the Message series is now live on Games for Understanding.

Your Questions on Game Balance Wanted

May 3, 2012

I am working on a book about game balance starting with experience points, curves and progression. The starting point reflects the answer to the question I am most often asked about game balance. What questions do you suggest based on your own experience or what questions do you have?

Caine’s Arcade

April 15, 2012

Watching this 10-minute movie actually brought a tear to my eye. Highly recommended.

I Have an Idea for a Game

November 21, 2011

(I get a lot of emails on this subject. This is my answer to one such email.)

Game companies aren’t interested in outside ideas. At our company, we have a backlog of easily 20 games that we would like to make, and these ideas come from the likes of John Romero and Tom Hall. An idea is only that. There are a 1000 ways for it to go wrong in its execution. Ideas and concepts are a dime a dozen.

Game design is not the idea. It is the execution.

So, if you desperately want to make games, the only advice I have for you is to start making them. You can work your way up through QA as others have done, or you can learn to code. In my own job, I work with three other designers who can code, and I would be a much better designer if I could.

Being a game designer and being responsible for multi-million-dollar budgets requires years of expertise and proven practice. Passion is only 5% of the puzzle. Discipline born of experience is the other 95%.

While our products are compared to the movie industry, we as game designers are much more like doctors. The only reason that I get to operate and sometimes put an entire company’s stake in my hands is because I spent years apprenticing and understanding the systems that I am working on. I know how to fix things through iteration when stuff goes wrong and when to call something DOA. In my case, nearly 13 years had passed before I became a lead, and during that time, I learned from a lot of great people. I am still learning. To go back to the movie metaphor, a game designer is also not like a scriptwriter (though a game writer can be). We are much more like directors. We need to be aware of how everything interacts with every other thing and always mindful of the player experience. That means we DO need to know how the camera and everything else functions and how it affects the final product and, like Orson Welles, sometimes we cut holes in floors and innovate the art.

Directors and game designers know how to execute an idea. It is every last little detail that makes a great movie and a great game great. That comes from experience and from working with others who have done it.

But, it can be done. Literally not a day goes by that I don’t think about Notch and the wonderful game he created in Minecraft. It is the greatest success story in the game industry, and I hope many more find even a quarter of his success.

Who Directed Star Wars?

November 11, 2011

Imagine a conversation with a recent film school graduate about the greatest films in recent memory. It would not be uncommon for such a student to mention Star Wars. After all, the film’s impact on culture was tremendous, and its effects are still felt daily among those in the video game industry. Some have joked that nearly every game made is merely some kind of retelling of some Star Wars meme. So, with this scene in mind, imagine the following conversation:

Me: “Star Wars: A New Hope – do you know who directed it?”

Recent graduate: “No.”

Again, I ask, can you imagine? No, of course you can’t. Such a conversation would be embarrassing, ridiculous, and a statement of failure upon the film school that graduated such a student. Similar comparisons could be made to an architecture student who knew nothing of Frank Lloyd Wright, or an art student who could not identify Michelangelo but was totally aware of the majesty of the Sistine Chapel.

I had a nearly identical conversation tonight with a recent graduate of a game program. I wish I could say it was uncommon. However, I regularly encounter graduates of game programs who know nothing of game history. They can talk about Final Fantasy, DOOM, the Sims, Age of Empires, and WoW, and acknowledge them as foundational in some way, yet they know nothing of the key minds behind these same games.

This has to stop, and we don’t need full-on game history courses to correct the problem. What we do need is early and regular reinforcement of the creative and technical people behind these games. Architects care about Frank Lloyd Wright because he was innovative and influential and they have much to learn from him. Likewise, I care about Dani Berry because she was innovative and influential, and though deceased, I still have much to learn from her. In most cases, the answer to, “Who made this game?” is as simple as a search.

Sometimes, we fall back on the old, “Well, lots of people made that game.” Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t build those houses by himself nor did George Lucas make Star Wars all on his own.

Students are paying thousands of dollars for an education. They have a right to get one.

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.


  • 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.