WiG Weekend: Interview with Jennifer Canada, Insomniac Games

Jennifer never planned for a career in gaming, but gaming found her and she has graciously taken time to answer some questions for us about her experiences in the video games industry. She is currently employed with Insomniac Games, working on a top-secret game.

GamingAngels: Can you tell us a little more about how your career path turned towards game design? Was it something you saw yourself doing when you were younger or did fate conspire to bring you to where you are now?

000000;">Jennifer Canada: I started playing games in college and quickly became hooked, but even so it never occurred to me that creating games was a career. I finished my undergraduate degree with two unrelated majors, neither in fields I wanted to pursue. Then, it was in the months after I graduated and I was just kind of floating around that I heard about the SMU Guildhall. Immediately level design and game design felt like a perfect fit for me. I read constantly, so I’ve always been pretty invested in narrative and telling stories, and I also love to do crafty things, both in real life and on the computer. For instance, back in college I used to spend hours playing with architecture programs building houses, basically turning a DIY planning program into a game.

000000;">GA: What do you find most rewarding about being a game designer?

000000;">Jennifer: Making a steady stream of creative choices every day is really rewarding. As a designer, you aren’t always deciding how the game ends or what happens at this or that huge moment, but even when you are just deciding if the path should turn right versus left or this object should be moved 2m, it is constantly engaging and you are always putting your stamp on the game—both with your big decisions and your small ones.

000000;">GA: What are some of the games you’ve worked on that you enjoyed the most and what made working on them fun?

000000;">Jennifer: Some projects I worked on were harder than others either in terms of hours or stress levels, but I am grateful to have enjoyed every project I’ve worked on. My favourite project at Vicious Cycle was probably Flushed Away based on the Aardman movie of the same name. I loved getting to design levels based in such a fun and unique universe, and being in the exciting position of finding out about a blockbuster movie before it played in theatres was an added bonus. One funny thing that happened on that project was early on in development we decided to use the slugs as enemies in the game because in the rough draft of the script they harassed the main characters. But when the movie came out, the slugs had transformed into cute little guys who liked to sing songs, but in our game you were still killing them! And of course, my other favourite project is what I am working on now at Insomniac Games—but I can’t talk about that one!

000000;">GA: Can game studios can get away with putting graphics first, as opposed to writing a story and then making a game around it?

000000;">Jennifer: Well, honestly, yes. A lot of bad games sell based on their graphics and a lot of good games don’t sell because of bad graphics. But in a lot of ways I think graphics are given a bad rap, in terms of taking time away from gameplay. In my experience, how something looks and the visual feedback it gives to the player can be just as intrinsic to how a moment plays out as the design behind it. And certainly with most mainstream titles, designers are asking players to feel immersed and for many players, without good graphics, they’ll never feel grounded enough in the world to become fully invested in the game.

000000;">In terms of whether a development team should start with graphics vs. story when making a new game, I’d say it’s often fairly detrimental to start with either of those focuses. In my opinion, most of the really great games out there started with a gameplay idea. It’s much easier to write a story that fits the theme of your gameplay and how you want a play experience to feel than to start with a story and try to pull gameplay out of it. That can be a recipe for either uninspired gameplay or a story and gameplay that never cohere because their themes fight each other. The graphics should probably be the final consideration in terms of planning, because they have to pull everything together in a way that, just by seeing a screenshot, players can sense how the game will play.

000000;">GA: What is your experience developing a game such as Ben 10 that spans across not just multiple consoles, but also handheld systems? Did your levels have to be completely redesigned to fit the PSP in comparison to the Nintendo Wii?

000000;">Jennifer: I was lucky in this regard, to have developed multi-platform titles at a company that is well known for its ability to release on multiple skus simultaneously. Which is not a coincidence—no levels or any assets at all had to be redone for the different platforms on Ben 10. The Vicious Engine, from Vicious Cycle Software, is browser-based so you are able to edit and play on your computer and, for the different platforms, there is a dropdown that lets you choose your platform and it converts everything behind the scenes and you’re ready to go. It’s really that easy. I am actually hoping to see more schools start using the Vicious Engine to train future developers. It’s really powerful and user-friendly and I greatly enjoyed working with it.

000000;">GA: You’ve talked a lot about making games a little more “pink”. What would you personally like to add to games to make them more “pink”?

000000;">Jennifer: I recently gave a talk at GDC and at the Triangle Game Conference called, “Paint-by-Gender: How to add ‘pink’ gameplay to your ‘blue’ title (and still keep all the boys happy)”. The content of this talk arose from my Master’s thesis for the SMU Guildhall on women’s gameplay preferences and its results. I made a level to test established theories on what game features women prefer when playing games, and what I found is that women did self-report greatly enjoying those features in my test level, but that the male players reported enjoying those features nearly as much.

000000;">Just to clarify, referring to these features as ‘pink’ in the title of my talk was my attempt at a catchy way to make it clear I was talking about girls’ preferences, but none of the features I tested actually involved making things pink! Here is a list of the features I tested:

  1. 000000;">Detailed backstory
  2. 000000;">Non-stereotypical female characters
  3. 000000;">In-game relationships
  4. 000000;">Emotional stimuli
  5. 000000;">Moral complexity
  6. 000000;">Non-violent action
  7. 000000;">Gameplay flexibility
  8. 000000;">Meaningful victory

000000;">It’s my hope and my opinion after conducting this research that developers can leverage these design features to make their games more appealing to men and women both. In the end, all of these features really come down to one idea—enabling players to connect more strongly with the overall game experience: the characters, the story, the world, and the player’s own actions in the game. Some players are satisfied with mindless action and there’s nothing wrong with that, but increasingly players are demanding a deeper connection and I think designers should try to give it to them.

000000;">If you want to read my full thesis, it’s available here: www.jennifern.net/thesis

000000;">And the slides for my Paint by Gender presentation can be found here: www.jennifern.net/PaintbyGender

000000;">GA: How might you “add a little pink” to the traditionally “blue” game genres like first-person shooters? Is it all in plot and setting, or would the actual gameplay have to change a little?

000000;">Jennifer: Well, I’m going to talk about a third person shooter here instead, because I think there is already a great example on the market of how to adapt the shooter genre into a game that everyone, men and women alike, love. Uncharted 2 is probably the least contentious Game of the Year ever. Everyone absolutely adores it. And it utilizes nearly all of the design features I tested in my level as features that appeal to women. I am not going to run through how for each example, because if you’ve played it you know how, and if you haven’t, I don’t want to spoil it. Notably though, the only feature it really misses is flexibility in terms of affecting the story/outcome since the game is so linear, but it actually does have a bit of flexibility in terms of gameplay strategy thanks to its stealth elements.

000000;">So to get back to FPS’s, I really can’t make any claims about what settings or plot specifics are likely to help make the genre female-friendly. It really comes down to creating the circumstances that help women to become invested in the game. For many women, that means they want to see some likable female characters—even if it isn’t the main character. They want a story that is emotionally engaging in a world they care about. And they want the ability to effect the direction of the game and how they play through it.

000000;">And in terms of gameplay flexibility, i.e. ‘how they play through it’, yes, the gameplay may need to change a little if it wants to be more inclusive. But I really consider this additive. I don’t think anyone out there expects dev teams to remove guns from their shooters. But they can add stealth elements, platforming, puzzles, or guns that reward a more strategic style of play. And I think adding flexibility is a good thing for guys too; no one is going to say, “I’d like less choice here, please.” So say you add a new strategic weapon type…well some people won’t use it, or they won’t care—this goes for guys and girls—but in the end those players aren’t going to be pissed that you gave them more options and the players who choose to use the new gun will get a lot out of that feature.

000000;">GA: What are your thoughts on marketing the traditionally “blue” games towards women? Why do you think companies seem unable to break away from these practices?

000000;">Jennifer: Speaking in terms of my impressions, it seems that sometimes even though developers might try to make an inclusive game that appeals to a broad market, sometimes marketers won’t advertise it that way. I definitely think there is an impression in marketing that the hardcore market is where the reliable sales are, so it can be easier (and more straightforward, because they’ve been doing it for so long) to market a game to that audience and ignore a game’s more female-friendly aspects. And while there are many examples of totally reasonable advertising out there, there is still a fair bit of game advertising that either ignores women completely or even worse, that actively alienates women. And these bad examples, even if they aren’t the bulk of it, are a big part of why some women out there think that games, all games, aren’t for them.

000000;">In terms of why these marketing practices stick around, I feel like maybe there is a big of stagnation in the marketing world for games. For every ‘I love bees’ ARG marketing campaign, there are about a thousand marketing images of a main character glowering. For game development, innovation is essential, we are always trying to anticipate the next trend and have the latest graphics, but for marketing, maybe there is so much fixation on trying to guarantee sales that they are only willing to try approaches that feel tried and true, even if some of those approaches are alienating to women.

000000;">I really think the important thing going forward is for women in development studios and in marketing houses to speak up. If you think content is alienating towards women or any group, just say something. Even if you get overruled, at least you got the issue on the table and someone else might think about it next time. So I guess my hope for marketing and for game development too in terms of moving forward is, even though it’s easier, don’t be the person—girl or guy—who stands there silently.

000000;">GA: As a woman in the industry, have you ever run into the “boys’ club” mentality? How did you deal with it? And do you have any advice for women who do come across this?

000000;">Jennifer: I have occasionally, but more in small ways than big ones, and I feel like it barely affects my day to day work at all. Most of the guys I’ve worked with have either enjoyed having women on their team or not cared one way or another—at least I hope so! I think for a woman in the industry, you just have to be willing to try a little harder and put yourself out there a little more. For instance, if the guys are going out for lunch, invite yourself along or invite them out to lunch the next day. And if you have something to contribute in a meeting, speak up. If you let the culture of a studio move forward without you, you are setting yourself up to be on the outside looking in.

000000;">The other thing I would say is, if you do have a bad experience, realize that it isn’t the norm and most men in the industry are welcoming and do want you to be there. And then just keep doing your best every day.

000000;">GA: We couldn’t help but notice you like anime. Given the chance to bring one anime series to life as a video game, which one would you be interested in working on?

000000;">Jennifer: I admit it, I do love anime! I just finished watching Book of Bantorra, am in the middle of Katanagatari, and I will watch anything by Gainax, which is currently Hanamaru Youchien. To turn a series into a game probably the easiest thing to do is to pick a series with lots of combat and genki characters, like two of my personal favourites Soul Eater and Die Buster.

000000;">But if I really got to choose the series and pick the direction of the game—this is crucial—I think would go for Mushi-shi and make a game that lets mushi spirits float through the natural world (inspired by the game Flower) and let the main character perform complex actions to rebalance infestations of mushi, such as baiting a spirit dragon back to his mountain or collecting mushi to reinvigorate a forest or recolor a rainbow. Wow, if you haven’t seen the show, I probably sound like a crazy person! But that is the game I would want to make.

000000;">GA: What advice can you offer to young women interested in making games as a career?

000000;">Jennifer: The best advice I can give is really applicable for everyone, women and men. Try to constantly improve your skills. Most people improve fairly slowly or not at all if they rely on osmosis. It’s too passive and lacks self-awareness. You have to go out there and chase improvement down and you need to be aware of your own weaknesses so you can target those as areas to focus on. Harness your passion for game development into the desire to become a better game developer and success will follow.

Women in Gaming Weekends is an interview series with women working in various positions throughout the video game industry. These interviews are to help answer questions that female gamers interested in pursuing a career in gaming might be looking to have answered, provide helpful information and inspire healthy debate.

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I've never seen anyone so perfectly "hit on the head" the things that I have always felt were important to women in gameplay. (And the fact that she "proves" it is even sweeter!) It seems like most people tend to think "We want to make this game appeal to women, what do they like? Oh, pink, and flowers, and shopping. Definitely shopping.." while failing to look at the many women who already play games and what it is that attracts them to the games they love. I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I always make a note of the "pink" aspects I see in games, as she calls them.. and I've also found that many guys tend to like these items to, and they don't label these aspects as "girlie."