When Gamezebo published our Why We Need Women editorial back in January, it hit a nerve. Why aren't there more women in the casual games industry? What can the industry do to attract more women? The truth is, there are women working in the casual games industry, and we thought it was time to start giving them the attention they deserve. And so, welcome to the first installment of our new series, entitled Women in Gaming, where we'll introduce you to some of women who are working behind the scenes to create the games you love to play.
We're please to kick off the series with Senior Producer Cara Ely of Oberon Games, who helped to create Dream Day Wedding and Dream Day Honeymoon.
Please tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do at Oberon.
I'm a senior producer in the Oberon Games studio, where I help to create casual games with a team of very talented engineers and artists. Before Dream Day, I was the producer on the Vista Inbox games, and two more original Oberon titles (Galapago and Scrubbles). On the Dream Day games, I act as the lead designer as well as producer, so I do a mixture of creative work and project management.
I spend all day, every day, inside my office, which is filled with fresh flowers and lavender sachets. I only venture out on Fridays, to host a mandatory wedding cake tasting for all team members. [Insert horrified silence here] Okay, that's not quite true. I will admit that I have wedding magazines on my desk, but we (the development team) all work together in an open studio space, surrounded by games, sketches, books, energy drink cans, bobble-heads, Lego models, plastic shrunken heads... headphones are essential, but as far as I'm concerned it's an ideal workplace.
How did you break into the games industry?
I started at Sierra Online, as an Associate Producer; that was a hands-on education in how casual games are made. I had previously worked as a talent agent and casting director, and Sierra hired me (in part) to direct voice actors and scriptwriters, but I worked on game development from initial design to final launch. I was an AP on about 10 externally-developed titles, including several of the You Don't Know Jack games (which I still play!); next, I moved to the Hoyle Games team (an internal development group), where I eventually became a producer.
What is your approach to game design? What unique things do you feel you bring to the table?
During the design process, I spend some time alone, coming up with theme and feature ideas, planning levels, and writing text, but our development team is also a design team, so we work together - I pitch design ideas and get feedback, we brainstorm about game elements, and so on. Since we generate a flood of creative ideas as a group, I spend time paring that list down to what will fit best in the world of the game. A big part of design is figuring out what to cut; it's not the most enjoyable part, but it's crucial.
In terms of what I bring to the table, the obvious answer is that I am a woman in my 30's, so I'm part of our core demographic. I love casual games, and I also have a lot of respect for our players; I want to create something that will challenge, surprise, and delight them. I believe that attention to small details is important; players do notice. I also try to include some element of humor, and a reflection (direct or indirect) of the personality of the development team. For example, in Dream Day Wedding, some of the cats and dogs hidden in backgrounds are the pets of team members, and some locations are named for people on the team. (Esposito's Bakery is named after our lead engineer's grandmother, who was a baker.)
The target demographic for the Dream Day games is women aged 30+. What are some of the ways that you cater to this demographic?
Well obviously, the themes of the Dream Day Wedding and Dream Day Honeymoon are likely to appeal more strongly to women than men. I also think that the seek-and-find gameplay itself is appealing to women. I've read some interesting articles about the different ways men and women process and remember information; the gist is that women often prefer (and excel at) visual memory exercises. Frankly, aside from the realization that the theme skewed strongly female, the goal was to make a game that would be fun for both men and women.
What are some of the differences between designing games targeted to women vs. designing games for men?
These days, a lot of people are asking "what women want" in casual games... but I think the answer to that question depends on the type of game and the type of female gamer. With the Dream Day games, I made a choice early on about the theme and direction of the game, and then allowed that choice to inform as many other design elements as possible. The game might not appeal to everyone, or even every woman, but the intention was to stay true to a strong theme, so that our players would not be getting a watered-down game. The danger with trying to be all things to all gamers (female or otherwise) is that you can end up with a product that is too bland to grab anyone's attention.
One of the things I love about both Dream Day games is the wonderful story that allows players to choose what happens next. Why was story so important to you?
I think a compelling story is one way to make a player care about the game - care enough to find out what happens next. I was a huge fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, so I wanted to find a way to bring a similar experience into a casual game. Personally, I often skip through the text in games, because it just doesn't grab me; I thought that giving the user some control over the plot might be more exciting, as well as add replayability.
Why aren't there more women designing games, and what can the industry do to attract more female game-makers?
Well there aren't as many women in the industry in general, as I know you are aware (hence the "Why We Need Women" editorial Gamezebo posted in January). More women are joining the industry every day, but it also takes time to develop as a designer, and that includes shipping games. I think that's an important distinction since many games are pitched, prototyped, and even start into production, but never make it to market, and you discover things by getting a game to market that you just can't learn any other way. So I'm hoping as more women join the industry and ship more games, the pool of female designers will continue to grow. As for attracting more women... I think the women currently working in the industry could help with that. I certainly could do more to get the word out that there are many women working (very happily!) in the industry.
What games are you playing right now - what has impressed you elsewhere in the industry?
My favorite casual game of recent years is Samorost. I make time to play as many new games as possible, but when I can play whatever I want, it's usually a seek and find game (I-Spy or Mystery Case Files), Galaga, Magic Match, or one of the "Grow" or "Escape" games on Jayisgames.com.
What's coming up next for you and Oberon?
Well I am thrilled that Dream Day Honeymoon has shipped. I'm taking some time to work on other design ideas that have been on the back burner, and I will be in production on a new title soon. Oberon has some more exciting games set to launch this year - I can't say too much at this point, but I'm sure you'll be getting some early looks at those!