Welcome to the third installment of our Women in Gaming series, where we introduce you to some of the women who are working behind the scenes to create the games you love to play. Carla Humphrey is the co-founder of Last Day of Work, the folks responsible for the Virtual Villagers series, Fish Tycoon, and, most recently, Plant Tycoon.
Please tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do at Last Day of Work.
Hi! I am Carla Humphrey, co-founder of Last Day of Work. We are a small home studio in San Francisco, and we specialize in virtual-life casual games. What I do at LDW is a tough question. We are a very small independent studio so of course we all wear many hats. I mainly consider myself a co-designer on the games (the YIN to Arthur’s Yang), and what I bring to this process is the ‘softer tough’. I try to contribute look/feel elements that will be accessible and engaging to non-gamers. I myself am not really a gamer by nature, and rather than that being a hindrance we try to make it an asset.
How did you break into the games industry?
I never worked in the games industry before, as opposed to many of my colleagues in this space. The only video games that I played in my youth were the unavoidable Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. I was more interested in my Barbies and Legos. Also, being born and raised in Italy I had a different idea about what to do in my spare time. In Italy kids love to go out and gather around in the piazza and sit on scooters for all afternoon, smoke and eat ice cream. After earning my degree in Business and Economics I went to work for an Italian bank: it was the traditional career path of a young University student. It was only after meeting Arthur and in these recent years that I was introduced (drafted?) to the gaming industry and to gaming itself.
You juggle many hats at LDW. What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Probably the most challenging hat that I wear is that of the marketing director. The effectiveness of marketing efforts can be quite unclear. You don’t always get feedback and the real impact can be cumulative. In addition, it can be an overwhelming and endless job. Nevertheless I try to bring my own touch to this part of the business as well. Since I care so much about the games we make, I think that the carefully-controlled user experience has to begin even before the download takes place, and that is the impact that marketing can have. Before players even start playing, they have expectations about the game that affect their level of engagement and understanding of the game. That starts with me, and I try to create marketing experiences (assets, copy, etc) that touch people and are consistent with the emotions we are trying to evoke.
What made you decide on a plant theme for the sequel to Fish Tycoon?
Actually it was quite the opposite: in the original handheld version, Plant Tycoon was born before Fish Tycoon… and that was back in 2003! I thought that a game about gardening would have been a cool idea and Arthur just loved it (after he finished hating it) and we decided to develop it. At that time we were vacationing in my country house in Italy and we were very much inspired by our surroundings. The natural evolution to Plant Tycoon was Fish Tycoon of course. When we decided to move into the Windows/Mac platform we decided to start with Fish Tycoon. We felt that Fish Tycoon had a broad appeal, and it was relatively implementable for us on a tight budget (or so we thought…). Despite that, Fish Tycoon had a tough time to gaining acceptance among the portals and we can’t imagine what they would have said if we had first presented them Plant Tycoon.
Were there any lessons learned from Virtual Villagers and Fish Tycoon that you applied to Plant Tycoon?
So many lessons! We always learn from our previous games and always want to improve the customers’ experience.
The first lesson learned is to stick with our vision. There are no committees at LDW. We don’t have crowded design sessions, we barely even have design sessions. We just stick to the game we love and want to do. We are not afraid to make changes, even during beta, if we believe they are necessary, but we really try to stick to our initial design, and we take the risk. Even when others suggest to us to include tiny game mechanics to overcome the slower moments of the game, we go with our vision. This has worked with Fish Tycoon, Virtual Villagers and now Plant Tycoon.
We did learn something about polish. We have been told over and over how Fish Tycoon was not polished, but the game did better than games that were much more polished. I really think that polish is important but it will not save a game that is not fun. Polish is just a matter of time and money. We tried to improve the production quality of Plant Tycoon but never at the expense of the fun element of the game. Anyway, instead of this “polish” we try to put loving (even hidden!) details into the game. We look at them as hand-crafted pieces of art. That does not always mean that they have the best-looking sparkles, or the most sparkles–it’s a different thing.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced working in a male-dominated field? How have you overcome them?
I am very used to a male-dominated environment. When I was living in Paris, I used to work in the currency exchange floor of CCF/HSBC on Champs Elysees and the whole floor had a total 3 woman (me included). It was very interesting (and fun) I must admit. I have also worked in Paris for Fendi/LVMH where the environment was just the opposite- only women. I found this more tough. Women can actually be more cruel than men.
Why aren’t there more women designing games, and what can the industry do to attract more female game-makers?
I really don’t know and to be honest I don’t really care that much (sorry Vinny!). If you look at the fashion industry for example, most of the designers are men and they are not concerned with any big drive to get more women designing. I assume that the best up-and-coming designers, the ones that rise and shine during the internships at the various fashion houses, are males. Tom Ford. Lagerfeld. Valentino. Armani. YSL. Just to name a few. Is it different in the Gaming Industry? If women were specifically needed in design roles, then why would this not be the case in fashion houses? More likely, in my opinion, talent is talent and gender is irrelevant.
What games are you playing right now – what has impressed you elsewhere in the industry?
I am a fan of Wii Sports. I love how innovative and different this platform is. It’s not trying to have the best graphics, technology or be super polished. It’s trying to innovate, to experiment, to change the user experience and to broaden the market to reach for the non-gamers. In a way, our approach of designing games is similar. I see it among my girlfriends who are not gamers at all, but they all love to play tennis, bowling or boxing on their Wii in the living room with their husbands and friends. Time will tell if the Wii is too innovative for its own good. Only Nintendo seems to be creating titles for this platform that do not feel forced.
What’s coming up next for you and Last Day of Work?
I don’t think it will be of any surprise to anyone that as soon as we finish supporting the launch of Plant Tycoon we would love to continue the saga of our little Virtual Villagers! We also have another amazing game that we hope to start developing at the end of the year, but we cannot talk about it yet (you will be the first to know, of course!) We have many more game ideas that we are confident will be very successful and that we can’t wait to develop–we just do not have time to do them all. After all, we are just a tiny home studio.