Women in Gaming: Angel Inokon, PlayFirst

Welcome to the fifth instalment 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. As an associate producer at PlayFirst, Angel Inokon’s most recent project was the well-received Diner Dash spin-off, Wedding Dash.

Please tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do at PlayFirst.

I am an Associate Producer at PlayFirst. Everyday I get to work with a really bright cast of people to usher original, imaginative game titles to life. My engineers, designers and artists are the stars of the show. I play a key role in making sure things come together on time and with quality. There is definitely a work-hard, play-hard atmosphere at PlayFirst. Scattered about my desk is an odd assortment – a trampoline, bridal magazines, game development books, dance shoes, and a big red ball. I love that I can bring my personality to work and share it with fun people.

How did you break into the games industry?

After six years of making software for IBM, I moved to California to pursue a gaming focused masters degree at Stanford. There I met Brad Edelman, the CTO and co-founder of PlayFirst at a job fair. By the time I met Brad in 2006, I had already experimented with different jobs – teaching Flash game design to high school kids with UVGA (Urban Video Game Academy), working as a design intern at Activision and even dressing up as Ms Pac-Man for Namco at E3. Since I had already experimented with different jobs, I knew casual gaming was a fit for me.

What is your approach to game design and what unique things do you feel you bring to the table?

It’s all about the team. My job first and foremost is to build and nurture a strong team. I am good at getting people to gel quickly and move towards a goal. I believe it is the people behind the games that make them great. So I focus on removing obstacles and getting people what they need. The result is camraderie and projects that are infused with bits of our personality.

Since I have a research background, I also emphasize player feedback throughout the process. I like to spend time with real players. To me, iteration and feedback are the most important aspects of game design. My secret ingredient is pretty simple – I like my game. At PlayFirst I feel empowered to make games that I enjoy. So my titles reflect my personality and interests.

Wedding Dash is the first spin-off of the immensely popular Diner Dash series. What made you decide on a wedding-themed game?

We got a pitch for a wedding-themed game from ImaginEngine way back in 2005 that we knew had a lot of potential. PlayFirst also had in mind at that time the desire to expand on Diner Dash. We quickly realized that meshing the popular theme of weddings with the Diner Dash mechanic was the perfect way to create a whole new Dash experience.

What experiences did you draw upon when designing the situations and characters in Wedding Dash?

We drew mostly from our experiences at real weddings – the person who drinks too much, edgy brides, and schmoozers. Some of the couples are the names of real PlayFirst couples. Our lead designer had butterflies at her wedding, so we showered the end of the level with monarchs. We had a good time.

How important is it to have memorable and likeable characters like Quinn and Flo in a game?

Beyond having a fun game, characters are hugely important. Interestingly, Quinn and Flo were both added later in the Wedding Dash design cycle than you would imagine. Originally Quinn was named Carrie. In fact she was the server in the red vest. There were two problems with Carrie – she had no personality and players rejected the idea of a wedding planner serving food. So we created Quinn, a separate character responsible for the upfront planning, seating, and crisis management. Much later we added Flo, an established character to help introduce Quinn to the world. The result – player ratings of Wedding Dash went through the roof! A great mechanic and a strong character is a blockbuster combination.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced working in a male-dominated field? How have you overcome them?

While game development is male-dominated, 70% of PlayFirst game consumers are women. Also, different types of “fun” appeal to different genders. Because I am a woman, there are times I recognize something as “fun” that requires further explanation to guys. For example with Wedding Dash, I was often challenged about the value of the wedding planning feature in the game because it was not “fun” and “did not affect gameplay” – according to some of the male members on my team.

Before each level you read the couple’s wants and choose the best option. It’s basically shopping. Let’s face it; more women would categorize shopping as fun, than men. While I personally dread store shopping, I have friends that treat shopping like an elite sport. I defended the feature based on evidence from user testing. We conceded to keeping the design, but improving the content. So our lead designer, Michelle Woods, who is also a woman, rewrote all the clues to make them more challenging. It really is a gratifying feature and I’m glad we kept it.

Why aren’t there more women designing games, and what can the industry do to attract more female game-makers?

Awareness. There are many qualified female professionals who would join the industry if they were aware of the opportunities. The skills I developed making software at IBM were transferable to gaming. My advice – reach out to females at software conferences and engineering networking groups. Husbands recruit your wives. Game companies recruit your players. These Gamezebo interviews are helpful. Women need these success stories. Success breeds success. Diversity attracts diversity.

What games are you playing right now – what has impressed you elsewhere in the industry?

Oh! After Wedding Dash shipped I caught up on lots of games. I enjoyed playing Miss Management, Mortimer Beckett, and Turbo Pizza. I like console games too. I now play DDR and I am highly anticipating the upcoming release of Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction – my favorite game series.

What’s coming up next for you and PlayFirst?

Great things. I recently moved into an external production role where I get to work alongside independent developers to help them publish their games. I am eager to see these indies succeed in bringing a creative new idea to market. PlayFirst is definitely on a roll. There are exciting things ahead and we have many new game releases slated for the remainder of the year.

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