Amanda was brave enough to be our first interviewee for “She Builds Games.” Amanda Lange is a Technical Evangelist from Microsoft based in Philadelphia. She is focused on game development, mobile app development, and cloud computing using Azure. She is currently a teacher at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology where she’s focused on virtual world studies, and in the past has worked on games research projects with MSU and at WVU.
AMANDA LANGE Technical Evangelist, Video Game Developer COMPANY Microsoft EDUCATION Bowling Green State University - BA Computer Art Michigan State University – MA Digital Media WEBSITES secondtruth.com tap-repeatedly.com
How and when did you get into gaming?
I’m over 30. I’ve always been a gamer. I had the Atari, NES, and Commodore 64 growing up. When I was about 12/13 I saved up my money to buy an SNES on my own. It was really hard to separate me from games after that. I was obsessed. A friend and I even made mixtapes of the music from our favorite games. In around 1993/4 when Doom was popular, I got into messing around with the level editor. However it took me a pretty big leap of logic to realize that making games was a career choice. I originally got into animation because I wanted to make cartoons, movies or special effects. However, when I got into doing stuff like creating Dungeons and Dragons scenarios for my friends, I came to realize that game design was also a field of study. So I started to come at games from every possible angle.
In graduate school at MSU I had the opportunity to work on some Serious Games for learning and research. From there I realized that I was passionate about all aspects of games and I wanted to stay close to the industry.
“There are too many games for me to play, but there are still not enough games in the world. I think everyone should create games.”
Did you face any negativity about your choice from peers outside the gaming community?
I think my parents were a little concerned about me going to school for art when I was just out of high school, since I didn’t choose something a little more practical like computer engineering. In retrospect either path probably could have lead me into this industry, but I was most interested in 3D. I think their concern was kind of understandable because I grew up in Ohio, where, though I went to a great school (Bowling Green State), tech jobs were a little light on the ground in the region. So I wouldn’t really call it negativity, per se, more caution.
Tell me about some of your all-time favorite games and on what systems they are available.
Looking strictly at nostalgia, my favorite games tend to be RPGS from the SNES era – Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6 (USA 3 back in the day), Earthbound…
I’m a huge fan of Street Fighter 4 but way out of practice on it.
More recent games that I can’t not talk about sometimes: Deadly Premonition, Halo 4 (Xbox 360 games), The Walking Dead…. In 2011 I got obsessed with Skyrim and I had to uninstall or lose all my free time… I always do “Games of the Year” write-ups at the end of the year so you can check that out here for last year; I wrote about Fire Emblem and Saints Row and Dragon’s Crown among others. I just love games, so it’s hard to name a favorite sometimes.
This year I have loved Super Time Force, D4, and Shadow of Mordor on Xbox One, and Escape Goat 2 and Shovel Knight on PC/Steam.
I’m really excited about Sunset Overdrive and the Master Chief Collection – Overdrive just came out, but I want to get through Mordor first.
What do you find appealing in your favorite games?
I like variety. Anything that’s new and different appeals to me these days which is why I play a lot of indies, but I don’t think it’s right to put aside AAA either. I like games with an interesting story especially if there’s more to the story than the surface appears. So I gravitate toward those sorts of games. (One study I’ve heard about has said that when people say there is an interesting story in a game, they really mean interesting characters, so maybe we’ll go with that.) I also like games with puzzles though.
I like longer games, but as I get older I find I have less time for them. I really have to be very deliberate about setting aside game time.
What is the one most important aspect of a game that you feel elevates the good games above the rest?
Just the idea that someone somewhere involved in the process had a vision. To me it’s less about polish per se than creativity, though polish is certainly nice. But if no one at any point cared about the game, then the game isn’t going to be very good. So I guess I prefer games that feel as if they were made with love.
Tell me about the game you’ve built or are building that’s your favorite to talk about.
Well, the game I’m messing around with now was primarily a coding practice exercise, so even though I’ve talked about the dev process it’s not super-interesting to me… Darn!
What I really would like to do, if I had the time, is get back to writing in Inform 7. I released a game for the Interactive Fiction Competition a couple years ago, and it was OK, but it was far from bug-free and I’ve been jonesing to either revisit it, or do something different in the space. (If you aren’t familiar with Inform 7, it’s basically a type of code to write text adventures, the kind where you type “go east” and tell the computer what to do.) I have about three different works in progress in Inform 7 that all have potential to be really good if I finally finished any of them. Sometimes it needs something like a deadline to actually get a game completed, so that’s one reason why I actually entered IF Comp when I did in the first place.
In a couple of weeks I signed up to participate in a game jam, so I’m hoping to get something cool out of that! It’s been a while since I jammed.
Could you talk about the work flow you use when designing a game? (Milestones you have to hit in order to build a successful game.)
It really depends on the game, the scope of the game.
I guess games aren’t really like other software. There’s not like a single process that seems to make sense for building them.
For something like an RPG, I start with spreadsheets, describing powers and characters and so-on.
For a text adventure (I’ve done three now, one in Inform and two in Twine), I’ll make a basic graph outline of the branches I want for the story. Then I’ll get to noodling around in the creation tool, block out the major movements of the thing, and make some adjustments to my outline as I go.
Are there any development roadblocks you’ve run into more than once, or for an extended period of time?
Just losing motivation to work on a particular project is the biggest roadblock.
How did you deal with the roadblock and keep progressing with your game?
Sometimes I’ll pick it up again weeks or months or years later but other times I’ll just admit it wasn’t meant to be. You kiss a lot of frogs designing games.
Like I said, having a deadline or some kind of time pressure to hit and ship really helps me to actually complete the work. So I work best in a jam environment or in an environment where there is a competition and some kind of deadline looming. It helps me to think, okay, I have to actually finish! Otherwise I do tend to get caught spending 80 percent of the time on 20 percent of the little niggling things. I get into a loop of Valve Time.
How do you stay organized while working with other people?
Source Control! And shared documents help a lot. Prior to working at Microsoft I worked in a totally different shared document environment as you can assume.
If you could improve yourself at one area of game development, what would it be?
Right now, I’m learning to program C# in Unity.
I’ve heard that finding play-testers is difficult. Do you have any stories about this?
Naw, I’ve never had much difficulty finding playtesters.
The only part I found tricky was, for example, with the IF Comp, making sure my playtesters got the game early enough that I could use the feedback they gave me. Test early and often!!
How do you approach game testing?
I generally look for someone in the target audience of a game and ask them if they will play it. Sometimes I buy them a nice coffee for their time!
The best playtests I have done involve recording people who are playing the game to play back on video later.
Generally speaking, in an agile environment, more rounds of fewer testers is better than just a couple rounds with a lot of testers. It allows you to iterate on the process more.
What sort of games do you think there are too many of? Not enough of?
There are too many games for me to play, but there are still not enough games in the world. I think everyone should create games.
If I had to pick a type of game I think people should stop making, I’m really not a fan of the very early student experiments in board games where they write “go forward 3 spaces” and crap on a board and give you two dice and have you roll the dice and move and land on spaces with instructions like “lose a turn” or “go back two” and then maybe it’s all supposed to be really a book report or something, and occasionally you answer trivia cards? I’ve played this a hundred times. It’s hard to say that these should be BANNED, because clearly this is a necessary part of understanding game design and experimentation. But students should get this Chutes and Ladders stuff out of their system before they are out of high school. Like ideally, in middle school, everyone should make this game, and then be told to stop making it when I get to them at the college level. That would be swell. Oops, I went on a rant, but we really do need better board game education.
Have you ever personally encountered jerks inside a gaming community? How did that affect you at the time?
Yes. It hurts my feelings. Hey, if it seems like I’m being vague, that’s on purpose, because I think we dwell WAY
too much on toxicity and give it too much of our time and attention.
Do you have ideas on how to mitigate the jerks?
“Show women in commercials. Show young girls in commercials. Show boys playing Dance Central and girls playing Halo.”
On some level, it’s important to acknowledge that there are problems, that those problems need to be worked on, and that we are all in this together.
I DO think there are way too many articles focusing on toxic gaming behavior. I think it becomes a breeding ground. I acknowledge that I read these articles and because I contribute “clicks” to that kind of thing, I’m part of the problem, but I try to avoid writing a ton of negative stuff no matter how easy that is to do. I don’t think we should sugarcoat the problems there are, but I think an “everything is terrible” attitude is also really self-defeating. It feels like we are all in this together.
Better education helps. I’ve seen chat threads where someone just gets TOTALLY toxic for no apparent reason and it often turns out that they just didn’t realize a word they were using was inappropriate. It boggles the mind but some people are just not taught how to disagree politely or that disagreeing with someone politely is possible. They see an idea they don’t agree with and immediately march into battle. I believe that we should teach Rhetoric to kids in schools. Teach manners so that they have better manners when they are adults. Actually explain to people how to frame an argument without being a jerk. I think it would go a long way.
Where it comes to anger, Riot has done some studies, and they have found that a “toxic player” is sometimes just a troll, but is USUALLY a perfectly reasonable player who is just having a bad day. So it’s not that anyone who is toxic should be permabanned from games, but tools to report people, to lock accounts, and force people onto cooldowns when they are being toxic are really important. It’s also important to have humans check these tools and resolve disputes. Good community management is so vital and so undervalued. Show women in commercials. Show young girls in commercials. Show boys playing Dance Central and girls playing Halo.
What can big-name companies do to improve the gaming community?
Better tools to block and report.
Take reports of toxic people seriously.
If you ask any gamer what the platform with the most toxicity and worst tools is right now, I would wager they would say it’s not something like Xbox Live; it’s Twitter.
What can companies like Microsoft do to bring more women into gaming?
I think this is a great question because I think bringing more women into gaming will bring more women into tech.
A big part of this is reminding women that they are already gaming, though. Gamers are something like 45% female according to the ESA. We need to remove the stigma that if a woman is interested in playing a game, it’s not a “real game.” I once saw a panel at PAX about “how to bring REAL GAMES to Facebook,” and it turns out that when they said “real games,” they meant “games that appeal to mostly men.” Surprise: there were already real games on Facebook. So number one, let’s not forget that women are already here.
Show women in commercials. Show young girls in commercials. Show boys playing Dance Central and girls playing Halo. Maybe that’s crazy but gosh let’s see what happens if you try it. Do we think young men will stop buying Halo if they see a girl playing it in a commercial? What if she’s playing it next to a boy? What if we’re bombarded constantly by the image that these things are fun for everyone and the competition is kept light and friendly? Can we change what we think the rules are about these interactions?
“We need to remove the stigma that if a woman is interested in playing a game, it’s not a real game.”
How would you involve women with the gaming community, who otherwise might not become involved on their own?
This is tough because a lot of the articles about how it’s toxic will scare people away. 90 percent of my interactions with gamers are lovely and wonderful. I think it’s possible to have a bad experience with any hobby. I do think it sucks that “develop a thick skin” is a requirement. Seems like not just for gaming but for tech in general. I do think if it were less scary, more women would take part. I do not want to generalize, but I know lots of ladies just don’t WANT to deal with annoying strangers in their spare time. So better tools for finding friends, mitigating toxic people, etc, will help.
I have some thoughts about how to make core console games more accessible in general. For example many women seem to suffer from simulator sickness or get ill in 3D environments more often than men do. Part of this is because they are not used to it (so start them young – it’s harder to get over this problem as one gets older) but also include some motionsickness assistance in your game. Some designers like to eliminate HUD elements because it looks “clean” but having a visible HUD gives you something to stabilize your eyes on and goes a long way toward helping mitigate simulator sickness, so if you MUST eliminate it to keep your screen uncluttered please include a motionsickness mode with a visible crosshair as an option.
Women need safe spaces to try things out where they won’t feel judged. Part of what’s hard about getting into games is a lack of initial skill, and lots of times women just don’t have time to practice. I support all- women gaming leagues and classes where women feel safe. (They don’t have to necessarily be exclusive; for example, there are men taking our Girl Develop It class. But it’s targeted at women and it’s clear that it’s a safe space where a woman shouldn’t feel judged for asking questions.)
Where do you get your best work done? (In an office? From home?)
At home in the morning I’m most productive. Otherwise usually a quiet place away from home like on the plane or something. 🙂
How do you meet like-minded developers?
Right now? Dev meetings. In particular there is Dev Night in Philly which is rad. Also GDC, IndieCade, Twitter.
Can you speak to what you think games created by people with diverse backgrounds add to the field of game industry?
More perspective. Like I’ve said, I like stuff that’s different, so if something is the sameol been there done that it holds less appeal for me. I am tired of games about dads, which is just this huge trend since all the male game devs are getting older and want to make their games about that experience of having babies. Need more games about moms!