Brenda Romero is best known for her work on the Wizardry series of role-playing video games and, more recently, the non-digital series The Mechanic is the Message. She has worked in game development since 1981, has credits on 22 game titles, and is the longest-serving female game developer in the business. She is the recipient of the 2013 Women in Games Lifetime Achievement Award awarded by Microsoft, and previously was a nominee in Microsoft’s 2010 Women in Games Game Design Award.
BRENDA ROMERO Game Designer COMPANIES Loot Drop Romero Games EDUCATION Graduated from Clarkson University University of California Santa Cruz -Program Director for Games & Playable Media MS. WEBSITES http://romero.com/bios http://blromero.com
What made Brenda Romero start developing video games? A classic scene from the ‘80s: Ogdensburg, upstate New York was piled high with snow. Fifteen-year-old Brenda Garno was one of many girls risking getting caught in her high-school bathroom smoking a cigarette.
Another girl who didn’t want to go outside to smoke walked in, asking if anyone had a cigarette to spare. All the other girls were smoking menthols, but she kept turning them down. “Are you looking for a non-menthol?” Brenda asked, and she offered up one of her own.
Just to be polite, the other girl struck up a conversation. “Do you have a job?”
“Are you interested in a job?”
“Have you ever heard of a video game called Wizardry?”
“Have you ever heard of Sir-Tech?”
Also “No,” but then she asked whether Brenda had ever played Dungeons and Dragons. She had been playing as a dungeon master with her friends for five years.
Ogdensburg was home to Sir-Tech, a diminutive video game developing company that, in 1981, released a computer game version of D&D titled Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. The girl in the bathroom, also 15 at the time, worked at Sir-Tech. She would answer calls from players who were stuck on the game and provide tips and advice. The girl’s next question changed the course of Brenda Garno’s life: “Would you like my job?”
–Exerpt from Kotaku article, Brenda Romero’s Quest for Healing
“I showed up the next Tuesday for sort of an interview and test drive… and then that was it. I was with that company for 20 years. All the way through college,” Romero recalls. In Romero’s live interview with the Voxelles: Chicago’s Women in Game Development, she virtually guarantees that no one will be able to replicate this entrance story into the industry that hinged on a bummed cigarette.
She Builds Games partnered up with Voxelles: Chicago’s Women in Game Development to bring you this exclusive interview with Brenda Romero, one of the most influential people in the games industry.
What are some of your favorite things about being a game developer?
- Well, there’s a really new one, which is working with my kids. Like, ON GAMES. That’s better than ice cream.
- Our two oldest daughters do community management for us. Donovan is 10, he’s working on Gunman Taco Truck. That’s been really wonderful.
- I would say the coolest thing — which still blows my mind — this is crazy — is that we get to make a game like Gunman Taco Truck, and Humble Bundle calls and says “Can we put it on the store?” (jaw drop) That still blows my mind!
- Though it has happened many, many times at this point, I still marvel at being paid to do something that I so deeply love. It does not feel like work to me. I would make games whether somebody gave me money to or not!
- (That said, lots of money rarely comes from working on somebody else’s IP. Lots of money comes from when you create your own IP, and then you do something with that IP.)
- I get to get together with a group of people that I really love working with. We try to keep the same crew of people, because when you’ve worked together for a long time, you just pretty much know everybody. You already know the weaknesses and the strengths, and there’s no “Can you believe So-and-So did what?” nonsense. You know each other, so it’s a well-oiled machine at this point in time.
- Seeing new game designers find the fun in their own game for the first time? That stuff is worth gold. Just seeing how excited and jazzed they are about it.
- Those are probably my favorite things. On the analog side, when I’m working on some of the larger pieces that I’ve created — like I have one that I’m working on that has 50,000 pieces to it — that game is really meditative when I’m working on it. I’ll talk more about that one later.
When you’re designing games, what is the design process that works best for you? Where do you start?
- It depends on the type of game, but ultimately I’m looking at figuring out the core system, the core loop of the game. What is the player progression going to be outside of that core loop? What is that one thing the game is about?
- The player comes in and they do an action — What are they doing the action for? In order to get rewards. What are they using the rewards for? To get better at that action. And up and up and up it goes.
- Depending on the platform, for example if it’s for iPhone, before it is even being coded, I will just sit here with my phone, imagining myself playing the game with my eyes closed. And I’m really trying see the game, because if I can’t see the game, there’s no point in making it.
- I don’t really care so much at this point about the ending of the game. I’m trying to think of the second-to-second play. Because if I can’t hold you second-to-second, I’m not going to have you ten hours from now. So, second-to-second, then I worry about minute-to-minute, and then I worry about maybe one gameplay session to the next. Hour to hour, and then I start thinking about the end of the game. But it’s that second-to-second and that core loop that I’m thinking about at first.
- My brain doesn’t like me, because I’ll be in places like the shower and suddenly, “Oh! Hey! You can’t do anything, I got a great idea!” Or in a movie, or out to dinner where it would be totally unacceptable to say, “Hey, can you hold on a second?” And take out my phone and talk into it.
- During that phase, I sleep with pencil and paper, I drive with pencil and paper next to me, and it feels like, once I’ve figured the game out, and the second-to-second is there, the minute-to-minute is there, and I’m now thinking about maybe the narrative arc of the game, it’s just a mad house that feels like it’s pouring out of everywhere and I’m just trying to get it all down. So that’s kind of a messy design process.
- Then once it’s all in there, I recognize that there’s obviously something I screwed up, probably four or five things, and I know that I can’t even see three of them.
What is something you wish you had done on all your games?
- If you’ve ever looked at a preview or a box for a game and said, “Oh I can’t wait to play this!” Then you read the description on the box, or whatever it says on Steam, and you go, “Huh, I totally thought this was about something different.” THAT’S the game you should make. Because that’s the game your brain wanted to play.
- So I’ll often tell people, “This is what my game is about, in general.” And then I say, “What do you wanna do?” And they tell me, and basically they tell me the features of the game! And it either reinforces things for me that I’ve already done, or gives me new ideas for things that I hadn’t even thought about doing. So that’s when I get another designer to come in and say, “Okay here’s what the game is about. What would you do if you could?” And that’s a super valuable thing. I wish I’d done that on all my games. I’ll test my design ideas on those people, and then I’ll try to just eventually beat the game into submission until it gets launched. (laughs)
What can we do to maximize our outreach to empower a community of women?
- Things like this, where you invite people in, I think are really useful, where people can get together and have some kind of community.
- I found that if you give a talk about women in games, the people who show up are the people who don’t need to hear it — they’re already convinced.
- Hold pretty regular events. In Ireland, they have dubLUDO, and they meet once a month. And when people are there, they come out and they show their stuff. And it’s not just students, you know. In fact, it’s mostly pros coming out and showing their work, getting feedback. And that’s really valuable to have a place where you can get feedback on the stuff you’re doing where you don’t feel like you’re going to get robbed by people copying your game.
- I do know from experience that if I post an event that’s specifically around a topic, I will get a very passionate group of people who come out (and that’s important), but if I want to make the community bigger, I try to make my message present something that more likely to draw that demographic, but not exclude other people.
Do you feel that you identify with a Ludology-first or the Narratology-first design process?
Clarification: There are two processes that most game designers use. Narratology-first : Some people start with the outside-in, where they find the artistic expression that they want to convey, and they then try to find the mechanics to do that. Ludology-first: Others start from the inside-out, where they have the mechanic, then are trying to have the feeling that also compliments it. Do you feel that you identify with one of those other the other?
- Sometimes. I would say I’m much more of a systems-based designer. My analog games are all about horrific moments in human history: the Trail of Tears, the Middle Passage, the Holocaust. When I’m working on then, what I do is really just think about the systems that are inherent in those events.
- Let’s use the barista game example. What are the systems inherent in being successful as a barista? And having a successful business? So I start to think in terms of the systems. How to those systems work?
- Once I see how they work, I could build a “simulation” in that point in time, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. So now I need to think about YOU. You’re coming into the game as a player — where do I put you in the system? Are you the customer? Are you the person making the coffee? Are you the person selling the coffee beans to the store? Are you the customer who’s trying to pick up dates in the coffee shop? So now that I know the systems, there’s lots of different ways I can get you in there.
- So once I know where I want you to go in, sometimes I’ll think about, How do I want you to feel? So in the case of the Trail of Tears game, there’s 50,000 pieces. This is an analog game — it’s gonna be ridiculously massive. So how do I want you to feel when you see that game? And I want you to be overwhelmed. So I am now thinking about feeling.
- With Train, which was a game I made about the Holocaust, I want you to feel phenomenal complicity in the decisions that have been made. When you realize what’s happening, I want it to hit you as core as it can. So it’s all about building complicity.
- Now that I’ve identified the system I want, now that I’ve figured out where I’m putting you in it, I need to really think and hone how it is I’m going to get you to feel what I want you feel.
- They really all go together for me. I’m not sure that there’s cleanly a mix. If I were forced to be on the ludology or narratology side of the fence, I’m going to be on the ludology side. I’m a pretty hardcore system designer. I mean, the programs I have open on my desktop right now are spreadsheets. That’s the sexy life of a game designer.
The video interview with Brenda Romero is watchable on YouTube to members of the Voxelles. Join up on Meetup.com/voxelles/ for access to the full-length content. Thanks for reading!