Heidi McDonald

Heidi McDonald is a game designer at Schell Games in Pennsylvania. She is experienced in writing narratives, game systems, features, and quest design and implementation in games. At the time of this writing, she has six shipped titles — two of which are award-winning — including serious/educational games and entertainment products. She is the winner of the 2012 Women in Gaming Rising Star Award.

Game Designer (Narrative, Systems, Quests)
Schell Games LLC
Chatham University - Double BA
Communications, Film & Digital Media

When did you first start playing games?

Late 1970s: Pac-Man was the first video game I ever played!

What made you want to start making games?

I went to college at age 39. When I was a student, my Media Literacy professor invited our class to a Creative Careers Seminar at Carnegie Mellon. It was there that I heard a lady named Sabrina Haskell (from Schell Games!) speak at a panel about her work in video games. That talk was a life-changing moment for me. Just having a woman sitting behind the table, saying, “This is available to you,” completely changed everything. I just needed to be shown!

What do you want women considering a career in tech to know?

Some information I didn’t have before joining the industry is that it’s certainly not for everyone. The horror stories about working as a woman in games, unfortunately, are true (and while I’ve been incredibly lucky at Schell Games to be treated well, this is not true for the majority of my industry friends). You need to prepare yourself for that and decide now how and whether you’re going to respond to that. The good news is, though, that things are improving, and also that here is a very strong support network among professional women in the industry.

Also: this industry is not stable. You need both a backup plan and to be careful with your money. It’s not uncommon to be repeatedly laid off or fired through no fault of your own, or to have to move, often. The hours and working conditions can be murder, so do a lot of investigating before you accept an offer from a company. Learn about how their employees are treated, how women are treated, how many women are in their upper management.


“Work with the local chapter of Women in Gaming to have networking events and programmatic content that’s helpful. If there isn’t a local chapter of Women in Gaming, SPONSOR ONE.” — McDonald

What can I do locally to bring more women into gaming?

  • Perhaps a scholarship program with a local university that’s just for women.
  • Work with the local chapter of Women in Gaming to have networking events and programmatic content that’s helpful.
  • If there isn’t a local chapter of Women in Gaming, SPONSOR ONE.

What sort of games do you think there are not enough of? (What direction to you want to see the industry take?)

Outside of work, I do independent research about romance in single-player RPG’s, and have written and lectured a lot about that. I’m the co-chair of the IGDA’s new Romance and Sexuality in Games SIG. So it should surprise nobody when I say that I would love to see there be more games that are 1) driven by emotion rather than violence (romance being my special interest), and 2) inclusive of the interests of people on the entire continuum of gender and sexuality. BioWare does such a great job with that stuff, but I’d love there to be RPG’s where romance drives the entire larger story, as opposed to romance just being side content.

One of my favorite quotes of the past few years comes from George Lucas:

“The big game of the next five years will be a game where you empathize very strongly with the characters and it’s aimed at women and girls. They like empathetic games. That will be a huge hit, and as a result, that will be the Titanic of the game industry, where suddenly you’ve done an actual love story or something and everybody will be like ‘where did that come from?’ Because you’ve got actual relationships instead of shooting people.”

— George Lucas

I agree a lot with the concept behind this quote, as in, people are longing for games that reach them on an emotional level and not just a mental or physical one. The part I disagree with is that the game he’s talking about will be for women and girls. The dream blockbuster romance game will be a game for everyone, because games are and should be for everyone. And whatever game that ends up being, I hope I’m part of it.

What’s a game that you recently played that inspired you in some way?


Inkle Studios, 80 Days

I really like the text hybrids that Inkle has out right now (80 Days and Down Among the Dead Men are my favorites). It’s a fun way to do interactive narrative, and since I care A LOT about story, I’ve started messing around with Inklewriter and have a few ideas about how I’d like to use it. Hopefully I’ll be in a position to release something on their server before too long.

Down Among the Dead Men, Inkle Studios, and Heidi McDonald on a pirate adventure

I am also really digging on TellTale’s Game of Thrones episodic series; in their case, they’ve combined fans’ pre-expectations of “nothing good ever happening to anyone, ever” in Westeros, with their established thing about making impactful choices. That ups the ante from their prior series because you know that no matter what you do, someone’s gonna die. I mean, I’ve been on the edge of my seat the entire time, playing those.

Is there any game you’ve worked on recently that you’d be excited to talk about?

We recently shipped the second year of The World of Lexica, a 3D adventure tablet game for 6-8th graders (available to schools only), that promotes literacy. A magical library is in peril, and you have to team up with characters from classical literature and go on adventures with them, in order to save the library. There are skill challenges, in the form of language arts mini-games, that help you along the way. It exposes you to hundreds of books from classic literature and incorporates them in different ways, and endears you to book characters such as the Cheshire Cat, Tom Sawyer, and even Frankenstein’s monster. I’m really proud of what we’ve produced with Lexica. The best part about that project for me is that I got to write the dialogue for all the characters.

At the time of this writing, you have six shipped titles, correct?

I have six, and my seventh and eighth are both announced but not released yet! Happy Atoms and Orion Trail are up next.

I researched all the “fun facts” about the molecular content for Happy Atoms. 

Orion Trail is a single player choose-your-own-space-adventure where you must rely upon your wits, your officers, and your ship to cross the deadly Orion Trail.

Orion Trail is a single player choose-your-own-space-adventure where you must rely upon your wits, your officers, and your ship to cross the deadly Orion Trail.

I am writing missions for Orion Trail. We’re going into full release with it soon! Orion Trail is in early access on Steam right now. Check it out!

Other games Heidi McDonald has worked on:

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What is the one most important aspect of a game that you feel elevates the good games above the rest?

Having the pieces be well-integrated and anchored to each other. The tendency is to want to do All The Things, but you never can, because of scope. So you have to pay special attention to addition by subtraction, and pick only what works well and then make those elements work together the best you possibly can in a way that’s not too much or too little.

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.)

I pretty much leave this to the producers. The directors decide on a timeline, the producers and I have conversations about what tasks in my realm need to take place during that timeline, then they schedule the tasks in Hansoft.

Do you have a process in place for playtesting?

Playtesting is incredibly important and should happen early in the process, to make sure that before you’re too far into the game to change anything, you know what feels good to your players, rather than guessing what they’ll like.

It depends on the project, but it comes down to having a specific set of questions in mind, things you want to prove or disprove. The questions should always be open-ended because that’s how  you get the best, most actionable information. Sometimes we’ll observe and take notes, other times we’ll record the play and watch from the other room. And of course, there are analytics we can grab off the tablets after the playtests, and interesting things can always be seen when checking those out.

We always try to playtest with diverse groups, and that has involved outreach to girls’ schools, rural schools and inner city schools. We learned pretty quickly that when you ask playtesters to self-identify, it usually ends up being a bunch of white teenage boys. Those guys are important, but so are other players, so we’ve built some great playtesting relationships with schools and other groups.

How do you stay organized while working with other people?

We use source control software (like Perforce and SVN), and production software such as Hansoft and production systems like Agile. We have specific goals on a specific timeline. On our 50-person team, we have sub-teams, and each of those teams has its own scrum; then we have one large scrum that incorporates one representative from each of the smaller scrums. The notes from the large scrum are distributed immediately, so you can always get a detailed sense of what’s going on, on any given day. We’re really fortunate to have great producers!

How would you involve women with the gaming community, who otherwise might not become involved on their own?

What I do is speak at schools. Be that person who shows young women, “This is available to you.” Having someone like that made all the difference to me, so if I can provide that to someone else as a possibility, I’m happy to do it. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career, and I feel it’s very important to pay that good fortune forward. I mentor anyone who asks.

What can big companies like Microsoft do to bring more women into gaming?

  • Pay special attention to the wording of your job listings. Make sure that you are using language that appeals to women as well as men. There was a study done a couple years ago by the American Psychological Association which showed that gendered wording in job advertisements and job descriptions exists and sustains gender inequality.
  • Put language in your job postings that talk about the fact that diversity is important to your company. I know women who won’t apply for a job at a company that doesn’t mention diversity in the ad or job description.
  • Enforce your company rules in terms of sexual harassment and other bad behavior of that nature, and enforce them in such a way where the person who did the bad behavior is the one punished, not the person who reported it (which unfortunately happens a lot in this industry).
    Word of mouth travels fast — if you don’t enforce your rules, or if life for people who speak up is made more difficult — women will avoid working for you no matter how well respected you are and no matter how awesome your products are.
  • Once women are hired into your company, don’t stop there. Put measures in place to make sure they have the ability to succeed in your culture and on the job. This includes sensitivity training for your staff, paying attention to practices that might disadvantage, imperil or otherwise be upsetting to women (ie., not having outings that involve alcohol, nixing the use of booth babes at your shows, vetting the content of your product advertisements, etc.), and offering benefits that women (who have more preventative healthcare issues than men do and who are often the default parent when there are children) will appreciate, like flex time or the ability to work remotely if they have a sick child or something.
  • Promote qualified women from within, whenever you can.
  • Never, EVER use “You don’t fit the culture” as the excuse when turning a person (regardless of gender, but this hits women harder) down for a job. That’s a cop-out which says, “we’re elitist and are judging you by subjective factors other than your skills and experience.”

How do you think people with diverse backgrounds add to the field of game industry?

Many studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership, and products where the development teams were diverse, outperform less diverse counterparts. Your audience for games is diverse, and getting moreso every year. Therefore, teams also need to be diverse, in terms of race, gender, age, and sexual orientation. 19% of gamers are over 50, for instance, but only 1% of developers are in that age group (David Mullich, Gamasutra). It’s nuts.

Can you tell me more about your 2012 Women in Gaming Rising Star Award?

It was one of the more surreal moments of my career, honestly. I was nominated against some really talented women, so I wasn’t expecting at all to win. I figured I’d have a nice lunch, hang out with other industry women, and maybe meet Felicia Day, who was emcee’ing.
When they began the announcement with, “The winner of this award went to college at the age of 39…” I knew I’d won it, and I got extremely emotional because three years earlier I was a stay-at-home mom, watching Backyardigans all day, and then there I was, standing on a stage between Brenda Romero and Jane McGonigal, getting hugged by Felicia Day and handed an industry award. It was surreal and very emotional for me.
"In order to be the change you want to see in the world, you have to make the change you need to see in your own life." -- Heidi McDonald

“In order to be the change you want to see in the world, you have to make the change you need to see in your own life.” — Heidi McDonald

They asked me to say a few words, so I dedicated the award to all the women who had helped me get there, and to all the “women of a certain age” who are unhappy with their lives, so they can see it’s possible to choose again.

I’d only had people tell me it was possible. I hadn’t even considered it to be impossible. When people ask me how I got into the industry, I explain that I’m what the QA people refer to as “an edge case.” And I’ve decided that I really like being that edge case.

I probably also should mention that I was the bride at the GDC wedding in 2014.

Heidi McDonald and Alex McPhearson

Heidi McDonald and Alex McPhearson

Thank you so much, Heidi, for sharing your amazing story! Follow Heidi on Twitter @Death_Bow and She Builds Games @SheBuildsGames