Heather M Decker

Heather Decker is currently the Chair of the Chicago chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), after helping reboot the chapter in 2011. She is also an IGDA Foundation Women in Games Ambassador Program Volunteer, following three years of service on the IGDA Scholars Committee.

Lead Technical Artist
Zynga Chicago
Savannah College of Art and Design
MFA Interactive Design and Game Development
The Art Institute of Pittsburgh
BS Game Art and Design
Clinton Community College
AAS Graphic Arts Technology

When did you first start playing games?

I’ve been playing games for pretty much as long as I can remember. It’s a bit hazy now, but when I was a little girl, my dad had a Commodore 64 and he taught me the commands to load up games from floppy disk. After that, I was blowing into NES cartridges and wielding light guns. I wanted to try all of the games I could get my hands on and magically, every era of my life has been an opportunity to explore something new: Gameboy, SNES, shareware, arcade cabinets, Sega Channel, N64, Saturn, dial-up MMORPGs, Dreamcast, Playstation, Xbox, and all incarnations thereof.

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What are your all-time favorite games?

I’m quite relieved that you’re asking in a plural sense, as I could never pick one!
Final Fantasy VI and Phantasy Star IV have a special place in my heart as being the first big JRPGs I was obsessed with as a teen. The characters and storytelling pulled me in, the 16-bit art was confined to a colorful pixel grid, and the soundtracks were on the internet in MIDI form. Overall, these games resulted in fan art, creative writing, participation in game communities, and dabbling in game development.

These days I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with World of Warcraft, which I don’t actually have time to be serious about. Thankfully, it’s now possible to sporadically, casually play, thanks to newer features like Dungeon Finder layering onto the multitude of interwoven systems that form the sheer depth of this game. It’s a highly polished, enjoyable experience with captivating environments and far too much lore for me to keep up with. I could explore, progress in, and discover content in tiny bite-sized pieces up until this game ceases to exist.

What made you want to start making games?

Up until I was in college, I hadn’t really identified games as a viable career path. All I knew was that games offered me a great deal of enjoyable experiences and I became interested in making my own creations. It all began with crayons, but eventually I started pushing pixels on early IBM machines alongside flipping notebook paper to animate, and building scenes in Mario Paint. When I was thirteen, I started experimenting with developing my own stories within the Phantasy Star universe using a free RPG engine called VERGE. This involved deconstructing and recreating existing map tile sets, laying out levels, developing character sprite sheets, writing and scripting events in C++, and plenty of problem-solving.

Looking back on those tools is nostalgic, but it also fills me with hope for everyone who is currently interested in making games or interactive art. We’ve made great leaps and bounds in the availability of free authoring software. Something that was previously a solitary exercise in troubleshooting is now a much more sophisticated crafting experience complete with getting started guides, tutorials, sample projects, and communities of creators. I encourage anyone with even the slightest bit of curiosity to embrace these digital resources and make something! Or start out with some analog basics like index cards, scissors, markers, and dice.

It’s not really a spoiler warning, but I’m going to discuss how interactions work in Undertale so if you haven’t played it yet and wouldn’t want to hear anything about it, don’t read this, and avoid most of the internet.

“It’s not really a spoiler warning, but I’m going to discuss how interactions work in Undertale, so if you haven’t played it yet and wouldn’t want to hear anything about it, don’t read this, and avoid most of the internet.” — Decker on Undertale

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

After hearing so much about it, I finally played through Undertale, which is a humble JRPG-inspired title on Steam that boasts very simplistic graphics and a quirky narrative.

Defeating monsters and gaining experience are a staple of the genre, but Undertale is strikingly different in that it offers players an opportunity to complete the game without violence. Casting aside everything I had known about RPGs, I learned a new play style and observed that non-violent outcomes were often more challenging to see through. It’s not always clear what needs to happen to resolve a situation without just mashing FIGHT. The player must take the higher road, explore different options, and survive a test of endurance.

Actions taken in Undertale impact the overall experience. You can’t help but feel the weight of your choices, for better or worse. To me, the concept of the player being able to tune the emotional tone of a game through their actions is highly intriguing. This game inspires me and makes me want more from games.

Do you feel that you identify with a Ludology-first or the Narratology-first design process?

I don’t strongly champion one or the other, as I firmly believe the ideal design process depends entirely on the desired outcome.

What if my intent isn’t anything in the realm of storytelling? For example, I wouldn’t start out designing a puzzle game by thinking about stories when what I really want is a mechanic that is intellectually satisfying to solve.

In contrast, maybe I just want someone to feel something, so I start with a snippet of a story, a single feeling, and figure out what sort of game mechanic embodies that. For example, a stronger RPG character who protects, heals, and levels up a weaker character is an effective arrangement of mechanics to symbolize the experience of raising a child in this crazy world.

Some of the monsters in Quest are things that a mother and a daughter might have to overcome together, like “Ravenous Bills” and “Heartless Bullies” (above).

Some of the monsters in Decker’s Game Jam game The Quest of Motherhood are things that a mother and a daughter might have to overcome together, like “Heartless Bullies.”

Are there any development roadblocks you’ve run into more than once, or for an extended period of time?

Yes. In the fairly complicated creative medium that is game development, there is always a chaos factor. Weird technological things happen. Decisions may not actually work out. Having to back up and re-approach a problem is always a setback, but it pushes you to learn new tricks.

I’m a big fan of grayboxing or rapid prototypes… for making broad strokes passes before deeply investing in decisions. Test your functionality with the simplest placeholder art to gauge scale and the feel of interaction. Plan extra time for testing and revisions. Be constantly aware that you’re marching towards something that is not clearly defined by black and white solutions, and if your role is organizing a game development effort, your title is more equivalent to “Orchestrator of Raw Chaos” than anything else.

Don’t let me scare you. It’s amazingly entertaining to constantly approach new and fascinating challenges!

"If I were grayboxing a platformer idea, I'd be more concerned about the velocity of my jumps, the force of gravity, and the distance between platforms than art, which can easily be swapped out later when I know the interactions feel right." -- Decker on grayboxing

“If I were grayboxing a platformer idea, I’d be more concerned about the velocity of my jumps, the force of gravity, and the distance between platforms than art, which can easily be swapped out later when I know the interactions feel right.” — Decker on grayboxing

How did you deal with the roadblock and keep progressing with your game?

Identifying the problem is first and foremost. X isn’t working. The next step is to stop, think, and form a plan. Even if there is an aspect you are held up on, typically there are other details you can pick up and progress with until you are able to clear the specific roadblock.

What is something you wish you had done on all your games?

On past projects, I wish I had journaled more and logged more process stuff. Now I just take constant notes.

It was fun keeping a process blog for my thesis project and I’d highly recommend development diary blogs with sketches, photos/screens, and your ongoing commentary throughout development. Doing this in a live sense, such as a WordPress site, allows you to share your development state and get feedback.

Do you have a process in place for play-testing?

Yes. Playtesting is the process of charting all possible things that can be done and attempting to do them under all possible circumstances. The first half is forming a list, chart, or database that maps out the plan for testing and the second half is systematically executing that plan.

Could you talk about the work flow you use when designing a game? (For example, milestones you have to hit in order to build a successful game.)

  • Basic concept doc
    • Includes your heartbeat statement, which is a concise mission statement that embodies the essence of your game
    • Use broad strokes and only cover the first bit of the experience
  • Identify the core mechanic and rapidly prototype it with basic forms, focusing primarily on the interaction. Ask the question: is this evoking the reaction I was after?
    • If no, explore why. Iterate.
    • If yes, expand the demo and gut check it again. The end goal for prototyping is to have a tiny, working slice of each system that makes up the game (movement, character interactions, etc.) so you can see how the different aspects interact together.
  • Pre-production: plan out development from start to end. Use your demo insights for time estimates. Don’t assume that any of this will actually go according to plan, but it’s far better to have a clear path than to meander around.

Additional milestones may be set on a per-project basis, but typically you’re looking for first playable, alpha, beta, and release as the big ones.


How do you stay organized while working with other people?

  • Taking and sharing notes (Evernote, Google docs, wiki pages)
  • Google Drive for living documentation
  • Email
  • Quick, regular meetings with defined goals.
    • (Even with a game jam, you have to, at minimum, have a “start up” meeting and a, “OMG how do we plan our last four hours!” kind of meeting.)
  • Task-tracking software (Jira, Trello, Mantis, Asana, etc.)
  • IM for the moment to moment questions and collaboration points (Skype, Slack)

The bottom line is that you need to communicate thoroughly when working on a team. Over-communicating is actually great because it means everyone has all of the information they need to make effective decisions.


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

It was super fun to introduce my daughter Demi and my friend Melissa to making games at the Voxelles Mother of a Game Jam, where we made The Quest of Motherhood using RPG Maker. Later on in the year, my daughter and I enjoyed the Passing Notes Workshop with Anna Anthropy, where we used craft supplies to make a tile-based narrative-building prototype within a few hours, which we had a lot of fun testing with the group.

I truly adore small, exploratory projects in which games are a unique art form for raw creative expression and I believe this is the realm we will ultimately see the most innovation from.

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

I want to see more games that ask me to look at something a bit differently or that explore new possibilities for interaction. I want to see more collaboration than conquest. I want to see the full range of stories and expressions from all types of voices. I want to see the power of games used for social good.

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

Microsoft can continue to pave the way by being a great place for women to be employed. It’s up to the largest companies with the greatest influence to really set that standard as progressive places to work. The more strong women we have out there, being awesome for aspiring young people to see in action, the more likely it is that budding game developers will be able to identify with a professional in the field and feel more confident that making games is something they are welcome to participate in.

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

I would love to see Microsoft funding more local game jams and workshops designed to welcome more voices into game-making. I love that there are programs for school-age youth cropping up lately because it’s important to start as early as possible.


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

I think it’s important to have welcoming and safe spaces. In my realm, I like to host casual gaming nights and have successfully convinced friends who “don’t play games” to come over, have fun, and even unabashedly flail in front of the Kinect. It’s up to each of us to reassure each other that we can all enjoy games together.

How do you think people with diverse backgrounds impact the development community?

People with diverse backgrounds are highly important to the game development community because an art form this powerful should be shared and expanded upon by all walks of life to truly become a fully articulated cultural expression.

It feels like we’ve only so far scratched the surface. Diverse backgrounds translate into diverse perspectives which forge experiences that give you a vantage into a world beyond your own personal viewpoint.

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

Follow your passion. There are going to be challenges, but you are not alone. Reach out to people around you and get the support you need, be this through joining local groups, finding a mentor, or being a part of a community online. You are not the first, or last, and we can all bring things full circle and support each other.

Recently, Heather and her daughter, Demi, created rapid tempura paintings on a window and the street during a local art festival.

Recently, Heather and her daughter, Demi, created rapid tempura paintings on a window and the street during a local art festival.

Thank you so much, Heather! Your technical paragraphs on playtesting and the work flow of designing a game are amazingly informative! 

If you would like to reach out to Heather, She Builds Games, or the International Game Developers Association, shoot us a tweet:

She Builds Games @SheBuildsGames
Heather M Decker @heathermdecker
IGDA Chicago @IGDAChicago