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From Issue #14 April 11, 2013

Choose Your Character

Faced with change, an all-female indie dev team evolves to a higher form.

By Brianna Wu Twitter icon 

I belong to an elite order, the technological Illuminati of game development. My spellbook is a 2011 MacBook Pro with dual SSDs and $7,000 worth of professional 3D software. I am consumed by an endless internal fire to transform my passions into practical, playable reality.

It’s the third mission today: a story conference with my lead animator, Amanda. I’m exhausted. Level creation is now on my long list of job duties, taking on the work of someone I fired. It’s just an average day leading an indie-game development team.

Amanda is my best employee, and a yin to my yang. She was a cheerleader and president of her sorority, then spent a decade as a retail manager before she changed careers and went back for a degree in 3D animation. She has a calm, considered presence, a counterbalance to my relentless impulse to charge forward.

We finish discussing the storyboards and decide to book our voice actresses for another round of sessions. I think we’re done, but just as I start to edge my way out of the conversation, she sits down. “I need to tell you something, Bri, because it’s going to seriously affect you as my employer.”

Our game, Revolution 60, would not be coming together without Amanda. I’ve come to count on her, not just for her animation skills, but for her perspective. I brace for impact: She’s moving, she’s quitting, she’s found another job.

“I’m pregnant,” she says. I don’t reply immediately, and I’ll mull over my tepid response for weeks.

“Congratulations?”

The only way to win is not to play

Like most professional game developers, I grew up in thrall of Nintendo and Sony. But unlike most who wind up in my field, I found the women in those games to be more than pretty faces. They were deeply aspirational figures. I grew up in Mississippi, but there was little I could relate to in the small-town worries of whose daughter was in which beauty pageant. Final Fantasy’s Terra, an esper raised by humans, had an internal conflict that rang fiercely true to me. Reality never stood a chance.

One Christmas, my mother gave me $1,000 to buy a PS1 Net Yaroze development kit. My deeply religious parents rarely understood my interests, but they always supported them financially. I became obsessed with uncovering the secrets of developing a game, trying to figure out how to bring the girls I had been drawing since I was eight into the digital worlds of Terra, Celes, and Rydia. Fifteen years later, my wildest dreams are becoming a reality.

I never set out to create an all-girl game development studio. Amanda was my first employee, but her résumé was initially tossed aside in favor of several male candidates. My husband had been helping sort through the hundreds of résumés and discarded it. By accident, I spotted it in the reject pile. Her clip reel showed a cheery girl leaping up, waving her hand with exuberant personality.

“We’re making a game based on my art style,” I said. “Don’t you see how this is exactly the kind of animator we need?”

“It’s pretty girly,” he replied. “I guess I just don’t get that stuff.”

I don’t blame my husband. His reaction was a milder and more polite form of the response I’d received when showing the first round of character designs to some of my friends:

“Why are they all white?” sneered a liberal friend of mine before launching into a 20-minute screed about how offended he was by the naked shower scene in Heavy Rain.

“I don’t like playing games with women characters,” said a conservative friend of mine. “Their sexuality is distracting. I don’t need to see that!”

“Why doesn’t the media show my body type?” demanded one girl. “I am tired of being the punch line. You can be overweight and healthy, and games like yours need to show that to our daughters.”

“Why aren’t any of the characters guys?” complained another. “Are you trying to say that women don’t need men anymore?”

“They look anorexic,” came one reaction.

Everyone brings their political agenda to the table when it comes to female characters in videogames; everyone complains if the women don’t match their particular vision. I start to wonder if the only way to win this game is not to have women at all.

Nega-Brianna

I’m late for a programming meeting with Maria, and don’t have time to be stuck in Boston traffic. So instead of grabbing my car keys, I don black, skin-tight leather armor and leap on my motorcycle. It’s a 2009 Honda CBR600RR in racing red — something straight out of Akira. I’ve leaned into highway turns at 80 mph feeling nothing but speed, the air whipping all around me, and my thighs gripping a 212°F engine for dear life. My emotional connection to this 410 pounds of fuel and metal is intense.

Idling at a red light, I see a woman waiting to cross. She has my figure and looks to be my age. The frazzled look of motherhood is about her: disheveled hair and perpetual distraction. She’s hunched over to hold the hands of two kids so beautiful that my heart gives an involuntary lurch — an instinct hardwired into my brain in ways I don’t understand.

It hits me hard, as if this is an alternate-reality version of myself crossing the street. A Brianna that had made drastically different choices. The woman notices me. “Look at the girl on the motorcycle!” she says to her children. Our eyes meet. I recognize my gray-blue shade in her eyes.

I was adopted, and I had planned to do the same. But recently I’ve changed my mind. I wonder for the billionth time if the right decision is to concentrate on my job.

I’m certain that if I had children, I would be failing at my job.

I’ve hit my 30s, a period when it seems as if all of my friends suddenly have kids. That’s a priority shift completely incompatible with my goals. Startups require that you give it all or go home, routinely requiring long nights, longer weekends, and blood and toil. If you aren’t willing to put in the hours, eager replacements are standing behind you. If I fail, the women I work with will be out of their jobs.

The light turns red. I release the clutch and twist the throttle, and my doppelgänger and her children disappear in my wake.

A New Challenger appears

Maria’s been working for us on weekends, but she spends her days as an administrative assistant at a radiation research company. She’s my age, and brilliant at anything related to her job, but she might just feel less than brilliant outside of it. When we need the impossible to be possible, we send it to Maria.

With our next round of funding in hand, we set out to hire another full-time programmer. I ask Maria to sit in on the interview, as she has the right coding background (C++) to evaluate the candidate and will be working closely with him — all the applicants so far are male. Our potential hire has the easy confidence of a guy in his mid-20s. Better yet, he’s personable, a rare trait among gamedev coders. He’s our lead candidate. Maria is quieter than usual.

A few days later, Maria and I sit down to talk about her role over the next year. She’s as introverted a person as I’ve ever known. Talking to her, you can sense the storm raging inside her mind, like she can’t quite decide which lightning bolt to hurl. She manages to blurt, “I’d like to be considered for the lead programmer job.”

“I’ve been wondering why you didn’t apply.”

“I didn’t think I had enough experience,” she stammers, “until I saw the résumés of people you were interviewing.”

“iOS Unreal is less than two years old.” I say. “No one has experience with it yet.”

Maria’s managed to catch me off guard. I see so much of myself in her. If it were possible to reach into my chest and give her some of the fire that drives me, I would. I like our top outside pick, but I know I’ve got to bet on Maria. She’s meant for so much more than answering phones.

“Can you start next month?”

Choose your Destiny

“I don’t know if I can do this, Bri,” says Amanda. It’s the day after she told me she was pregnant. She’s more scared than I’ve ever seen her, and she sounds like she’s never felt more alone. She’s been with her boyfriend for five years, longer than I’ve known my husband. She’s worried what people will say. She’s worried her parents will be disappointed in her.

I’ve loudly proclaimed my feminist principles from the rooftops for my entire life. But now those beliefs are in direct conflict with my responsibility to ship our game. Amanda is the linchpin of the company. I’m terrified I’m going to lose her, just as I have friends after they have had children and disappeared into the routine of family and schools.

“This is happening at the worst possible time. I’m 30, I just started my career over, and I’m worried if I stop now, I won’t get another chance.”

This is the real stuff of womanhood, not the videogame fantasy we’ve spent so many hours creating. It’s a gut check. What do you really want, Amanda? And what will you sacrifice to get it?

“I know all of that, and I’m terrified,” she cries, “but having this baby is something I need to do.”

I take a breath. In indie-game development you have to bet. Am I willing to bet my company on Amanda sticking with the project after she’s become a mom?

“What do you need to make this happen?” I ask.

Paradigm Shift

I find myself reading academic articles on the psychology of introversion, trying to understand why the hell Maria and I can’t stop butting heads. I’m an ENTJ, and she’s an INTJ. Small difference; all the difference in the world.

We’re having an all-hands meeting, and I’m doing all I can to not lose my temper. We have a major development deadline to hit, and it’s one that’s going to require a lot of extra hours from Maria. I’ve spent the last week learning about one of her job functions in order to add my labor to hers. My intent is the height of altruism: I want to be the kind of leader that gets down in the trenches, not a desk jockey dispatching orders.

She is not pleased with changes I’ve proposed.

“You can’t implement touch-to-move points,” she says matter-of-factly. “You’d have to do it in Kismet and not UnrealScript, and that means the player can’t look around with the camera.”1 It’s the first of many of my ideas that will be shot down during this meeting.

I’ve come to understand that it’s hard for Maria to collaborate without preparation. I like to talk through problems with people; she prefers to think through problems on her own. This does not make her instinctive “no” feel less irritating. Nor does the fact that I know she’s right.

Afterward, I suggest Maria and I go get sandwiches to help smooth things over. Despite the headbutting, we’ve made tough, productive decisions. “You have to be proud of how much you’ve grown this year,” I say. “I can’t believe you used to work as a secretary.”

“I was an administrative assistant, Bri,” she corrects. “And it was part of a huge leap for me! Did you know I saved money for two years to come here and go to school? There were so many times I thought, ‘Crap, I owe a lot of money!’ But it was the first step on this road.”

She’s usually not this talkative. You have to coax her out of her shell. My gut instinct for direct communication has been completely wrong. “Do you feel like us giving you this job helped you grow past your shyness?” I ask.

“Our relationship sometimes gets tense because of our personality differences, but it’s forced me to be more flexible,” she says. Maria takes a breath. “Bri, I was talking to my brother,” she says. “And I feel like I’ve earned a portion of our sales as a bonus after we ship. I’ve earned it.”

And just that quickly, the emotional shield comes up and I have to retreat back into boss mode. But behind that shield, there’s a smile. I know the shy Maria I met a year ago never would have had the guts to bring this up.

The journey is the reward

Other gamedev companies have Christmas parties, and after two years of working together I’ve decided we need one too. The big attraction is a Mario Kart 64 tournament. A $100 bill is waiting on the TV, bounty for the winner.

We’ve brought a game designer, Jenna, onto the team as a contractor. She’s recently gone freelance after leaving her job at a major Boston game developer. She and her fiancé are curled up on the floor, awaiting their turn.

“I’ve really enjoyed working with you,” says Jenna. “I’ve never had a work environment like this. I feel like my ideas are really respected, and I haven’t felt a second of politics.”

I just smile. In the last year, I’ve learned to conduct meetings while a baby causes blind, screaming chaos. And I’ve learned not to leap feet-first into every problem with Maria. Giving Jenna a little room is no problem.

The evening turns to the centerpiece, the Mario Kart tournament. Jenna has just smoked my husband, ensuring her place in the finals. The next numbers are drawn from the lottery. “It’s Maria versus…Brianna!”

“Oh god,” mutters Amanda.

A look of intense determination flashes in Maria’s eyes. Boss or not, she’s playing to win. And though she’s been quiet most of the evening, an easy smile is on her face. She’s colored her hair bright red, and Nintendo cartridge earrings playfully dangle from her ears. She almost didn’t make it to our party because of the boardgame club where she’s been spending her weekends.2

Amanda’s daughter Emma crawls into the room. “Oh, I have the best Christmas present for her!” I say, passing Amanda a wrapped present. “I saw this on Amazon, and I just had to buy it for her.”

“What’s this?” says Amanda to Emma, reaching into the bag and gasping. “It’s a puppet of Elmo!” Emma’s face lights up, and she lets out a squeal of joy, recognizing the smiling red face of her favorite Sesame Street character. Amanda wiggles her fingers, and Elmo gives Emma a giant hug.

The first time I met Emma, Amanda asked me if I wanted to hold her. I was terrified I would break her. I’d never touched anything that seemed so simultaneously small yet heavy. Emma stared at me so intently I started to feel uncomfortable. There was a quizzical look on her face, as if she couldn’t quite figure me out.

Last week, Amanda and I were musing over coffee. “I needed to have Emma,” she said, “But the thought of losing my identity kept me up at night. That’s why I work so hard on Revolution 60. It’s how I keep ‘me.’”

I think back to my lukewarm response a year earlier and how much we’ve accomplished since. We’re right on track to deliver a killer game. “You didn’t lose yourself at all,” I replied. “You’re more tired, sometimes a bit scattered, but you consistently kick ass.” It was harder for me to speak aloud my next thought. “It makes me wonder if I made the right decision,” I admit. “Because you showed me it can be done.”

There’s a long pause. Amanda said, “For right now, we’re both doing exactly what we need to be doing.”

At the party, I watch Amanda as she plays with her daughter, studying the way she interacts with Emma. It comes so naturally to her. This silly language she has with her daughter is not one that I speak. But now it doesn’t seem as intimidating as it once did.

“Can I try?” I ask, reaching for the puppet.

Illustration by Revolution 60.


  1. The heart of our game is the Unreal Engine, which has multiple ways to build out gameplay. Kismet nodes are essentially visual representations of self-contained blocks of UnrealScript or native (C++) code. It is ideal for quick prototyping, as well as one-off events that occur in a specific game level. However, aside from being slower to execute, Kismet limits a programmer to functions that come with the engine. With UnrealScript, we can add more efficient, game-wide features. 

  2. For the record, I won. Which is a little awkward, since that was my $100 we were fighting for. In the spirit of collaboration and the holidays, I split it three ways as an extra holiday bonus among Maria, Amanda, and Jenna. 

Brianna Wu is the founder of Giant Spacekat, a game development company specializing in cinematic experiences. She's worked as a politico, an illustrator, and an investigative journalist. She likes running, dance music, and racing motorcycles.

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