Laralyn McWilliams, a senior producer at Sony Online Entertainment and one of the key people behind the success of SOE’s hit family-friendly online virtual world, Free Realms, took some time out of her busy schedule for a little Q&A session with the G.I.R.L. blog. Laralyn joined SOE in 2005, and has been making games for over 15 years. She was recently named one of the most influential women in MMO design by Massively, and topped Beckett magazine’s list of the most influential people in MMO games for 2009.
[Emily] Can you tell us about your background, and you got into the games industry?
[Laralyn] After I first went to Disneyland as a child, I knew I wanted to find a way to make worlds. Although my family had an Atari console and I did a little rudimentary programming on the Apple II at my high school, it didn’t really click for me until I got a home computer (TI-99/4A) and played Adventure. Someone created a whole world that you could walk around… and it was interactive! I taught myself BASIC and started working on a text adventure game right away. At that point, it wasn’t possible to make a living in games, so I finished high school, college and even law school before that door opened for me again. This time it was the game Myst in 1993. I taught myself 3D graphics, sold a demo of my game to Microprose, and started my own game company.
For that first game, I was a combination of 3D artist (mostly composition, texture and lighting), designer, writer and coder. As game development teams got larger and roles evolved, my roles have evolved too. I’ve been senior producer, lead designer, project director, creative director, and now I’m back to senior producer again. I’ve worked on a large variety of different game styles and platforms, including shooters, platformers, RPGs, military simulations, and MMOs for PC and console.
[Emily] Tell us a bit about the area of gaming you’re currently involved in – for example, where are you working, what is your job title, what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
[Laralyn] I’m currently senior producer at SOE, working on a new, unannounced social game. It’s a really exciting project and I’m looking forward to its announcement soon! Game development is all about creative problem solving, and as a producer I problem-solve across a variety of areas. My daily job is a mix of business, production, diplomacy, scheduling and creative direction. I love the variety and it’s fun to be on a small team working in 2D again—it’s like a return to 1994!
I’m also an old school gamer, and there are some game styles I really miss. I’m working on a small, casual RPG in my spare time, which is my opportunity to get back to creating art, audio and code. I’m nowhere near as good at those things as the folks I work with at SOE, but it’s nice to have a sandbox at home where I can dabble.
[Emily] How common is it to find women working in your specific area of gaming?
[Laralyn] Female producers are more common than female designers. In my whole career, I’ve only worked with about 8 female designers (out of a total of around 120 designers total). You see more female designers in social and online games than in console games, just like you see more female players in those genres as well. It’s definitely changing, though. I used to say, “One perk of being a female game developer is that there’s never a line for the women’s bathroom,” but I actually had to wait in a bathroom line at GDC last year!
[Emily] How do you feel that being a woman helps or hinders you at work, if at all?
[Laralyn] I don’t think being a woman has much of an effect on my daily job, or even on my career as a whole. At least, I don’t think about it that way. I know there have been times where I’ve had a different point of view from other folks on development teams, and because it’s game development those other folks happened to be men, but I tend to make unusual design choices so I don’t think those differences are related to gender as much as they are to my style as a designer.
[Emily] What types of games do you enjoy playing?
[Laralyn] I play just about everything except sports games. I’m pretty busy so I don’t have as much time as I used to, so I have to focus a little more now. I play pretty much every PC RPG that comes out as well as most MMOs, along with many console and PC shooters, sims and strategy games. I also play a lot of casual and social games, because my schedule’s pretty full and it’s great to find a fun game that only takes a couple minutes per play session.
[Emily] What games have you most enjoyed recently?
[Laralyn] I tend to play different types of games in different places. Right now, the games I’m enjoying most are Angry Birds and Doom II RPG on my iPhone/iPad, Lands of Lore and Divine Divinity (old school RPGs) on my laptop, Red Dead Redemption and God of War 3 on console, Frontierville on Facebook, and when I have time I jump into Free Realms, EQII and LOTRO.
[Emily] What gaming work have you done that you are most proud of?
[Laralyn] It’s a tie between Full Spectrum Warrior and Free Realms. That seems like an odd pair, but they were both opportunities to do something new and fresh—and risky—in an established space. I like forging into new territory, and it’s rare to get an opportunity for that kind of innovation in commercial games, or on that kind of a scale. I can’t say enough positive things about both Pandemic (RIP) and SOE in terms of being willing to take risks to try something new.
[Emily] Can you describe any particularly positive or negative experiences working in the industry that you feel are specifically related to your being female?
[Laralyn] I don’t really think of experiences in terms of gender, whether they’re positive or negative. I think in terms of individuals and situations. If someone’s being super critical of an element I designed, I want to understand the criticism along with his or her point of view as an individual. It doesn’t matter to me that he’s a man or woman or that I’m a woman. I work with all sorts of different people to make games to entertain all sorts of different people. Any time you try to look at it more narrowly, you’re closing yourself off to new connections and new opportunities.
[Emily] Which issues (if any) do you feel are most important to women either working or playing in gaming these days?
[Laralyn] This is an industry driven by passion for what we create, period. If you don’t love games, this isn’t the right place for you to work. It’s also a market-driven industry, so publishers go where the money is, and game developers usually have to follow. That combination means most people working on games are making games for a male audience, and that most of what reaches the market is also for men. It’s made even more complicated by the fact that game developers tend to make games for themselves… and we aren’t really representative of the mass market. The bottom line as a game developer is that you need to be flexible and love the process of making games as much as you love the games themselves. If you focus only on one kind of game as a developer, you’re really limiting yourself.
From a player’s perspective, it’s all about making sure you’re supporting the kind of games you want to play. You may be in the minority, and that’s OK—support efforts in your minority area. Put your money where your heart is. Speak with your wallet. That’s the only way publishers will recognize new and emerging markets. Also, get involved in the indie game development community. Whatever kind of old or obscure game you love, there’s someone else out there who loves the same thing, and there’s probably someone else who’s making a game in that genre or play style. Buy that developer’s game—even if it’s rough—and you’re helping more games like that get made.
[Emily] How do you think that the game industry in general might attract more women, both to work within the industry, and to play more games in general?
[Laralyn] It’s more of a market thing than an attraction thing, because it’s a passion-driven industry. It won’t work to try to attract more women to game development if those women don’t care about games—they won’t succeed once they get here. I think game development will attract more women as we continue to recognize more varied markets and game styles. There’s a natural limitation to that, though, because a lot of women just aren’t interested in games. Actually, a lot of the mass market in general just isn’t interested in games (http://www.siliconera.com/2010/05/14/why-dont-you-play-video-games/ ), and that’s OK. I don’t think we need to try to “make” them interested in games any more than someone has to “make” me interested in sports or I need to “make” my mom interested in Twitter.
[Emily] What specific actions (if any) would you encourage women working in gaming to take in order to make the industry more friendly to women?
[Laralyn] Get out there and be seen as a game developer and as yourself. I think the biggest impact women in game development can have is simply by doing our job well and having our gender not matter. For example, I’m disappointed when I look at the speaker list for game development conferences and I see female speakers only talking about how to hire more women in game development or how to make games more gender neutral. Sure, those are important topics, but why aren’t we speaking about our fields of expertise? I know it’s sometimes not a popular view, but I honestly believe the best way to make the industry more friendly to women is by having more women make “top developer” lists and speak at top conferences when those lists and conferences have nothing to do with being a woman and everything to do with being great at your job.
[Emily] Are there any particular blogs, sites, books, twitter feeds, or other sources that you would recommend as particularly relevant or helpful to women in the gaming industry?
[Laralyn] There’s nothing I’d recommend that’s specific to being a woman. I check in with Evotab (http://evotab.com/ ) at least a couple times a day for game news. I tend to follow folks on Twitter who talk about general game development topics and news like @cuppy, @Harvey1966, @georgeb3dr, @bbrathwaite (I’m @laralyn). Quarter to Three (http://www.quartertothree.com/game-talk/index.php ) is a great site for game discussion with a strong mix of developers, media and players. I think it’s also important to find sites and blogs that talk about whatever area of games really gets you excited. For me right now, that’s RPGs and indie games so I frequent sites like Indiegamer (http://forums.indiegamer.com/ ), Rampant Games (http://rampantgames.com/blog/ ), and The Bottom Feeder (http://jeff-vogel.blogspot.com/ ). Whatever area of game development and whatever kind of game you like, there are sites like these you can follow for input, commentary, discussion and inspiration.
[Emily] Any other thoughts you’d like to share about women, gaming, or what it means to you to be a woman in gaming?
[Laralyn] It’s a really exciting time in game development because the industry as a whole has to change in order to survive. We’ve gone from tiny teams on short schedules to massive teams taking 4+ years to finish a game, and now we’re seeing it come full circle back to tiny teams with games like Farmville. It makes it a great time for players and game developers because we’re starting down the path that will lead us to more depth, new markets, and better games. As a player, it’s time to speak with your wallet. As a developer, it’s time to speak with your innovation and your drive to make something great and new.
By Emily “Domino” Taylor