With all the warring and debating about platforms going on right now in the post-E3 aftershock, I feel it is important to step back and take a look at what is so much more important than Xboxes, Playstations, PCs, and mobile platforms. The game developers who work for pennies (and sometimes even those who roll around in money on their lunch breaks) often take something of a back seat to the games they help to create. That’s a good thing as far as I am concerned, the games should speak for themselves. Though, once in a while, it is nice to be spoken to and appreciated for the 14 hour days, the skipped meals, and the mountains of skill and effort it takes to produce great games.
To serve this end, LevelSave brings you a new interview series highlighting the accomplishments, struggles, and personalities of the Faces Behind the Screen. Let’s get to know something of Katy M. Smith, shall we?
Levelsave: Tell our readership a bit about yourself.
Katy M. Smith: I’ve been in the game industry for about 10 years doing a variety of things from QA testing to production and design. I’ve had the opportunity to work on AAA console titles with a major developer and to work on indie mobile projects. Right now, I’m working at a sports media broadcast company on “serious games”. I’ve been playing video games since the days of the TI-99, and I’m currently fascinated by the mobile and handheld gaming space.
LS: TI-99! I only know that piece of hardware through reputation and the legacy it left behind. Tunnels of Doom and Parsec are quite far removed from the more intricate games being released today. Do you feel there is still inspiration and relevance to be found in these older games?
KMS: Yeah, I do. Back when those games were created, there were huge restraints put on what could be made. You were limited in memory, the graphics were rudimentary at best, and it was slow. Still, people managed to make fun games. If you look at why those games were fun, that same stuff is still fun today.
LS: We met within Book of Heroes, a game you worked on with Venan for the mobile platforms. What sort of role did you play in the development of BoH?
KMS: On BoH, I was the producer and QA manager. However, Venan is a small company, so I ended up doing a little bit of pretty much everything. Production work, design, customer support, QA, ordering pizza…I did all of that.
LS: That seems legit. Smaller companies end up sharing the workload, so I’m not surprised. Are you producing now at your new company?
KMS: No, my title is something like Quality Assurance Specialist, but really what I do is look at the user experience. I’m responsible for finding issues, which is the QA part, but I’m also responsible for recommending changes that will make our apps more user friendly. It’s similar to what I was doing as a producer, but it’s a more focused set of responsibilities.
LS: Which games have you worked on in the past?
KMS: I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to work on many different games in my career. I started out at EA Tiburon working on titles like Madden, NASCAR, NCAA Football, and the Fight Night franchises. At Venan, I was able to work on mobile titles like NBA LIVE, and Monopoly for EA in addition to independent titles like Ninjatown (DS), High Seas: Guns & Gold, Space Miner: Space Ore Bust, Ninjatown Trees of Doom! And Book of Heroes.
LS: That’s quite a range of games. Is there one particular game which you are especially proud of?
KMS: My favorite game I worked on was Ninjatown for the DS. It’s a tower defense strategy game with adorable characters. The guy who created the Ninjatown characters, Shawn Smith (aka Shawnimal) is awesome and a joy to work with. It was a game I was able to do a lot of fun things on, and I think resonated well with the gamer audience. It was nominated for a BAFTA, and I’m really proud of that.
LS: The British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards? Those are the British Oscars! Congratulations to both you and Shawn on being nominated. Are Ninjatown different on DS and mobile? I’ve played the mobile version and it wasn’t tower defence at all!
KMS: Yes, they are very different games. The DS game is more of a full meal of gaming. It has single player, multiplayer, a full story, and many levels. “Trees of Doom!” is more like a gaming snack. It was built to be a pick up and go type of game where a full game can be played in minutes.
LS: How do you find working on console games differs from developing for mobile platforms?
KMS: When it comes down to it, they are pretty much the same thing. The only difference is scope. The console teams I’ve worked on are in the hundreds of people and the projects last years. For mobile, it’s a team of a handful of people, and the schedules are just a few months.
One thing I do like about mobile is the ability to update and modify things as you go. Mobile titles are much more agile, which makes adding features and testing much easier.
LS: What are you currently working on?
KMS: I am currently working on “Serious Games”. I’m on a team of very smart, very innovative people. If you look at the TV watching experience, it hasn’t really changed all that much in the last 60 years. We are looking at the technology that is available now and thinking about how this tech can improve the televised-sports watching experience.
KMS: No, it’s not a code word. Serious games are things that you wouldn’t traditionally think of as games that have game-like elements added to them. For example, if you wanted to make a game of learning how to drive, you could add points and scoring to a virtual driving simulator. I know of a company that makes serious games for surgeons. They play these games before new operations so that they are familiar with how the surgery should go. It’s a cool way to get people engaged in learning new things that would be difficult, dangerous, or boring to do otherwise.
LS: I need one of those help me get through my day to day life. When did you realize that you wanted a career in video games? Was there some moment of catalyst which made you think, “yes, it’s this for me.”?
KMS: Yes, there was! I did not grow up wanting to be a game developer. I’ve always played games, but I didn’t think a career in game development was a thing let alone something that I wanted to do. I ended up getting degrees in psychology and went to graduate school for mental health counseling. I worked for a year or so in a maximum security juvenile detention center. After one exceptionally rough day at work I sat down in front of my PS2, and played a ridiculous number of hours of Final Fantasy X. I had this zen moment where the more I played the game, the more I realized that being a counselor wasn’t for me and that I should be making games. I ended up taking the next day off work and spent the entire time researching what it took to be a game developer. By the end of the week, I resigned my position and enrolled at Full Sail University for game design and development.
LS: That must have been one hell of a bad day. It seems like it turned out for the best, though. Do you utilize your psychology background in what you do now, or is that a life left behind?
KMS: The biggest thing I learned from my psychology days was how to look at situations. You can look at it from the perspective of the individual experiencing it, from someone viewing it from the outside, or from society viewing it from afar. I use that type of review process all the time in making games. How do I want the user to look at this from the perspective of the designer? From the user’s point of view? From the money side of things? It’s a handy set of tools that lets me look at things in a more well-rounded way.
KMS: Yes, I do. I’ve had a few really uncomfortable conversations with people who didn’t listen to me because I’m a woman. For instance, I was told “I have trouble seeing you as anything other than [my husband]’s wife” during a performance review. That hurt a lot. I remember being in a design meeting where I heard an idea that I didn’t particularly care for. When I voiced my concerns, the response back was “would you like it better if we made it pink instead?” I’ve had job interviews that lasted for two hours where male colleagues were screened for 10-15 minutes. My female game industry friends have many stories just like these.
That being said, I don’t think that a majority of the people in the games industry are sexist and I think a lot of it isn’t done on purpose. I think most of the sexism I’ve encountered is just falling back onto what is comfortable for that person. For example, in Book of Heroes, there were no female enemies for a long time in the game. Finally, we said “wait, why aren’t any of these enemies female?” and then we added some. If I had my way, I’d have a review at the end of the game pitch process. I’d ask “is there any reason to not diversify these characters?” It would make for a more interesting cast, and maybe we could broaden the gaming audience a bit.
LS: It seems the struggle is still being fought for equal representation in the field. Conscious or not, comfortable or not, the alienation of half of all people based on something so basic as sex is something which can hurt a game development studio overall. I suppose sexism can even affect the final game product, as you noted with your comment about not having any female enemies for quite a while. Have you noticed an upward trend over the years? Do you think the interests of women have become more obvious and present in the workplace over the last decade?
KMS: I think there’s definitely more awareness now. With industry veterans starting #1ReasonWhy and the brilliant session by Brenda Romero (and others) at GDC this year, people are starting to realize that diversity is important and can only make games better if done in a non-heavy-handed way.
LS: I notice that you’ve worked on quite a lot of sports games, also that you’ve just made the move to a sports broadcasting company. Is there some special knowledge or skill set required in the development of sports games and apps?.. Other than, you know, knowledge of sports.
KMS: Interestingly enough, I didn’t go into games thinking I’d work on sports titles. I like sports, but it’s not a genre I really play a lot of when I’m not working on them. However, I like the complexity of sports games. Not only do you have to know what makes a football game worth watching, but you also have to know what makes a video game worth playing. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when making sports games is to focus only on the sport-portion of the game. You do need to have a fantastic NBA simulator, but you also need intuitive UI, good game modes, and slick controls.
LS: Is there a moment which stands out for you, not as an industry vet, but as a gamer?
KMS: There were lots of moments that I remember being like “woah!” when they happened in video games. The first one I remember was when I got to the “pie factory” level in Donkey Kong. I had been playing a version previously that left this level out, so when I got to it in the Japanese import arcade version, I was very much like “what is this glorious new level!?!?”.
Gaming in general, I remember my first pen and paper D&D game very clearly. Sure, we totally messed up the rules and cheated when creating our characters, but I still use that game as my frame of reference for all RPGs to this day.
I recently finished Telltale’s Walking Dead game. There’s a moment in that game where you find the corpse of a little boy and choose to bury him in a makeshift grave in the back yard of a house you are hiding in. The way they crafted this scene where you literally have to put the boy in the grave and then deliberately shovel each scoop of dirt while this really sad music plays was very moving. It was a very slow, deliberate scene that affected me on a human level. I wasn’t prepared for that in a zombie game, so when it hit me that I was as sad as I was over a video game, I was really moved by that.
LS: I know the scene you mean, and I think Telltale has come along nicely in the interactive storytelling business. Recent story-driven adventure games, and especially Telltale Games, have been blurring the line between video games and movies/TV Shows.
You mentioned that you played D&D. I’m sure we’d love to know a bit about that.
KMS: THAC0 or bust! I used 2ndEdition primarily. I was a half-elf druid who was lawfully neutral. My first game was a hot mess. I played with four friends (one of whom was David Blue, from Stargate: Universe, interestingly enough) and I think we drove our DM crazy, because we were 11, and didn’t follow the plan he wanted. It was still fun, though! Later I ended up playing with some other friends in a group of 4-6 throughout high school. Recently I picked up 4thedition, but it was a little too “World of Warcraft” for me. I just got the Pathfinder books but I haven’t rolled a character yet.
LS: David Blue! SG:U had so much promise, it’s a shame to see it suffer the fate that it did.
What is absolutely your favourite game of all time?
KMS: I have many favorite games! Growing up, it was probably Donkey Kong. I think Super Mario Bros. 3 is a perfect game. Silent Hill 2 is my favorite horror game. The early parts of that game are so creepy because there’s nothing there. The psychological threat of emptiness is great. Recently, I’ve enjoyed the Uncharted series and the Batman Arkham Asylum / Arkham City games. The Room for iOS is a fantastic puzzle game. However, the game that I have played at least three times a week for the last year is “Zombies, Run!” by Six to Start and Naomi Alderman. It has some of the best story telling of any game I’ve ever played, and it got me to run, which is a pretty epic feat.
KMS: I think SMB3 nailed what it was capable of doing. Everything seemed so well thought out. It has the right number of power ups, the right level of difficulty, and it changes things up at the right pace so that you are never bored. I don’t feel like anything added to the platform genre after SMB3 was a significant improvement. Plus, the tanooki suit is awesome.
There you have it. From the TI-99 personal computer system to progressive non-games, Katy M. Smith has seen and done so much for her corner of the industry. Good luck on your ventures!
This article is the first in a series. Faces Behind the Screen will be published on an irregular schedule, possibly every few months. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to drop them in the box below.