Lisa Boleyn – Senior Game Designer
“If you can’t walk, dance.”
Lisa, it’s great to speak with you!
“Marcus, it’s great to be here.”
Can you tell me where you are working and what is your current job title?
“I’m a Senior Game Designer at WG Cells, a mobile game studio owned by Wargaming.net.”
Wargaming.net, makers of World of Tanks and other Warmachines?
“Yes, that’s the one.”
Can you give me a list of some of the games you’ve worked on during your career?
“Yep! I’ve made a point of not restricting myself on game genres, so this is a pretty crazy list.”
That’s good. You don’t want to drill down too far into one genre sometimes.
“Vanguard: Saga of Heroes (PC)
Rock Band Unplugged (PSP)
LEGO Rock Band (Nintendo DS)
Rock Band III (Nintendo Wii)
X-Men Arcade (XBox 360, port)
Contract Killer: Sniper (iOS, Android)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (iOS, Android)”
Such a diverse list! How has your exposure to such a wide set of genres influenced your game design approach over the years?
“While working on different games for a variety of platforms has broadened my horizons, it’s taught me there’s a core set of game design challenges common to all games. Once you’re good at addressing those issues, you can work out the details on any game.”
Good design is in the details. It is truly about the process. Can you explain what your typical work day is like?
“Sure! First, it’s important to start off with a cup of tea. Then, I spend much of my day in Lucidchart (or a similar diagramming tool), a text editor, and a spreadsheet editor. I make game design decisions, document them clearly, math them out as needed, and determine the consequences of each one. Then I go over them with my team, and we refine those ideas – and implement them. We test them, see what works and what doesn’t, and go back to thinking about solutions. That iterative process has been the rhythm of my life for the last 10 years.”
How big is your team currently?
“I can say that mobile game teams are much smaller than MMO teams.”
Do you work with other designers? How does idea creation/generation work?
“Because mobile game teams are small, they work best when there are other teams at the studio with which to share information. Once I have a sketch of what I’m working on, I regularly seek out other designers for feedback. No matter who comes up with an idea on a team, if it’s a good one, it’ll make it into the game. We’re all smart people who want to make great games.”
You mentioned a few programs earlier. Are there any tools or programs you can’t live without?
“Surprisingly, there are no specific programs I’ve used at every company I’ve worked for. I’ve learned a different scripting system every time. I’ve used Mac and PC; Skype and HipChat; MS Office and Google Drive; Photoshop and MS Paint. It pays to be adaptable as a designer.”
Yeah, I’ve never had the same scripting system from project to project. I’ve always had to learn some new system. Every new project is a new challenge. What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
“Probably my work on LEGO Rock Band for the Nintendo DS. I had a surprising amount of creative freedom bringing Rock Band to the DS platform; there are some gameplay elements I’m proud to have added. I managed my small team of designers well, our tight production schedule did not slip, and the whole dev team worked well with several other groups: Nintendo, TT Games, LEGO, Harmonix, and a group of amazing audio editors. We exceeded expectations on several fronts, earned a great Metacritic rating, and best of all, we made a genuinely fun game.”
I remember for the engineers, there was some challenge to get the desired audio quality. What were some of the biggest design constraints you had to work with?
“That’s true; the DS game cartridge can only hold so much data! Our main design limiter was the short dev cycle. We were pretty rushed, but we were able to trim enough features to prevent team burnout.”
Time is typically a game developers biggest constraint.
“Yes, and in a good work environment, that’s really OK. Without a cool-headed producer around, most designers would keep working on games for years. I love making a polished game, but businesses need to make money, too [smiles].”
“You’ll take the game from my cold dead hands!” – The warcry of the obsessed game designer. So, every game designer has to start somewhere. Where did you grow up?
“I’m a native Oregonian. My early life isn’t too exciting; I had the typical troubles every nerd has.”
Your first job wasn’t in games, if I recall.
“No, in fact, I didn’t decide to become a game designer until I was 27 years old. I worked as an Information Architect during the dot com boom, but then the IA jobs dried up, and I spent a few years developing a game design portfolio. I was inspired by what Star Wars Galaxies was and could have been, and I’d had years of experience writing and running tabletop game campaigns for my friends.”
“…D&D, Magic the Gathering, Star Wars Galaxies, and Portal. Each of these games profoundly changed my life.”
Did you go to school? Did you get a degree in Information Architecture?
“I went to The Evergreen State College, where there were no majors or minors. I studied biology, mostly. I wanted to be a scientist. I applied for my first IA job on the recommendation of a friend who said I’d be good at it. She turned out to be right.”
So, you didn’t study Information Architecture in college. You studied science. It must have been adjustment. So, you moved into IA, but then started focusing on your design portfolio. What sort of things did you put into the portfolio?
“Not too much adjustment, fortunately. Science and design go hand-in-hand. It’s all R&D. You learn about the world around you, and once you understand how it works and what it needs, you create what fits – a hypothesis; a web page blueprint; a game design.”
“As to my portfolio, I included the first 8 chapters of an unfinished novel, the underlying systems for a new tabletop RPG, and a few short stories. It was the 50k-word D&D module I added that did the trick, though, I think. This was back in the day when people with game design degrees were rare, so having any kind of portfolio was gravy.”
How did you get your first game job?
“My first game design job was with Sigil Games Online, a startup company that developed Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. They held cattle-call interviews in Las Vegas in July of 2005. I don’t know how many applicants I beat out to get the one coveted designer position.”
Were you living in Las Vegas at the time? How did you hear about the cattle-call?
“Oh, no. I was living in Seattle. I heard about it from a friend of a friend at Monolith who had connections to some people at Sigil. I chalk this one up to luck.”
Pretty gutsy move to fly into Las Vegas for a chance you may get a job. The gamble was truly inspired by Vegas.
“Yes, and even more gutsy because I was unemployed at the time!”
Unemployment inspires many a risky venture. What one game has influenced you the most?
“One game… that’s like asking a wine enthusiast what’s the one wine they like [smile]. I’ll say it’s a combination of D&D, Magic the Gathering, Star Wars Galaxies, and Portal. Each of these games profoundly changed my life.”
Looking back at your career, if you could go back and do it again, what would you do differently?
“I would have learned to code in college. I wrote little programs in Basic for my TI-99/4A when I was a kid, and I should never have stopped.”
Hindsight is 20/20. What current trends in games interest you?
“I love how mobile games are becoming more like MMOs. Mobile companies are finally understanding games as a service. I’m excited, too, by augmented reality and the potential of games for the HoloLens.”
With games becoming a service, it makes the feedback loop much closer between developers and players. This hasn’t necessarily improved the understanding between the two groups. What is the one thing you wish gamers knew about game development?
“Most game developers have limited resources! This means we have to make tough choices all the time behind the scenes. Would we like to fix that bug that’s bothering you? YES. But there’s probably a worse bug that the engineer needs to work on instead. I remember on RIFT, I had a list of features I wanted to add to the Dimensions system. Some of those features took over a year to make it into the game.”
“I love how mobile games are becoming more like MMOs. Mobile companies are finally understanding games as a service.”
How do you stay up on the latest trends and game design info? Any websites you frequent? Twitter personalities you follow?
“Since I work with game developers, I’m often privileged to get the latest news as ‘water cooler chat.’ Aside from that, I read Polygon, Gamasutra, and The Atlantic (which has some great in-depth articles on games sometimes). In no particular order, some people I enjoy following are @ChrisWarcraft, @Laralyn, @avantgame, @MikeJMika, @femfreq, @ibogost, @leighalexander, @therealcliffyb, and @br.”
It’s hard to understand the work that goes into game development without doing it yourself. However, if someone wanted to become a game designer, what advice would you give them?
“Learn to code. Every door will open to you, and good jobs will trip over themselves to get to you. The best-paid and most respected game designers I know are the ones who can code as well as design. Plus, if you can code, you are in a much better place to become an indie designer; you’ll be able to pick up Unity and make whatever game you want.”
If people wanted to reach how could they find you? Twitter, instagram, etc?
“Follow me on Twitter! I’m @FindingFiero. I tweet about all sorts of things, not just games.”
If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say? What is your tagline?
“If you can’t walk, dance.”
Thanks for your words and your time, Lisa.
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