“I’m a game jam junkie indie ninja making games and taking names.”
Theresa, thanks for joining me today. Really excited to interview you. Could you please tell me your job title and where you currently work?
“Hi Marcus, thank you! I’m the CEO at Temple Gates Games, a VR focused game studio in Silicon Valley.”
Can you list some of the games you’ve help create throughout your career?
“Absolutely. Early on, I spent my time at EA/Maxis and worked on a handful of AAA titles including Spore, Godfather, The Sims, SimCity, and Darkspore. After going rogue and attacking indie dev, I created Cannon Brawl and most recently, Bazaar.”
That’s an impressive list of titles. What is the day of a CEO like for an indie dev?
“At a big company, you have a small role and specialization is key. Indie dev is the complete opposite. As a self reliant micro-crew, you and your team have to tackle everything, including many roles no one goes indie to do, such as accounting, marketing, even just taking out the trash. Being CEO is all about filling in the holes, seeing where the team needs support, and providing direction.
How big is your company currently? Do you all work out of the same office or are some of your team working remotely?
“My team is a group of rockstars with some amazing talents, so we build our games around our super powers. Temple Gates is a team of five. Patrick Benjamin is our 3D artist/animator extraordinaire. B Rosaschi is a master of pixel and 2D art. Tod Semple is our whiz engineer and Jeff Gates compliments on the engineering side and also tackles game design. We all meet at our office in San Mateo since we’ve found a huge value in face time. We play games together and bike around daily. We’re all best friends, which helps.”
It does help to work with your friends. With the long hours of game creation you hate to be stuck looking at the face of someone you dislike as you try and fix a bug.
“That’s true. There’s also a huge trust component. Because of the relatively tiny team size, we each fully own our respective domains. At a startup every hire is a huge risk, so having confidence in each other that comes from years of friendship is the glue that keeps us together when times get tricky.”
I imagine your path to CEO of a VR studio was a bit circuitous. And everyone’s path into games starts somewhere. Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
“I benefitted from growing up here in Silicon Valley, where my mom was also a game developer with EA. Seeing her path of success and creative fulfillment drew me to this industry.”
So you were destined to get into the industry.
“Yep, statistically people are more likely to follow their parent’s vocation than another random one, so sure, you could call that destiny. Statistical destiny!”
You have a degree in psychology, right? When you decided to pursue that major did you think you would pursue game development?
“Ernie Jones was a psychology teacher who was just one of those magical people who drew students in. I fell in love studying the brain, but a B.A. in Psych doesn’t go far. I was broke when I graduated from Berkeley, so I dove into game development to support myself. What’s shocked me is how similar the experiments we ran on each other in Tolman Hall are to video games. Video games are beautiful, uncomplicated vacuums of behavioral psychology. And now with the advent of mainstream consumer VR, I get to apply the optical and neuroscientific lessons I learned in the games we make.”
“It stings to be a gamer and feel that content is crafted with another consumer in mind. Beyond the sting, creating content that caters only to some fortifies the exclusivity of this industry.”
I completely agree. Especially in game design you have to get inside of the mind of the player. So your degree turns out to have great application within game development.
“Absolutely. Studying optical illusions gives some insight into the shortcuts our brain uses to efficiently perceive a scene. By identifying these tricks, we can reverse the process, and apply them to create compelling illusions. Some things we play with include, pattern density, t-junctions, and atmospheric effects to drive home a sense of 3D depth while our games are displaying in stereo on a flat screen.”
Your psychology degree has influenced the design or your game projects. What lessons did you learn from your mother growing up in a game creator’s home? How has that influenced you?
“Ironically, my career in game development was something of a rebellion. I had a hard time tearing myself away from the piles of free games we had around the house, so my gaming time was rigidly restricted, and eventually I was forced to give away our consoles. Joke’s on you mom!”
“But seriously, being exposed to the industry through simple things like dinner time conversations about her workday prepared me so much. I got to hear first hand her negotiation tactics, what failed and what succeeded. Consequently, I negotiated my entry-level tester starting salary, and later found out that many of my peers hadn’t. When percentage raises factor on base pay, this can add up. I also saw her maneuver the politics. The number one thing she has taught me is to never speak negatively about a peer. I’m sure this applies across many industries, but it’s especially true in the gaming world where people bump into each other again and again across companies.”
Managing people in a game team is a constant exercise in negotiation. It is a key skill to have to succeed. You seem to have many skills. You are a self taught programmer, correct? You also did that art for Cannon Brawl? Game design for Bazaar? What don’t you do?
“Wearing multiple hats was a big problem for me in AAA. There’s literally a flow chart for promotions, with extremely rigid buckets for skills. I started as a tester, moved to community management, became a producer, and left doing software engineering. As a producer, I could assign myself engineering tasks, and help build up coding skills. When I left to create Cannon Brawl, my business partner, Pete Angstadt, had the coding side down, so I took on art. At a big company I have to narrow my focus, but I can rapidly prototype and create my own games which is perfect as an indie startup. What I don’t do is spend all my time investing in just one skill to fit into the machinery of a much larger enterprise.”
What trait or skill is most important for your job?
“The value I add most to my team is my ability to communicate design through drawings. No one likes a ‘wall-o-text’, so that’s my personal super-power.”
You like to design through imagery and diagrams? What is your weapon of choice?
“Yep. We use Slack as our canvas for ideation, and I tend to mockup ideas in Photoshop and post them there. We all riff on each other’s ideas, especially since everyone on my team has art skill. We meet Fridays for ‘Programmer Art Club’ where we tackle the Reddit daily sketch challenge to polish our chops.”
“Ironically, my career in game development was something of a rebellion.”
That sounds hilariously wonderful. What is your favorite development tool or plugin?
“Temple Gates Games has a custom VR engine that beautifully handles cross-platform development. It’s something Jeff and Tod have been building for years, and it’s a pleasure to work with. It gives us the performance to push and create unique experiences on platforms with tight hardware restrictions.”
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
“Historically, games haven’t been for everyone. It stings to be a gamer and feel that content is crafted with another consumer in mind. Beyond the sting, creating content that caters only to some fortifies the exclusivity of this industry. Video games are a powerful means of communicating ideas, and so far these ideas have favored some groups by exploiting others. As a tester, I didn’t have the power to change this, but as a designer I have the opportunity to make a concerted change. That’s what drives me and that pursuit is what I’m most proud of.”
What advice would you give to someone pursuing your career?
“Going indie is a romantic adventure, but it’s a huge risk. Find a way to try working with others before you hire them, either by working at a large company where you’ll be exposed to lots of different work styles, or by participating in game jams such as Ludum Dare and Global Game Jam. Once you start divining your personal niche and who compliments your skills, then go for it!
That is fantastic advice. Finding the right set of people to work with will save you lots of headaches down the road. How do you stay relevant and up on industry trends? Do you follow any particular websites? Twitter hashtags?
“Upload VR, All Things VR, and VR Focus are a few of my favorite sites for staying in front of this movement, and Reddit is always a handy watering hole. Besides that, staying plugged into the larger indie circuit helps, so getting info on the latest tools over a beer or frisbee with other devs is my favorite way to stay up on industry news.”
How do you like to spend your free time?
“Board games are my vice and my friends will pick apart mechanics to death. My monthly board game party is a chance to savor turn based strategies without the frenetic chaos that’s inherent in real-time video games. You’ll see inspiration from tabletop creeping into my designs, for example, the cost spread you want to achieve in your MTG draft is reflected in the Cannon Brawl tower selection to ensure early, mid and late game plays. I even run my business based on strategies I’ve honed for board games, such as identifying advantages, leveraging resources, and building alliances.
If people wanted to contact you, how would they find you? Twitter? Email? Blog?
If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say? What is your tagline?
“I’m a game jam junkie indie ninja making games and taking names.”
NINJAS ARE SO COOL! Theresa, thanks for your time today! I can’t wait to see what’s next for you and your team at Temple Gates Games.