Unicorn story: How this young woman went from student to indie game studio chief
By: Dean Takahashi
Published on 12/23/2016
The game and tech industry has heard a lot of chatter about diversity, recruiting women and minorities into development, and encouraging girls to become engineers. This kind of talk usually takes place on a high level, with chief executives like Brian Krzanich at Intel weighing in about how to improve the pipeline of girls and women in technical fields.
One of the great causes of the game industry and Silicon Valley is to double the number of diverse people in the corporate world, but a lot of companies confess that they just can’t find enough women or underrepresented minorities to hire and promote. We thought we would look at it from a young woman’s point of view.
“One of the great causes of the game industry and Silicon Valley is to double the number of diverse people…”
Yes, we don’t always have to write about famous people at GamesBeat. Sometimes, we just need a fresh voice and a fresh face. Renee Gittins, who is just a few years out of college and is starting her career in video games, fits the bill nicely.
I met Gittins at an Intel-sponsored breakfast for women game developers at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas last week. The Seattle resident was there as an indie developer on a scholarship from Intel and the organizer of DICE, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.
She received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Harvey Mudd College, and she went to work working on health management systems company for biotech company X2 Biosystems. During her time there, she was assigned to create some minigames to motivate people to do tasks. She liked it so much that she started making more games after work.
In 2014, she formed her own indie game studio, Stumbling Cat, where she serves as creative director with a team of six. Her technical director and cofounder is Matthew Endsley, who previously created a game called AirMech. She is making her own PC game, Potions: A Curious Tale, an adventure crafting game where you don’t have to resort to combat. Since women make up only about 22 percent of the game industry, Gittins is something of a unicorn, and is on the ground floor of a larger movement. We asked her how she became a game maker, and how she came to play video games in the first place.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: The stat the International Game Developers Association has is that 22 percent of the people making games are women. How do you feel about breaking in to the game industry in that kind of situation?
Renee Gittins: Games were part of my life since I was a child. My first game — I started off a bit differently than most — was Wolfenstein 3D, and then DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D. Then I started playing Pokémon, I’m pretty sure. It was a different kind of introduction.
What’s interesting about my entry into the industry is that I wasn’t aware that it could be a possibility for me until it was right under my nose. It wasn’t until I was finding all of my friends were in the game industry that I realized there was a path for me. It doesn’t really make sense in retrospect, because I was always a passionate gamer growing up. I was a good student – valedictorian in high school, really good at math — and yet nobody mentioned programming to me. Nobody mentioned game development, despite the fact that I spent so much time enjoying games.
It’s interesting to enter the industry when the concept of being a game developer as a profession is so new to me. It’s not something I thought about until college. If I had learned about it any earlier in college I would have gotten my degree in computer science, actually. Instead, I got a degree in engineering, which put me on a slightly different path to where I am now. I have a mechanical engineering background.
GamesBeat: How many years out of school are you now?
Gittins: I’m four years out of school in May. I started making games about two and a half years ago, unless you count programming an adventure game on my calculator when I was in high school. I took two intro to programming classes in college and made games there, but I didn’t start making games seriously until two and a half years ago.
GamesBeat: Did you have a particular idea? What was the impetus to get started?
Gittins: I became very interested in the game industry when I was working at a biotech company on the industrial design side. I’d started studying programming in my spare time, and my boss at the time was very supportive. He wanted mini-games we could use to test the cognitive ability of athletes, to tell if they were suffering from concussion. Testing younger athletes was very difficult using older standardized tests, so he wanted to do it with games.
I started making those mini-games, and then I went on to HIPAA-compliant servers, which is a completely different non-game story. But that gave me my first taste of real game development. I started drafting game ideas on the side. I began helping out a local indie studio, as a producer and a server developer, until I decided to start my own project. That’s when I started Stumbling Cat, about a year and a half ago.
“I began helping out a local indie studio, as a producer and a server developer, until I decided to start my own project.”
GamesBeat: Had you thought about working for any bigger companies?
Gittins: I did look at some larger companies. But without the experience and background they were looking for, the positions they were mostly hiring for that would be open to me were very entry-level. A few years out of school and with a decent amount of experience already under my belt, I didn’t feel like going back to an entry-level position. When I wasn’t able to get a job I thought was challenging to me at the triple-A level, I just decided to start out on my own.
GamesBeat: Is it just a one-person effort?
Gittins: No. I have four core members of my team, with 10 total contributors. They’re all directly compensated, paid. It’s pretty much all self-funded. I was very frugal when I was a software developer and getting a decent paycheck, so that helped a lot. However, I’m about to enter a round of crowdfunding within the next two months.
GamesBeat: Have you talked about the game at all yet?
Gittins: My game is called Potions: A Curious Tale. It’s an adventure crafting game where combat isn’t always the answer. You play as a young witch named Una who’s discovered her ability to brew magic potions. She uses them as spells to fight monsters and solve puzzles and overcome obstacles on a quest to become a potions master.
It has a very illustrated art style, because it’s inspired by fairy tales and folklore from around the world. I wanted the art to reflect that.
GamesBeat: Do you have any particular inspirations as far as game design?
Gittins: When I say that combat’s not always the answer, that’s a big inspiration behind the game. It’s a response to so many other games where it seems like you want to kill every fluffy bunny you see, because you’ll get some loot and experience out of it. I didn’t want that to be the case because that’s not what we do in life.
There’s combat, fighting monsters, but a lot of times you also interact with creatures in ways that aren’t as obvious. Half of the puzzle is figuring out how to work with the creatures around you to get the ingredients you need for your positions.
GamesBeat: It’s almost hard to imagine, because in so many RPGs there’s nothing but combat.
Gittins: My favorite example is probably a creature I call the Gobbler. It’s a big wild turkey and it looks really mean, but it’s not aggressive. It just sort of waddles around. But if you attack it, it’ll go into full berserk mode and run at you and hit you and heal itself. It’s almost impossible to kill, and if you do kill it, it doesn’t drop anything useful. It’s a waste of your resources to try to fight it.
You get a hint elsewhere in the game that it’s scared of flying things, though. The turkey may have wings, but it’s afraid of flying. If you get on your flying broom and chase it, it’ll get scared and run away and leave some feathers behind. Those feathers are ingredients you can use in potion crafting.
“I’m very grateful. It’s great to see so many influential women in the industry here.”
GamesBeat: Undertale has some of that thinking behind it, where you’re not always supposed to fight.
Gittins: There is some of that. Undertale has a very different approach, though, where it’s much more text-based in its interactions. It’s explicitly about avoiding combat, at least in the parts of the game I played. I’ve only gotten about two hours in so far. My game is more on the action side of things. You have a lot of different spells you can use to non-aggressively interact with creatures, too. You can slow them or stun them and give yourself a chance to escape.
GamesBeat: Have you gotten any interesting help at events like this?
Gittins: Obviously I’m very lucky to be here with the scholarship from AIAS and Intel. I was nominated by someone from Intel who I met at Power of Play just under a year ago. I’m very grateful. It’s great to see so many influential women in the industry here.
GamesBeat: There’s been more controversy than you expect, getting to this point in the industry.
Gittins: Yeah. It’s a very unfortunate set of events. It’s been revealing as far as the character in some of the core gaming group. But it’s good to see such a positive response come out of it.
GamesBeat: Is there anything you’re finding that you need to learn from veterans in the industry?
Gittins: The best advice I’ve found here at DICE has been about project management and leadership. Those are things I’m really interested in, but leading my own studio, it’s good to hear advice from people who started where I am and learn how they got to where they are and became successful. One of the best pieces of advice I got was, prepare for success as much as failure. You need to know how to survive one success and then a failure afterward to make another game. It’s good to keep that in mind. If I have a successful game, I don’t want to triple the size of my studio and run out of money making a game that doesn’t do as well after.
“One of the best pieces of advice I got was, prepare for success as much as failure.”
GamesBeat: Is there anything that made you want to go into this regardless of so often being the only woman in the crowd?
Gittins: I guess I’m used to being one of the few women in the room. In third or fourth grade I got really into Magic: the Gathering. It would be me and six or seven guys staying in at recess and playing cards. I was into first-person shooters growing up, which wasn’t very popular with other girls my age at the time.
But I think I’ve made more women friends in the game industry than I’ve made at any other time in my life. It brings together women who have very similar interests, who are all talented and passionate and intelligent and driven. They’re easy for me to relate to. I feel really welcome in this community, even if there is a gender disparity.
GamesBeat: There was the talk Amy Hennig gave at GDC last year, part of the larger panel on women in the game industry. She basically said, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”
Gittins: I have experienced—not any direct hostility, but I definitely experienced very well-meaning people making assumptions based on my gender in the game industry. People assume I’m an artist a lot, when in fact I do programming and business development and management. It doesn’t necessarily hurt, but after you hear it so often—it’s unfortunate that people make those kinds of assumptions.
“I have experienced—not any direct hostility, but I definitely experienced very well-meaning people making assumptions based on my gender in the game industry.”
GamesBeat: It tells you the state of things, I guess.
Gittins: Right. But I feel like that’s changing. I get asked that less. I’ve been working hard in Seattle work encourage more women to enter the game community and show the diversity of women in the game community. There are lots of women engineers and producers and technical artists.
GamesBeat: We’re seeing more women heroes in recent games, especially triple-A blockbuster games.
Gittins: Right. Life Is Strange was one. Tomb Raider, definitely.
GamesBeat: FIFA has women now.
Gittins: It’s good to see, especially as a gamer, more characters I can identify with in games. One of the reasons my game turned out how it did, starring a young woman, is because as a woman designing the game, I wanted to make a character I could relate to. As more women enter the game industry and the gender balance levels out, I think you’ll find more women characters in general appearing in games. You’ll have designers and developers who can imagine them.
“As more women enter the game industry and the gender balance levels out, I think you’ll find more women characters in general appearing in games.”