Brenda Romero is a BAFTA award-winning game designer and one of the most influential women in game development, who entered the video game industry in 1981.
Brenda Romero is a BAFTA award-winning game designer and one of the most influential women in game development, who entered the video game industry in 1981. She has worked on dozens of games including the Wizardry and Jagged Alliance series and titles in the Ghost Recon, Dungeons & Dragons and Def Jam franchises. At Game Access conference, she told us how to thrive as a game developer for so long; why did she decide to set up a FPS museum and what’s it like to work with her husband at Romero Games.
You were identified as the longest serving female game developer. What do you think are the key factors that helped you get into the game industry and what made you stay for so long?
I think the key factor for me being the longest serving woman in the game industry is that I have yet to die. Because I just absolutely love games and I can’t imagine not making them. And I think this goes without saying, no matter who you are, sometimes the game industry can be challenging and making games can be very challenging. But I always think back to that young kid, who was so excited to be here and I can’t imagine how that young kid would feel if I just said “Ah, I’m not doing it anymore.” She’d be like “Why though?” I mean, my whole life is games – I’m married to somebody whose whole life is games – so it’s pretty easy.
And as far as braking into the industry - just start making games. They don’t have to be good games, they don’t even have to be on computers; just make them. Make board games, whatever; just start.
What where the main events in your life that helped you get into the industry?
One of them is luck - just being in the right place at the right time, when there was an opportunity. Playing Dungeons & Dragons – the fact that I had already played D&D - was a huge plus for me, when I had this fluke of a conversation and they had asked if I ever played it, and I said yes, and their game happened to be very much like it. And also I just had a mum who really believed in me and she thought I was at the forefront of technology. For her it was “Never stop playing games, you’re at the forefront of technology. “
How do you think D&D helped you develop games?
If you had a game and took all the code out of it, and you somehow could just sort of shake all the art off of it – everything - what you’re left with, is pure system design. And that pure system design is what you see in those D&D books. So if you want to know how to design a game, you could see it laid bare - no secrets – in D&D.
As one of the most influential women in the game industry, what’s your view of the current environment for female game developers in the gaming industry compared to 30 years ago, when you started working in the business?
It may seem like an odd way to say this, but I think it’s actually a lot better. And that’s not say; there are garbage things that happen in the game industry and outside the game industry. There can be jerks wherever you are, right? But what I’m really excited about is there are way more women in the industry; the variety of games to play isn’t just limited to the small set of games targeted at largely the same group of people. So we’re starting to see games whose narrative is more interesting to women, I think. That’s not to say that they’re just women’s games, but we’re starting see a broader variety of topics that appeal to a broader variety of players. And so, that’s really nice to me. There are so many more women in the industry and so many more women interested in games; I don’t feel like the only woman in the room anymore.
Do you have any advice for women, who want to get into the game industry?
Start making games – it’s the same advice for everybody – just start making games and if it’s helpful for you, get a mentor; find other women who are in the game industry and ask for help. There are a lot of groups in the game industry that are for women and they’re incredibly helpful. And there have been a couple of books released recently as well, like Women in Game Development: Breaking the Glass Level-Cap by Jennifer Hepler – it’s all these different interviews with women in the game industry. It’s just a really good book and I wrote a chapter in that and there’s a bunch of other great chapters.
Some of your most notable work includes games from the Jagged Alliance and Wizardry series, which were both very successful in the past. Do you see games like these being released today?
Oh yeah, sure. And I should say with those games, well, I can’t take ownership for those; I was just on the team that made them. But yeah, I think there are super AAA titles, like the one Emil [Pagliarulo, Design Director at Bethesda Game Studios] is talking about, like Fallout 4 or Skyrim. But then there are amazing, deep, Empires-level super grand strategy games that Paradox puts out and that can sink you in for hours. And there’s one of the most beautiful games I’ve played this year, which was Florence on the iPhone – short and super beautiful. So I think there are games being made in a wide variety; that hardcore RPGs like Wizardry - there’s a few of those that are starting to come up on Steam, but those are hardcore RPGs that are really hard to make, because it’s every system, everything in one game; those are games that people make for love and not for money or fame, for sure.
Do you make games for love?
It’s the only reason I make them. Use John as an example – as a programmer, he could be much better paid, if he went to work in banking software; he would have a nine-to-five job and he would be paid better, definitely than games. But he would also be bored and sad. And I could do a whole variety of things. Like instead of devoting my time to making this FPS museum, I could do a whole ton of other things - because there’s no money in making a museum - but that’s the only reason to it, it’s for love. If you don’t make games for love, I think it shows. You have to be passionate to do something like this.
Where do you find inspiration to keep making new games?
I don’t know; it’s just there. It’s never not been there. I’ve been making games since I was five, like little board game pieces; so I don’t know where it comes from. I was born with it, I guess.
Can you talk about any future project?
Smiles and shakes her head. It’s always the case, isn’t it? “What are you working on?” Yeah, sorry, I wish I could.
Can you mention any latest games that are your favorites?
Ah, let’s see... So I already mentioned Florence - I really liked that game. A way out; I played two games that were about Syrian refugees escaping and I really thought they were super powerful - Liyla and the Shadows of War - it’s an iPhone game, super moving. And then I loved Edith Finch for having said that already; Night in the Woods - I’ve been playing a ton of narrative games recently. And also I liked Far from Noise. I’ve been on this narrative games bender. Should also say some Surface Circular…and then I have on my computer Quarantine Circular, which is a new Bithell Games game and it takes place on a boat; so I’ve got it in my computer and I’m going to play it on a boat, because I accidentally played Subsurface Circular while I was on a train and it’s about being on a train. And the first one was a coincidence, the second one is planned.
You and John are both great designers and game developers, so how does your work or cooperation on games look like? Do you always agree, or…
No! I mean…we mostly agree, but if we don’t agree, it’s super fascinating for us, because we both respect each other and the wider the gulf the more fascinating it is. And so we will actually be somewhat excited when we find one of those. Because, is it a gender thing, where I might just be thinking one way and he’s thinking another way? And that actually has happened. There was a whole mechanic added into Ravenwood Fair as a result of one of those gulfs. And then we’ve had other times when we’ll argue stuff out. The funny thing is, as long as we’ve been together, we’ve never had an argument, but we’ve had argued about game design and that’s it. And we’ve only had two of those really big ones. And they’re super fun. Like, we’re not at all mad at each other, but it’s like “deathmatch design” really. So that’s only happened twice. And also it depends on whose game it is. Because if he wants to command in my game and sort of go like “Aagh”, it’s my game, right? And I won’t just regard it, but likewise, if he’s making something, he’s the master. He’s made a lot of games, but he’s a master in a specific genre and so I’m not going to come in and tell him what to do…like what do I know about that? I’ve never released a shooter. So I might give my opinion, but if he says “Nah”, that’s it, I back immediately out.
Are you not interest in shooters?
Maybe at some point I would have been, but right now my area of fascination is in a specific type of game - two types of games, really, and then my analogue games. I think it’s important that I wouldn’t want to make a shooter with John. I would support him - not because he’s a bad designer - I would rather watch it just from a game history perspective. I want to see the process, see his decision making and that sort of stuff. But I wouldn’t want to go in his way.
And about your FPS museum, could you briefly tell us something about it?
Sure, this is a fairly super new thing. It is something we’re just setting up. We’ve had a series of times when we’ve loaned out stuff to museums and things have come back. And then sometimes they’ll post something on Twitter and Facebook and people will say “That belongs in a museum!” And we went to the computer museum in Cambridge and it was one guy who had a big collection of computers and he thought “I’m starting a museum!” And there was something about that experience…I’m like, we really should do it! So this was just a conversation with John and I; we had a floor available in the building where we have our office – it’s not a big floor – but I said ok, let’s just start to set it up. And this is the second conference where we’ve had the books and he’s [John Romero] signing the books [for funding the museum]. And people are like “Where is it? When can we come?” So there’s a desire for it anyway. And then John has never gotten rid of anything, so he has pretty much everything you can imagine and so we’re going to put it the History of the FPS Museum. We don’t know…my guess is probably a year from now, because it’s not like there’s anybody full time setting this stuff up - it’s us. It’s us in-between development. But we’ll get it sorted.
You wrote a couple of books about game design and how to break into the game industry; are you planning to release any new books in the future?
I’m writing one right now on game balance and then there’s another one in the wings after that.
Can you tell us anything about it?
Not on that one, no. I mean, I can tell you off the record what it is.