Welcome to Dames Who Make Games, Gamerwife’s interview series with the lovely ladies who make our video games. Whether you’re a QA tester or a company VP, we want to hear what you have to say. And remember to click “Continue reading” for the whole story.
On the last day of PAX East 2013, I was running through the exhibitor hall in a mad dash to catch the shuttle back to the airport when I came across a booth I hadn’t noticed before. The woman in the booth, Miellyn, also caught my attention. She was enthusiastic, funny and incredibly friendly. Luckily I had just enough time to talk to her about D&D, geek girls and her new gamebook, Strange Loves: Vampire Boyfriends, before continuing my dash.
Although we only spoke for a few minutes, we managed to keep in touch over social media and email, so when I was looking for someone to interview for the month of February, Miellyn instantly sprang to mind. Please check out our interview below and stay tuned for my review of Strange Loves: Vampire Boyfriends, later this week.
Gamerwife: Let’s start at the beginning, what was the first game you ever played?
Miellyn: I couldn’t say what was first, but I remember spending a good amount of time playing Atari games like Outlaw, Strawberry Shortcake, Space Invaders, and failing miserably at Night Rider. I could never get the hang of those round controllers.
We also had a TRS80, and my dad taught me how to write a game in basic that would guess the number you were thinking, so I tinkered with that a bit as well.
Later, my sister and I were obsessed with shareware games like Commander Keen, Laura Bow Mysteries, and Duke Nukem. We’d watch each other play for hours.
GW: What made you decide on a career in games?
Miellyn: I’d had a freelance career for several years, working mainly as a television writer and producer, when the technical director for Tin Man Games, Ben Britten, approached me to write a gamebook for them. They wanted to branch out into a new genre– something that would appeal more specifically to women– and since Ben and I had worked on projects together before, he thought of me. I believed in their product, had grown up on Choose Your Own Adventure books, and always loved video games, so it was a good fit. From there, I developed the Strange Loves series: a humorous supernatural romance line of gamebooks. Tin Man started flying me out to PAX to promote the company, and once I came to know other people in the industry, and see what they were doing, I was hooked.
I also saw how the industry was at such a volatile point with regard to women in gaming, and I felt that I could do something, however small, to make an impact. Making games that take women into account, talking about what games can do to be more inclusive, and putting myself out there as a woman working (and spending money) in the industry, and doing panels about subjects that interest me (such as romance in games), are a few ways that I’ve found to make a difference.
GW: Strange Loves: Vampire Boyfriends sits at an interesting crossroads between games and literature, do you consider it more of an interactive story or a language based game?
Miellyn: With the invention of e-readers, technology has thoroughly blurred the lines between analog and digital. Ben once told me that he thought of books as base-line games where your action as the participant is turning the page. Vampire Boyfriends is digital, it’s interactive, your actions impact the story, and you earn achievements and unlock artwork. I call it a game, but it’s a book, too. It’s 80,000 words and 85% of the content is text. In the end, is really it that important to specifically define everything?
GW: Was it difficult to keep all of the various plot points and player choices straight while writing Vampire Boyfriends?
Miellyn: Writing interactive fiction is like writing ten books at once. It can be quite a challenge keeping everything straight in your head. I had notes everywhere. I did it the hard way without charting my story out first. I knew the big picture plot, but often I’d get to a decision and have to just wing it. It took a lot longer that way, but I think I discovered some interesting pathways that I wouldn’t have had I planned it too closely.
GW: Did you work with any special software to manage the branching plot structure of the game?
Miellyn: Ben wrote an incredible piece of software called Mercury Mouse that allows their gamebook writers to write and program as they go. I was able to link sections, add game objects and conditional pathways, program achievements, and insert the artwork myself without having to write a lot of code. That freed me up to design the gameplay how I wanted without creating the actual engine pieces from scratch.
GW: What was your inspiration for Vampire Boyfriends?
Miellyn: When Ben called and asked me to create the new line of gamebooks, we talked about what might be a good subject. Almost all of the women we knew, including myself, were reading Twilight at the time, so it would be a common reference, and supernatural romance was, and still is, huge as a genre. It seemed like a natural fit to do a vampire romance, but I knew that if I was going to write it, it had to be a comedy.
I’m also a Buffy fan, and I’ve been told, you can see Joss Whedon and Jane Espenson’s influence. That remains one of my most cherished compliments about this game.
Night of a Thousand Boyfriends by Miranda Clarke was another important influence. It’s a choose your path story for “grown up” girls about romance and dating with a wonderful sense of humor. At one point you get abducted by aliens, at another you meet John Cusack and Brad Pitt, and if you get mugged at the ATM, you could wind up having a baby with the ER doctor who treats you. It was such a blast, I bought it for all my girlfriends after I read it. That book inspired me to write something about dating that was a lark where anything, and everything, can happen.
GW: What are the best/worst things about working in video games?
Miellyn: The best thing is being able to create a whole new entity that people can play and interact with. I can’t explain how great it feels every time someone tells me that he or she enjoyed my game or got an ending that made him or her laugh.
The worst thing is when you’re making a videogame you can’t really play videogames. It’s important to play as many games as possible, of course, but when you’re in crunch time you can’t let yourself get distracted.
GW: Have you ever had issues with harassment or discrimination as a women in video games?
Miellyn: Fortunately, almost all of my experiences have been positive. I’ve definitely had men come up to the booth at PAX and not want to talk to me because they didn’t think I knew anything about the games we were selling, but I tried to take that as an opportunity to show them that they were mistaken. I do have friends who have gone through a lot of abuse, though, and I hope that by continuing to talk about it, we can try to at least reduce the harassment.
GW: What advice do you have for other women who want to be involved in game development?
Miellyn: Meet as many people as possible.
Get active on Twitter and other social media.
Go to Cons. Go to the panels, ask questions, talk to the panelists who inspire you, and talk to the other attendees. I do a lot of panels because I think it’s important to be a resource to others in the industry. I love it when people ask questions during a session or come up to me afterward with a business card wanting to make contact or talk more.
If you’re just starting out, find an indie developer who makes games that you like, find them at a Con and introduce yourself, get to know them on Twitter, or send them an email and offer to help. Most indies are stretched pretty thin and need help.
Most importantly, be kind and don’t insult games or developers. You might want them to hire you one day, and people can have long memories.
Also, please, ladies, support each other. We have to stick together and not be the reason that other women can’t succeed. We’re much stronger if we all join forces.
GW: What are your biggest challenges as an independent game maker?
Miellyn: It can be incredibly difficult to find the time to get the work done. Games are only part of what I do, and I’ll be honest, unless you’re one of those names everybody knows, or you’re incredibly lucky, you aren’t going to get rich making indie games. I have to do a lot of bills-paying work to be able to make indie games and still have food on the table.
GW: What games are you playing right now?
Miellyn: I just started Dragon Age II. I finished Dragon Age: Origins (Alistair 4-Eva) and loved it so much that I went straight into the sequel. I have to get ready for Inquisition, which is the game I’m most excited about so far for 2014. I’m also in the middle of Persona 4 Golden and Assassin’s Creed: Liberation on my Vita, and I just downloaded The Stanley Parable on Steam based on a bunch of recommendations. I like my games to have female protagonists whenever possible and to have plenty of romance. But, really, everyone reading this should be playing Vampire Boyfriends, because who doesn’t want to spend a little time romancing (or slaying) hot vampires?
Writer and producer Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows has provided creative content to more than a dozen national television networks including National Geographic, Discovery, TLC, Travel, and HGTV. She is the creator and series producer for Tin Man Games gamebook series Strange Loves and writer/producer for Strange Loves 1: Vampire Boyfriends. Also a published author, her work has appeared in Random House and Smart Pop Books anthologies, the UK Telegraph newspaper, and across the web. Her latest venture, the story consulting firm Tonic Industries co-founded with Hilary Heskett Shapiro, will be launching soon. You can follow her adventures on Twitter: @MiellynB.