by Lucy Ungaro
For the second installment of The Circle’s interview series, I spoke with Renee Gittins, an engineer turned game designer and CEO of her own game company, Stumbling Cat. Renee advocates diversity in games, occasionally writes articles discussing issues such as impostor syndrome and fair representation in games, and is currently leading the development on Stumbling Cat’s first game, Potions: A Curious Tale. Inside the experience, you play as a witch who solves problems by brewing potions. Renee’s unapologetic, passionate rise in game development is an inspirational one for women who aspire to make games, as well as for others who are less represented in the game industry.
You found success incredibly young. Did you face discrimination not only because of your gender, but because of your age?
I don’t know if I’d say that I’ve found success quite yet! But I certainly hope that I’m on the path there.
My age generally hasn’t been a huge issue, we live in the time of young tech entrepreneurs, so being the youngest person in the room generally isn’t cause for much prejudice. There’s a lot of young game developers, especially in the indie game development scene. When I was at the D.I.C.E. Summit, however, I was often mistaken for a student. Most of the attendees were influential AAA developers and executives with many years of experience within the industry. Intel and AIAS sponsored a few indie developers and students to attend D.I.C.E. and, though I was the former, people often mistook me for the latter. I felt that I wasn’t always taken seriously there due to it.
What sexism did you face as a gamer, and did that ever deter you from wanting to be a game developer?
Pretty much everything you could imagine: told I was just playing games for attention; claims that my achievements in games were give to me by men I had seduced; requests to prove my gender or “show [my] tits”; explicit messages; comments along the “go make me a sandwich” lines; evaluations of my body including “fucking her would be like fucking a bag of antlers”; and death threats called to my personal phone number and threats to show up at conventions I was attending to physically assault me.
It certainly has deterred me from playing some games. While I grew up as a lover of first person shooters, the reactions to my voice in Counter-Strike made me drop the game instantly, even though Half-Life is one of my favorite series. It has never deterred me from wanting to be a game developer, though. Perhaps because I had faced this kind of harassment for a decade and a half before even thinking about making games. Sadly, I was so used to the sexism in games at point that I didn’t even considered it when deciding to pursue game development.
What games did you like to play as a kid, and what would you say is your favorite game of all time? Was there a certain game that made you want to become a game developer?
My first four games, in order were: Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, Duke Nukem 3D, Pokemon Yellow. Needless to say, I had a slightly different introduction to games than many of my peers.
It’s hard to say exactly what my favorite game of all time would be, because I enjoy so many different games depending on my mood. I think the original Borderlands and the original Half-Life both hold very special places in my heart. Though it is Recettear that gave me a lot of inspiration to make games myself. It’s a very fun game that does a great job with making the mechanics enjoyable and unique.
You studied engineering in college. What are two or three rules or theories that you bring from your engineering education to the games you develop?
Minimum viable product. Work towards creating the absolute bare minimum that you need to make something worthwhile, practical and enjoyable. Ribbons and bows can burn time, waste resources and detract from the product. I think this is especially important in games, because it is easy to get side-tracked from what core mechanics make the game fun.
Plan, test, reiterate; Iteration is key to refining a product, whether it is an on-skin bio sensor or a video game. Knowing that I would need to go through many trials and errors helped prepare me for the testing and iteration that I have needed to make Potions: A Curious Tale the best it can be.
In a poignant essay on impostor syndrome, you said there is often a focus placed on your gender. Do you think that people’s attention to your gender takes away from your accomplishments? Would you rather it be something that’s rarely mentioned?
Yes, I would rather have my gender matter no more than my hair color. I often joke the being a woman in tech is like rolling a different race in Dungeons and Dragons: +2 to opening doors, -2 to being taken seriously. Much like in games themselves, sometimes it is clear that some people think I only have made it somewhere due to my gender. There have also been many times where, standing next to a male friend at an industry event, I am assumed to be their girlfriend, wife or employee, not a studio head of my own company.
Would you say that Potions is a game that promotes non-violence? Why?
It promotes alternative solutions to violence.
My parents actually met through martial arts and have been practicing for the last several decades. I was practically raised in a dojo due to this and I think it has had a strong effect on how I view the use of force.
I was taught that violence is always the last solution to a problem. First try to avoid the situation, then to diffuse it, then to leave it, and, finally, to stop it through force.
Too many games encourage and reward relentless slaughter of every creature you run into as the hero character. It just doesn’t feel right to me, I wanted to reward players for not always using violence as the solution, and, in Potions: A Curious Tale, using force when it isn’t right for the situation is even punished.
What was your inspiration for the protagonist in Potions? What traits do you think are important in crafting strong female characters?
Growing up, I often had trouble finding a place to fit in. While I performed very well in school, I often felt like an outcast and disconnected from my peers.
Luna’s tale starts similarly, but she finds her place in the town of Old Haven on the edge of the Deep Dark Forest. I wanted her and her story to be one that people who had trouble finding their place could relate to, while praising intellect, creativity, determination and empathy, all which I believe are important traits in a strong hero/heroine character.
The concept art for Luna shows that her design stayed pretty consistent. Did you have a strong idea for what you wanted the character to look like from the beginning? And does this reflect on her personality as well–did it not change much over the course of making the game?
We actually went through dozens of different designs, but none of them clicked with the character’s personality until that design that captured my heart. I think it does reflect her personality well; She’s wearing a dress, but it’s practical and has seen wear; She is wearing boots that are well suited to tromping through the forest, and she has hair that would require a medium amount of maintenance; And, of course, the purple hair and witch hat are fun!
I think Luna is well balanced, she is practical, but also enjoys expressing herself. She wears a dress she loves, but not one that would get in the way of her adventuring with frills and lace. This balance also appears in the gameplay with combat and alternative solutions.
Potions is Stumbling Cat’s first major game. What would you say is the vision of the company, and what aspects of Potions can we expect to see in future projects?
Like with Potions, I think we will continue to create fun, inspirational games that challenge traditional game mechanics and stereotypes.
Of all of the people who have played the game, only those with the least amount of game experience realized when attacking a monster wasn’t the correct solution. That means that the aggressive game behavior is a learned trait that is rewarded in most games, and I want to continue to develop games that challenges ingrained game behaviors like that.
Besides being a game developer, you’re also an advocate for diversity in games. What do you hope to accomplish by speaking out about diversity, and being a role model for those with less representation in games?
Though I was an avid and passionate gamer since I was a young child, it was only as an adult that I was even introduced to game development as a career path. I ran into many obstacles on my way into technology, not to mention game development itself: When I was in 2nd grade and I asked the teacher for more math work and was told “girls don’t need to know more math”; Despite having a love for games, math and technology, no one introduced me to programming or game development while I was growing up; I have faced sexism and harassment within many game communities; I have been asked “So who does the programming?” in response to “I do everything but the art and audio”; And it is often simply assumed that I am less capable and accomplished than my male peers.
I hope that by speaking out for diversity and working to show others that they, too, can make games, that other girls (and boys!) will realize and be able to pursue their dreams.