Brianna Wu Founded the revolutionary, primarily female, Video Game design company, Giant Spacekat.
JMW: Hello this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is Brianna “Spacekat” Wu, founder of Giant Spacekat. Welcome, Brianna.
Brianna Wu: Thank you for having me.
JMW: I know women gamers make up roughly half of the players out there, but we still tend to see gaming as a boys’ club. What inspired you to buck this trend and found your own company?
Brianna Wu: I lived in frustration my entire life with not seeing myself represented in games. It’s frustrating, but it feels like we keep making the same kind of game over and over and over again. If you look at the entire population on the planet, white men are not the majority of the planet, yet that’s who most of the stars… They are the vast majority of who ends up starring in the game. What I wanted to do is very simple to basically tell a story of women having an adventure the same way that men got to have an adventure in video games. It’s not just about equality. It’s also about running a business. There are a lot of indie game development studios out there. For us, we wanted to do something that was truly different and to reach a new audience.
I looked out there, if you just look at the stats, there’s been an utter explosion in the number of women gamers over the last six years. You’ve gone from 17% of gamers to anywhere between 49 and 52 depending on what stats you look at. It’s just reaching a new market and the truth is video games have exploded, both as a global industry and in the audience who actually plays it.
JMW: Where did Spacekat come from?
Brianna Wu: One of my very favorite games is a game called Space Channel 5. It’s this kind of 60s science fiction game. It’s also a dance rhythm game, and the character in there, Ulala, her first line is, “Hey there, Spacekats. This is Ulala coming at you from Space Port 9.” I looked up the history of the word Spacekat and it’s actually this word from that era of basically film and games, not games, but films and television. It is worth saying, I know we’re going to get into some of the controversies happened this year, but we are in the process of changing our studio name. The reason is we want it to be more about the people, my entire studio, rather than just me.
JMW: Speaking about the game that you’ve put out, Revolution 60, what makes that so different and so needed in the gaming universe of today?
Brianna Wu: Sure, I had this epiphany as I was getting married to my husband, Frank. And I’m a lifelong gamer. I have been playing games since, gosh, I remember being six, seven years old and getting a Nintendo entertainment system and just, I’ve been doing this my whole life. I get married to my husband, Frank, and he’s a smart guy. He has a PhD in bacterial genetics, but I gave him the same games, Super Mario Bros. and he’s just confused. It assumes the player learns a lot of things. I would see Frank trying to play modern games and he would get overwhelmed. What I realized is that you shouldn’t have to be able to master this controller with dual joysticks and literally 16 buttons. Two joysticks and 16 buttons on it, you shouldn’t have to master that to enjoy a story. Imagine a book you couldn’t read because you didn’t have this skill.
JMW: My hand-eye coordination would kill me every time.
Brianna Wu: It’s a very dated idea, and we have the philosophy at our studio that if someone can’t play the game that’s not the player’s fault, that’s our fault. What makes Revolution 60 different is a number of things. The first is it’s a beautifully animated story that anyone can play. We’ve brought people into our studio that never played a game before and put it in front of them. We very humbly watched them play it and when they were confused we altered things to make it so that they could enjoy it. My studio has a culture of utter reverence for the player, and we don’t want you to have to be only a certain kind of player to enjoy our work. The other thing is some things are interesting, Revolution 60 has a very … Everyone cast is a woman. We wanted to tell the story where women got to be the heroes. Something that’s really interesting is we’re so used to women being the sidekick or the love interest that there’s this wonderful message when women play all the roles. We are the spunky sidekick, we are the pilot, we are the commander, we are the villainess, we are the best friend, we are the hero.
I think it just frees you up from expectation and just lets women be people, which is the goal, just to represent us as humans. Being a woman is not a type, but yet it’s really treated that way in the video game industry.
JMW: Was your whole development team women?
Brianna Wu: All except for my husband. We had some jobbers that came in for some smaller things. Someone that we ended up not keeping on for the full term of the game was a guy early on in our development but, generally speaking, it was a team of women. Part of that is, we brought people in our studio. There’s this amazing thing that happens when you hire a certain number of [inaudible 00:05:56] women at your studio, women know other women professionally. It became this culture of sisterhood and respect as we were building our game. Let me tell you a story of something that really makes our studio different.
There’s another Boston studio called Harmonics. And Harmonics has a more traditional, hierarchical structure to how they make decisions. It’s very top down. You have a commander at every junction of it. Say I’m the art team, so if you’re playing Rockband, you can look at the art style there and know that there’s one person on the art team that was what they called a vision holder. And that vision holder sits there and orders down messages from on high. And everything you want to do you’ve got to go to the vision holder and say, “Does this match with your vision?” I think that sucks. I don’t want to work for a company like that. What we have at Giant Spacekat is what I would call a hyper collaborative culture. And the way it works is 90% of the time, 95% of the time if I’m talking to my team, we’re all equals. It’s a very flat organization.
Why hire people if you don’t trust them and believe them and want to [inaudible 00:07:14] in their jobs. Who would want to work in a company that wasn’t like that? The way that we have is I give every single person, generally speaking, they are empowered to make their own decisions in their own divisions. Amanda’s doing animation. I don’t get down to micromanage how she should do animation. I just say, “Make it work.” At the end, she’ll bring me finished work and we’ll have a team discussion about it. Any organization does have to have a leader and I do have what I call the Boss Card where it’s like, “Look I got to end the discussion. You guys don’t agree with this. We’re going this way today. Today, but we’ll go your way next time.” I think what’s interesting is when you have women working together, we just have a different professional structure. And I think it shows in the product as this wonderful menagerie of all of our ideas. I think it’s something we desperately need in the game development industries. Structures by women for women that operate in ways that are friendly.
JMW: We have to address briefly the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Gamergate.
Brianna Wu: Absolutely.
JMW: What is the big takeaway for you about Gamergate?
Brianna Wu: Gamergate, it’s been horrible. I’ve had 83 death threats in eight months. I got one yesterday. I got one the day before that. I got one the day before that. I get bomb threats regularly. I get harassment horribly. And what Gamergate at its core is about is… There’s tension in the industry right now where for basically 30 years games have been made for one very singular kind of player that likes a very singular kind of game. And it’s very unfortunate that our industry tends to look down on games for anyone else. What’s amazing to me is on the mobile market, do you know who drives sales on this?
JMW: Probably women.
Brianna Wu: It’s women, and it’s women 20s, 30s, and 40s that greatly drive revenue. It bothers me tremendously that while I’m hanging out with my friends professionally in this field, we don’t talk about these players with reverence. We talk about them with disdain, and it’s wrong. So I think what Gamergate, at its core is about, is you have a certain kind of consumer that has been made the center of that universe for so long that now that games are expanding, they feel very threatened by it. It’s an extinction burst and it’s very serious. I think it’s accurate to say the game industry is burning right now. This kind of culture war is making it difficult for all of us to do our jobs, not just me. I think it’s one of those things where it has to get worse before it gets better. What gives me hope is that we’re having conversations in our industry now that we couldn’t of had five years ago.
Conversations like, “Hey, when you’re hiring people, are you making an effort to bring in women? Hey, do you have sexual harassment policies in place? Hey, are women being paid the same as men? Hey, you’re a game journalist organization, do you have women looking at your games?” And I’m not going to tell you it’s getting great, but it is getting better. I think we’re slowly going to make changes that are better for everyone. I have to say this, the goal isn’t just about what’s there for everyone else. The goal here is to make better games, and I think there’s a real problem in our industry where we have this one kind of culture that’s singularly created this one kind of game for 30 years. And you know the kind of game I’m talking about. There’s a lot of violence. There’s some primary mechanics. Do you realize almost all games, the primary gameplay idea behind it is committing violence to people? It’s really weird.
JMW: They call them shooter games for a reason.
Brianna Wu: We do and video games could be anything. You could make a game about a conversation. You could make a game about friendship. You could make a game about diplomacy.
JMW: The Japanese have games about dating.
Brianna Wu: We do and we need more of those games here. You can make games about anything, but this culture has consistently made one kind of game. The ultimate goal for getting women and also gay people and also people of different races in this industry more is if you bring different viewpoints to the table, we’re going to get more innovative games and everyone wins when that happens.
JMW: We’re coming up unfortunately on our time limit so I want to ask you very quickly, what are you working on now and anything you’d like to close out with?
Brianna Wu: Absolutely.
JMW: You get the closing comment.
Brianna Wu: I would love that. What we’re working on right now immediately is, Revolution 60 PC is about come out. Not everyone has an Apple device so it’s about to come out for your PC and you’ll be able to play it there. If you like story-based games that anyone can play, check our game out. Where we are going as a studio? I’m really proud of this. Our industry has not thought about dialog interaction as a. . . not seriously tackled this problem from a gameplay perspective. What we’re doing next, our next game that we’re shipping is simply a conversation. That’s it. You’re in a situation with another person and we are going to invest all of our R and D into figuring out ways to have conversations with people in a game and make that meaningful and make you have emotional connections with the people you’re talking to.
So it’s not just threaten or commit violence or point a gun at someone, but trying to accomplish something with someone through a conversation. We are going to make a really big move towards VR in our studio. When I think about Star Trek and the Holodeck what’s so appealing to me about that is, yeah, they occasionally have shoot them ups but generally Captain Janeway will go to a different era and interact with people she wouldn’t see in her daily life and have conversations with them. To me, that is the ultimate goal of games, to give us this Holodeck where we can have meaningful emotional connections with things outside of our experience. I think we’ve got to get past this idea that games are about killing things. So that’s where we’re going.
JMW: I can’t top that. Thank you so much for being with us, Brianna.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.