Kate Edwards has had a long career in video games, and now, she has become a leader of the industry. In December, Edwards became executive director of the International Game Developers Association. Her job is to run an organization with 10,000 members who are navigating all of the big changes in the game industry.
At Microsoft, she was the first “geopolitical strategist” who had to identify geopolitical and cultural land mines for the company as it moved into different regions of the world. She implemented a geopolitical quality review process for Microsoft’s games from 1995 to 2005. She worked on titles like Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and other releases. She was the founder and chair of the game-localization special interest group within the IGDA and a leader in the IGDA Seattle chapter. She runs her own consultancy, Englobe.
This week, she attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and had to handle the tough issue of women in games, particularly as a dispute erupted among IGDA members about an IGDA-sponsored party where scantily clad female dancers appeared. We sat down with Edwards on Monday, March 25, before any of that happened. Here is our edited transcript of our interview.
Kate Edwards: We hope to approach the neighborhood of 10,000 members by the end of this year. That’s the overarching goal. We have about 90 chapters worldwide. We have 20 or 25 special interest groups.
GamesBeat: How would you describe the IGDA to people who don’t know what it is?
Edwards: The way I like to describe it is, the IGDA is a professional development community. We’re a professional association focused on development. We’re focused on advocacy for issues that affect game developers. We have an international presence. We serve as a place of networking and community for individual game developers.
GamesBeat: Has the membership been growing?
Edwards: It leveled off for a while. Part of that is due to the structure of how we do membership, with studio affiliations versus individual memberships. We’ve gone through some adjustments there. That added to a bit of a plateau. Plus, with the industry being the way it is these days, that affects membership to a degree. We see studios that close, like 38 Studios for example. The members retain their membership, but the studio affiliation goes away.
GamesBeat: It’s hard to tell whether there’s more growth or more contraction.
Edwards: I like to the word “evolving.” That’s the way I see it. This is still a relatively young industry. It’s finding its way. We’re so receptive to the technology that arises in how we deliver and how we develop. It’s only natural that we’ll see a bit of evolution. Some things are going to die off and some things are going to rise. It’s not something that we necessarily want to see, when we see people laid off. It’s not a good thing. But unfortunately or not, it’s a natural part of a changing industry.
GamesBeat: Has anybody done a lot of tallying up there, working out whether they see growth or change like that?
Edwards: We have not done that kind of thing, no. We do the quality of life survey, which is an empirical survey along those lines. The latest one came out recently. But we don’t focus on the numbers as far as layoffs. That’s something that the ESA would know better than we would.
GamesBeat: It’s good that people do surveys, but yeah, I do wish there was more information to give people, a way to give them sound advice. “Okay, here’s where the wind is blowing. Go in that direction.”
Edwards: Within the IGDA, the chapters do communicate with one another, which is one of the strengths of the organization. Developers who are in the IGDA can do that. They can reach out to other chapters. “My studio is downsizing in Boston. I might move to San Francisco or Los Angeles. What’s going on out there?” You get a lot of qualitative information. You get some quantitative information on a per-studio basis. Someone in L.A. might chime in and say, “My company has 35 positions open.” I know it happens at that individual chapter level, but there’s not any oversight quantifying all of that.
GamesBeat: Has that quality of life gotten any better?
Edwards: It’s changing. In general I think the trend is better. Studios are getting more aware. A lot of times [quality of life] is equated with the notion of crunch. We like to look at something broader. It’s not just the crunch mode issue, although that tends to be a major issue. More studios are aware of it. That doesn’t mean all studios don’t do it, but they’re more aware of it. I was at Microsoft for 13 years, and even within my time there, the company became far more aware of work-life balance issues and all the other things that go along with them, for all kinds of good reasons.
GamesBeat: I wondered if some of these problems would carry over from the console business into the mobile and social studios.
Edwards: I think that’s inevitable. They’re going to carry over to some degree. When you’re self-employed or a small shop, you tend to have more control, but that affects your time schedule. It affects all kinds of other things. A lot of the indies that I know, or smaller studios, that’s one of the reasons they might have left a larger developer. They felt they would have more control over their work-life balance, and they do for the most part. At the same time, I’ve seen some of those small studios go through the same issues as any large studio. It comes down to promising a date and not delivering. That’s a reality in any business, not just the games industry.
GamesBeat: It seems like the potential to get worse is there. They do a build every day, right? Crunch mode can happen every day.
Edwards: That’s one of the issues we’re focused on, because of online and constant content development. I’ve heard people talk about it. There’s no such thing as “content complete” anymore. It’s just “content churning,” day after day. The way I see it, that’s a call for businesses. If they find they’re in a condition of crunch, their business model isn’t working, in my view. They need to rethink how they develop projects.
When you’re dealing with constant content development to satisfy online communities and MMOs and everything else that’s out there, you can’t maintain in crunch mode. You have to plan your business such that you’re rolling out content at a reasonable rate.
GamesBeat: I remember talking to Zynga about that once. The studio said that it would have all hands on for a launch, but then it had a team in India it could hand everything off to at the end of the shift. It wouldn’t have to stay on 24 hours during launch. I don’t know if that’s a common thing.
Edwards: I don’t think it’s very common, but it’s a smart thing. If companies can plan that way, they’re not in crunch mode. It’s just distributed development. That’s a smarter way to go if they can make it work.
Edwards: Yes, it has. My feeling with that is that the issue’s time has come. Not that it hadn’t before, but the level of overt vocal statements about it is great. It’s something that needs to be discussed, rather than just dismissed. I’m glad, also, that we’re seeing a diversity of opinion, especially among women. EA’s Gabrielle Toledano, her comments were not necessarily all received positively, and that’s okay. There’s room for opinions and debate. I think some of what she said was a bit controversial, just because it seemed out of touch, but I know some people who feel she was accurate. The bottom line to all that is that it gives us a chance to discuss it.
I see two issues there. One, you’ve got the presence of women in development. Then, you’ve got the presence of women in games. There are related issues in the potential for sexism and misogyny and everything that go along with them, but obviously, how you deal with those two issues is different. What I think is great is something like the newest release of Tomb Raider, which is getting great reviews for its portrayal of the character. If we get more examples like that over time, that can shift opinions, at least about the portrayal of women in games. As far as women in the industry, that’s another issue. Sadly, I think it’s just a matter of time.
GamesBeat: The BioShock Infinite thing, with a character’s low-cut blouse and everything, wouldn’t have come up as an issue at all in some years past?
Edwards: No, it wouldn’t.
GamesBeat: Then, people are looking at the reasons why it’s there and saying, “Well, it’s not there in much of the game, but in the marketing of the game, it’s there.” Why are things like that? Who’s making these decisions? Does it help the title or not? It’s an interesting conversation now.
Edwards: It is. A lot of marketing tends to take a “safe” route. We see that quite a bit. Sex sells, the old adage. A lot of marketing tends to perpetuate that because they’re trying to play it safe. It’s not that it’s expected, but they know that it works. There’s a certain level of bravery required to do something different. Maybe that’s what’s missing. Not just in the marketing, too, but in the game content itself. When we see female fantasy characters in full armor with their midriff showing, it doesn’t make sense, does it? I’m a huge Halo geek, and I think it was great that they introduced the option of making a female character, but she’s still completely encased in the Mjolnir armor, as she should be.
GamesBeat: One promotion touted the women who inspired BioShock’s female character, Elizabeth. They’re almost marketing in the opposite direction there. “This was inclusively designed.”
Edwards: There’s a fair point there too. The other thing you have to take into account is the socio-historical context of the game itself. If it’s taking place at the turn of the 20th century, that kind of clothing might not be unusual. The corset and the bustle and all that. I can understand that you want to have historical accuracy. Sometimes, the perception of what they were or were not trying to do with the game is read into the fact that maybe they were just trying to be historically accurate. I don’t know the story behind it with BioShock’s example, but in my own work, doing the culturalization work, that kind of issue comes up all the time. Sometimes a content developer might be required, for reasons of modern-day cultural sensitivity, to change the historical accuracy of their work. It happens.
GamesBeat: You’ll probably know this better by the end of the week, but in these #1ReasonToBe sessions, what is the object? What are some of the things you’d like to see these head toward?
Edwards: Number one is more dialogue. That’s one of the reasons why we pushed heavily. We have Anita Sarkeesian giving her talk. The EA_spouse talk. All of these are important for continuing dialogue, especially in a forum like GDC. We have not seen talks like that very explicitly at GDC before, or they’ve been buried in different tracks or characterized as something else. These are meant to be explicitly about the topic, so I’m hoping to see more dialogue. That’s my number one goal. If we can get discussion going and get awareness building so that people who can effect change can start thinking about these issues, if they can take away the notion that maybe they should think about this in their companies and start looking from a qualitative perspective at their companies — start asking women, “Do you feel like there’s sexism here? How do you feel working here?” — I think that to me, is progress.
GamesBeat: Even with a lot of these issues, it seems like there isn’t a better time to be a game designer in a lot of ways. You can be an indie that makes a game all alone and hits the top of the App Store. I’ve seen a lot of these stories about kids — a 13-year-old makes an app. Do you agree with that perception, that things have never been so good?
Edwards: It depends. If you talk with people like Richard Garriott or Ed Fries or other people who are steeped in the 8-bit world and all the nostalgia for that era…. [Laughs] Obviously Richard said some things recently that were interesting. I’m not going to speak to that. He already issued his rebuttal to what he said. But the perception is interesting.
In a lot of ways, it’s a very good time to be a game designer because you have options. Most artists that I know, whether they’re a game designer or a painter or a filmmaker, say that having options is one of the things that you want as a creative person. The ability is there to have so many different ways to express yourself through a game — do it in Unity, join a triple-A studio, whatever you want to do. It’s going to keep evolving, but I think the ability to have so many options is something that didn’t exist before. To me, that makes it better. It’s only going to get better. Stuff is going to come out as far as distribution and development that we still have not thought of yet. As long as it keeps going in that positive direction, it’s a good thing.
GamesBeat: Here’s where I wish the measurement was better. Sometimes having a successful app seems like winning the lottery. How are most people faring, though? I don’t really have a clue on that.
Edwards: I wish I knew as well. We have two different lotteries going on — the Kickstarter lottery and the App Store lottery. Both of them are very tenuous in terms of predictability.
GamesBeat: But that’s more lotteries than we’ve had before.
Edwards: [Laughs] That’s true. Unless you’re working on the next Modern Warfare or Halo or something where you know it’s going to make money, but that’s not “your” money.
GamesBeat: Is anything else interesting happening this week?
Edwards: We’re very proud of the advocacy track and all the topics we’re highlighting there. It’s a good milestone not only for GDC, but for the IGDA. It’s great that [GDC event owner] UBM is allowing that track to go forward. They recognize that these issues need to be discussed. It underscores, for the IGDA, our mission of advocacy in addition to professional development. Being able to be seen is one of the things we do. As we’re trying to evolve our own organization, one of the things we want to do a better job of is taking a lot of the brain trust in our special interest groups — the writing SIG, the diversity SIG, the women in games SIG — and make that more explicit and overt, through our website and other means, so that people know what we’re doing. They know the issues that we’re tackling.