Game designer and academic Brenda Romero will receive the Ambassador Award at the upcoming Game Developers Conference for helping video games “advance to a better place” through advocacy or action. She is one of the most prominent game developers in the industry, and has made games such Wizardry and Jagged Alliance. Along the way, she has also given spellbinding talks about the role of women in the game industry, and how she isn’t yet comfortable taking her daughter to the game industry’s biggest trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, because there are so many “booth babes” there.
She was known for most of her career as Brenda Brathwaite. She worked with Doom creator John Romero on the social game Ravenwood Fair, and then they got married in 2012. She changed her name to Brenda Romero. And in 2013, she became the game designer in residence at the Games and Playable Media Program. While there, she has worked on interesting games like the board game Train, which makes the player feel complicit in allowing Jews to be sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
Romero recently game a talk at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas. It wandered through her own experiences in gaming, but it revolved around the question about whether she and her peers want to make games that make a lot of money, or win a lot of awards. What’s the right answer? How do you make games without selling out? How do you stay true to yourself? I caught up with Romero at the DICE Summit. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How would you summarize your talk about making great games? What was the point you wanted to get across?
Brenda Romero: I ended it by getting to this point about how I don’t know anybody who got into games just for money.
I do know people in the web app space that passed through games, because that was where the money was to be made, and they passed right on through. But those of us who wanted to commit to games — I’m sure there are people who are in it for money, but I’m not aware of any. Nobody that I’ve known in my circle of friends has said that to me.
What I was heading toward or getting at is that this is in some sense a dissonance that happens between those who need to make money from games — it is the game industry, right? – and those who create games, who do feel the need to make something that they perceive is valuable, but to whom that value is completely non-monetary.
If this had been a 60-minute talk, I could have sailed on through another 40 minutes discussing how that presents itself in many different ways. Most notably, probably, the unease people find with creating free-to-play games.
GamesBeat: There’s a lot of fear that you might be selling out if you go into it just for the money, doing things that seem to be more driven by how much you could make from them.
Romero: There is. There are obviously games that are money engines, but one could also say that Call of Duty is a money engine. It is. It’s a very expensive money engine. People have said things like, “You’re selling out.” I remember when I started making Facebook games. That was one of the things I heard. In reality I was really interested in the market, interested in working on games for a demographic that I was a part of. Certainly plenty of developers – not just me – who headed into the Facebook space, that was said of them.
Now we’ve switched. The primary model of monetization in the games industry seems to be value-add or free-to-play. Or you pay a certain amount for the core product and there’s DLC you can get after. But it’s this micro-transaction model. When implemented in one way it could be viewed as the sellout – you’re just going after the money, just going after the whales – or in another way, say with Hearthstone, I felt very good about buying cards. I thought, “I like this game and I’d like to see more of this game.” It’s try-before-you-buy.
GamesBeat: It seems like maybe in Asia — in Korea especially — they didn’t have as much difficulty transitioning to that model. They’re at ease with free-to-play. Here in the West it’s newer. People wonder if it’ll be the thing that stays around as a way to monetize games. I heard Peter Molyneux talk about how free-to-play as it is today won’t exist five years from now.
Romero: I believe that. A ton of it is unsustainable. You can only go so far on making games for free. I say this as somebody who owns a company. Especially since the models are so often — even if the games aren’t copied, the models are so often copied. That feels like the pattern of the game, and therefore when players play it, they think, “Oh, I’ve played this before.” There are waves of innovation that happen in monetization.
Going back to where I left off in the talk, to many developers for whom this is about a craft, that is not something that they even want to specialize in. They want to create this overall experience that you agree there’s some value in, and you give them that value up front.
I see, in my own gamer head – the side that doesn’t develop games, but just plays them – the notion of spending $59, $49, $69 for a game is crazy to me. That’s not to say I haven’t bought games like that, but I think really long and hard about it. I don’t have a problem spending $4.99 for a game. I have plenty of those. And my primary method of game-playing now is Steam. When there’s a Steam sale I’ll buy tons of stuff. When there’s another sale I haven’t even caught up on what I bought in the previous sale.
GamesBeat: Are you at a relative level of comfort now with the business, as far as how the game industry works? Your commercial opportunities, your ability to create what you want?
Romero: My analog stuff, obviously, yes. Right now I’m working on two pieces. One is almost done. It’s called Black Box. The other one, I’m hoping, will be finished by the end of the year, the Trail of Tears game. Those are obviously ridiculously independent. They’re made in my kitchen with no publisher, and I don’t sell them. While they are games and they’re made by a game developer, they’re outside of any normal game development conversation or game industry conversation.
One of the things that I am excited about — we have Loot Drop, which is working on licensed products, but on the Romero Games side, we’re working on 100 percent independent products, 100 percent self-funded, all indie games. That’s been some of the most fun that I’ve had in my career. I’m sure that at some point in time we will feel the same pressures. I do feel a level of comfort that we can do that. We’re fortunate that our overhead is low, because we don’t have to pay the key programmer. [laughs]
We have a couple of games in preproduction and two games in development on the Romero Games side. I’d say that it is nice not to have — there are ways for developers to get their games out there. It’s nice not to have to have that publishing deal. You don’t have to do licensing deals. For me, this renaissance period of indie games — which was pretty much the ‘80s, I guess — this is the ‘80s with distribution. There’s this explosion of creativity.
You’re seeing developers create games that have the unique play that was prevalent back then, except now we can reach a much wider audience. The games that people are making in the indie space, they’re not $30 million productions, so you don’t need to sell tons of units to get your money back. Although with that said, in some cases people are risking their life savings. Probably in many cases. Or they’re spending money on games that would be their life savings. Risk is relative. What is high risk to some is low risk to others. But I feel that this is one of the best times in the game industry in terms of development and the ability to access players.
GamesBeat: You’re getting this ambassador award at the Game Developers Conference. How do you feel about that?
Romero: It’s an interesting year in which to get an ambassador award. It’s been a very challenging year for the game industry. In my career, I would say, it has been the most turbulent year for the game industry. A lot of people are speaking out. A lot of people are not speaking out. I wish I had a crystal ball to figure out where this is going to go and how this is going to end, if it will end at all. But I do know that it makes the game industry, right now, for many people, a challenging place to be.