Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Marion Esquian

[Courtesy of Marion Esquian.]
[Courtesy of Marion Esquian.]

Blanket Fort Chats” is a semi-regular column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Marion Esquian, a Montreal-based game developer most recently known for She Might Think — a game where you meet different women and see what they have to say about the same apartment.

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?

Marion: I was an Interaction Design student and to finish my program, I did an internship at Juicy Beast Studio, a Montreal-based independent game studio. Because of that, I had a chance to meet a lot of great indie developers in Montreal.

After, I decided to stay in the city to continue my studies and specialize in video games. I heard about Pixelles (a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering more women to make games) and I ended up making my first game, Omnomnom Game, in six weeks thanks to this awesome incubator!

Miss N: What was your earliest memory of playing games?

Marion: Haha. I think the first game I played was Super Mario Bros. on the NES. It was my father’s. I played it so many times with my brother.

I remember we had a really old TV and sometimes we had to turn some screws to make it work. It was always about competition when I played with my brother, but (I must admit) he was way better than me! It was also really fun to learn every little secret within each level. We even bought those video game magazines to learn more secrets (because you know, there was no internet back then!).

Miss N: You come from a background of design and UI/UX. Are there any parallels between your work then and now as a game maker?

Marion: When I was in interaction design, the most important thing was to help the user understand everything about my app, my website, or my game. We had no tutorials to learn how to use a website (well, back then!). Your website had to be clear enough for the user to understand everything at first sight. This is definitely something I use every time I work on a new game. UI/UX are important aspects in games and doing those well can lead to a more pleasant experience for the player.

Omnomnom Game by Marion Esquian
Omnomnom Game by Marion Esquian

Miss N: You mentioned that in your previous work, you had to make sure users understood everything. Have you ever had a moment in making games where you designed something a particular way, but the player did something or used something unexpectedly?

Marion: When I made Omnomnom Game at Pixelles, there was one feature that made the game more interesting to play, but wasn’t easy to understand.

Prototypes of Omnomnom Game [click for larger]
Prototypes of Omnomnom Game [click for a larger image]

At first I made a gif showing how the game is played and I naively thought people would watch it before pressing “Start.” But no, they would just press start and then ask me how the game is played. So I had to explain to almost every person playing Omnomnom that there was this one feature where you can swap two monsters — a feature that changed a lot of the way you played the game.

Later, I decided to entirely redo Omnomnom on Game Maker and added a tutorial that was automatically launched the first time the player opens the game. Now, the player actually had to do the features I wanted them to do if they wanted to end the tutorial to play. After adding the tutorial, I realized players would understand everything on their own and didn’t even need me anymore to understand how to play.

Play testing was a really great thing to do in order to see if the game was playable or not. Sometimes it’s easy to fix a problem just by adding a button, changing an icon, or deleting an option.

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?

Marion: When I’m looking for an idea and brainstorming, I like to make really big mind maps with all the elements I’d like to put in my game. I like writing a list of interesting actions that I’d like to do in the game.

I also usually draw some really small mock-ups of what could be the game, which give me more ideas or make me realize if something doesn’t work. Generally, I always begin with an idea and then I think about my capacity to realize it or not (as I’m not a programmer, sometimes it can be challenging).

She Might Think by Marion Esquian and Ludivine Berthouloux
She Might Think by Marion Esquian & Ludivine Berthouloux

Miss N: Speaking of challenges, what has been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered when you’re making a game?

Marion: As I’m not a programmer, the hardest part for me is the programming part—that’s why I use Game Maker, because it’s perfect for making games even if you’re not a very good programmer.

Sometimes, though, I can be stuck for a really long time just because I don’t know how to do a feature. I actually change my games a bit during development because I can’t do everything I want. Sometimes it’s a frustrating process, but sometimes those limitations end up working out for the best!

Fortune Catcher by Marion Esquian and Yowan Langlais
Fortune Catcher by Marion Esquian & Yowan Langlais

Miss N: What has been your most fulfilling experience in making games?

Marion: I think it’s seeing people playing my games and actually having fun. When I see people playing Fortune Catcher (a game I made with Yowan Langlais), I laugh so hard. It really makes me happy to see people laughing thanks to our creation.

All my games are available for free on my profile, and I’m amazed that a lot of people are actually giving me some money for my games even if they don’t have to. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to see that they like my work and encourage me!

Miss N: A lot of your games (She Might Think, Fortune Catcher, Sex Drive: Fruity Call) all come from either self-initiated jams or actual game jams. What role do these jams play in your creative work?

Marion: Game jams always come with a theme so they help me find ideas. The main reason I do them, though, is because of the deadlines. When you’re working on your own, it’s really hard to know when to stop your project. Sometimes, it’s also just hard to find the motivation to work.

I’m really more efficient when I work under pressure. That’s why a game jam like “A Game By Its Cover” (the jam where She Might Think was made), which lasts almost two months, is really great. You can make a game a little bit more polished than in the usual 48-hour jams.

Moreover, it’s a great way to meet great people!

She Might Think by Marion Esquian & Ludivine Berthouloux
She Might Think by Marion Esquian & Ludivine Berthouloux

Miss N: In She Might Think, you and Ludivine Berthouloux both created a game that looks into how individuals can have different perspectives about the same environment. You’ve mentioned before how you interviewed women to get a wide range of reactions to the objects in the game. What made you two decide to do real interviews versus just making them up yourselves?

Marion: We decided to ask real women because even we didn’t know how different people would see each object. It was interesting to learn what different individuals thought and sometimes even surprising. That’s mainly what we were looking for: to surprise players with each character’s reaction to the objects. I just thought it would be more realistic if all those surprising/funny/cute reactions were from real women.

Miss N: She Might Think is a very narrative-driven game unlike your previous games Omnomnom Game and Fortune Catcher. What was the experience like deviating (in genre) from your previous games?

Marion: It was really interesting to do a narrative game and I will probably do another one later because I had a lot of fun doing it! It’s just that I’m not a really good writer.

For She Might Think, it was definitely a good thing I used the opinions of real women, as it gave me a lot of perspective I could have missed writing on my own. Also, as my English is far from perfect, I asked a friend to correct all my English mistakes. As text is the main feature in She Might Think, I really wanted it to be as perfect as possible. That’s definitely one thing I don’t have to worry about in really simple games like Omnomnom or Fortune Catcher.

She Might Think by Marion Esquian & Ludivine Berthouloux
She Might Think by Marion Esquian & Ludivine Berthouloux

Miss N: Do you think there are things that games do better than other mediums?

Marion: For sure. I think games are such great tools to experiment and learn. It’s a great way to relax and learn at the same time. The awesome part is that they can teach players a lot of different things—history, reflex, culture, etc.

That’s what I tried to do in She Might Think. Our goal was to show players that every woman has her own way of thinking and their reactions are often different from what players could have thought.

Miss N: Are there any games that you think have really pushed the boundaries of the medium (i.e. in terms of mechanics, narrative, or tech)?

Marion: I really love games like Journey, Monument Valley, or Hohokum—all real pleasures for the eyes. I also love how they don’t ask for a lot of skills and how they bring the player to a new level of gaming (without any stress, scoring, or competition). These games are just about discovering a beautiful universe and having a good time.

Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers that you admire?

Marion: I’m a huge fan of all the women in Pixelles. It’s a non-profit organization helping women make games—in other words, they have a lot of wonderful women game makers proving that everybody can make a game if they are passionate enough. They gave me hope and confidence.

Gardenarium by Paloma Dawkins, Kyler Kelly, & Ylang Ylang
Gardenarium by Paloma Dawkins, Kyler Kelly, & Ylang Ylang

I also really admire the work of Paloma Dawkins. Her art and all her ideas are so colorful and unique. I discovered her work when she teamed up with KO-OP on Gardenarium, and ever since then, I’ve been a big fan!

Miss N: If you could go back and give advice to yourself when you were first starting out as a game maker, what would it be?

Marion: Stop worrying about programming. Stop worrying that your games won’t be great enough. Believe in yourself! Also, don’t wait for people to come talk to you. Go and meet all those awesome game developers around you.

Miss N: Thank you, Marion!

If you’re interested in following Marion, you can visit her website or follow her on Twitter @MayhowAs always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers that you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.


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