Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Rachel Pope

[Courtesy of Rachel & Defined Mind.]
[Courtesy of Rachel & Defined Mind.]
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 Rachel Pope, a Chicago-based game designer most recently known for her studio’s game, Wordwright—a card gaming platform that allows you to use word parts and meaning to build words across numerous games.

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

Rachel: My background is pretty varied. I studied English, Education, and Spanish, then taught myself how to code, and have spent most of my professional life in digital design and development.

Miss N: How did you get into making games?

Rachel: I got into making games as a kind of natural creative outlet. Gameplay was important in our house growing up, and I think I’ve always had ideas for new games or new ways to play games. When I found myself out of work for a few months, I decided to work on developing some of those ideas.

Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?

Rachel: That’s a tough one. We always had board games in the house — I remember my parents playing Scrabble a lot, and we had some staples for kids, like Chutes and Ladders, but I think some of my best early memories of playing games are from the nights we would go over to my grandmother’s house and sit around the kitchen table playing a variety of board and card games. It was memorable because everyone was included, no matter our age, and we all had fun. There was definitely a feeling of family togetherness that was important to me.

Miss N: Did your previous background have any influence in your work now as a game maker?

Rachel: I was certainly able to apply skills from my digital design background to game making, primarily in preparing digital artwork and files for games, and understanding what was needed for that. And, because I do have a background in education, it’s not surprising that the games I’ve imagined include strategy and thought rather than luck. 

However, I think game making is really a different type of creative process than what I was used to. It’s much more freeing, in a sense, because there are no real constraints on what can be done— you’re only limited by your imagination.

Miss N: Did making games change your creative process?

Rachel: As I said before, it’s a different type of creative process with more freedom. Unlike designing a website, for instance, there’s no real need to plan for a specific audience from the get-go. I can think about what I would like to play and what would be fun for me and run with that idea. Once an idea is solidified, then I think about whether it’s fun for other people. Playtesting and revising was a new process for me and, I think, really changed the creative process for me in a good way.

Miss N: Your studio is focused on making games for “self-improvement and education.” What drew you to focus specifically on these themes?

Rachel: My brother and I grew up without a lot of money, but we are both much better off today because of our education and because we took the initiative to learn on our own and develop our interests. We want to help other people do that as well, so all the games we have planned are based on that concept — that you can improve yourself by thinking about and engaging with concepts in different ways.

Wordwright by Defined Mind
Wordwright by Defined Mind

Miss N: We recently played your latest game, Wordwright, at this year’s IndieCade (as part of the “Gaming for Everyone” Pavilion). Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Rachel: Wordwright is a game about building words, but unlike other word games, you use word parts (prefixes, roots, and suffixes) instead of letters. It’s an ultra-portable deck of cards that can be used to form hundreds of words across a variety of games, ranging from fast-paced to analytical, with competitive or collaborative goals. It’s pretty unique and really flexible.

Miss N: What was the process like making the game?

Rachel: I originally had the idea for this game several years ago and it was solely educational at that point. When my brother and I started working on it (finally) this year, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t much fun at that purely educational level, so we did a lot of playtesting and revisions to get it to the point it is at right now, which is a fun game that has some educational aspects to it.

Miss N: You mentioned before that playtesting was a new process for you. Can you tell us what those sessions were like?

Rachel: We did a lot of informal testing — i.e. pestering random friends and family members to play the games and tell us what they thought. We did a lot of internal playtesting amongst ourselves to determine which parts worked well together and which didn’t. We also recruited some new playtesters who were educators to see what they thought of the educational value, but we weren’t present when they were testing. We also played with people who didn’t know us on a couple occasions, but again, informally and in small groups. 

In observing others playing, we found (unsurprisingly) that some people wanted quick games with easy outcomes and some wanted more in-depth games that made them think. We developed several variations to accommodate those different interests. We also saw that some people were unsure of how to use the part variations, so we made sure to include information on that in the instructions.

Miss N: Were there things you had to scrap or compromises you had to make during the game’s development?

Rachel: There were definitely some compromises involved in the process. There are plenty of word parts (especially roots) that I would have liked to incorporate, but we needed to think about how well the parts worked together, how the game played, and how manageable the deck would be with more cards. We ultimately wound up with a standard 52-card deck, but we’re satisfied with both the playability and the educational aspects of the result.

Original (digital) prototype for Wordwright
Original (digital) prototype for Wordwright

Miss N: What made you both choose the physical route instead of making the game digital?

Rachel: We actually started with the digital route. My brother is in software and I’ve been in digital design for a while, so we decided to create an app out of the original game idea. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t much fun to play.

In order to test out different game options, we printed out word parts on paper to move around and it just seemed like an easier way to go once we started playing with them that way. My brother really pushed for a deck of cards because he’s been a card game person his whole life and it took off from there. It was actually a lot easier to conceptualize different and more fun games working with physical cards than it was being limited by what we could reasonably do in an app created by beginners.

Miss N: Looking back at your game making experiences, what’s been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered?

Rachel: I work with my brother to create games. We’re both reasonably organized and have a good idea of how to produce something from concept to completion, but we have somewhat different aesthetics and different ways of thinking about things. Probably the greatest challenge has just been compromising and figuring out what we can agree on. I think it makes the game better, though, to work through that. It’s resulted in good discussions that have ultimately improved the final product.

Wordwright at the Chicago Toy & Game Fair
Wordwright at the Chicago Toy & Game Fair

Miss N: What’s been the most fulfilling thing you’ve encountered?

Rachel: We recently exhibited Wordwright at the Chicago Toy & Game Fair and it was really exciting to engage with people who understood the game, liked the concept, and wanted to buy it right away. We had kids who played and then said (quietly to their parents and not to us), “I want this game,” because they thought it was fun. And parents who wanted to buy the game because they thought it was educational. That was fulfilling for me, to know that we hit both goals.

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

Rachel: Games by nature involve people in the creative experience, and that’s something they do better than other mediums. If you think about watching a play, going to an art museum, listening to a concert, your interaction with the art form is mostly through observation, and if there is participation, it’s generally a unique interaction that happens just once. Games are more readily accessible, involve interactions that are repeatable and shareable, and game players are truly participating instead of observing. Games don’t really exist as a creative medium without the player, which can’t be said for a lot of other art.

Miss N: Are there any games that you think have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?

Rachel: I think a lot of people have seen Jane McGonigal’s TED talk and know about her game, SuperBetter, which she designed to improve mental and emotional health. I love the idea of the game, and the idea of using games for good, to improve people’s health and well-being. I think that’s forward-thinking. I don’t know how well her app works in reality, but it is an idea I can get behind.

LittleBigPlanet by Media Molecule
LittleBigPlanet by Media Molecule

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

Rachel: I haven’t talked much about video games here, but they’ve been a big part of my life, too. Since it’s not an industry where women traditionally have a large role, I do admire women who have carved out a place for themselves.

Someone like Siobhan Reddy, for instance, who co-founded Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet is still one of my favorite games). She really set out to do what she wanted and achieved it. That’s pretty awesome.

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

Rachel: I haven’t been making games that long, but I think my advice for anyone starting out would be the same — trust in yourself. The process can be a long one and there will be moments where the whole thing seems impossible and you want to quit. It’s important that you don’t quit. There’s nothing like the sense of accomplishment you feel when you hold the finished product in your hand.

Miss N: Thank you, Rachel!


If you’re interested in following Rachel, you can visit her studio’s website or follow her on Twitter @DefinedMindGame. Her studio’s latest game, Wordwright, is also on Kickstarterso if you’re interested in the game, be sure to back it. 

As 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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