Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Paige Ashlynn

Image courtesy of Paige Ashlynn
Image courtesy of Paige Ashlynn & MidBoss

Blanket Fort Chats” is a weekly column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Paige Ashlynn, a trans femme nonbinary game developer and former indie studio owner now working a​t MidBoss on Read Only Memories.

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

PaigeSure thing! I’ve been programming since I was a tween, but I never expected—or really even wanted—to do games for a living. During college, I worked a series of internships trying out every type of professional programming that interested me and being disappointed with each in turn. Friends had been telling me to give games a shot for years, so I grudgingly took some classes. To my surprise, I found I loved the process. In particular, the collaborative, multidisciplinary nature of game development is super energizing.

In 2012, I co-founded a game development studio with a team of fellow students. I attended my first GDC shortly thereafter, played dys4ia in the IGF pavilion, met amazing trans developers, and decided that this was the career for me! My team ran a successful Kickstarter and spent the next two years creating Magnetic By Nature, a puzzle platformer with cool graphics and a fun mechanic.

Since then, I’ve done a lot of traveling to game events, some volunteering, made some small games, and met a lot of wonderful people. I’ve completely fallen in love with the indie gamedev community!

Magnetic By Nature by Team Tripleslash
Magnetic By Nature by Team Tripleslash

Miss N: Can you describe your earliest memory of playing games?

Paige: I think the first digital games I ever saw were arcade cabinets of Q-Bert and Ms. Pac-Man at the back of a dark, black-light-flickering roller rink sometime in the early ’80s. I must have been about four at the time, because I recall a Pac-Man-themed fifth birthday party.

I didn’t really start playing, though, until the early ’90s. I was eleven when my family got a hand-me-down Atari 2600. It broke almost immediately, so we replaced it with an NES. For several years, we owned Super Mario Bros. (one and two), Duck Hunt, the original Legend of Zelda, and nothing else. So young-me played those a bunch. Mario 2 and Zelda instilled in me a love of exploration and discovery in games. We also rented games frequently, so I played most of the NES-era classics when they were new. Mega Man 2 spawned my love of both chip music and digital art.

Miss N: Previously, you mentioned that, “Some of the first code [you] ever wrote was for a simple pseudo-platformer.” Can you describe what that experience was like? 

Paige: When I was 13, I found an old Commodore in my family’s garage. This was my family’s only computer, but it hadn’t been unboxed in years. Somehow, I got it into my head that I should learn to program it. I spent most of my summer vacation in 1992 puzzling through the technical manual it shipped with. This was the first technical material I had ever read, and it was not easy going. I remember being stuck for two solid days trying to figure out what the heck a for-loop was. That was my first coding challenge!

Although I eventually mastered BASIC and learned a bit of Assembly, I didn’t have a grasp of programming fundamentals, so there were many problems I wasn’t able to solve. I tried to make a platformer, but after implementing gravity, I could not figure out how to make the player character (a small red dot) jump or climb — so literally the only thing you could do in that game was fall to your death. I think I named the game “Splat.

The main lesson I took away from this, though, was that if I stick with something long enough, even if I’m not good at it initially, I will eventually break through. That was a super powerful, positive message for a trans 13-year-old!

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

Paige: I create games in the same way that I wrote zines in my twenties—usually beginning with an emotion or a vague theme. Often, this starting point is a response to something I’ve experienced in my daily life or in media I consume. Typically, I need to let the idea hang out for a while in the back of my mind before I can express it verbally; once I can do that, the next step is to imagine it as a game.

This is the difficult part for me. Since it’s hard, I start with one aspect of a game and try to fill in the rest from there. I go from a statement of what I want to accomplish to, say, a specific visual style or a set of characters or a game mechanic, and then build the rest around that.

I have a few close friends that I pitch ideas to, usually many times as I slowly refine them. Sometimes, an idea comes fully formed, but other times I talk about it for a year before I figure out the right way to express it.

So, in my on-going side project, Alas, It Was A Skeleton Monster!, I am experimenting with de-centering the player ;  this was a response to math games like Conway’s Life. Or in Lightlike, I’m trying to capture in game-form some of what I love about demoscene productions. In my Twine game, The Passing of Autumn, I’m revisiting a short story I wrote in my ’20s about coming to terms with the necessity of me transitioning.

Alas, It Was A Skeleton Monster! by by Paige Ashlynn, Becky Pennock, Toppie, Lance Montgomery II, & Nick Day
Alas, It Was A Skeleton Monster! by Paige Ashlynn, Becky Pennock, Toppie, Lance Montgomery II, & Nick Day

Miss N: As you go through development, what’s your process usually like?

Paige: I don’t have any formal training in game design other than attending a few talks at conferences, so this is a real by-the-seat-of-my-pants process for me. However, I do have a lot of experience taking feedback. I believe super strongly in getting the game in front of players as early as possible. Questions like, “How does the player feel when they interact with this?” or “What is their experience like as they move through here? Do they know what to do next? Should they?” are front and center for me.

The other big thing I watch out for is scope. Games are so, so easy to over-scope, especially on the shoe-string budgets that most indie games are made with. So when it comes to including mechanics or other content, less is more. Since I’m especially drawn toward games that are vignette-like, this is natural for me. I typically have plenty of ideas that I whittle down to the bare minimum. Then, as I coding or make assets, I cut out even more. It’s usually still too much!

Miss N: Earlier, you mentioned Magnetic By Nature, a game you made with Team Tripleslash. It’s such a gorgeous and mesmerizing game. Are there any lessons you learned from making that game that help in your current game making projects? 

Paige: Oh gosh, so many! I can’t succinctly express everything I learned just because I learned so much . This was the first commercial game I worked on after college, and the first time I led a group of employees making art that was intended to earn enough to pay them for their work.

A lot of the specific skills I gained were business-related; how to budget a long-term project, how to read a contract, how to pitch an idea, how to demo at trade shows. I learned a lot about design and user experience along the way, too.

Going in, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to shoulder all of those responsibilities. Now, I’ve done it and know I could do it again. So the biggest take-aways for me are the self-confidence to pursue the things that I love, and the knowledge that game development really is what I want to do with my life.

Magnetic By Nature by Team Tripleslash
Magnetic By Nature by Team Tripleslash

Miss N: Is there one aspect of that game you’re really proud of that maybe players wouldn’t realize, at least initially? 

Paige: If I had to choose one thing to be most proud of, it would be the difficulty curve. Our guiding word was “momentum” — the feel of Magnetic ​By Naturerelies on the player moving smoothly and quickly, even in later stages where there are many mechanics interacting, the puzzles are challenging, and maneuvering must be precise. In order to achieve this, we had to ensure that the players had internalized the skills they needed to cope with the trials we had lined up for them.

This took a great deal of effort, since we (rather recklessly) built 125 levels across five distinct zones. To play-test this, we took the game out publicly at least twice a month, every month, for a year and a half — demoing, recording metrics, and interviewing players. Each time, we learned more and revised the levels.

We also took advice from more established developers. Kellee Santiago of Journey fame was particularly helpful in suggesting patterns of rising and falling challenges that ensured the game was neither too frustrating nor too easy. In this regard, I think Magnetic shines in comparison to most indie titles.

Miss N: Earlier this year, you joined MidBoss to work on Read Only Memories. What drew you to the project and what was it like jumping on board an already established game?

Paige: The MidBoss team is a wonderful combination of kind and professional, so the overall experience has been great. I played Read Only Memories right before going to GaymerX in December of 2015. I loved the game, and had been an big fan of MidBoss for years, so when I saw that they were hiring programmers I knew I had to apply.

It’s a lot of work to get up to speed on any project that’s already well-established; there’s a codebase to learn, a business situation to familiarize yourself with, fan and critical feedback to internalize, and team norms to wrap your head around. But I’ve found that joining an existing game that I’m already a huge fan of is unlike anything else in my career so far. It’s weird to suddenly be coding the behavior of characters I have so many feels for!

Read Only Memories by MidBoss
Read Only Memories by MidBoss

Miss N: Are there things in the game that you appreciate more now after joining the team?

Paige: I appreciate the amount of work that went in to the world-building and the rendering of the setting. As a player, I had kind of glossed over a lot the backstory. Seeing the depth of writing behind the plot has given me a new appreciation for the narrative.

I also really love the degree to which the team thinks about the social ramifications in today’s world of the choices they make in the game’s speculative future. As a fan, I had naively assumed a lot of the perspectives in the game’s story fell out naturally from the team’s own viewpoints, but in reality, they have put time and effort into considering the way their world-building supports or undermines the narratives of marginalized people whose experiences are unlike their own. There are areas where the story could be improved in this regard — and they’re revising to improve them! That’s pretty dang cool, if you ask me.

Miss N: Looking back at your game making adventures, what’s been the most challenging aspect you’ve encountered when making games?

Paige: Just the sheer amount of work it takes. Creating games takes so, so much effort and pays so little—especially for indies. To build your life around it requires a certain fanaticism. For me, that drive comes from the belief that I can improve people’s lives by representing marginalized communities in popular media. That’s my whole career goal, to be honest.

Miss N: On the flip side, what’s been the most fulfilling?

Paige: The indie community. Like any big community, it’s a mixed bag, but the cool people are so cool! Indie game developers, journalists, event organizers, and fans are all some of the funnest, most creative, and most supportive people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. These days, when I work on my games, I’m often thinking of a particular friend I met at a games event, imagining how excited I’ll be to share my work with them at a future event.

A close second would be seeing people enjoy my creations. Honestly, nothing is quite as cool as pouring yourself into something and then watching the excited amusement spread over a player’s face as they discover the thing you made. That’s what’s kept me going during those years on Magnetic By Nature.

Lightlike by Paige Ashlynn
Lightlike by Paige Ashlynn

Miss N: Do you think there are things that are inherently unique to games (as a medium) compared to other creative mediums? 

Paige: For me, the most exciting thing about games is situational — the medium is growing so fast, and so many amazing people are pouring their dreams and energy into i​t right now. We’re at the peak of a tipping point in terms of the medium finding its voices and the public internalizing how profoundly games effect people. I think games made over the next ten years will be some of the most profoundly influential. I’m thrilled to be playing a part in that — I can’t imagine a better time to be working in this field!​

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

Paige: I have a very long list of titles I’m excited about, but I’ll mention a few of the most important to me here.

Slam City Oracles by Jane Friedhoff :  I learned more about design playing this title than I did doing anything else in 2015. I like how the mechanic isn’t a metaphor for a lived experience, it just is that experience. I really, strongly believe in Jane’s emotive, participation-first approach to personal games.

Consentacle by Naomi Clark :  the way this game teaches about negotiation and respect through a mechanic that emulates/encourages flirting is absolutely brilliant. I want more games that give me permission to be intimate with people I’ve only just met!

LongStory by the LongStory team :  I love the casual inclusivity! Our own Read Only Memories strikes a similar cord. These games don’t make a big deal out of their diverse cast, despite having some of the most diverse casts in the history of digital gaming. They just reflect the people in the real world and allow the player to enjoy seeing and being themselves.

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

Paige: Too many to list! I’ll mention some folks who I think are underappreciated.

Philip Jones is an amazing nonbinary developer who I’m thrilled to work with at MidBoss. Their writing on Read Only Memories is top-notch. And their work directing Gaming In Color and making sure Gaymer X happens every year makes the industry a much more livable place for me and many others.

Mariko McDonald, who writes as GamerWife, is a player, cultural critic, and developer. She provides a refreshing, down-to-earth voice, and she’s unafraid to face the often ugly social realities games folks live in right now, but she remains an joyous celebrator of what’s good in gaming.

Kanane Jones has made super creative works such as Final Girls. I love how she finds ways to take her fan interests (horror movies, vampires) and apply them to pressing social issues through play.

Belinda Zoller is a local developer and community organizer who works year-round in the Utah indie scene. I especially admire how she’s brought high quality events outside Salt Lake City, broadening access to those who can’t make it downtown.

Hollie Figueroa is an independent developer and games promoter. She’s done a huge amount to build community among developers who use Unity and to support small-time game makers attending events like PAX.

Rachél Bazelais is a coder, designer, and podcaster (on Games, Seriously). I was really touched by her game The Hill, which depicts a very emotional real-world situation that does not mirror our simplistic political expectations.

Becky Pennock is one of the most gifted artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with. For my first several years in games, I was largely following in her footsteps. Becky has a strong grasp of user experience and is excellent at production and pipeline management, too — not areas all of us are naturally gifted in!

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?

Paige: Don’t try to please everyone. This applies on several levels. Where design is concerned, it’s easy to chase too many player groups. On Magnetic By Nature, instead of picking a single audience and advocating for their needs, we tried to court at least three distinct groups, making compromise after compromise until no one was 100% happy.

Similarly, trying to speak to everyone thematically usually means speaking to no one. I’ve had the most success when I tackle an idea I think no one but me will find interesting. It surprised me at first when oddball games I made for myself caught on with others .  I believe now that this is where originality lurks.

Collaboration is another area where you can’t please everyone. Let go of relationships that hold you back. From my background in volunteering, I was used to putting the needs of my staff ahead of the needs of my company, and this led me into some serious business mistakes. It’s okay to separate from people who aren’t pulling their weight, and it’s better for all concerned if you do that earlier rather than later.

It’s also okay to split off from folks who are working hard, but whose goals are misaligned. This applies even when you’re not paying bills: nothing kills a game jam faster than a team member throwing on the emotional breaks. Pursue relationships that build you up. Find collaborators who share your goals and values and put your energy into working with them.

And don’t be afraid to ask people who are more experienced and influence than yourself for assistance or advice! I spent too long worrying about bothering people who I looked up to. Everyone is busy, so you do need to respect others’ time. But, it turns out, if you have good taste in role models, many times they will be happy to help you out!

Miss N: Thank you, Paige!

If you’re interested in following Paige, visit their website or follow them on Twitter @MxAshlynn. 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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