Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Meagan Byrne

Image courtesy of Meagan Byrne
Image courtesy of Meagan Byrne & Jajijanohwis Hill

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 Meagan Byrne, a Toronto-based Game Design student currently working as a Peer Mentor for her school’s Aboriginal Initiatives office and an active member of her school’s Aboriginal Student Group. She hopes to create games that reflect her Métis/Cree roots and bring new stories to video game players.

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

Meagan: I actually started out in the live production/theatre field doing lighting design and event planning, but then the recession hit and I couldn’t find full-time work anymore. As my last contract was starting to wrap up, I took a really hard look at the job market. It was clear that if I stuck with this career, I was most likely never going to be able to rise above the poverty line. So I looked at what market was growing, and lo and behold, I saw the gaming industry! 

I knew it wasn’t ever going to be as easy as just walking into this field and picking up ALL THE JOBS, but I also saw a field where more and more companies outside of game design were starting to hire designers. After my first year at Sheridan, I knew I had the career I wanted. It was challenging, creative, and so incredibly rewarding!

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

Meagan: We weren’t allowed to have video game consoles in my house, but for some reason, computer games were fine. My first memories of games (other than board games, which was just a lot of Monopoly) is playing Math Blaster for a bit and then being allowed to play MechWarrior 2. I think that game really cemented the idea of creating a fair, but challenging game since the UI was confusing as hell. I wouldn’t describe it as fun, but I was fascinated by how they had made it feel like I was really using a mech suit—albeit one with confusing controls and no training.

Layers of Madness — Enemy Concepts
Layers of Madness — Enemy Concepts

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

Meagan: I’ve had a sketchbook or notebook in my hand since I was 13, and that’s always where my process starts. I don’t even touch a computer until I’ve sketched out an idea; this is particularly important for a game with heavy narrative. There have been lots of times where I have this narrative in my head, it seems perfect, but then I write it out and I can begin to see where the plot holes lie. Sometimes I have a sketch, but no direction. Those are the times when I need someone I can brainstorm with and a big whiteboard. 

This was the case with Wanisinowin. I had a narrative concept, but no direction for the game to form around. Since I had some mentor resources at DMG (Dames Making Games), I took advantage of that and had a great time mapping out the path the game should take. It also really helped cement my first few game mechanics. Talking it out is how I figure out which direction to take and which ideas to drop. I’ve never found it too difficult to drop ideas, even ones I thought were really interesting. One of my biggest mottos is: “Don’t get married to an idea, you barely know it.”

Miss N: Where do you get your inspiration from?

Meagan: I get most of my inspiration from what I do in my free time. Most of it is taken up by doing lots of things that aren’t gaming. I love playing games, but as a designer, I’ve found that the majority of my ideas come from any place other than games. I volunteer with Scouts Canada, I go camping, and I hike on a regular basis. I got to PowWows and cultural events, I bead, I paint, I make foam weapons, I run or go on long bike rides, I read up on fashion, I go to art galleries. Basically, I’m out there doing things. Often times, I am surprised how something so unremarkable as putting ink to paper can inspire an amazing mechanic, but that’s exactly what happened with Ōkami.

Miss N: You’re pretty versatile as a game maker (from art to writing). Does your creative process change whenever you do one over another? 

Meagan: I would say if anything changes, it’s that I talk a lot more when I’m working on the visual side versus the writing side. With writing, I tend to bang out something, send it off, and wait for comments, but with art, I usually directly message a team member or just go over and talk to them. This is probably because I appreciate that it takes more time for someone to read a treatment than it does to look at a few images. With writing, I tend to only start talking to people after I know they’ve had a chance to read and digest what they’ve read. I find you only really get decent feedback when you let someone go into fridge logic territory first, because that’s where your players will end up soon enough.

Miss N: Has game making changed your approach to things or your creative practice outside of games? 

Meagan: It’s definitely changed the way I view anything made for people. I prefer a user-centric or user experience (UX) approach whenever I’m creating something, and now all I can see is how badly things are designed for people and I’m not even talking about games. 

Image courtesy of Meagan Byrne
Image courtesy of Meagan Byrne

For example, I look at the buttons used to open doors at my GO station (pictured right). There’s two sets of doors at every entrance and they have it so you have to push a button on the outside for one door and then push another button to open the next set of doors. I sometimes need to bring my bike through and it’s almost impossible for me to do it and all I can think is “Did anyone think what someone in a wheelchair or with limited mobility would find most comfortable?”

Good design is about making something fit for people, not about making people fit for a thing. When I’m playtesting something and my player fails to do what I need them to do, I don’t think: “God, this person is foolish.” I think: “Where is my design going wrong?”

Miss N: On your site, you mentioned that Wanisinowin is the first game that you “made totally on [your] own.” What was it like developing the game? 

Meagan: To be fair, I wasn’t totally on my own in the beginning. I had the support of the Indigicade program, DMG, and I had Gabby DaRienzoa wonderful artist who did all the art assets—but after a month, I was on my own. A lot of that was me not realizing I could have reached out for help, either from DMG or from friends in my program. I think a lot of stress came from my inexperience and not knowing when to ask for help. It wasn’t even a pride thing, it just hadn’t occurred to me that I could reach out for more help. I definitely learned that lesson.

I know some people can work without a team, but I found I’m not one of those people. Alone, I tend to not document my ideas as much and I certainly didn’t keep track of changes, which almost saw me lose my whole project. I changed all the art asset names, which just wiped out two months worth of work. I was super tired when I made the decision and I had a demo due that day, so I clearly wasn’t thinking properly. I spent the day working on fixing it and actually got the demo done and looking nicer than what I was originally going to hand in. It was kind of nice to be able to mess up and not have anyone see it, though I did end up talking about it during my Post-Mortem presentation, so maybe I delayed the embarrassment rather than avoided it is a better way of putting it.

On the positive side, I could make last minute changes and didn’t have to wait on anyone else’s approval or for anyone else’s work, and I am proud of what I was able to accomplish. The fact that even a few people also enjoyed it meant that it was a success. I can’t think of a bigger positive than that.

Wanisinowin | Lost by Meagan Byrne (Art by Gabby DaRienzo & Code Assist by Andrew Carvalho)
Wanisinowin | Lost by Meagan Byrne (art by Gabby DaRienzo & code assist by Andrew Carvalho)

Miss N: You’ve previously described Wanisinowin as a game about “being lost or unsure of your place in the world.” What drew you to this theme?

Meagan: I wasn’t told straight up that I was native until I was at least a pre-teen. It wasn’t really a shock, it was more of a “that makes sense” thing. What was hard was the rejection from the native community my aunt brought me to. Almost right away I was dismissed because my skin was too light or I because I didn’t grow up on a reservation. I didn’t feel comfortable going to “native” events or Friendship Centres. Was I going to be thrown out of there, too? My mother was not interested in embracing her identity, neither were my siblings, so I acted like I didn’t care either.

My aunt was my only connection, but it felt too distant that way. I felt that if this is what I am, then why do I feel like a fraud or an outsider? It was really only because of the growing Native community at my school and our Aboriginal Student Success Officer that I was able to find my path and begin to meet with other First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students, and talk to elders.

I know I am not the only Native person who feels this way. I’m sure even outside of the issue of Native identity, many people feel the pain of unsure cultural identity. I wanted to make a game that explored that and maybe work through my own issues of belonging.

Miss N: You mentioned that the mechanics were designed around this central theme. Can you speak a bit more about that?

Meagan: The major mechanics that I used to incorporate and reinforce the theme were mainly dialogue, the fog mechanic on the Moose character, and the platforming itself. I used a platforming system because I felt that it was the most natural way of getting across the idea of being lost.

When you have a platforming game, it’s all about frustration and not knowing where to go. I wanted to take that idea and apply it to this game even though it is a very relaxing game. I also wanted to have that tension, because when you have issues of identities, it’s not a constant forefront tension, it’s always there in the background. Occasionally, you’ll hit points where things get really difficult and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do or how to proceed, and that’s why I chose to go with platform mechanics to get across the theme of of being lost—of finding identity.

Wanisinowin | Lost by Meagan Byrne (Art by Gabby DaRienzo & Code Assist by Andrew Carvalho)
Wanisinowin | Lost by Meagan Byrne (art by Gabby DaRienzo & code assist by Andrew Carvalho)

Miss N: Were there things that took you longer to figure out or things you had to scrap during the development? 

Meagan: Oh, there a lot of things I had to scrap. I originally wanted the two characters Deer and Wani to follow each other, to be connected, but then I realized that was just beyond my capabilities at the time and the scope for the project. There were other things I wanted to keep working on but had to drop: I wanted to make a longer story and I wanted opening/closing cinematics.

My personal approach to making games is let’s go big picture, let’s go all bells and whistles, talk about what we want right away and then start pulling back from that point. I find it easier to pull back than it is to build back up, because when you’re pulling back, you can always have in the back your mind that idea of “I really want to have this in there, so I’m going to leave space” or “I’m going to leave the ability to put that in at a later point.”

It’s so much easier to go back and then forward than it is to start behind and then have to add on. It’s like a building. If you build a building and you only ever wanted it to be one floor, but then later you want to add another floor, it’s really hard to do that because there are structural considerations that just would not have been taken into consideration for a one-floor building. But if you start from the point of “I really want to have two floors, but we can only afford to do one,” you’re going to design differently.

So if I end up dropping anything, it’s because we don’t have the time or I don’t have the capability of getting it done within the scope of the project.

Miss N: Is there one thing in the game that you’re really proud of that maybe players won’t realize, at least initially?

Meagan: There isn’t really one thing about the game that I’m proud of. Mostly I’m proud and thankful that I was able to get my message across and not just to people who are dealing with issues of native identity, but to anyone who has an issue of identity.

It really means a lot to me when I heard from a student who was born Chinese and adopted into Canada saying that she really connected with this game and it really felt like it was for her. That meant a lot to me, because we all deal with issues of identity and we’re all wrapped up in this question of whether we belong. It’s especially hard when you fall between the cracks of identity.

Wanisinowin | Lost by Meagan Byrne (Art by Gabby DaRienzo & Code Assist by Andrew Carvalho)
Wanisinowin | Lost by Meagan Byrne (art by Gabby DaRienzo & code assist by Andrew Carvalho)

Miss N: What’s the most challenging thing you’ve encountered when making your games? 

Meagan: The most challenging aspect would have had to be constantly refining my scope. I wanted to do a lot of things, but I just didn’t have the skill set or the people at the time to achieve it. I had to constantly tell myself “You’re just making a demo, you can add the bigger stuff later.” It’s a lie, but it helped me keep things in perspective. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a constant challenge, though. 

Miss N: What’s the most fulfilling thing you’ve experienced when making games?

Meagan: Finishing them! Bar none, getting stuff off my plate, even if I think it could be better, is the best feeling in the world.

Miss N: Do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do better than other mediums?

Meagan: As a Métis woman, I would say that what I see games doing that no other medium can do is preserve traditional knowledge and stories in a more authentic manner. It’s not a great way of phrasing it, though. It’s more like games let the knowledge be spoken well or understood well. When things are written down or even recorded (either through audio or film), you lose some of the life in that knowledge and in so doing, lose some of the knowledge. Games offer us a way of presenting traditional knowledge in a way that lets the receiver both hear and experience what they are being told. It also gives nations that are isolated a way to share their life view and way of being with others.

Games can make people understand each other in a way we never have before. It is one of the reasons I get upset when I see stereotypes used in games. All that does is shut down dialogue or understanding. It puts up walls between people.

Ōkami by Clover Studio
Ōkami by Clover Studio

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

MeaganŌkami still stands out to me as a Prime Game. Who would have thought you could not only bring Sumi-e art to life, but also make brushwork a mechanic? It seems obvious now, but at the time it blew me away. I still don’t think that it gets the kind of attention it deserves as an art form because it’s considered a commercial success (though I think the defunct Clover Studios would disagree). We have games now like Kirby’s Epic Yarn or Scribblenauts because of Ōkami. They haven’t really moved passed what Ōkami started, but I just know there will be games in the future that will take this idea and apply it to things like beading or stone carving.

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

Meagan: I’d have to say straight up Elizabeth LaPensée is an awesome game designer and someone I consider a mentor. I love her game Invaders, but what is most awesome about her is how she is taking a wholly new approach to games. She wants to create games that are Anishinaabe from the roots up. It’s something I don’t really see anyone else doing, and it’s really exciting.

Another would be Gabriela Aveiro-Ojeda. We met at ImagineNATIVE last October, and I absolutely loved her approach and her art style. I don’t think I know anyone else who is attempting to create games using Paraguayan traditional knowledge. She’s also running an initiative called Pytyvo Gaming. It focuses on promoting people of color in gaming. She just gets so passionate about her work, it’s a wonderful thing to see.

Miss N: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were just starting out in your game making adventures, what would it be?

Meagan: 1. Ask for help.

2. Get a physical copy of Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop, 3rd Edition: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. Seriously, this book is full of great advice and stories from professionals in the industry. It’s just an overall great introduction to all the skills you need as a game designer. I have read it several times, but I really should have gotten a physical copy right away. Then I could have made notes and thumbed through when I needed to.

3. Read Burn Your Portfolio: Stuff They Don’t Teach You in Design School, But Should by Michael Janda. It’s not perfect by a longshot. He assumes his reader is a man, uses some oddly old school misogynistic examples, and I didn’t find Section 5 on running a business to be useful. BUT if you ignore that and the parts that are specific to Graphic Designers, this book is great at teaching you how to manage your workload, yourself, your team/boss, and your clients. I really could have used this book sooner.

Miss N: Thank you, Meagan!


If you’re interested in following Meagan, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @byrne_meagan. 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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