Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Jennifer Sunahara

Image courtesy of Jennifer Sunahara
Image courtesy of Jennifer Sunahara

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 Jennifer Sunahara, a Computer Science student with a particular interest in Computer Games and a background in Biology.

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

Jennifer: I have a Bachelor of Science in Biology from McGill and, although I love biology, I found very little work in that field. I was frustrated by this and, while I was looking into options for my future, I stumbled into learning how to program. I got a lot of satisfaction using online learning tools and decided I would go back to university to learn more about Computer Science—starting my Bachelor of Computer Sciences in the Computer Games option.

I mainly decided on Computer Games because I thought it was a neat idea. At the time, I did not know if it would be a good fit for me; it was just one of the options I was interested in pursuing. While in school, I joined Pixelles and made my very first game, Hexplosions. It was such a great experience, and pretty much what inspired me to pursue a career in the games industry. After Pixelles, I am much more specifically interested in games!

Miss N: What was it in Pixelles that helped you through the process of making games that perhaps you couldn’t have done on your own?

Jennifer: I don’t think I would have had the confidence to make my own game until way, way later in my academic program. I don’t think I would have believed that I had the programming background to do it. Pixelles allowed me to be surrounded by positivity, and gave me a safe space in which to fail. Being part of a group of people who were also making mistakes, restarting, and re-scoping was reassuring. In the words of Ms. Frizzle, it helped me be less afraid of taking chances, getting messy, and making mistakes!

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

Jennifer: I remember playing Red Alert when I was in elementary school. There was a mission with a team of dogs where we had to rescue other operatives. I kept messing up and my dogs would get hurt, so I had to restart the mission … over and over again. I am not sure I actually ended up succeeding in that mission until years later.

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

Jennifer: In the case of Hexplosions, I wanted to make a game with a strong mechanic. That was the starting point. Initially, I liked the idea of indirectly controlling minions by calling them towards you. However, you would have to be careful about calling them, as they may walk into traps or enemies. I liked the idea, but it would have required some intense AI, and I only had six weeks and limited knowledge of programming. So I had to boil it down into a much simpler model with simpler rules.

Paper prototype of Hexplosions
Paper prototype of Hexplosions

This was achieved with paper prototyping. Basically, I made a grid and moved coins around on it according to rules until I had something I was happy with. I ran the idea by my friends. It took a lot of testing and tweaking until it was more or less balanced. Bouncing ideas off of other people was a huge help for Hexplosions. I am lucky to be surrounded by people who get excited by all kinds of things and are happy to listen and brainstorm with me.

Miss N: Do you ever get creative blocks or moments when you know what you made just isn’t “right”?

Jennifer: Of course! That’s all part of the process. I think what works best for me is to identify why something isn’t right and what I don’t like about it. If I can’t do that, I will try to just tweak what I have a little, to see if my opinion of it changes for better or worse. If that still doesn’t work, I will let the idea sit a little and talk about it with other people. It might take some time, but usually I can figure out why I am blocked or why something isn’t quite right.

Hexplosions by Jennifer Sunahara
Hexplosions by Jennifer Sunahara

Miss N: Speaking of Hexplosions, can you tell us a bit about it and what drew you to making it?

Jennifer: Hexplosions is a turn-based strategy puzzle game in which you guide your allies safely home by helping them avoid hexplosives. I liked hexagons and explosions. The rest is history!

Hehehe, well, as I mentioned before, the most important thing for me was to make a game with a strong mechanic. I think I decided early on that I wanted my grid to be hexagonal, because hexagons are sexy. I also wanted a clean and crisp aesthetic, like FrozenSynapse.

Miss N: What was the process like developing it?

Jennifer: It took me a very long time to figure out how to generate the hex grid. I think about four weeks into the six week incubator, I realized that I had to change the structure of my code and re-write a bunch of it. That was a very difficult decision for me, but it was very much worth it. Initially, I wanted to have all kinds of animation, but unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for me to implement that. I could do that now, of course!

Jennifer drawing out her idea for Hexplosions at Pixelles
Jennifer drawing out her idea for Hexplosions at Pixelles

Miss N: You mentioned that you did a lot of playtesting. Do you remember any moments where players surprised you with something that you didn’t anticipate?

Jennifer: Yes, there was one thing that I didn’t notice until some of my playtesters mentioned it. I didn’t realize that it was a little weird to be trying to get my allies to move from the right side of the screen to the left. Usually, we will read things from left to right, so most games will have the action happening from left to right. This aspect of Hexplosions is due to an earlier version of the game. I had initially intended on having the player select their actions/weapons on the left side of the screen. Anyway, although this right-left movement was perceived as peculiar, I did not end up changing anything.

Miss N: Is there one thing in that game that you’re really proud of (and that you think adds to the overall feel of the game) that maybe players won’t realize, at least initially?

Jennifer: The fact that the grid is procedurally generated. Every time you play, the attraction zones, hazards, and allies will spawn in different places, and in a different order. I am proud of it because it was a difficult for me to figure out how to program it. I think this adds a lot of replayability to the game.

Miss N: Recently, you joined Ubisoft as an intern programmer. What’s the transition been like working on your own versus in a big studio like that?

Jennifer: This might be a bit of a boring answer, but I think the scale of things was the most surprising to me. I knew Ubisoft was huge, and I knew that their Montreal studio was pretty big! Going in, that is one of the reasons I was interested in working there, but I was still surprised by what it meant to work for a huge company. I had never worked for a large company before.

For example, on the day of my interview, I showed up at the main building (which in itself is pretty big) and then found out that there were other buildings (within Montreal) as well! Another thing: they have an ergonomist who will help you set up your desk and workspace. I was also surprised that, despite its size, I did not feel like a number. I was lucky to have friends who worked there and a team that was very supportive.

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

Jennifer: Probably the realization that everyone wants something different from your game. It is a neat thing that so many people feel so strongly about my game and have their own advice to give. Any criticism or opinion is not meant to be taken too personally. People just get excited and have various ideas and visions of what my game should be. Accepting that it is okay to have differing opinions was challenging for me.

Miss N: On the flip side, what’s been the most fulfilling experience you’ve had while making games?

Jennifer: I think actually finishing the game was the most fulfilling experience. The first time you can sit back after stressing about it not working is very rewarding.

Miss N: Do you think there are things that are inherently unique within the medium of games compared to other creative mediums?

Jennifer: I think that the most unique thing about games versus other mediums is that they are interactive. The person playing the game plays a part in the experience.

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

Jennifer: Well, I am pretty excited about game makers making Virtual Reality games. For example, the Ubisoft game called Eagle Flight, in which you fly like an eagle in VR. Since I was a child, I have always wanted to fly like an eagle, and I feel like VR is a neat way to try that. I have not yet played it, but hopefully one day I will.

TheMachineToBeAnother by BeAnotherLab
TheMachineToBeAnother by BeAnotherLab

I have tried some other VR experiences and I have been thoroughly impressed. Another neat example is enhancing empathy through VR, as done by the BeAnotherLab. It was a really cool to experience to perceive being in someone else’s body.

I am also pretty excited about No Man’s Sky. The idea of a universe that is procedurally generated is so ambitious. I am so keen to see how players will interact with that.

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

Jennifer: I admire Tanya Short and Rebecca Cohen-Palacios for starting the Pixelles initiative. Pixelles very much shaped my career path and I met so many cool people and friends through their events. Their dedication, vision, and optimism makes them awesome in my book. Oh, and you know, they are pretty cool people! 🙂

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

Jennifer: Stop worrying so much and just do it. Honestly, though, I am very happy with the path I have taken, and I don’t think I would want to interfere in any way with my past. All the doubt and worry helped get me to where I am now, and I am happy with that.

Miss N: Thank you, Jennifer!

If you’re interested in following Jennifer, visit her website or play her game, Hexplosions. 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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