Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Lauren Careccia

Image courtesy of Lauren Careccia
Image courtesy of Lauren Careccia

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 Lauren Careccia, an economy designer at Big Fish Games, having just moved there after spending five years at Disney working on games like Pixie Hollow, Club Penguin, and Inside Out: Thought Bubbles. While work is her excuse to continue her ongoing love affair with Excel, her free time is spent playing and exploring the design of narratives in games.

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

Lauren: I’ve been “That Nerd” ever since I picked up my first Pokémon game in fifth grade. You know the type—the kind of nerd who’s so obsessed with games (and anime, in my case) that it’s their only means of relating to and engaging with others. I still send apologies to my high school friends for wasting our 85-minute free periods together trying to explain the entire plot of the Xenosaga series, completely oblivious to their eyes glazing over.

Thankfully, I eventually grew out of that phase, but not before deciding that I was going to study game design in college. And that’s how I ended up in USC’s Interactive Media program.

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

Lauren: My earliest memory of games was watching my older brother play Myst—not that toddler!me had any idea what was going on. I specifically remember the sunken ship, but not much else.

However, my first memory of playing games is when I beat Bonk’s Adventure on the TurboGrafx-16. I remember being enthralled by Princess Za of Moonland (keep in mind I was four), planting the seeds of a love of royalty and space that eventually blossomed into a Sailor Moon obsession.

Miss N: What’s your creative process like?

Lauren: My creative process at work versus on my own is pretty different, since my design approach is based on what I’m trying to accomplish. I’ve only worked professionally on subscription-based and F2P games, which usually come attached with very strict financial metrics that have to be met. Therefore, my creative process becomes very analytical and more about how to incorporate micro-transactions in a way that’s fun and not exploitative.

For example, on Pixie Hollow, my creative lead came to me saying, “I want to put a gifting system in the game, but you have to pay real money to give items to another player.” When presented that way, it sounded completely absurd. Why would anyone spend real dollars to give away an item, even to a friend?

I booted up the ol’ design brain and responded with, “Well, if you’re going to do that, there needs to be a more positive spin on it. If you’re paying to send someone an item, it needs to be presented like a delivery fee. Like postage … we need a post office!” And thus, the Pixie Post Office was born. It became a delightful way for players to send gifts and postcards to each other through a system that made sense—even if it did cost real money—and overall, it was a huge hit with our audience.

Pixie Hollow by Disney Interactive Studios
Pixie Hollow by Disney Interactive Studios

My personal creative process is a lot more fuzzy. While I can get ideas from everywhere, a lot of the ones I end up latching onto come from finding a nugget of a really, really cool idea in another game, film, etc. that I felt could’ve been executed better, or sometimes even at all. Usually, it’s some throwaway piece of world building, or a fascinating concept that could be explored in a different way.

A potentially embarrassing example comes from when I watched the X/1999 anime in college. Part of the antagonist’s schtick is that he “helps” the other characters achieve their deepest desires. And because it’s an incredibly melodramatic CLAMP anime, those desires usually ended up being things like death and punishment. However, the idea of a being that forces someone to fulfill their own wish was super fascinating to me. I never actually developed a game around the idea, but I did create a high-level design pitch based on the concept for a class. Unfortunately, that’s usually where a lot of my personal ideas end. I have lots of games I’d like to make, but rarely have the time or technical ability to make them on my own.

Miss N: Do you ever get creative blocks or moments when you know what you’ve made just isn’t right? How do you get through them?

Lauren: This happens all the time. In those instances, I go with my gut feeling. When something does feel right, there’s this internal sense of ease that naturally flows as I go through the gameplay, UI flow, or whatever it is. If at any point I feel a block in that flow, the first thing I try to assess is whether or not I’m trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I find that trying to force anything in design is usually a sign that it’s time to try a different approach or consider whether what you want to accomplish is truly necessary for the game to be fun.

Miss N: Thinking about your game projects, have you ever fallen in love with some ideas, but later had to scrap them?

Lauren: Ha, a lot my game ideas get scrapped, if only because I’d need a full AAA team and budget to create them. This doesn’t apply to all of my ideas, but the ones I used to be super passionate about certainly were. I think most game designers go through that phase where they want to make the next Elder Scrolls game or GTA. I certainly thought I was going to make the next Final Fantasy when I entered college (shush, I was super naïve okay?). These days, anything new I come up with is definitely more feasible, but I still don’t have the technical or artistic prowess to see them through.

For example, I really, really want to make a game based on a ballet. I grew up with The Random House Book of Stories from the Ballet and those stories have never left my consciousness. In particular, I want to make a mobile game based on Giselle (taking some creative freedoms to modify the tired “heartbroken damsel” tropes, of course). The super nutshell story is that Giselle is a ghost who’s trying to protect her lover from vengeful spirits when he visits her grave in the forest. I can just see in my head the player using swipe motions to perform ballet-inspired attacks/movements—kind of like bending in Avatarand it would look so. Cool.

However, I don’t have the programming skills to create something at that level. Not to mention the amount of art involved, and trust me, you don’t want me to draw. One day I might have the time to learn enough to build a prototype, but for now it’s on the back burner.

Disney Fairies Fashion Boutique by Disney Interactive Studios
Disney Fairies Fashion Boutique by Disney Interactive Studios

Miss N: Do you have any examples of things that you’re really proud of that you made (and that you think adds to the overall feel of any of your games) that maybe players won’t realize, at least initially?

Lauren: I am always super proud of the work I do for systems tuning and testing. The one I always brag about is how I built a testing environment for the procedural quest dialogue system in the Pixie Hollow mobile game Fairies Fashion Boutique. In Excel. It was a game about creating clothes and running a store, and the team was worried about how we were going to write and test dialogue for requests the player would get to create specific items with requirements like color, season, style, etc.

So I hopped into Excel and created a sheet that would contain all the templates, strings, and adjectives that could be pulled by the dialogue system. Then, I built another sheet where you could select the different request requirements from dropdown menus, which would then generate the full request using the text from the prior sheet. It was pretty awesome, and my producer said I probably saved us dozens of hours of QA since we wouldn’t have to do the testing in-game. I’m proud of it not just because it blows people’s minds that I was even able to do that in Excel, but also because I just love creating things that make my team member’s lives easier.

Obviously, none of that stuff ever gets seen by the player and it might not seem like it adds much to the game on the surface, but creating tools and simulations that work faster than manual playtesting frees up so much more time to focus on making the game the most enjoyable experience possible.

Miss N: You’ve mentioned in the past that your “passion lies in creating and balancing systems.” Can you tell us a bit about that and why you’re interested in this aspect of game making?

Lauren: I originally had no idea that I wanted to be a systems designer. You’d think the obsessive pouring over all the hidden stats in Pokémon would’ve been a clue, but I was going to write for games, gosh darnit! I didn’t find out that numbers and data was where I needed to be until I started working on Pixie Hollow in 2011.

My first task on the job was to update the documentation showing every item that had been sold in every shop, when, in what colors, and at what price. It was this absolutely massive spreadsheet that brought my work laptop to its knees every time I tried something as simple as scrolling. I completely reformatted the thing, created item and color databases, and reformulated how the pricing was calculated so that all you had to do was enter in some ID numbers and the information would populate itself. Not quite systems design in that example, but that’s when I figured out that I absolutely loved numbers and formulas.

Pixie Hollow by Disney Interactive Studios
Pixie Hollow by Disney Interactive Studios

I didn’t figure out that I might actually be good at systems balancing until I had to balance the crafting system in Fairies Fashion Boutique. Since the game was about crafting items, leveling up to craft cooler items, and fulfilling very specific requests from NPCs, each item had a ridiculous 18 stats associated with it. And we launched with 500 items.

Again, I buried myself in Excel for a good three weeks and came out with my best guess on how everything was supposed to work. My boss at the time likes to brag on my behalf that I did it perfectly on my first try. I still think she was exaggerating (thank you, Amy), but the fact of the matter was that I never had to go back and update any values. Ever since then, I’ve been jumping on every opportunity I can get to do number balancing, which is what led into my current economy designer position.

I think I like it so much because I like solving puzzles and making things just right. I’m that weirdo who loves those logic table puzzles where you’re using a lot of different pieces of information to figure out who bought what food item, at what price, and in which theme park (as an example, of course). Systems balancing feels very similar to that, for me.

Inside Out: Thought Bubbles by Disney Interactive Studios
Inside Out: Thought Bubbles by Disney Interactive Studios

Miss N: Looking back, what’s been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered when making games?

Lauren: Following through. This is something that I still struggle with. Making games for work is great, because you’ve got a dedicated team with goals and deadlines that keep you on schedule. Outside of work? There’s no pressure. When I spend all day using my brain to design for work, it’s incredibly difficult to then want to dive into personal projects that are equally mentally taxing. Not to mention that when you know exactly how much time and effort it takes to make a good game, wanting to go for it on your own is a very daunting task. And without accountability to anyone but myself, I almost always choose the “lazy” option (insert argument about how resting is actually good for you creatively here).

So I have lots of games that I say I want to make—and even ones that I could feasibly make on my own!—but following through is definitely not my forté, and something I want to work on.

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

Lauren: I’m going to cheat a little bit here and answer with “my entire experience on Pixie Hollow.” There’s just something about being part of a really cohesive team where everyone is on the same page and your work styles are completely in sync. We had an amazing producer who kept us on track and running like a well-oiled machine, producing new content on a three to four-month cycle, but not in a sweatshop kind of way. We all deeply loved the game, and there was something exciting happening every day. That’s not to say there weren’t dark times—and there were some very dark times—but we laughed a lot, which I think is very important. Working on a game that you have fun making is incredibly fulfilling.

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

Lauren: The cop out answer here is interactivity, and I do think that’s part of it. I’m probably not going to explain this very well, but I think games show off the power of the medium best when they allow the player to embody an experience or engage the player as an actor in the story. Games that try to affect you emotionally via mechanics are fascinating.

Loneliness by Jordan Magnuson
Loneliness by Jordan Magnuson

A super simple example that I was introduced to via the Extra Credits series is a game called Loneliness. You move a black square forward through a field of other black squares, except that the other squares all try to avoid you. Even though it’s just squares, it creates a sense of feeling unwanted and it’s very revealing of one’s personality to see how one reacts to it. Do you keep trying to approach the other squares? Or do you start to avoid them altogether to keep them from “running” away?

Now, a lot of games don’t work that way, and that’s totally okay! Most of the games I love are me just pushing a protagonist through a world toward the next plot point and I would be devastated if those games ever stopped being made. You can tell fantastic emotional and personal stories that way, though I can’t honestly say they show what the medium is truly capable of.

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

Lauren: I know this isn’t the best answer—I’ll admit I’m not super up-to-date on the avant-garde games scene—but one that really stood out to me recently was Undertale. Maybe less that it pushed the boundaries and more that it broke the fourth wall in such a way that it made me rethink how you could incorporate basic game functions that are usually taken for granted (in this case, saving and resetting) into a game narrative. Without getting too spoilery, the fact that characters could remember things between game resets helped me connect with the world so much more. It holds you accountable for your actions in a way that you can’t erase—at least not without some file finagling.

I’m already very empathetic toward NPCs in general when playing a game, but Undertale made me feel a certain sense of responsibility for their wellbeing. It’s why I could never do a No Mercy run, and even watching a Let’s Play of it made me very uncomfortable.

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

Lauren: Oh goodness, where do I start? I’ll list out a few:

  • Lisa Brown, for her willingness to put so much of herself into her games. Imaginal was a real treasure to play and so very her.
  • Zoë Quinn, for sharing her very personal story in Depression Quest in a way that helps others understand and vicariously experience a debilitating mental illness. Also, she has a rad sense of style that I can only aspire to. And she’s just a badass in general.
  • Liz England, for being an incredibly talented systems designer and master at creating hilarious and/or disturbing experiences. I basically want to be her when I grow up.
  • Amy Kalson, who used to be my boss at Disney back in the day. She’s an incredibly smart designer who is also an amazing mentor, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.

There are so many more I could list, but those were the top ones who came to mind.

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?

Lauren: Find your love of numbers and balancing sooner! Also, do more side projects in college, since it’s probably the only time you’ll have the free time and resources to experiment in a significant way (at least in a way that won’t take multiple years). And figure out what a narrative designer is, because it’s so much cooler than just “writing for games.” You will never be Tetsuya Nomura, nor should you want to be. Take a programming class. Make more friends!

Obviously, these are specific to myself at the age of 18, so don’t take this as general advice that applies to everyone, haha.

Miss N: Thank you, Lauren!

If you’re interested in following Lauren, follow her on Twitter @lcareccia. 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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