Game On

BAFTA-winning game designer Brenda Romero will be presented with an industry legend award with her husband, John, later this summer. She spoke to Seán Lynch about getting ahead of the game. 

From making games out of spare parts as a child, to teen years spent working in development, Brenda Romero has grown into a multi award-winning game designer.

The industry veteran, now a lecturer at University of Limerick, cannot remember a time when she wasn’t absorbed in gaming. Growing up in New York, her early love of game design stemmed from arcade stalwarts like Pac-Man.

“I would get my allowance, which at the time was five dollars a week, and I would immediately put it into the nearest arcade every week, without fail,” she says.

At 15 years of age, Brenda turned her passion into her job, working in start-up company Sir-Tech Software. She stayed with them for 18 years before moving to Atari, where she worked on the Dungeons & Dragons series.

We’re starting to see people really exploring the full range of stories that can be told through games.

She began teaching game development and design in 2006. The transition towards academia was a smooth one for Brenda, as she already had an interest in research and teaching.

“It felt natural to go into teaching. Part of being a game designer is learning from someone better than you are, so it felt like, with teaching, I was doing the same things as a senior game designer but in a more formal structure,” she says.

The New Yorker lectured in various universities across the US before moving to Ireland in 2014 as a Fullbright Scholar, researching the Irish game industry and education system.

Along with her husband John, who is also a game designer, she moved to Galway in 2015. She is now course director of the new MSc in Game Design and Development at UL.

“I compare how I teach to cooking. You could come into a classroom and I could just talk about recipes to you but unless you make and taste them, they’re not going to have the same effect,” she says.

There is no choosing between teaching and designing for Brenda. “My life is all about games. My husband is also a games designer so, really, games are our lives. We’re playing, making and talking about games all the time.”

The main advice she gives to aspiring game developers is to learn and practice code as early as possible.

In 2009, Brenda developed the game Síochán Leat, which she used to teach her daughter about their ancestry, dating back to the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland.

According to the UL lecturer, teachers should follow suit and use games to teach difficult subjects. “Having students play and make games about difficult topics helps them learn about it,” she believes.

Ireland’s reputation in the game development industry is growing, according to Brenda.

“I think the games we are making are absolutely getting out there and the strength of the Irish community is becoming known,” she outlines.

“People no longer need to work in major corporations to successfully create games, a fact that is helping Ireland’s game development community grow.

“Because you don’t need to have a massive team to make games anymore, there are more games getting out there that we wouldn’t have seen years ago. Now, we’re starting to see people really exploring the full range of stories that can be told through games,” she adds.

The broader range of themes being explored recently in games has excited Brenda more than ever. This diversification is caused, in part, by the widening demographic of gamers. 

“People tend to think it is a 17-year-old kid in his parents’ garage but, instead, the person who spends the most money on games is a 43-year-old woman. We tend to write off mobile and casual games as not real games,” she states.

This shift has helped inspire more women to follow in Brenda’s footsteps and get involved in game development.

“There are certainly more women now than there ever were in gaming. The percentage of women involved is eking up every year, which is good,” she outlines, adding that there are more diverse characters featured in games now.

Brenda believes it is impossible to predict how the industry will evolve.

The person who spends the most money on games is a 43-year-old woman. Money.

“One of the funniest questions I get asked is ‘where do you see the gaming industry in five years?’ It always feels like an opportunity to make a fool of myself, because the industry is just constantly changing,” she says.

Brenda cites the growth of YouTube gaming as one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today. She believes the full play-through of games being available to watch for free is problematic.

“It renders games moot when millions of people are watching them for free. It has to have an impact on sales if you can just watch a game. It’s changing the way a game is made.”

In 2013, Brenda was listed as one of the top 10 game developers by Gamasutra.com and Develop magazine named her among the 25 people who changed games. Often described as “an industry legend”, Brenda doesn’t feel the label accurately describes her. “I am just trying to make games and I don’t see myself as a legend.”

The number of awards she is accruing would suggest otherwise. In April, she was honoured by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) at their flagship games awards.

BAFTA’s Special Award acknowledged Brenda’s illustrious career in game design, her advocacy for the art and creative process behind game-making and her commitment to encouraging the next generation of talent in the industry.

Brenda says she is grateful that the artistic potential and power of games is being recognised. “I’ve devoted my life to games - making them, teaching them, playing them - and to receive any honour from the community is incredible. But a BAFTA? It’s well beyond anything else.”

Later this summer, she and John will be presented with the Development Legends accolade at the Develop Industry Excellence Awards 2017. The award recognises their decades of influence within the industry and their work on ground-breaking franchises such as Doom, Wolfenstein, Wizardry, Jagged Alliance and the BAFTA winning Ghost Recon and Dungeons & Dragons series.

The Romeros have also been announced as keynote speakers at Develop : Brighton, one of Europe’s leading game developers’ conferences, which runs alongside the awards in July. Her keynote, Stay: How Not to Burn Out and Thrive in the Game Industry, looks at the positive reasons so many people stay in the games industry despite pressures, and explores lessons learned from industry veterans.

“To say that I feel unworthy of many of the awards I’ve received is an understatement,” says Brenda. “The industry is always changing, so it’s really hard to feel like somehow you’re sitting on a throne because there’s always something new to learn.”

Brenda’s new Masters of Science in Game Design and Development begins at University of Limerick this autumn.

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