Ask an Expert: Renee Gittins
Written by Max Mitchelson
Edited by Mary Joaquin
In Ask an Expert, we interview leaders and veterans of the game industry. We glean helpful information, ideas, and stories to help you find your own path into the industry and pick up a few game design tips along the way.
This week, we interviewed Renee Gittins, the Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) and owner of the indie studio Stumbling Cat. Currently, her studio is developing an adventure crafting game called Potions: A Curious Tale.
Max: What first drew you to games? How do you see that impacting what you make and play now?
Renee: I grew up with first-person shooters. My father played first-person shooters. My first introduction to games was sitting next to him, watching him play, and then eventually, starting to play myself. I feel very comfortable playing first-person shooters because of that, and I enjoy them. But I've never been in love with them enough to want to create my own.
What really intrigues me is puzzle solving and story. I didn't actually get into games that had a significant story until much later, I think, middle school or so. That is, outside of Half-Life. I think Half-Life did an amazing job with its immersive storytelling that is truly connected to the events you're playing through. And it certainly compelled me and made me want to bring that into my own creations.
Funny enough, the game I'm currently working on, Potions: A Curious Tale, is probably most similar to Zelda—like old-school Zelda games. But I never played those as a kid. In fact, I actually started developing Potions before I had played any Zelda games at all. But once I did play them, I fell in love with them.
I would say, in terms of the biggest inspiration for the games I love, is actually some of the Harry Potter PC games. I loved how they introduced new spells and unlocked puzzles but kept you involved with the story. I would say those are the major inspirations of mine. And I actually have one right here because I use it for research.
Max: You’ve mentioned before that you never thought about going into games before college, and I’m curious about that transition.
Renee: I was going to school to get an engineering degree, and I was most interested in biomechanical engineering—advanced prosthetics and things like that. In my senior year of college, I actually ended up getting really into League of Legends because that was when it was starting to get popular, around 2011.
My college was actually not too far from Riot, and I ended up making friends with some of Riot’s developers. That was my first introduction to the game industry. I immediately took to them because they were intelligent, creative, passionate nerds like myself. It unlocked the idea of pursuing a game development career.
From that point, I made sure the choices I was making in my career would allow me to more easily transition into the game industry myself.
Max: Was there a reason you hadn’t thought about game design before then? Or was it more of thinking, "Oh, that’s a fantasy job"?
Renee: I truly didn't consider it as a career path. I had no clue what game development was like. If you asked me what game development was, I would not have thought of the creative or design aspects of it at all. I thought it was just programming.
And for some reason, it was never put on my radar. No one ever mentioned game development to me, despite being a huge gamer. I was very good at math and logic, which would probably have made me a great programmer at the time. That's one of the reasons why I'm so passionate about the IGDA. I don't want anyone to miss out on the opportunity to pursue their dream career because no one decided to mention it as a possibility.
Biotech and Beyond
Max: Do you think the time you spent in biotech impacted how you make games now and what you do for IGDA?
Renee: In biotech, I was able to switch over from system and design engineering to software engineering. Being able to practice and get my engineering or my programming chops up to snuff was certainly a huge benefit. I actually started making my first professional games within biotech for biological medical purposes.
Max: You said before you would work on your games privately before that or...?
Max: Was that the first game you developed?
Renee: I think Ultimate Tic Tac Toe may have been the first game I programmed. I don't know if it was the biotech mini-games or Ultimate Tic Tac Toe.
Obviously, developing a game like that is a good exercise in logic and dealing with arrays and lists and other things. But I didn't really start developing my own games for passion until I started working on Potions.
It was never intended to be a game that was going to be published. I actually started working on Potions: A Curious Tale to just determine if design was a route I wanted to take my career.
As most people know, if you're pursuing a degree within games, and you'd like to work in the game industry, having a good portfolio is really important to show you're interested in the game industry and you can actually create games. It just took a life of its own from that point.
Max: Where did you go from there?
Renee: I started working pro bono for an indie studio. I started out as a producer because I've always been drawn to empowering others and helping lead them over obstacles and through tough situations.
My biotech knowledge actually helped because the back-end system I was making for that biotech company happened to be the same tech stack this indie studio was using for their mobile back end. When they lost one of their server developers, I switched over and was doing both production and their server development for that game.
In addition, that's when I started working on Potions and began networking heavily within the game industry. Talking about Potions allowed a lot of people to understand my motivations and my passions. I felt many people were interested in Potions as a project. So I took it to the next step and dedicated the next year to kickstarting the game.
But it did not reach a point where I could support myself off of the funds. It was just enough money to pay contract artists and composers, and sound designers to assist me with the creation of the project. As I worked on Potions, I started taking on contract work within the industry itself. I did everything from freelance games journalism to being the marketing coordinator for Xbox Games with Gold to being a technical producer and eventually moving full-time into the game industry itself.
Max: Reflecting on your career so far, what would you tell your past self?
Renee: I think I would have told myself that things that seem like failures in the moment are simply putting you on an unexpected path.
One of the first jobs I interviewed for in the game industry, I received an offer right out of college. I was going to be an associate producer at a triple-A company I respected greatly. And due to some internal changes at that company, 36 hours before I was supposed to start, they decided to retract their offer.
I was devastated. I had moved and signed your lease, and I was so excited to be working on a team I was very passionate about and with friends I had already made. And it was such a blow to myself, my ego, my plans. But it was one of the best things that ever happened to me for my career.
If I had done that, certainly I would have probably been a fine producer and moved up the production chain in that company. But I would have never taught myself programming and never learned game design to the same extent. I would have never had the experience of creating my own game and running my own studio or helping game developers through the IGDA.
Max: Was it important to find those initial ins?
Renee: Absolutely 100 percent. I went to every game industry networking event and conference I could. I aggressively networked and made friends and introduced myself to strangers, even if it was a little awkward. All of those efforts paid back not only in the career opportunities they provided me with but also by helping me successfully kickstart Potions. When you're friends with a bunch of game developers, they can help push your game through their channels.
Resources and How to Get Started
Max: With the pandemic, we can't have the same in-person events. Does IGDA offer or suggest some alternatives?
Renee: Absolutely. The IGDA has many communities meeting online. Not only do we have our local chapters, some of which are hosting virtual events. We also have our SIGs which have their own Facebook pages and Discords, and other online communities.
And the IGDA itself has an online discord with over 3,200 game developers on it. They are talking about all the different aspects of game development, from publishing and fundraising to programming and art. It's wonderful to see how much that community has grown to support each other over this last year.
Max: When recent grads are trying to get into the industry, what should they look for in a developer, to hopefully find something that treats them fairly and offers them an entry-level start to their career?
Renee: Because game development is so competitive, I recommend applying to as many companies as you can. The experience of the interview process alone is wonderful for growing your understanding and skills.
However, I would recommend they keep in mind interviews are as much you interviewing the company as the company interviewing you.
I would ask about culture when it comes to crunch and overwork periods. I would ask them if they have a structured mentorship program and how they plan to invest in your growth and your skills. So you will not only be helpful to their organization but you will grow as a developer as well.
Max: Alternatively, if someone is looking to go the indie route or start their own company, what kind of resources should look for?
Renee: If you want to start your own indie studio, there's actually a lot of really good advice out there. Initially, a lot of indie companies did really wonderful postmortems on the projects they made and the teams they created.
Those postmortems are full of really valuable information. I think it's just as important to read about what you should do and the ways to find success as it is to read about failures, though.
When I was researching for my Kickstarter, one common thread I saw were many, many regrets over having physical rewards at too low of a price. Because fulfilling physical rewards can be a massive amount of overhead, that takes a ton of time. So understanding that and looking into those resources is what I recommend doing.
Max: In general, making the games industry more inclusive is something very important to the IGDA. I’m wondering what kind of guidance you would give to those entering the industry, to make their workplace more inclusive and sustainable and how to fight for that if needed?
Renee: I think one of the core tools to making a workplace more diverse and inclusive is to have it explicitly listed in the values and goals of your company—to ensure those values are being upheld and considered and every decision that's made.
I’m writing a white paper right now that's being reviewed by our diversity and affinity special interest groups, as well as our HR and production groups on team building, diversity, and culture because we do think it is so important. And really, I would say the main tools for maintaining that are empathy, listening, and just consideration. Those in mind, it'll allow you to hear and consider potential issues and to take the action needed to reduce those obstacles and to support the people who need additional assistance.
Potions: A Curious Tale
Max: What challenges have you faced with your own game? How have you solved them?
Renee: I think the most difficult part of developing my own game is maintaining motivation without a payoff for years. Right!? It's not like I’m getting paid to develop it. None of that Kickstarter money is going into my bank account. And I am not only motivating a team and supporting them, but I have to motivate myself to continue working on it every single day. That certainly has been a challenge.
You know, you as a person can run into many obstacles in your life. I dealt with a severe depressive episode, which impacted my ability to work for a few months. But over the time I've worked on the project, I've been able to find what works best for me. I think experimenting and trying out different approaches and not getting down on yourself is the best way to maintain that motivation and momentum.
Personally, I found I work best in the mornings. So the first two hours of my day are working on Potions—not on my day job or anything else—and holding myself to a minor goal works well for me. My minor goal is one committed day. It can be a simple commitment, where I'm just doing some tailoring of a level, or it can be several 100 lines of code. It allows me to stay engaged with the project and never fall behind while not burning myself out by expecting too much from myself.
Max: Is there anything in particular in the game you feel especially proud of?
Renee: This is really funny because I never considered this a core part of the game. Probably the thing I'm most proud of is the writing. I've obviously played through this game many, many, many times, and it has some fun tongue-in-cheek jokes and fourth-wall-breaking by one of the characters, and it just cracks me up every time.
So I love the writing. And that's something that really compels me. As one of my best friends played through the game, she was giggling and gasping and groaning over the writing. And that really made me feel special and made it feel like I was on the right track there.
Max: Yeah, I think that is a great way to tell you are on the right track—playing through it a dozen times, and think it's still entertaining and engaging.
Renee: Yeah, well, maybe I just like my dad jokes more than other people.
Max: Are there any other helpful tips you would give to prospective game developers that get passed over in interviews?
Renee: Something I think isn't commonly addressed—and a mistake I see made by college students—is not understanding that while networking is important, so is maintaining good relationships. The game industry is very small, and you should always treat everyone you're working with professionally.
Now, I'm not saying you can't be friends with them. By all means, be friends with them. But I've seen far too many students reach out to game developers, asking them for mentorship or advice, then go ahead and not be considerate of that developer's time.
It's doing things like showing up 20 minutes late to a meeting, or clearly copying and pasting questions instead of writing custom questions for that person, or being informal to a rude extent through emails and communication.
Because that's something that developers will remember, right? Especially when they look at your resume and make hiring decisions for you in the future.
This extends to the peers you're going to school with. They'll be the people you'll be working with for the rest of your career. You shouldn't worry about petty squabbles. You should worry about supporting each other and maintaining good relationships because they might be on your team in the future or looking over your resume or contract work.
Max: Yeah, I was listening to a podcast where they said you could be the best programmer ever, but if you're not kind and respectful to people, you just aren’t going to make the connections or get opportunities.
Renee: Nobody wants to work with a jerk. Nobody wants to put up with that day in, day out. It is miserable.
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