Killer Women: Jennifer Hepler

Women who are gainfully employed in the games industry are becoming more and more common. The assumption that video games are a man’s domain is finally becoming outdated. Women are playing and working with video games in astounding numbers. According to the ESA in 2006, 38% of game players are women. While the percentage of women working in the industry is still small, these women are paving the way for equality in this environment as well. More and more young women are going to technical schools and getting hired by game developers who see the value of a female perspective when creating video games.

So, how did these women get started and why do they do it? Those are the questions I want answers to, so I ask. This will be a continuing series of profiles of the women who have broken stereotypes and taken jobs in the video game industry.

Jennifer Hepler works for Bioware, a company well-known for making quality games with quality storylines that appeal to women as much as men. She is a Managing Editor and is currently working on the upcoming title, Dragon Age. Here’s what she had to say:

Name: Jennifer Brandes Hepler
Title: Managing Editor — Dragon Age
Company: Bioware Corporation

What’s your earliest memory of video games? Did you grow up on games or did you find them later in your life?

I guess my earliest memory is some time in the Atari era. My brother and I had a used Atari, slightly after its heyday, with a bunch of hand-me-down games with no boxes and no way to figure out the rules. I remember some Centipede, Ms. Pac Man, Joust and Ghostbusters, but neither of us ever got very into it.

I’d have to say that I found games later more than grew up on them. While as a child of the ’80s, I did have a Nintendo around during high school (and had a pet rabbit who would come running and grab the controller whenever he heard Tetris music), I generally saw it as something to do with my younger cousins, rather than something that was fun for me. I had a little more fun with the King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry games, but never really got hooked.

In college, I got into paper-and-pencil RPGs (particularly Vampire and Shadowrun), and that was really my entry into this career.

What kind of education do you have and has it prepared you well for this industry?

I’ve got a BA in Creative Writing, and am slightly bitter because I can no longer rail that it’s completely useless — it let me immigrate to Canada as a skilled worker under NAFTA — but I don’t think my work in college had any direct connection to the fact that I’m working as a writer now.

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was in fifth grade (my teacher, Matt Costello, is actually the writer of the Seventh Guest CD-ROM game series, as well as some pretty cool horror novels, and was my first mentor in the field). I think that the work I did in other writing jobs, the writing I did on my own, and my extensive experience in the SF/gaming community (I’ve run a small convention and many, many game demos at the bigger conventions), was much more valuable than my formal education. On the other hand, my non-writing classes at college let me get interesting background information on a whole bunch of topics which later made their way into my writing.

What type of work did you do before you got into the industry and what jobs in the industry have you held?

Pretty much all the jobs I count have been writing jobs of one sort or another. I began writing for paper-and-pencil roleplaying games while I was still in college, writing supplements for games including Shadowrun, Earthdawn, Legend of the Five Rings, and Paranoia. I was actually writing my “Cyberpirates” book for Shadowrun on the afternoon of my college graduation, because my deadline was the next day. I also got my first taste of computer game writing during this time, doing a few freelance bits of writing and editing for an online trading card game, Sanctum.

After that, I did some hard time in Hollywood, writing for CBS television’s CIA drama, The Agency, and developing many feature film scripts and TV pilots, including several based on both paper-and-pencil and computer RPGs. During this time, I was always interested in the convergence of games and traditional media, and was a founding member of the Writers Guild of America’s New Media Writers Caucus, which offered the Guild’s protections and associate membership to any working game writer.

My real entrance back to computer game design was through a job at Tomo Software, a start-up mobile phone game company, where I wrote and edited for their planned MMMG (massively multiplayer mobile game), SORA.

Then I joined Bioware this past October as a writer on Dragon Age and am having the time of my life.

Was your entry into working with video games planned or chance? What initiated your interest in working in this industry? How did you get started in the industry?

I guess I just answered some of that above. Since I started working in paper-and-pencil RPGs, I’ve loved the gaming audience and how passionate they are about their games. Through my whole time in Hollywood, I always gravitated toward game-related projects, and when I went to GDC in 2005, it was like coming home. When I realized how much more I liked the people in the games industry than in film and television…and how much more passionate they were about their jobs…I began to actively pursue a full-time career in gaming.

How long have you been working in the industry?

If you count the paper-and-pencil experience, I’ve been designing games since 1997. Otherwise, about two years now.

What does your job entail? What is an average day like?

While my official title is “Managing Editor,” my job is primarily as one of the senior writers on the game. This means that depending on what stage I’m at in the process, I spend my day either outlining stories for Dragon Age, or writing buckets and buckets of dialogue. I also take a role in helping less experienced writers, from evaluating job application submissions, to reading and critiquing dialogue, to ensuring that Bioware has a solid process for every writer to follow to take a story from initial concept to finished in-game module.

That sounds like so little to say about it…mostly because the process of writing dialogue is pretty boring from any vantage point but inside the writer’s head. It’s actually fantastically fun and complex to design a story for a 100,000-word chapter, which acknowledges several different possibilities of the PC’s background, and gives him two or three main paths through the story, plus dozens of smaller side quests, then make sure that each of the 96 speaking roles have distinct voices, with enough pathos and humor to keep the player involved, and never slip up and use a modern-day reference.

Tell us about the most interesting or exciting moment for you in your job.

This may not say a lot about the job, but the most exciting moment for me was how supportive my whole team was when I broke the news that I was pregnant. Even though I’d just recently been promoted to a pivotal position, and even though I was asking for special treatment (like being able to work at home on days where I was going to be face-down in the toilet), my boss and everyone on the team were tremendously supportive and excited for me.

I think Bioware is unusual in the industry because of how family-friendly it is. It seems like nearly everyone at the company is married and many of them have young kids — very different than the typical single-guys atmosphere you find at most game companies. Between that and being in Canada (where the laws are much more family-friendly), it really made a difference in how people reacted; even the single guys were supportive instead of resentful of having to work around my absence (which is not insignificant in a country with a full year of maternity leave guaranteed by the government).

Knowing that I could talk freely about being pregnant, make adjustments to my schedule if I needed, and not worry about any hidden (or not-so-hidden) resentment from my team was definitely the moment more than any other which won my die-hard loyalty to the company.

What is your least favorite thing about working in the industry?

Playing the games. This is probably a terrible thing to admit, but it has definitely been the single most difficult thing for me. I came into the job out of a love of writing, not a love of playing games. While I enjoy the interactive aspects of gaming, if a game doesn’t have a good story, it’s very hard for me to get interested in playing it. Similarly, I’m really terrible at so many things which most games use incessantly — I have awful hand-eye coordination, I don’t like tactics, I don’t like fighting, I don’t like keeping track of inventory, and I can’t read a game map to save my life. This makes it very difficult for me to play to the myriad games I really should be keeping up on as our competition.

And with a baby on the way in a few months, my minimal free time (which makes it impossible for me to finish a big RPG in less than six months already), will disappear entirely. If there was a fast-forward feature on games which would let me easily review the writing and stories and skip the features that I find more frustrating than fun, I’d find it much easier to keep abreast of what’s happening in the field.

What is the one misconception you feel people have about working in the industry in your type of position?

The biggest misconception people have is wondering why a game needs a writer at all. Mostly you get this from older generations, who still imagine a game looking like Pac Man, but a surprising number of people who have played games still manage to forget all the dialogue and story that even very non-story-oriented games have in them, and just assume that somehow the words magically appear once the gameplay is programmed.

Do you feel you are advantaged or disadvantaged as a female in an industry so dominated by men? Do you have any examples of situations where you feel you had an advantage because you were female? Any where you think being a woman played against you? Any anecdotal stories where being female played a part?

Personally, I enjoy being a trend-setter. I find it a bit of an ego-boost to be the only woman at our senior writing meetings and still able to fully hold my own with men who have worked here much longer. It’s definitely something I’m aware of, though, and I like to make sure that my opinion is heard when we’re making design decisions, since I represent, I think, not only a good number of female players, but a lot of non-hardcore gamers in general. Since most people who go into the games industry are truly passionate gamers, it is hard for them to make a game for people who aren’t as into it. But I feel that there is a large untapped market of both men and women who enjoy genre stories in movies or books, but don’t game, either because of the violence, the difficulty, the huge time commitment, or other factors, and I think of myself as the lone voice speaking up for them. I’ve been lucky that the design department here seems to appreciate that input…whether or not they end up acting on it.

My favorite anecdote about being a woman at Bioware is actually from my job interview — I was in a meeting with three other writers, all men, and we’d been chatting and laughing for about half an hour already when one of the writers obviously felt he had to ask the obligatory question: “As a woman, would you feel comfortable working on a team with so many men…?” As he asked it, he took a look at me, sitting sprawled in a chair with my feet practically on the table and interrupted himself, “You look like you’d be comfortable.” We moved on and no one ever had to ask it again. Those writers are all now good friends of mine.

Do you consider yourself a hardcore gamer? How many hours a week do you get to play (besides the title you are working on)?

As I’ve mentioned before, God no. I’ll usually play a few hours on the weekend, but not much beyond that unless I’m really pushing myself. To me, sitting at a computer will always feel like work, so it’s not something I tend to do on my own time.

What settings and genres do you enjoy most? Least?

I love fantasy, though I prefer unusual magical settings which are less influenced by Tolkein and Dungeons and Dragons. I would love to see more Asian-inspired fantasy, and fantasy that draws on more obscure myths from Africa or the Pacific. I also enjoy horror, science fiction, and any kind of mix of science fiction and fantasy, but as a general rule, the more military it gets, the less interested I’ll be.

As for least, that would definitely be anything in the Grand Theft Auto milieu — I don’t particularly like modern settings with no fantasy elements, I don’t like playing criminals, and I really have zero interest in cars.

If you could pick one game as the best game ever, what would it be?

Deus Ex was absolutely the game that made my husband and me realize that game stories had advanced to the point where they could do as much or more than any other kind of fiction. Every time we thought the story was wrapping up, we hit a new wrinkle, and both the gameplay and the dialogue were tight and fun and always kept moving. For me, the gameplay itself was a little difficult, though, and I really needed my husband to take the controls when the shooting started.

I think Bioware’s Jade Empire (which was done well before I started working here, so I’m not tooting my own horn) was one of the most satisfying game experiences I’ve had on my own. The story was good, the choices were cool, the setting was my favorite — Asian fantasy — and the gameplay was very easy to learn. I could play the game myself, appreciate it for the story, and get through the fighting with just a few buttons and very little technique. I only had to reload maybe twice during the entire game, which is key to my enjoyment, because if I have to reload and replay an area I’ve already done, I will almost always just turn the game off and never start it again.

If I were to recommend a game to a girl just starting out and looking for something beautiful, immersive and easy to learn (especially if she’s a
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fan), I would definitely put Jade at the top of the list.

If you could tell developers of games to make sure to put one thing in games to appeal to a broader audience which includes women, what would that one thing be?

A fast-forward button. Games almost always include a way to “button through” dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don’t enjoy listening to dialogue and they don’t want to stop their fun. Yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combats even if you’re a player who only enjoys the dialogue. In a game with sufficient story to be interesting without the fighting, there is no reason on earth that you can’t have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.

Companies have a lot of objections, such as how to calculate loot and experience points for a player who doesn’t actually play the combats, but these could be easily addressed by simply figuring out an average or minimum amount of experience for every fight and awarding that.

The biggest objection is usually that skipping the fight scenes would make the game so much shorter, but to me, that’s the biggest perk. If you’re a woman, especially a mother, with dinner to prepare, kids’ homework to help with, and a lot of other demands on your time, you don’t need a game to be 100 hours long to hold your interest — especially if those 100 hours are primarily doing things you don’t enjoy. A fast forward button would give all players — not just women — the same options that we have with books or DVDs — to skim past the parts we don’t like and savor the ones we do. Over and over, women complain that they don’t like violence, or they don’t enjoy difficult and vertigo-inducing gameplay, yet this simple feature hasn’t been tried on any game I know of.

Granted, many games would have very little left if you removed the combat, but for a game like Deus Ex or Bioware’s RPGs, you could take out every shred of combat and still have an entertainment experience that rivals anything you’d see in the theater or on TV.

Do you have an opinion about the current state of the industry with regard to females and gaming? If so, what is it?

I think that the biggest detriment to more varieties of games being made which appeal to women and casual gamers, is simply the fact that people who don’t love games don’t become game designers. A game company tends to be filled with people whose best memories come from the games they played, who spend all their time swapping war stories with other gamers, and it’s not too surprising that they end up wanting to make games that recaptures those experiences. A lot of ground has been broken in other media when someone who is dissatisfied with his existing choices decides to try something new (Samuel Beckett comes to mind, as the self-professed playwright who hated drama).

I think as games become more mainstream, more people of more varied tastes will join the field, and that will include women. I think right now, though, the biggest hurdle from the point of view of the companies is how to reach women once you have a product they would like. Most women, certainly all women who aren’t active gamers, can’t be targeted by the typical ads in game magazines or on gaming websites. It’s much, much harder to tell someone who doesn’t yet know that they want your product to go out and buy it, than to convince someone who is already looking for his next gaming fix that yours will be the best.

Again, I really believe Bioware’s Jade Empire would be a fantastic first RPG experience for most women, but I doubt many even saw it who weren’t already fans. And because of this, Bioware is unlikely to produce any games that streamlined again, since their more hardcore audience didn’t like the lack of inventory, easy combat and other features which made it so newcomer-friendly. I really believe that there is a large group of women who enjoy other genre products (from fantasy romance novels, to anime, to the Lord of the Rings movies), who would enjoy an interactive RPG story with some of the more logistical challenges removed, but I honestly don’t know how to let them know it’s out there.

If you can talk about it, can you tell us some about the project you are currently working on?

I am currently the Managing Editor of Dragon Age, which is Bioware’s “next-generation Baldur’s Gate in an evolving world.” Basically, I’m the number two writer on the project, out of a current staff of four writers, and have really enjoyed the chance to work on several of the largest chapters in the game. The game is a western fantasy epic, but in an original IP, with a very detailed world and darkly heroic storyline. To see more about it, go to http://dragonage.bioware.com.

Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to get into the industry?

I would definitely recommend scrounging up the cash to check out GDC — it’s basically a meat market for people who want to work in games. Bring a professional resume and a portfolio if you’re an artist — there will be people there, probably dozens, who want to look at it. When I went, I was expecting something more like a science fiction convention, where most of the networking is done informally, but at GDC there is active recruitment going on throughout the show. That’s where I met Kevin Barrett from Bioware, and a few months and several writing samples later, moved up to Edmonton. I’d also recommend checking out the IGDA, and seeing if there’s a special interest group of theirs that’s relevant to you — there’s a lot of networking done through the various mailing lists, and it gives you people to hang out with when you do scrape together the dough for a ticket to GDC.

For writers specifically, though, I would say to make sure you have experience writing as many types of stories as possible. I personally think it would do every writer some good to write a few spec scripts for TV shows — whether or not you want to work in TV, you’ll learn a lot about how to structure drama in a small space and how to suit your voice to an existing world and characters. Don’t try to write exclusively for games — whatever opportunity you get to pad your resume with paid or produced/published works will help you in the long run.

On the other hand, make sure you know what’s out there in terms of games; you don’t have to be the biggest gamer in the world to be a great game writers, but you need to understand game fans and what they like in their gaming experiences. Make friends with hardcore gamers if you aren’t one yourself (marrying one works even better), and make sure you enjoy hanging out with them and hearing their war stories. If you can’t have fun talking about games, don’t bother to try to work in the industry, because the biggest perk about it is getting to hang out with some really smart, fun, opinionated creative folks and shoot the breeze about a topic you all love.

What are your favorite games? Favorite movies? Favorite Authors? Inspirations? What do you like doing in your free time?
As I think I’ve mentioned before, my favorite games are probably Deus Ex and Jade Empire. I’m also a huge pen-and-paper RPG fan, with particular love for Shadowrun (pre-third edition), Legend of the Five Rings, and the World of Darkness.

Favorite movies are a little harder question. I was blown away by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, especially because I’m not a huge Tolkein fan and he made me love them anyway. I absolutely adore Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies, which I think are possibly the best ensemble pieces ever made. I love Three Kings, Chicago, Galaxy Quest, Memento, The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, Fight Club, Beauty and the Beast, and a whole bunch of others that range just as far over the map as those. I personally find television a lot more influential on my work (small surprise after working in the field), and I’d cite The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, House, Gilmore Girls, ER and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit as personal favorites and excellent examples for anyone studying character and dialogue.

I have a huge number of favorite authors, but most of my choices tend to be female writers writing science fiction or fantasy with strong romance elements. My top picks include Melanie Rawn, Catharine Asaro, Kate Elliott, Sharon Shinn and Jacqueline Carrey. I also enjoy Tom Deitz, Tad Williams (other than the Dragonbone Chair stuff) and George R.R. Martin.

My biggest inspiration though, is definitely my husband Chris. We started dating and writing together our freshman year of college and have been together every since. He’s the one who introduced me to roleplaying and the one I’ve giggled, argued and cried over every manuscript with. Now he’s also writing at Bioware, on a different project, and we still never get tired of talking endlessly about the theory of writing and how to make it fun, how to break it down to teach the best process to other writers, and how to break new ground in our games. He’s always pushed me to make my writing just a little bit better than I’m satisfied with, and I can’t wait to see what kind of dad he’ll be this November.

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