Killer Women: Victoria Moran

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 The assumption that video games are a man’s domain is finally becoming outdated.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 2009, 40% 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.

Victoria Moran works for NCSoft-Carbine Studios as an Associate Systems Designer for their as yet unannounced MMO title. Here’s what she had to say:

Name: Victoria Moran
Title: Associate Systems Designer
Company: NCSoft-Carbine Studios

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

My first memory of video games would probably be unwrapping my Nintendo Entertainment System, which was the first system I personally owned. I remember games like the original Super Mario and Zelda and being excited to receive new cartridges on my birthday. My parents were very hesitant to buy me any video games, which is humorous considering they met each other while working at Atari in the early 80s.

We were definitely no strangers to video games during my younger years, especially with arcade games that I played with my cousins. We also had an Atari pinball machine in the house up until I was around 14, which was always a hit at birthday parties. During my free time, I played computer games like King’s Quest and the Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, which were sometimes quite challenging for a 9 year old. After my NES, I had a SEGA Genesis, which I absolutely loved because of games like Sonic the Hedgehog.

From the time I was about 10 until age 15, I didn’t play many video games because I was so focused on sports. Around age 15 I got really excited about ice hockey, which is when I got reintroduced to console gaming with the PlayStation, playing EAs NHL games with my dad and cousins. From there by chance I happened upon the Final Fantasy series, and I was permanently hooked on stories and narrative in gaming.

From there I branched out and played all types of games through high school and college, from Pokemon to Dance Dance Revolution to Phantasy Star Online to Final Fantasy and Warcraft. I loved all different types of games equally until I got sucked into the gigantic machine that is the MMORPG, when I started playing Final Fantasy XI seriously. I was skeptical at first about a traditionally single player RPG series being converted into an MMORPG, but as I gave the game a chance, I started to find not only the game growing on me, but the other players as well. I found that in MMOs, I wasn’t just consuming a story that a writer had written to be spoonfed to me through cutscenes, but that stories occurred between real players as well. Joy, achievement, drama, and strife were part of the story that was my character’s life in that game, created not by the game but by my interactions with friends and enemies.

I started my linkshell (guild) in Final Fantasy XI roughly 6 years ago; many of the players I played with in Final Fantasy XI have and still play a variety of online games and MMORPGs with me now, including Guild Wars, City of Heroes, and World of Warcraft.

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

I completed my undergraduate degree at UC Davis as a double major bachelor of arts in Communication and Japanese. I originally intended to aim for the Japanese style RPG-side of the industry before I was swallowed by the MMO world, so Japanese seemed a perfect complement. During my final year of undergrad, my boyfriend heard about the Interactive Media graduate program at USC in the news, which had been recently given a big push when it received funding from EA. He encouraged me to look into the program, since I was still unclear about the direction I wanted to take in the game industry.

After researching more into USC’s program, I applied and was accepted. The program is 3 years in length, though I took a break after the first year to work and get practical experience in the industry. By this point, I had my goal in front of me, knowing that I wanted to enter the design world for MMOs. At USC’s Interactive Media program, we learn and practice production, business, cinematography, practical design, game design and design theory. Our courses had us write, cast, and shoot films, create business plans and funding proposals, and create board and video games.

In learning to design and prototype, collect feedback and receive criticism (sometimes harsh criticism!), USCs Interactive Media program definitely set me on the right track for design. I had a hard time adjusting to graduate school straight out of undergrad, but there were a few very supportive and inspiring professors that helped me get through my three years there. With their wealth of experience and encouragement, I was able to successfully create my interactive thesis project and graduated in May of 2008.

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

I entered the industry as a tester (in the summer between school sessions) as one of my first jobs, my absolute first being at SEGA of America in San Francisco. I tested NFL2K3 for a brief period before being transferred to Phantasy Star Online for Gamecube due to my previous experience with the Dreamcast version of the game. The following year, I worked at Konami of America doing compatibility and localization testing for games like Castlevania, Yu-Gi-Oh!, TMNT, and Pro Evolution Soccer.

After my first year of graduate school, I took a year off and worked at Square Enix on the Final Fantasy XI Online Community team as an assistant. As I was playing Final Fantasy XI heavily during this time, it was amazing to be able to work at Square Enix on the game I loved. It was here I got my first peek behind the scenes of an MMO, which greatly influenced my desire to be an MMO designer.

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 decided I wanted to get into the game industry when I was around 15, when I started playing all of the amazing role-playing games out at the time. I wanted to work with something I love and enjoy, and video games seemed like a dream job.

I applied at SEGA for a test position, since everyone that I knew suggested that I needed to get experience in the industry under my belt, and that testing was the ground floor of it all. It was rough, because SEGA was an hour and a half away from where I lived and at the time I didn’t have a driver’s license. I basically woke up every day at 5am to catch the train to San Francisco and get to work on time. Despite that, I had a great time every day I was there, made some friends in the industry, and learned a lot about procedures and production schedules.

How long have you been working in the industry?

I started in the industry 7 years ago at SEGA and worked here and there between sessions at my universities.

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

As an Associate Systems Designer, I write detailed design documents for systems that will be implemented in the game. Specifically, I’m the designer for the game’s social systems, which includes many of the social tools and features that MMO players use in their everyday gaming. My goal in designing these systems is to provide players with the features that they want and need, and I do a lot of research into player suggestions, feedback, and comments in current MMOs.

I spend most of my day working on design documents or in Photoshop creating demonstrations of tools and UI layouts for artists and programmers to reference when these tools are implemented.

As a particular system gets further along, my job shifts from concept to iteration, testing and polishing these systems so they function smoothly and provide the features that players want.

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

Just last week I was able to pitch an idea to the company and gather feedback. It was really exciting to be able to share my design with each of the different departments, and to hear new ideas and suggestions that improve my design.

I think that definitely the most exciting moment is when one of my systems is implemented in the game. It’s one thing to write a document that says ‘here’s how it should be,’ and an entirely different thing to see that design in action. It’s very exciting and definitely a rewarding feeling.

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

I think that working with and playing games has made me very sedentary. When you’re so engrossed in creating something amazing or progressing on a raid boss, it’s sometimes really hard to tell yourself to stop, get up, and move around. I also tend to get so focused that I don’t eat for hours on end; recently I’ve been working out and eating healthy to rectify this. At many companies, people are confined to workstations and only get up to go to their car and drive home. Carbine Studios, on the other hand, is a great environment; the designers, artists, programmers, and producers who work here are a very fit and active group of people, often choosing to bike and walk everywhere. It’s a very encouraging environment to be in as compared to the “dungeon” work rooms I’ve been in.

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

When designing the features of an MMO, we have to consider many different types of players, play-styles, and potential player interaction and interference. It’s never a simple task, because everything has to be balanced and tested and rebalanced many times. Players may believe that features or content are designed for a certain type of player, but that’s definitely not true, especially for our game. There is a delicate balance that has to be preserved in every design proposal and decision. When I create systems, I have to think about all types of players, different classes, player mobility, potential griefing, guild drama, item stealing, looting mistakes, disconnections…all of these things and more go into consideration in every design.

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?

Although it can be intimidating at times, I don’t feel disadvantaged being a woman in a predominately male work environment. I think that men think through design problems one way, and women another, and to have a variety of ideas, solutions, and possibilities are key to creating a great game.

I do think I had an advantage in several cases, in applying for graduate school and positions in the industry. Game companies are starting to see the value in diversity, and although it is still a predominantly male industry, women are starting to get their foot in the door.

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

I don’t consider myself a hardcore gamer anymore, but I’m sure my play hours lead most people to conclude I am one. Currently I play roughly 50-70 hours of games a week, and raid 6 days a week in World of Warcraft. At the peak of my Final Fantasy XI play, I was logging over 100 hours a week.

If you’re wondering how 6 days a week of raiding doesn’t amount to hardcore play, I am approximating it by the length and difficulty of the raids. Some creatures I fought in Final Fantasy XI took over 8 hours to kill and could drop nothing, while I can run Naxxramas in World of Warcraft and get 60 items in 5-6. You have to be pretty hardcore to fight monsters for 8 hours with the potential of no drops. I don’t have the patience, the heart, nor the time for that type of play anymore.

I’m still a guild leader and I still lead raids, so maybe that does make me hardcore because I have to invest extra time into the game that I otherwise wouldn’t.

What settings and genres do you enjoy most? Least?

I love fantasy worlds and characters, especially if they are based on mythology. I’m a big RPG and MMO nut, but I’m mostly open to any genre or setting so long as the game play is active and fun; I don’t think that I have a least favorite. I’m pretty terrible at drums on Rock Band, though!

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

I think I would probably be lying to myself if I said I enjoyed any game more than I enjoyed the N64s Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The world and characters were so amazing and I played that game for hours and hours on end.

Derby Owner’s Club (horse racing) is a close second. Being able to save your game on an arcade machine is really awesome, and playing against 7 other people is even more so.

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?

I think that’s a really tough question and I don’t know if I can choose just one answer. I think the problem that game designers have with women is that they try and stereotype what women like and they think that adding these features in the game will instantly attract women. I would caution against that in any case.

I think the best thing to add that will appeal to players of all types and backgrounds is things that are collectible in-game (but not TCGs that give you in-game items). Cards for an in-game card game, dice for an in-game dice game, mounts, mini-pets, costumes, furniture, role-playing gear, trinkets…all these things are fun for players to collect and display, no matter if they are male or female.

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

I personally dislike attempts to create girl gaming; I feel that it segregates the gaming community when companies offer games that are excessively cute or pink or fuzzy in an attempt to attract women or girls. I think that games that try to integrate content to interest both males and females are a better method to create a strong gaming community.

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

All I can say is that it’s a very exciting Sci-Fi/Fantasy style MMO.

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

The best advice I can give is to get involved from the get-go. Looking back I now wish I got involved in more student projects, group game projects, and pursued my own interests a little further. I always seemed to get a project of my own started, and never follow through because of school or the MMO I was playing at the time. It’s important to make time to follow through with these things, because they give you valuable experience for when you’re ready to enter the industry.

Keep your passion for games. It’s a lot different to work on games than it is to play games. At times you’ll be looking at the same feature or design for months. If you can keep sight of the big picture, it’ll help you to keep on loving games. Play a wide variety of games to keep yourself up to date on the newest features, graphics, and gameplay that companies are currently offering players. It’s homework, but fun homework!

Also, you should expand your skillset whenever possible. Learning programming, 3D artist’s tools, Photoshop, creative writing, basic design, basic production, public speaking and presenting, production schedules, time and effort budgeting…these are all important things that go into making a game. The more you understand about not only your own position, but everyone else’s, helps everyone in the long run and makes communication easier.

What are your favorite games? Favorite movies? Favorite Authors? Inspirations? What do you like doing in your free time?

For favorite games, I’d have to say: Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Gitaroo Man, Rock Band, Xenogears, Final Fantasy VIII, Phantasy Star Online, Monster Rancher 2, Bioshock, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI, Viva Pinata, Singstar, and Karaoke Revolution to name a few. These are all really great games, and in the case of the music games, I think it’s awesome that these games always seem to pull in non-gamers and get them involved. The action and roleplaying games have amazing stories, especially Bioshock which gave such depth to characters you never even met during the game. And of course, the online games are a passion of mine, because I love the social aspect of MMO gaming.

Movies are a bit harder, but I definitely love comedies, family films, Disney, and Pixar films. Superbad and Dewey Cox are hilarious. Night at the Museum really captured my imagination the first time I watched it on an IMAX theater. I watched so many Disney movies when I was younger, I pretty much know the script to each and every one of the older animated films (Lion King especially)! I really enjoyed the Golden Compass movie, and I’m eagerly looking forward to a potential sequel, should they decide to make it.

As for books, my favorite series is actually a Japanese fiction series called “Juuni Kokki” (The Twelve Kingdoms) by Fuyumi Ono. The novels were mostly written in the 80’s and detail the journey and trials of a young Japanese girl who fights her way through a strange alternate world, only to find she’s the new queen of the Kei Kingdom. Some of the novels have been translated into English fairly recently, and they made a brief anime of the first few books. The story is slightly different than the books; I’m more inclined to like the books because the main character goes through more hardships that justify her personal growth than in the anime.

I also really enjoyed a book by Carlos Ruiz Zafón called “Shadow of the Wind.” The book is full of intrigues, drama, and romance. I won’t say more than that other than it’s definitely worth reading. I’ve also read Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Despite the controversy surrounding the movie and novels, as a work of pure fiction, the story is amazing and every twist and turn takes the reader on a wild ride. Currently, I’m finishing up the fourth book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, “A Feast for Crows.” I’m taking it slow because I don’t know when Martin will finish book five, if ever, and if I finish book four without a book five to turn to, I might not get back to it.

All of these books, films, games, and many more serve as my inspiration for design, as well as the voice of the players, the voices of my friends and family, and my own likes and dislikes.

In my free time I’m either raiding in World of Warcraft, being a foodie and chowing down on some Tonkotsu Ramen (there are some wonderful ramen places here in Los Angeles), playing board games, making hand painted T-shirts, or making game themed cakes.

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