Confessions Of A Female Game Designer

TrulySocial’s My Tran reflects on her role as a female game designer in a male-dominated field–and how to design games with women in mind.

Confessions Of A Female Game Designer

Doreen Lorenzo: Tell us about the company you work for, TrulySocial, and your role.
My Tran: I recently joined TrulySocial as chief product officer. In the role I get to drive the product and build this brand-new game that we’re working on from the ground up. The game is aimed at the female audience between 18 and 30, which is an incredibly underserved area of the gaming world. Since we’re creating products for women, we’re making an effort to hire women with an expertise in games because diversity is critical to success.


I get to have a full range of creativity in the design process—everything that you experience when the game is complete is decided just between me and the team—a very small group of people. And I think there’s something really special about that.

What do you hope to accomplish?
We want to bring games to women that aren’t just sad re-skins of male-based games, or creating a female-based game that’s only about lipstick and shoes, because women are drawn to so much more than that. But the games you see in the market just don’t reflect that. It’s interesting because a lot of the companies that make female games are made by men—which is also, like, what? How is that supposed to work? We’re focused on creating games for women that are challenging and more engaging and fun than what’s currently out there for women.


When you talk about it’s not just about clothing and hair, are you trying to tap into just, I don’t know—science, math, finance—what is it you’re trying to tap into?
The game we’re trying to build is a contemporary social world where players have meaningful interactions with AI. It’s essentially a lifestyle game, and it’s based on the real world, and every character in the game has a story and personality that you can explore. There’s a lot of super cool behavioral science and simplified machine learning going on in the background to make this experience fun. An example would be, if you’re talking to a character that is an introvert, but you’re choosing to say very extroverted things, the AI isn’t going to want to talk to you, so you have to be really aware of what you’re saying, how you’re coming across, and how the character feels. Metrics have proven that women like playing games that are narrative-heavy, and where you interact in much more meaningful ways than just hacking and slashing forward. We want to develop emotions—games that tap into that. I think it will be a really interesting space to see how women engage with this.

How did you get to where you are now? Did you know you were going to be a game designer? What was the route, and what were some of those trigger points that made you go even further towards this path?
When I was younger, I grew up predominantly around male cousins without a lot of other girls around, and all the boys wanted to do was play video games. The first game I ever played was Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis. I remember my cousins relegating me to be “Player 2,” which meant being Tails and supporting the hero Sonic. Even though I was only five years old at the time, I said to myself that when I get older, I’m going to make games where I can be the hero, too. At the time I didn’t even think it was a viable career for me—a game designer—there’s no school for that. I mean, nobody even knew how to be one.


So how did you go for it? What did you do?
When I was applying for colleges I found that UC Santa Cruz actually offered a Game Design major under Computer Science.

What are some of the hard lessons? Talk about some of the experiences that have shaped you?
The hard lesson for me is no matter how elegant I think my design is there will be unhappy players out there. I read the forums, and the players talk. Sometimes they really don’t like certain things. And sometimes they’re right. Learning to accept feedback from my teammates and the players has also been extremely important to me.

I always strive for elegant design because I can’t be there sitting next to the person as they play it, so when I design, I make sure that it’s to the point. I design with some mystery, some intrigue, but at the end of the day it’s about the player knowing what their goals are and how they can complete the task at hand, and how good do they feel after they complete it. I always keep that in mind.


What have you learned working with other creative people? What are some of the lessons that have come into that?
Always be on your feet and have a creative solution to a problem, because it’s such a new industry. Everyone in mobile is just trying to figure it out. No one has the answers or the perfect recipe to do anything. Everyone is coming in with an attitude of “Try this. See what happens. If it does well, do it again.” Or, “If we tweak it a little, what happens there?” So it’s definitely a learning experience, and everyone’s just being really creative and coming up with really crazy ideas to solve problems. It’s a really fun time to be working in this space. I’m definitely learning from everyone on how to solve problems creatively.

Games is a team-based industry. You can’t make a game by yourself. You’re going to need a team to do it with you.

Gaming has been mostly male-dominated industry. Tell us a little bit about your experience as a woman in the gaming world.
A lot of people focus on men versus women or how men treat women in the games industry. I’ve seen both. I’ve had bad experiences with men, and bad experiences with women. After my first job I realized, you know what? It’s not a gender thing. It’s a people thing. The actions of an individual should never influence how you view or think about another person.


At one of my earlier jobs in the industry, I met men who would say really offensive things to me. A male co-worker once encouraged me to give up on being a game designer and suggested that I was more suited to working at Nordstrom. And I have had female co-workers that would alienate me from social groups at work. To keep it positive, I have met some of the coolest men and women in games that I am incredibly thankful to be friends with. I only look at the individual person at this point and judge them based on their actions.

Are you seeing a greater representation of women working in the gaming world today than when you started?
When I was in college, I was one of three girls in my entire class, and at the early companies I worked for I would maybe be the only girl, or be one of the five girls in a 50-person company. And when I talk to my friends now that are in school or graduating years later than me, there are many more women. And that’s really exciting to see. I think the rise of mobile games definitely is making that possible. There are more opportunities now.

Do you think they’re gearing actual games towards women, like female-style games, or you’re not seeing that switch?
I would say it’s still geared more toward men. There are games like Candy Crush where their player base is mostly women. And obviously Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and Covet Fashion that were created with women in mind. Yes, there are games made with women in mind, and they’re on the top-100 grossing charts, and that’s really good to see.


I’m a big fan of the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game. I think it’s really well done. For me, what I think the Kim game does really well is that it’s a diverse game. For example, you don’t have to flirt with just men if you’re female, or if you’re male you can flirt with just women. The game actually gives you the option: “Hey, what is your orientation? Who would you like to date?” And the game is also narrative-driven, which is right on. It also mixes elements of dressing up and having pets and so on. But still, the story that you have in the game and the way that you play it is fun. They did a great job.

Is there a different process for designing games for men versus women? Is there a different process as you now look at this in designing a game from scratch for women?

I don’t really think about designing for men or women. In general I will always aim for clear design, regardless of who I’m designing for. As for designing this game from the ground up and figuring out the flow, the core of the game is all about the narrative, because it’s about flirting with AI and living this online lifestyle that’s parallel to the real world. I want to capture what’s happening in real life, and I want to capture the feeling of having empathy toward these AI that you’re talking to and interacting with in the world. What I’m designing for is just capturing empathy, and to me that’s not so much male or female. I think that’s for everybody.

What do you think is driving the gender dynamics in the gaming industry? Are they just being protective of the fact that they’re there and just trying to protect their place?
The industry as a whole is just very competitive, and I think that leads people to think about themselves and their career. But again, I remind people of this all the time. This is a team-based industry. You need each other to make these games. You can’t draw and code and design your own game, right? That’s not going to happen. So I do my best to get my team as thinking of it as us all being on the same ship, and we’re sailing it to the same end goal, and if we can’t work together, the ship is going to tank. It’s makes me sad that not everyone sees it that way.


Do you think that you use emotions to make creative decisions? How do you use that skill set?
I am emotional in the place of the player. When I’m designing something I would always ask myself what if I’m the person playing this game, and I have no control over what’s happening, how does this part of the game make me feel? Because the relationship between the player and the game is very intimate. The designer sat down and made this space, and they’re welcoming you into it and to playing through it. And as a player, you never know what you’re playing through, what story you’re reading. It might have been a very personal story to the designer them, and they just changed the names and changed the story a little bit, but it came from somewhere. So I just ask myself, “As a player, is this fun? Is this enjoyable? Is this too hard? Is this too painful? Would this be cute? Would they laugh? Would they feel sad about this part? Would this make them angry?” So that’s what I have in the back of my mind while I’m designing.

What advice would you give women who wanted to start out in the game industry—again, given that there’s so much controversy around the subject? What would you tell people?
For the women who are thinking about joining the gaming industry: just go for it. Don’t spend so much energy worrying about men in the workplace treating women badly or all this negativity you hear about gender in the gaming industry. There are women already in the space fighting hard to make changes and paving a path that welcomes everyone. We want you here. You need to go for your dream and focus on that. Don’t let fear stop you and just go for it.


About the author

Doreen Lorenzo is Assistant Dean at the School of Design and Creative Technologies, and Founding Director of the Center for Integrated Design, both at The University of Texas at Austin.