Brenda Romero is an award-winning game designer, Fulbright scholar, entrepreneur, artist, writer, and creative director who entered the game industry in 1981. She won a BAFTA Special Award in April 2017. Romero co-owns Romero Games based in Galway and is Course Director at the upcoming MSc in Game Design & Development at the University of Limerick.
Talita: Could you start by sharing maybe a fun fact about yourself or something that a lot of people don’t know about?
Brenda: I wonder if a lot of people know, but I’m a pretty hardcore metal head. I’m interested in playing all kinds of new games but I just tend to just say ‘all right, I’ve had enough music’. There’s so much metal. I don’t need to listen to anything new. So, I tend to go between metal and classical piano music, depending on what I’m working on. It’s one of those two extremes!
Talita: How did you get into designing games?
Brenda: I got into game design at a really, really young age. I don’t remember not being a game designer. I just have always enjoyed trying to make games. That goes back to when I was really young and I just didn’t have all the pieces for some games and started trying to make rules up around them. That’s always been fascinating to me. I think another angle of it is that I’ve always also really enjoyed just telling stories. I remember when I was a kid, we would spend a lot of time just sitting around and writing stories with my friends and then that evolved into writing plays. I loved to watch how people felt during certain scenes that we were performing. Funny enough, I don’t remember the scenes. I remember the audience. And when I say the audience, I really mean the parents of the kids in the neighborhood, right? But I have this very vivid memory of facing toward parents and taking particular delight in their reactions. I think that that was nearly addictive, I just loved crafting, creating these scenarios that would cause people to feel something.
Talita: That’s really cool! And did I read somewhere that you got your first job in a bathroom?
Brenda: I did. I know that really sounds quite terrible! So, I grew up in northern New York, which has just a ton of snow and at the time it was not uncommon for kids to smoke. It was not a good thing, obviously! But I was one of those kids. So people would smoke in the bathroom because you weren’t allowed to leave school grounds. So one day I was in the bathroom and a girl came in looking for a cigarette. To be polite, I made conversation and she just asked me if I had heard of Sir-Tech, which I hadn’t, if I had heard of Wizardry, which I also hadn’t, it had just been released, and if I had heard of Dungeons & Dragons, which I had. And that was my job interview. That was it. I’m pretty sure you could not replicate that today.
Talita: You have established two successful game companies to date. Can you share some of the main mistakes you made along the way?
Brenda: God, there’s so many things. I think the most important thing anybody can do when starting a new company is: be very careful who you hire. You can have all the greatest intentions and the greatest skills in the world, but if your team isn’t working together fundamentally, that will undo everything. That is damaging enough that it’s something that money cannot correct. It’s something that incredibly talented people cannot correct. In fact, here we guard additions to our team like they’re exciting and equal parts thread. We guard it very carefully here. So, it’s being careful who you hire and who you found companies with.
There are other things that I’ve done wrong… I think you have to be open to criticism and open to critiquing yourself, not taking yourself too seriously. I probably have done 12 things wrong today, and I know that! I would also like to do one fewer wrong thing in the future. So, learn from these mistakes. It’s such an old adage, but surround yourself with good people. Sometimes, there’s a lead designer, and people will say things like ‘my game’, or ‘Brenda, you developed this game’… No, I got to do this because of these people. I can have the greatest idea in the world and 20 years and I couldn’t make what I could make with the group of people that I’m with. It’s all down to that. If you know nothing else, that is the one thing to know.
Coral: How do you pick the right person? How do you know they’re good?
Brenda: Well, that’s the easy part. The easy part is assessing a person’s skill. There are loads of ways to do that, especially with code and art, it’s quite literally visible. You can take a look at their code, you can give them a coding task, you could take a look at their art, and just see the level that they’re at. So once they tick these boxes, you ask yourself ‘why shouldn’t we hire this person? What do we know about this person that could cause us some concern?’. We do this with every single person that we bring on. I have a couple of examples from not either one of my companies, but a previous company, where we were looking to hire a designer, and this guy was a pretty great fit. He ticked all the boxes, but one of the things that we found when we searching him online was that he belonged to a number of alt-right groups, and he was racist and homophobic. That would have been a huge problem to bring them into our company culture. That was a huge problem on its own, but especially considering that he would have been working with me, a Jewish designer and a gay designer! I just can’t even imagine why he interviewed. So, it’s better to have the right person and take some time to find that person. Good people will bring good people. If I take a look at the caliber of the coders that we have on our team, there’s lots of people who want to work with them. We didn’t build our coding team by putting out any advertisements. People want to work with great people, so they want to work with the coders that we already have here to learn from them.
Talita: Do you see a lot of difference in team diversity from when you started your career in tech to today?
Brenda: When I first started, the gender ratio was unbelievably 50/50 in the company, which is pretty rare. One of the things I’m questioning is, was it really rare? There is a fair bit of anecdotal evidence that I’m finding that shows that women actually were 30 to 40% of tech companies and in some cases the majority of tech companies. In fact, IBM in the UK referred to man-hours as girl hours for code up until the late 60s. So, you know, getting away from the notion of girl hours, which itself is a bit not optimum, right? But in my initial starting state, there were five women and five men. That goes eventually to just me in much larger teams. I would say that at this point the industry is much larger and there are many more women than there ever were. I do believe, however, that the numbers at least of women in Computer Science have gone down. It is a challenge now to find a coder who is female or non-binary, it’s more challenging than it is in any other discipline. That’s something we’re actively looking for. I’ve no doubt that I’m going to speak about this topic until I die and it will not be solved by that time. There are fewer women going into Computer Science and Game Design, and that’s something I would like to see change dramatically.
Talita: What do you think we can do to change this?
Brenda: Well, I think there are a couple of things. I mean, I think one of them is already starting to happen, which is exciting. So, let’s just pretend for a second that we don’t even care about diversity at all. Let’s say I need 40 programmers to join my team. I can probably only get 20. If I really go crazy, I can get maybe 25. If I look around the programming team and it’s still mostly Caucasian men. So now I need to fill these other spaces. Why aren’t I filling these other spaces at this point in time? It’s not a diversity problem. It’s a people problem. It is a diversity problem too, but it’s becoming a corporate people problem. They need to get more people in those chairs. So, what’s keeping people out? This forces companies to get rid of some barriers that are causing people to not come into those environments. That’s still not going to be enough, so companies have to look at the barriers for why women are not entering Computer Science, and there is a massive number of reasons why this isn’t happening.
Every time I speak to a young group of young women, I ask them who’s heard that Computer Science is for boys, and most hands go up. That’s simply not true. In fact, women were behind the invention of many significant programming languages. However, if anybody’s told they’re not good at something, they will tend to live down to that, so they will tend to make choices away from that. In some cases, it is actually institutionalized. If we look here in Ireland, it’s easy for girls to take a Home Economics class, but how easy is it for them to take an Engineering class? How easy is it for them to take Computer Science classes? So, if you start out 4 years behind the other gender, well, who do you think is going to win?
Then once they do get into college, what if you’re the only girl that’s there? Even just for socialization reasons, it doesn’t feel comfortable. That can be addressed, these are not problems that are impossible to solve. In fact, Stanford, Berkeley and Harvey Mudd have gone a long way toward improving the number of women who are in those courses. Not by making them simpler, but by making them much more accessible, by changing the name of the course for example. For example, I just started taking a course in C and the image of the course is some old, dumpy, white guy. I can imagine looking at this as a 13-year-old woman. I would think at this point ‘I don’t want to look like an old dumpy guy, I don’t want to do whatever he’s doing’. Now, what if it was an image of Margaret Hamilton? Who was the woman who literally wrote the code that put men on the moon? Perceptions matter.
When we talk about IT, we’ll say things that are just not interesting. It’s not that they’re gendered messages, it’s just that the message is not taking into account the genders of people who are listening. There’s a great event here in Ireland called iWish, and about 1200 young women go through it. When I say to them ‘how many of you think Snapchat is fundamentally broken?’, most of them raise their hand. And if I say ‘how many of you think you know a fix?’, same thing, they can make it better. So I say ‘well, you know how you do that? You do that with code’. Suddenly, it’s just been transformed from something that doesn’t interest them to ‘wait a minute, yeah, I could absolutely do that’. It’s taking a problem, that they already believed in, and a solution they already believe in, and just saying ‘well, here’s how you fix it’. Having that out there is incredibly helpful, this is a simple way to attract people into Computer Science.
Talita: What about diversity in games? Do you see improvements?
Brenda: Well, it’s certainly gotten way, way, way, better. I feel like we are at a high point for that, without a doubt. I’m one of the judges for an award, and I look at the games that are coming through, and they are continuing to show such a breadth of experience. They’re not all the classic power fantasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with power fantasies, there’s room for all kinds of stories. But I’m seeing a breadth of stories, a breadth of a style of gameplay, that simply didn’t exist before. People can create characters now that look like them, they can customize them. There are female avatars in games when you wouldn’t have had female avatars before. The industry itself now is at a point where I don’t necessarily feel like women are unicorns anymore. There needs to be a hell of a lot more, especially a lot more female programmers, who I’d say they’re still unicorn status. It would be great if I didn’t have to say female programmer and I could just say programmer and you didn’t know who I was talking about. That would be my goal. I don’t believe it’s a goal I’ll see in my lifetime, but I think games are a lot more accessible than they ever, ever were.
Talita: I was reading about a new game you’re working on, Cyber Squad. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Brenda: Yeah, this game is almost out! There’s just a couple of little tech things that they have to do and then out it goes. It was a project between HPE and Girls Scouts and the goal was to teach girls about cybersecurity. So, we wanted to make it something girls would be engaged in, something that wasn’t just a quiz. If you look at who plays narrative games, like Life is Strange and Night in the Woods, those games are really popular among our target demographic. So we wanted to give girls something that felt like it matched their own life. It’s so easy to say like, ‘oh, that would never happen to me’ I know, I’m not dumb, I wouldn’t fall for that’. Yet, if you put it inside of a narrative wrapper where you could see how that happened to her, and now that it did happen to her, how is she going to get out of that situation? So it has a bit of intrigue in it, it has branching storylines, so we tried to create something that we felt that the audience would get involved in.
When the initial design was created, we had my daughter, who at the time was 17, do a test pass. We were trying to identify what situations people her age would find themselves in. Obviously, she’s up to the minute on all the social media things, so she started just writing up these scenarios and I would ask her to take it a little further and then a little bit further than that. In the end, she did all the narrative design for the project and all the writing. The further it went, the more I realized that that was the only way that we could do it. Because as a 52-year-old woman, I don’t have the same perspective.
Talita: Do you remember a point in your career that you thought “This is it. I made it. I’m successful”?
Brenda: I guess there was one point, there was a nice brief window in time when I found out that I was getting a BAFTA, but it lasted for about 1 hour. There’s no greater award you can get as a game designer, but one hour might even be overstating it because you immediately start thinking of all the other people who are more deserving of it. And I’m not saying this to put myself down, I think I’ve done a lot of things, but I haven’t invented a genre. There are lots of incredibly deserving people. There’s also the realization that I didn’t get this on my own, I worked with a lot of amazing people. The fact that I worked with a lot of amazing people enabled me to get to the stage. Then there’s the immense pressure that once you have one now, how do you live up to this? How do you live up to being a BAFTA award winner? I have to be that person.
So no, I think that the expectations I put on myself. I spend most of my days with things that I’m trying to fix, things that are broken. I guess I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do except for this game. This game is ‘the’ game. I’ve been wanting to make this one for 20 years. The pressure doesn’t ever go off. Never. The higher you get, you know, it’s like that Tall Poppy Syndrome. I see the real me and I’m so full of flaws. So, no, there was probably maybe five minutes when I was like ‘Oh my God, I’m getting a BAFTA!’, and then I realised the pressure of having to live up to that.
Talita: Do you have any advice for women starting their career in tech?
Brenda: This applies to everybody regardless of gender, race, sexuality. I work in a place where I genuinely really like everybody I work with. The people that I work with is a group of people who are really interested in supporting other people, they’re good people and I’m never worried about, say, bringing in a woman and feeling like she is going to face misogyny or bringing in a person of colour and worry that they were going to face some degree of racism. We have practically the United Nations going on here in terms of cultural diversity, where people are from. So I don’t worry about that. It’s possible, if you’re early in your career, that you can get yourself into a situation you have problems with specific people on the team. Know that not every place is like that, and that there are ways to research that before you take the job. You can check on Twitter, on social media, see if you know anybody who knows people who work there and get the real deal. Get the scoop on what it’s like to work in that place. Because it’s not like that everywhere, and I would hate to see somebody who dreamed of making games more than anything get chased out of it because they worked with some jerks for a couple of years. That would be absolutely heartbreaking because that person could be somebody who is going to go on to win a BAFTA. Who knows?
Coral: Do you have any thoughts around women entering entrepreneurship in Ireland today?
Brenda: I think it’s important to have a community where you feel that being a female founder is not a barrier, where that’s something that’s accepted. It’s not an abnormal thing to see women as leaders in their community and businesses and as entrepreneurs. I know that Enterprise Ireland they put out calls specifically for female entrepreneurs. I would love to see more stuff like that. I can’t even give any numbers, but I certainly know anecdotally, I’ve heard other women talk about how it’d be more difficult for them to raise investment from VCs than for men.
Ultimately, as an entrepreneur, regardless of your gender, you need to believe in what you’re doing. There’s not a goddamn chance I’m going to let somebody take my dream away just because they’re an idiot. You will come across people who believe women can’t do it and you will come across people who believe that you’re just going to get pregnant or that men are more able for tech, or whatever stupid stuff that they say. That’s just not true. It’s just absolutely not true. If there’s been one constant thing in my life, is that if he told me I can’t, I’m going to. Unless I don’t want to, but if it was something I wanted to do and someone said ‘oh, I don’t know if you can do that’, I’m going to do it. In fact, several of the most important things that I’ve done in my life, one of which I won a BAFTA for, I was specifically told that I shouldn’t do it and I did it anyway. I sometimes joke with that person and ask them if they have any more ideas about things I absolutely should not do!
Coral: Have you been to a hackathon before?
Brenda: Not specifically branded as a Hackathon, but I’ve been to lots of events like that. From the game industry, we would tend to call them game jams. They’re fun because they just spark creativity and there’s not this sense of planning too much. It’s just fast and there’s not too much pressure that what we’re going to create has to go out and impress a large number of people. We were really just looking to have fun, to play with ideas, and just see how they pan out. You can also find people that you might like to work with or, equally important, to find people that you would never want to work with. I do find that it’s also a really low hanging fruit for people who think they might be interested in coding and they can just come in and see what it’s like. There’s also tremendous creativity involved and if you like playing puzzle games, you would probably like coding. It’s all about creative problem-solving.