Get to Know a GameDev: Tanya X. Short
Tanya Short has always wanted to be lots of things: to be an astronaut, a novelist, a surgeon, a rock star, a paleontologist, a journalist, etc. “I’d still consider any of those jobs seriously if they were offered to me!” she jokes. But most know her as Creative Director at Kitfox Games and one of the leads behind the mythical adventure game, Moon Hunters.
“As an adult, it became quickly clear to me that my interests, background, and personality suit game design and game writing extremely well, and furthermore, bring me extraordinary satisfaction to practice,” she explains. “They feel like arts that continue to grow and change, and I’ll always feel there’s more to master.”
In this interview, Tanya discusses some of her influences, how she first got into the games industry, and her path to success with Kitfox Games.
What would be your unofficial title, if you were describing your role in gaming?
My team calls me Captain. I am primarily a game designer. I’m trying to figure out the other parts of my job as lead of an indie team (project management, marketing, business development), but at heart, I’ll always be a game designer.
What did you do before you worked in the game industry?
My first real job was teaching English in a Japanese high school. Though in retrospect, there were two things that should have tipped me off, while I was still attending college. I was obsessed with text-based online games, called MUDs, to the point where I spent thousands of hours, and eventually got into building content (rooms, items, characters) and running community events.
Meanwhile, I was also running an amateur game journalism/criticism site called gamer-girl.org, which posted reviews and interviews from me and other hobbyist gamer women. After college I quit both of those and went to go teach English… but while I was there, I realized I wanted to be in the game industry properly.
How did you break into gaming?
I attended the graduate school with the highest hiring rate (the Guildhall at SMU), and used that time to make the best possible level design portfolio I could. This was 2007, so there weren’t nearly as many game schools as there are now, though I would bet that 90% of them still don’t prepare you very well for actual industry hiring the way Guildhall did/does. When I graduated, I got 3 job offers at different high-prestige companies, and I decided to go with the one in Norway, since I love traveling.
Have you faced any personal challenges in your career?
Well, my spouse is also a game designer, so we’ve had to be even more selective than most designers – we need to make sure we live somewhere that has not just ONE job but TWO. So we’re fairly limited in the places we can live, to the endless disappointment of our mothers.
The low point was probably 2011, when I was the Lead Designer on a Facebook game. I took the job because of the title promotion, but due to various elements of management and my own inexperience, I found it incredibly stressful, to the point where I was having bizarre sleep-walking and sleep-screaming incidents.
The good news is that I think I’m at a high point right now! Kitfox is only 3 years old and has released 2 games and we’re in the midst of another already. It’s a bit overwhelming, but I also feel like I learn so much every month, I can’t help but be happy.
Has the success of Moon Hunters changed your approach to gamedev?
It’s made me more brave, I think, to explore what really excites me as a designer and writer. Moon Hunters was one big step towards the kinds of games I dream of being in the world, and the positive response is very encouraging.
What’s something people might not realize about your job?
Most people probably wouldn’t realize that indie leads have to travel so much! I mean, I guess I could technically survive without attending the Game Developer’s Conference, PAX, E3, Nordic Games, and various other conferences and trade shows, but it’s more important than even most traditional AAA developers realize.
Do you have game industry heroes/role models?
Lots! I was heartbroken when I found out Will Wright left games. I mean, I understand to some extent and rockets and robots are indeed fascinating, but our industry is certainly worse without him.
Has your job ever forced you to be apart from the people you love?
I’ve had to move a lot, yeah. I have lived in four countries now (US, Japan, Norway, Canada) and I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up in another one or two eventually. But I’ve always moved with my romantic partner, thankfully. We haven’t had to be separated. I Skype with my mother and brother every week. That certainly helps.
Most of the time, the people I was friends with moved away as well, so even in moments of homesickness, you can’t really entertain the fantasy of going back because there’s not really anywhere to go back to. Many of my friends have been expatriates, from Sweden or Malaysia or Italy or Australia or the Netherlands or whatever, and now they’re somewhere else. I guess I just keep focusing on the future, and keep in touch as best I can. It’s a nice feeling, having friends around the world, even if you miss them all.
If you could travel to any point in time for a single day, where would you go?
Probably either ancient Babylon or Egypt, circa 1500 BC. I am deeply curious about how much ancient people and ancient domestic life actually had in common (or didn’t) with us modern humans. How superficial are our religions and technologies, compared to the needs of hunger, sex, and ego?
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in gaming?
More developers aren’t accepting crunch as “normal”! Thank goodness. I’ve been very lucky in that my AAA employer was Norwegian, and therefore rather stereotypically “lenient” – from what I understand of American-based AAA studios, I shipped a few games without getting the usual scars and horror stories. I even started a pledge for developers to more publicly take a personal stand against crunch as an industry practice.
I suspect 10 years ago, this kind of thing would be extremely controversial and weird, but here in 2016, most agree it’s an ideal to strive toward. So we’re getting somewhere, I hope.
Any new games you’re looking forward to?
Persona 5! I absolutely can’t wait.
I also assume the next entry in the Elder Scrolls series will swallow me whole for a few months, as they have done since Morrowind.
What game has had the greatest emotional impact on you?
That would undoubtedly be a MUD I played in college called Aetolia. I was in my senior year, trying to finish my English Literature thesis, and meanwhile genuinely addicted to this thing, because I had founded and been elected high priestess of an organization within the game. In a very real way, these other players were my primary friends, with whom I spent all my evenings. So literally all of my time and energy went into this – and there was very little left for my thesis, never mind any for my boyfriend, who staged an intervention of sorts.
Once I realized how crazy it had gotten, I deleted my character in a public fashion within the game, which was an extremely difficult, emotional moment, saying goodbye to that whole world. Six months later (having graduated and moved to Japan), I would be invited back to volunteer as a game content builder, and I accepted, on the condition that my time commitment was limited. I think I started only being allowed to play 10 hours a week.
Any parting thoughts?
If you haven’t bought Moon Hunters, please do! If you’re into exploring ancient myths and fighting monsters, it may be the game for you.
And if you’re curious about making games, DO IT! Just do it. It’s really hard but it’s not some magical weird process for geniuses. In my off time, I run Pixelles.ca, which hosts lots of workshops and tutorials and events for helping folks (especially women and non-binary people) make games, express themselves through this new art form, and maybe even work in the industry.
Do you know someone in the gaming community with a unique perspective, interesting project or creative take on the industry? We’d like to talk to them!
Let us know who we should feature next: firstname.lastname@example.org
- On June 16, 2016