Interview with Tanya Short, Head of Kitfox Games & Coordinator at Pixelles.ca

Shattered Planet

As mobile electronics become more and more sophisticated, it’s apparent that the mobile app and gaming industry is here to stay.  Tanya Short of Kitfox Games is definitely capitalizing on it as their first published game, Shattered Planet, is an initial tablet game that is already available in Sweden and Canada via Google Play and the App Store. While creating a free-to-play, turn-based RPG that’s set on alien worlds, Tanya also helps coordinate Pixelles.ca, a great program that helps women get their feet wet in game development. With all of this going on, Tanya still isn’t slowing down, already having started development on Kitfox’s second game, Moon Hunters, which was chosen by Square Enix to be part of their new Square Enix Collective platform — a place for game enthusiasts to look over indie game pitches, provide feedback, and show support for games they’d think would benefit from some well deserved crowd funding.

Tanya ShortIt was our pleasure to have a chat with Tanya Short, an experienced game dev talent who is undoubtedly grounded in her passion of game development, and always keeping her eye on the prize: innovation and adaptation.

Paper Droids: Pixelles.ca is a very interesting and worthwhile program that provides amazing support for women interested in breaking into game development. What’s the story behind it all and how did you become a co-founder?

Tanya Short: Well, it’s funded by Feminists in Games, a group based in Toronto. They ran two incubator series called the Difference Engine Initiative, with the idea that if you teach some women to make games (who otherwise might never have done so), it could have a viral effect in the game-making community, that they would teach others to make games and improve diversity by their existence. It was a big success, and one of their organizers was going to run a third one, here in Montreal, but then her moving plans got nixed. So, they ended up looking for local women to run the third round, and they found Rebecca Cohen Palacios and I, who were both regular attendees of a local indie-game meet-up, the Mont-Royal Games Society.

Pixelles.caWe seemed to work well together, so we took their curriculum, made a few small adjustments, and it was a huge success. We decided to keep Pixelles as a more broad organisation, one that can organise game jams, workshops, more incubators, etc. It’s rather similar to Dames Making Games, which is the group in Toronto that came out of the Difference Engine Initiative. And in fact, Rebecca herself is a graduate of the DEI. And she went from being a graphic designer/web developer to being a UI developer at Ubisoft this year. So she’s like… the star example of how the program has the potential to change not only grass-roots community culture (the Mont-Royal Games Society meetings are much more diverse these days than it used to be), but also bring more women to the normal games industry.

PD: So when you say graduate, you mean she joined the sessions held by DEI and the program helped her develop her own video game, and she had the means afterward to pursue video game development?

TS: Yeah, exactly! I mean, it’s not like making her own game made her any more or less qualified to work at Ubisoft — it was just a big step towards being part of game-making culture. There honestly is only a loose cultural overlap between the “indie” scene and places like Ubisoft, but I think the identity there (“I’m someone who makes games”) is more important than any real logic, you know?

PD: As a female game dev, how do you see the industry currently? Do you feel that feminism has made any headway in the field towards sexual equality, or have any thoughts on what milestones need to occur to progress towards less sexism?

TS: Oh, that could be its own whole interview, haha! Well… hum. I think we’re in a good place right now. There’s people talking about it from every corner of the industry — gamers, artists, programmers, critics… so that’s great. If we can just harness that energy and actually push forward, we’ll be in a great place in a few years. The problem is that I feel the internet’s attention span is a bit short for things like social and legal/political changes… so although right now we have lots of people loudly bringing attention to inequalities, maybe in a year people will think, “Oh, that’s so 2012, didn’t we solve that already?”

I think the industry right now is 90% accidental white boy’s club — unlike some other industries, I think the number of company founders that sat down and intended to make a white-cis-male-only network are very, very few. There was a time in the 90s when there were actually more women designers and programmers, and we somehow regressed from there. I think… the main problem has been that white middle-class feminism has been the headlining… and as long as that’s all we diagnose, we can’t actually solve the problems.

PD: Is the major problem that women somehow did not participate as much as video game development became mainstream?

TS: I think the problem is the major culture of our society, to be honest… Like, yes, of course, there is always a certain momentum when an industry is dominated by a particular demographic, that that demographic becomes self-perpetuating, due to cultural pressures… Girls and women over the last 20 years have been somewhat driven away.. I’m semi-lucky, in that in my childhood, I didn’t really get any exposure to advertisements. I didn’t realise Zelda wasn’t supposed to be for girls!

PD: I actually didn’t realize that video game advertisements were gender specific when I was young either.

TS: Yeah, it’s not until you go back and look at them that you realise little cues to “optimise” their appeal.. especially some computer ads from the 80s were especially bizarre. There was a great article on it recently.

Anyway, for me, I haven’t experienced any massive examples of sexism… but I have been in meeting rooms with 20 men, and had to argue my points, and it wasn’t uncomfortable until I realised I was the only woman, and then suddenly it was awkward! But, the number of times I’ve had to answer offhand, “Hey Tanya, you’re a girl — what do you think of this? Is this sexist?” is.. lots, heh. Being expected to speak for half the population, and/or being treated as exceptional for a woman, are both problematic, obviously. I don’t think I’m exceptional. I think there are so many intelligent, creative women out there who would absolutely love the challenges of game development, but they never considered it. Maybe they never got into video games, for whatever reason. Or maybe they did, but “grew out of it”. Or they think they have to be able to write in programming code.

PD: How do you usually react in those situations [where you’re being surveyed]? Do you actually answer or do you educate first so whoever is asking can grasp why what they said is problematic?

TS: When I was in a big company, like on a team of 100+, I was more diplomatic. There’s just not enough time to educate everyone. So it’d be something like, “Well, this part makes me think maybe I’m not welcome, but I dunno, it’s just my feeling, you’d have to ask a lot of different people probably.” I was really grateful when the Feminist Frequency videos started coming out, because it really facilitated lots of conversations with fellow devs… you know, ones who haven’t really thought about the topic, and needed a little help to really internalise it. Because I had at least three colleagues who were ripe(?) for the feminist pickings. Like, they independently watched those videos, thought about them, and then sought me out as a semi-vocal feminist to discuss their objections in a respectful way. So, I thought that was awesome. Now that I run my own company and we’re only a team of four, I feel like it’s a worthwhile investment to take the time and really explain things to people who don’t get it, even if they didn’t ask for a ten-minute Feminism 101.

Shattered Planet Screen Cap

PD: What’s your day-to-day like at Kitfox working on Shattered Planet and Moon Hunters while coordinating Pixelles? Do you ever feel like you need a breather from games?

TS: Yeah, it’s a bit busy. My day-to-day is… pretty busy. I work 9-6 or so on Shattered Planet, with only an hour here and there on Moon Hunters… and Pixelles gets third place. I only really work on it in evenings and weekends, and honestly, sometimes I just have to give up on getting everything done for Pixelles that I want to do, at least in any timely fashion. Like, last summer I started the mentorship program, to pair wannabes and juniors in the games industry with seniors, for CV advice or role modeling or advancement… and I honestly haven’t had time to work on that for a month or two. Especially with the Pixelles incubator going on right now. Luckily, Rebecca does lots of the Pixelles logistics, and I mostly handle coordinating speakers and PR.

I definitely do schedule in breathers, though. I made some delicious banana muffins this morning. And I started a short-story writing club a couple of years ago, in which we write a story every month… I’m tempted now and then to bow out due to all of my other responsibilities, but it helps take my mind off of games, at least for a few hours a month! The main problem is finding times to PLAY games anymore, really…

PD: Do you ever want to turn your short stories into games?

TS: Mmmm well, I’ve turned a couple of them into interactive experiences. I can find you a link to one I’ve hosted live, but it’s not a game so much as a choose your own adventure. But Moon Hunters definitely partly came out of a desire to meld some of my non-game-passions into my game design experience. I mean, I find the bronze age of history fascinating, and I have a lifelong fascination with various aspects of occultist traditions… so the inspiration for Moon Hunters isn’t just other games, and that feels more healthy than the constant cannibalisation of game tropes. Right now my team and I are building a Pinterest mood board, trying to really hone in on what the spiritual aesthetic of Moon Hunters is. And not a single picture is from a video game! [Laughs]

PD: What was the biggest obstacle during the development of Shattered Planet? Were there any moments you felt the game would never work out? What was the catalyst that made you realize that it’d be published successfully?

TS: The biggest setback was actually towards the beginning. Right when we were starting, our lead programmer at the time actually got an ulcer! And although we kept hoping he’d heal well, he didn’t recover for quite some time. So we had to scramble, both in terms of the second programmer suddenly feeling much more pressure to take over the game, and also trying to find another programmer, in the undesired possibility that the first didn’t come back. We waited a couple of months, but eventually had to get a new programmer, and that was pretty difficult. If we hadn’t been able to do that, we probably would have had to shelve Shattered Planet and pick a smaller game to make.

But when we took the game to the Boston Festival of Indie Games in September the response was so positive! I mean, it was our first real public showing, and some people got really into it. The rest of my team couldn’t come, but I wish they could have, to see the various people enjoying themselves at the Kitfox booth. At the time, there was only about five minutes worth of content, and I’d say “Hey, so thanks for playing, you’ve pretty much seen everything,” and they’d say, “No, no, just one minute, I think I figured something out…” And that has kinda given me the confidence to believe in the game these last six months, even when it’s felt a bit overwhelming with bug fixing and crashes and so on.

PD:  Shattered Planet is a game with lots of strategic elements packed into it, such as a large catalogue of items to equip and use, three stats to spec your character as you progress, and turn-based actions on a grid playing field while incorporating the map-eating Blight. Were these always elements you and your team decided that Shattered Planet had to have or were they decisions made while the game was being decided on in the early stages?

TS: Well, back when we started, we only really knew one thing… we knew we wanted to make a game about exploration. So we came up with a few different idea-sparks for ways that could happen, and made a bunch of prototypes. We made one that was like a puzzle game, kinda like Minesweeper, clearing out the darkness on a map. We made one that was almost like a board game, with little tiles you’d move a guy around on. But the one we liked most was more strategic and had those kinda traditional role-playing game elements… so we moved forward with that one! It initially had even more statistics, but we’ve refined it down over the course of production, to be as sleek as it can, while still giving the player a tactical challenge.

PD: Since Shattered Planet was developed for tablets, how do you see mobile gaming evolving in the next five years?

TS:  FLAPPY BIRD FOREVER! [Laughs]

PD: I actually tried Flappy Bird recently and I have to say I was infinitely frustrated! Do you think it’ll still be mostly casual or do you think it will develop into its own beast like how console gaming has really become a cornerstone of the industry?

TS: I think it’s already developed into its own beast, it’s just still staggering under the weight of gold rush businesspeople. There’s so much power in these tablets, there’s absolutely nothing stopping self-proclaimed “true hardcore gamers” from banding together and supporting the games they love. They just need to recover from these last few years of feeling burned out by a market that’s… not very well curated. I mean, there’s so many different audiences and demographics that want to use their tablets to game… but it’s so crowded by products they’re not interested in, it’s like if Rolls Royce and Toyota and Ferrari all had a car show together. So, maybe it’s up to Apple and Google, to really figure out a better way for gamers to find the games they’re interested in.

PD: You’re right, I always find it hard to find something that interests me when I open up the App Store because of all those other games that are a copy of each other.

TS: So yeah, our challenge with Shattered Planet is primarily a marketing one. Mobile publishers and developers have the common wisdom that mobile gamers don’t read reviews, that “traditional press doesn’t matter”. And maybe they’re right — maybe all we can do is spend thousands of dollars on acquiring users through advertisements… but I’m too stubborn not to try! Because I refuse to just make this awesome game and then… give it to the Apple and Google gods and sit and pray.

Moon Hunters by Kitfox Games

PD:  Moon Hunters seems like a much larger game with many more game mechanics that has more action; definitely a departure from Shattered Planet. Where was the basic idea of the game derived from and from all of the different crowd funding options out there, how did Kitfox come to decide on the Square Enix Collective to help the game come to fruition?

TS: We sat down late last year, and we looked at Shattered Planet… and realised we had no idea what the sales were going to be like, but realistically, the number of studios who make a profit from their first game (never mind their first free to play game)… well, we had to accept the possibility that maybe we’d launch Shattered Planet and have $0. And with that possibility in mind, we discussed what we wanted Kitfox to do and to be. And we talked about maybe doing some contracts for bigger companies, or taking an investment from somewhere else, or various things… but we realised that our end-goal would be to work up the courage and money to be able to do a crowd funding campaign, and really make whatever game that A) we wanted to make, and B) we thought there was an audience for. And once we realised that that was our goal, we thought, “Well, why not try it now?”

It was around that time that Square Enix announced its Collective — so we came up with Moon Hunters as a pitch, and sent it to them basically without any solicitation or prior relationship. We just cold-called them, basically. We honestly expected them to say, “That’s nice, but we already picked our pilot pitches, thanks!” And instead, they liked it so much, they jumped on it. So we were super-pleased with that. It definitely gives us more options. I’m going to write an extensive article on the Collective in the next week or so, but it boils down to my life philosophy, which is always to keep as many opportunities available as possible. The nice thing about the Square Enix Collective is we can still do whatever we want — we can take our ball and go home and make the game by ourselves, or we can accept investment for it, or we can go to Kickstarter, or stay on the Collective. Or we could just can the whole idea, if we wanted.

PD: So the freedom really attracted you?

TS: Absolutely. If they had demanded that we sign away … well, just about anything… I’m not sure we would have been as enthusiastic. But I think they (and especially the guy behind it, Phil Elliott) is really trying to do good by indie developers, and get some goodwill from the community.

Kitfox Games

PD: Does Kitfox plan on expanding into developing bigger and more complex games? Is there any console game development in your foreseeable future? Maybe even Oculus Rift and Virtuix Omni action?

TS: Well, it’s hard to say. I think Moon Hunters is about as big and complex as we can possibly get without growing our team… and growing our team would mean we’d need more money to stay afloat! But, and Microsoft or Sony if you’re spying on this as I type it contact me winkwink, I think its co-operative gameplay would make it a perfect console game. We’re designing it for controllers from the start, since on a PC, more than 1 person is pretty difficult to accomodate on a keyboard. If we made dozens of millions of dollars, maybe we would look at 3D, but our artist (Xin Ran Liu) is such a talented concept artist, it would feel like a bit of a waste to leave 2D behind. Though, that being said, our lead programmer (Mike Ditchburn) is always experimenting with 1000 different little prototypes. This past week he was working in the evenings on some kind of survival/scavenger game in 3D with dinosaurs. So, uh, who knows, I guess!

PD: I did randomly generate an “Oculus Gap” headgear piece in Shattered Planet which is what prompted me to ask about Oculus Rift! I really like that Shattered Planet added in a lot of items that refer to other games as Easter eggs or nods of approval. Do you have any favourite items from Shattered Planet?

TS:  Yeah, the Oculus Rift is actually super-exciting to me as a designer, and I think I’m going to have to get a dev kit just for my own personal edification/hobbyist design experiments… or maybe I can get money to get one for Pixelles, hmmmmm. My favourite items are probably the ones with special abilities attached. Like, there’s one mask that’s just a dead crablet you strap onto your head, and it’s a Crablet Disguise. And then there’s the piece of candy that actually turns you into a crablet for a dozen turns. Setting fire to things is always fun. But probably my favorite is the shattering gun. It literally blows up the tiles around you so they fall away. You could blow up the tiles with Blight as a last-ditch maneuver.

PD: Do you have any advice for other game dev enthusiasts who want to start their own indie company?

TS: Sure, I have at least 15 different things, haha… Let’s see, hmmm…

#1 – make a game. Right now. Don’t wait to start a company or meet someone or have an idea or whatever. Nothing’s stopping you. There are so many tools and tutorials out there, just go make a game. And if you want to be really high-level, try to release it commercially for money. Ideally, do these things before you start your company, so you know what it feels like, before all the added pressure is there. Actually let’s just leave it at that 😀

PD: That’s totally cool! Finally, what assortment of video games, or any single video game, do you feel best describes your journey from your first experience with video games to your current position as the head of an indie game developer and coordinator of Pixelles.ca?

TS: I think… when I got The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for my Game Boy as a kid, the hours I spent trying to figure out that game weren’t wasted time. I was exploring around unknown territory, gathering information, learning and adapting my strategy to fit different problems, and now, over 20 years later, I’m here in real life, feeling like I’m on one of the many cutting edges of my profession. Despite having over 10 years experience designing games, it doesn’t matter. I have to constantly adapt, change my strategies, and keep my mind open to new avenues of self-growth and inspiration. The fact that Moon Hunters is also rather Zelda-inspired might not be as much of a coincidence as it seems.

As indie developers, we can’t stop learning or we’ll stop existing.

PD: It’s true, game devs have to evolve with the market and the technology. As a player you don’t really see that as clearly.

TS: Well, when I was on a team of 100, I learned lots! It was just less about personally deciding on a direction for the game, and more about the intricate details of one particular system. More of a microcosm, I guess, a baroque detail within a larger piece. Now that I’m captain (sometimes I sign off on Shattered Planet newsletters as Captain Tanya of the S.S. Kitfox), every decision feels more meaningful… which is more satisfying, but also more terrifying. I guess that’s how it is. If it’s easy it’s not worth doing, right?

Shattered Planet will be available worldwide mid to late March. Keep a look out for it, and if you’re lucky enough to get a taste of it now, tell us about it in the comments below!

Carmen loves many a mobile device and enjoys gaming on almost all platforms. She often likes to binge on anime, as she finds it the most fulfilling type of entertainment. Except for HBO. And perhaps her pet hedgehog. Her answer to life's most pressing issues? "There's an app for that." To see her silly life in pictures: @kuety on Instagram