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IGDA Interview Series: Tanya X. Short

Posted By Jillian Mood, Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tanya X. Short is the Captain of Kitfox Games, the small studio behind Moon Hunters and Shattered Planet. Previously, she worked as a designer at Funcom Games on The Secret World and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. In her free time she helps direct Pixelles, a women-in-games non-profit co-founded with Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, and writes short fiction.



Tanya X. Short
Captain, Kitfox Games

Jillian Mood, IGDA: How did you get started in the game industry? Was it a passion you always had?

Tanya Short: I've always loved games, but I didn't always know I wanted to be a designer. Initially, as a bachelor of English Literature and hobbyist writer of short fiction, I wanted to be a writer in games. I took production internships at local tiny studios at first, but I wasn't really sold on the idea until I volunteered as a community manager and content designer on a text-based MMO (called a 'MUD') that I loved. As an Elder Scrolls fan, I thought the idea of writing quests for role-playing games sounded like the best job in the world. In a somewhat unusual move for 2006, I decided to apply to a game design graduate school that promised a 90%+ hiring rate at AAA companies, called The Guildhall at SMU. I thought I would study level design as a stepping-stone to writing, but I fell in love with being the architect of the player experience. I still enjoy writing, especially for games, but it takes second place to design. A year and a half of hard work later, I had a few different job offers, unsurprisingly (for me, and for the time) on MMOs.

JM: You have been a creative director and co-founder of Kitfox Games for almost 3 years. What brought you to the decision to want to start a new company? What are some valuable lessons you can pass on to other start up hopefuls?

TS: I wanted full creative freedom, and I happened to be considering my options at the time that Execution Labs was recruiting for its first rounds of its incubator program. The Montreal community is incredibly supportive and diverse, with people from all kinds of backgrounds collaborating (AAA, indie, academic, student, ex-patriot), and it proved surprisingly easy to pull together a crack team that was ready to take the plunge. As for lessons, from my perspective, I think I see too many people that take "the plunge" a little too seriously, especially when there's so many different things that can go wrong that are beyond your control. My team approached Kitfox as a 6-month experiment at first, which helped lower the stakes and let us stay flexible with our decisions, until we found our footing. Three years later, I look back and wonder at how we may have imploded, if we'd had "following our dreams" as a pressure we felt we had to fulfill. There are already so many pressures on a young company -- financial, emotional, intellectual -- that you really don't need to add more, during that initial fragile phase, before you have something to build on. My advice would be to take a deep breath, and have fun in this moment. Enjoy exploring a new side of yourself, and learn as much as you can. Then, no matter what happens, it will have been a good use of time and energy.

JM: It's extremely exciting to see how successful Pixelles is! Can you walk us through how that initiative came to be and also plans for its future?

TS: Thank you! Pixelles started through the funding and programming of Feminists in Games, who funded our first incubator, and gave my co-founder Rebecca Cohen-Palacios and I materials on how they ran their successful Difference Engine Initiative in Toronto. Their vision was to take a handful of women, give them the tools to make games, and let them loose to make their impact on the world, as a viral effect. Rebecca is the star example of their program as a success, since she graduated the DEI and then went on to create Pixelles. The incubator is now in its 4th year, and every year we've watched as our alumna get up to more and more game-making activities, from hosting game jams to mentoring others to getting jobs in the industry! The response to the first incubator was so wildly positive in Montreal that we just had to keep doing it, and we grew along with our little community, adding mentorship programs, workshops, socials, and more. Our Facebook group is up to 800+ members, and our Kickstarter raised over $9,000 last year to help with future programs, including an incubator for young girls. This year, for the first time, with the help of the IGDA, we're even giving 25 GDC passes to women and genderfluid game devs who otherwise wouldn't be able to attend, and local sponsoring studios are providing some travel funds for those with low incomes. Our goal with Pixelles isn't just to change the existing games industry though -- we also want to change the perception of "games" as an art form, from something mysterious and masculine-coded into something approachable, that everyone can do. Everyone should try making a game, because everyone can, and then they'll know whether it's an art form they enjoy.

JM: In your experience, are you finding diversity has been improving in the industry?

TS: I don't know if diversity is increasing across the industry or not. I know that more and more game developers are recognizing a problem with the homogeneity of their teams (as every creative should), and the increased accessibility of tools means we are hearing more voices, which used to be lost. However, the industry is still run by mostly the same people it was 20 years ago, and until we have more diverse people making the decisions, I will continue to worry about the industry's culture as a whole. Like most industries across the world, we need more than just better hiring practices -- we need a work culture that supports different lifestyles, that celebrates different backgrounds, and encourages people to live full lives. I started the Crunch is Failure pledge because it has to start with us, the individuals who work in this industry, deciding how to shape our culture and perceive ourselves. I hope more people from more backgrounds can also start their own companies, and decide for themselves what culture they want to create with their teams... though I also recognize that starting a company is a huge risk, and usually only the very privileged can afford to do so. I hope more programs like Execution Labs can help new kinds of creators find their place.

JM: Any advice to companies who are hiring and want to be more diverse but not sure where to start?

TS: First, read this excellent article by Brie Code, and pay for someone like her to review your hiring practices. It takes work -- writing a posting that isn't alienating, promote your posting in new places, to new groups, and then be open-minded when new kinds of people apply. Brie was the one who showed me a surprising finding: that the most experienced, "best" candidate may not be what your team needs. A diverse team of non-experts can perform better than a team of experts. Hiring the top programmers, if they're all alike, is likely to give you a worse programming team overall than if you were to hire different kinds of people, with different modes of problem solving, different soft skills, and different personality types. If your idea of 'cultural fit' is fitting every candidate into a cookie-cutter mold of someone who played games since they were 5, loves Zelda, and has a high Steam level, you might be undercutting what you actually mean by 'diversity' into 'clones that look different on the outside'. Also, please also look at your company culture, to make sure your new, culture-challenging hires are genuinely comfortable and stick around long enough to help your company improve for the long-term

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