Media Molecule is that rare beast–a major games development studio that continues to maintain a close-knit group of employees. With a more relaxed atmosphere than most outfits, and a relatively high number of female employees, it’s no wonder that earlier this year, Hideo Kojima praised Media Molecule’s efforts and spoke of wanting to emulate that with his own studio.
Media Molecule is most famous for its work on the LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway franchises. We chatted to producer Luci Black and network programmer Amy Phillips to find out more about how they got into games development, and how the industry is changing for women.
“It was the early ’90s. I’d gone straight from school to working, never been to uni. I was hopelessly underemployed, working in a shoe shop, when I met my future husband,” explains Black. “He was a massive gamer. I’d had Pong as a child, played the odd handheld and Commodore 64 game and all that, but lost interest by the time puberty hit. He was very determined to get me into gaming, so he bought a SNES, F-Zero and LoZ: Link to the Past, and basically said ‘play those till you like games.”’
The idea worked and Black was hooked again. In doing so, she also discovered a career path to pursue; “since I had no idea what I was doing with my life, I figured games would be a good point to aim myself at.”
Amy Phillips pursued games development in a slightly more conventional way, but it was still coincidence that led her to considering gaming as a potential career path. “I finished a degree in Computer Science with no idea what I actually wanted to do, and started working as a research assistant in the computer lab at Uni,” she explained. “I played games since I was a teenager…but it hadn’t occurred to me that I could work in [the field].”
One fateful weekend, she visited a friend employed at Big Blue Box who was currently working on Fable. There was a deadline and the friend had to go into the office, taking Phillips with them. Liking the atmosphere and the people she met there, Phillips spent the next week sending her CV off to all the games companies in Guildford she could find.
Phillips started out at Criterion Games, working on the Burnout series. Eventually specializing in network code, she moved to Media Molecule under the advisement of Siobhan Reddy (now Studio Director there).
Black went to University to undertake a degree in software engineering at Abertay, learning along the way that she was a born organizer. She soon ended up at Perfect Entertainment–best known for its work on the Discworld games–working as a Technical Assistant. “Within a year, I was hopelessly busy, so Angela set me the task of finding someone to help me out. Long story short, I hired Siobhan Reddy, now Studio Director of Media Molecule,” explained Black.
Unfortunately for the pair, Perfect went bankrupt within a year, splitting up the women for a time.
Black ended up at Creative Assembly, working on Shogun, Medieval, and Rome: Total War, amongst other titles. After 8 years there, she left when her husband needed to relocate. Black didn’t want to put her toddler into nursery 9 till 5, and flexible working practices weren’t easy to find within the games industry. Fortunately, in 2008, Siobhan Reddy offered Black contract work at Media Molecule, working on text and co-ordinating localization. The work soon led to a permanent position and Black has remained there ever since.
The path to Media Molecule was very different for each woman. There’s a reason for that, Black reckons. “Everyone is winging it all the time,” she notes. “When I first got into the industry I had Imposter Syndrome to the max, but the longer you’re in it the more you realize just how much everyone feels that.”
Overall, though, her experience in the industry has been very positive. “I don’t feel like I’ve been discriminated against,” she explained, nothing that “many women” she knows in the UK industry feel the same. The difference, she believes, is in the US industry where it’s a bigger issue. “But I also feel that sexism/discrimination at work is NOT a problem of the games industry,” highlights Black. “It’s a problem of all industries and the world in general!”
Black believes that changes need to come long before women consider working in the games industry. “Girls need to have access to toys which are not all about beauty or dollies or housework,” she asserts. “They need to be encouraged to take up, and stay in, STEM subjects.”
Also, echoing what Catherine Woolley said recently, she believes girls “need to feel like games are an option and a real job” not just a hobby. More girls need to “want to be in games,” but Black believes that this is evolving over time.
Phillips broadly agrees, citing that stereotyping needs to be eradicated, and there needs to be better education for both boys and girls. “In the meantime I’d say we need to keep telling girls from a young age that games are for them,” explains Phillips. “In fact, everything is for them–whatever they’re interested in–keep doing it!“
As Phillips astutely notes, the fundamental thing here is to “raise girls to have the self-confidence to ignore any twitchy eyebrows and keep doing what they enjoy.”
That way, the game industry grows, and the diversity leads to better games.