Catherine Woolley has achieved a tremendous amount since graduating University in 2009. After receiving a First Class Honors degree in Computer Games Design, the game designer has worked for companies like Electronic Arts Bright Light, Creative Assembly, and is now a senior designer at The Chinese Room.
Woolley is currently working on The Chinese Room’s next title, Total Dark. We talked to her to find out more about how she got there, and what advice she can offer other young women keen to pursue games development.
“I never knew such a job [game designer] existed when I was younger,” she initially explained. “With no internet and lots of games consoles, I grew up loving games with my twin sister. We’d play games for hours on end and be fascinated with every new game we got. In secondary school not many people were into games. Just the occasional boy that you’d talk to about them,” noted Woolley. “When it came to careers, it was never mentioned, so I naïvely though all games were programmed and developed in Japan.”
It wasn’t until she began to look at possible University options that the idea of games design seemed like a reality Woolley could pursue. “My sister was looking at Film degrees and saw there were game degrees out there that you could do,” explained Woolley, and from that moment, she did everything to achieve her goal.
Eschewing the conventional path, Woolley didn’t follow a specific degree course-she stuck with the broader subject of Computer Games Design, and found it to be preferable over specializing in something too early on. Since she didn’t know what area she wanted to focus on, she experimented with different aspects of game development and paid attention to which areas she excelled in. “My lecturers at university were great and were always giving me advice on what to do-and that I should focus on design,” notes Woolley.
Ultimately, she simply wanted the chance to make games, and after finishing at University, she moved immediately into a role at Electronic Arts Bright Light. There, she worked as a design editor on the Flips series of interactive books for the DS. Then she moved to a designer role on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2. In 2011, she moved to Creative Assembly and her biggest job thus far: designer for Alien: Isolation.
After a number of years there, Woolley is now working at The Chinese Room-best known for its experimental first-person games such as Dear Esther, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and, most recently, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
It’s been a steady and successful climb for the designer, but one she didn’t make alone. “I’ve worked with lots of amazing people over my years working in the games industry that have helped me along the way,” Woolley insists. “I think without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Woolley acknowledges the industry is very male-dominated, but sees signs of positive change. “Gradually, more and more women are starting careers in the games industry. I’m finding with each new year of University graduates that there are more women looking for work in games.”
While Woolley herself is a great example of the advantages of an University education, she’s quick to note that it’s not essential. “If you build up a good portfolio and make games with other people, that’s just as valid,” she explains. “We just need to make sure we’re inclusive and inspiring everyone out there, which can [only] happen as long as we’re making a large variety of games, not just the next big triple A shooter!”
So, what advice does she have to offer young women keen to follow in her footsteps? Research! As she points out, access to the internet means it’s you have information available to you on many subjects. As a keen Games Jam enthusiast, she cites initiatives such as STEAM and BAFTA Young Game Designers as a great way to gain opportunities. Communities such as Coder Dojo also offer a wealth of information-the kind Woolley didn’t have when she was that age. Her other advice is evergreen-“don’t give up and be enthusiastic!”
Adding to that, Woolley explains, “the games industry is constantly growing and changing and it needs more people with fresh eyes and lots of optimism to start creating games.” It’s an attitude that Woolley herself has clearly displayed throughout her burgeoning career.