Creative Director Tanya Short on Her Career, Game Design and Work-Life Balance

Tanya Short is a woman who wears many hats. Not literally of course (save the odd tuque during the winter), but she does have a lot of titles. At Kitfox games, the small indie studio she founded, she prefers the title of Captain, although her business card says “Creative Director”. At Pixelles, the non-profit organization she co-founded with Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, she is a mentor and organizer helping women to make their first games.

She is also a writer-regularly contributing blog posts to industry site Gamasutra-and a speaker, having done talks at GDC and other industry events. She is also a very down to earth and inspirational lady.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, Short traveled to Japan to teach English. While there she wrote short stories and game reviews, but eventually Short realized that she actually wanted to work within the industry, making games.

Back then, “the standard way of becoming a game designer seemed to be going up through quality assurance… but it seemed like a very backdoor method,” she says “and highly dependent on a studio thinking that quality assurance wasn’t a valuable career in its own right, if it tried to promote good folks out of it.”

She opted instead to pursue a Master’s Degree at The Guildhall at SMU one of the most prestigious game development programs in North America. After sending out 50 resumes upon graduation, she received 3 offers.

“I took the one that paid the best and also happened to be in Norway, since I loved traveling,” she says, which is how she ended up at MMO specialist Funcom, working as an A.I. and level designer. Eventually she was transferred to the (now defunct) Montreal studio, which is where she met Pixelles co-founder Cohen-Palacios.

“We were inspired by Feminists in Games of Toronto, who funded our first two incubators and gave us the outline for how to run them. Pixelles has since grown to encompass a mentorship program, monthly workshops, and lots of cool social events, but it’s felt really natural because the Montreal games community is extremely supportive. Every time we host an event, ten more people ask how they can help!”

Also in Montreal was where the indie bug bit Short.

“I had been working on non-commercial little games in my off-time for years already,” she says, “and when I heard (indie studio incubator/business accelerator) Execution Labs was looking for applicants, I decided it was the right moment to take the plunge and try to go “pro indie”.

Her initial emotional commitment was only 6 months, “I figured I would try it out, no harm done, and go back to a big studio if it didn’t work out. Of course, here I am two and a half years later, really grateful that I took a chance, because my team was (and is) amazing. Then Kitfox artist, Xin Ran Liu, joined from the start and although we hadn’t worked together previously, the strength of his work and character has been essential to our success.”

Short with the Kitfox team

When asked about juggling her fledgling studio and Pixelles she says, “I can only put in a couple of hours a week at most, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I hope I can keep contributing to Pixelles here and there for ten years, or more.”

Both Kitfox’s first game, Shattered Planet, and their upcoming game Moon Hunters make use of procedural generation, a design system whereby environments, characters and/or other game elements are generated algorithmically, rather than manually. Short is a big fan of the mechanic, and is particularly excited about its place in storytelling.

“You can easily follow a guide online to procedurally generate a dungeon,” she says, “but what about people? Stories? Myths? It feels like uncharted territory, and perfectly suited for a little team to explore. There’s also the added benefit of being able to playtest my own games indefinitely when I’m never exactly sure what will happen next, whereas scripted hand-built content gets tiresome almost before I’ve even finished implementing it.”

Moon Hunters is also distinguishing itself by including 4-player local co-op, a feature that is becoming more popular in independent games as AAA games move exclusively towards online play.

“When you can find it, local co-op easily forms some of the best gaming memories,” she says. “The problem is that just setting up to play a local co-op game requires lots of coordination, so while we built the basics of the game around supporting local co-op, we can’t afford to have a bad solo game or a bad online experience. We spend a lot of time testing it with just 1 player to make sure that it’s still fun to go hunt monsters and build your mythology. But I wouldn’t be surprised if most livestreamers and Let’s Players bring a friend along!”

In addition to advocating for more women in the industry, Short has been vocal about the need for better work-life balance in the video game industry.

“When I’m working on a game,” she says, “I give it my all, and I think our culture romanticizes the idea of burning ourselves out, like if we don’t nearly self-destruct, we didn’t truly care. But it’s easier and easier to see the benefits of a more balanced work-life approach… they’re not even very long-term benefits! They’re here, and now, in happier people, clearer deadlines, and everyone being clear-eyed at 9am (okay, well, let’s be honest here, 10am) every morning.”

That said, she admits that overtime does still happen at Kitfox, but Short is determined to make sure crunch never becomes the rule like it seems to in many AAA studios.

“I send someone home if they start making more than an hour of overtime into a habit. Even me.”

Mariko McDonald is a freelance writer and blogger based in Montreal, Canada. She likes writing about video games, playing co-op games (badly) with her husband and obsessing over her cats. Follow her on Twitter.

Mariko McDonald is a freelance writer and blogger based in Montreal, Canada. She likes writing about video games, playing co-op games (badly) with her husband and obsessing over her cats. Follow her on Twitter.

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