While there are a number of different trajectories that could lead someone to being CEO of an independent studio, the most likely path is preceded by several years in AAA game development, or at the very least, several years of entrepreneurship in a technology field. That same CEO is probably male, probably white and probably over thirty.
None of these things describes Seattleite Renne Gittins, CEO and co-founder of Stumbling Cat Games.
Gittins, who turns twenty-six this month was recently described by Venture Beat’s Dean Takahashi as a ‘unicorn,’ and actually decided to dive into indie entrepreneurship after having difficulty breaking into the industry. Her studio, Stumbling Cat, had been founded in 2014 when she was still working in biotech for the purpose of working on side projects, but took on an entirely different life when she realized that she really did want a career in games.
“I applied to a lot of companies at the time,” she says, “but I didn’t have AAA industry experience to charm them with nor was I fresh out of college with a CS degree. I knew that I could be a good game developer, so I decided to prove it to myself and everyone else. I’m not usually a big risk taker, but I also realized that this was the perfect time in my life to pursue this path.”
Currently, Gittins manages a remote team of six while they work on their first game, Potions: A Curious Tale, an adventure crafting game where combat isn’t also the best course of action. “The idea for Potions: A Curious Tale rose out of frustration over games rewarding you or requiring you to kill every fluffy bunny or goblin that you see,” she says. “While I enjoy games with character skill progression, I felt like having that based off of experience gained from relentless slaughter didn’t really make sense. Thus, the progression in Potions: A Curious Tale is based on your own achievements and skills.”
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any combat at all in the game. “Some monsters require straight up battle,” she concedes, “and that’s fine! I just enjoyed making a game that challenges the traditional habits of reckless slaughter for progression.”
In addition to her many responsibilities as CEO of Stumbling Cat, Gittins is also an active member of the Seattle indie development scene, serving on the board of IGDA Seattle. “While I very well may be the youngest member of the board, I am outspoken and happy to lead the planning of events and resources to help fellow developers, so I fit right into the board and didn’t feel intimidated at all,” she says.
But, despite her bright eyed confidence, Gittins has also been open about her struggles with imposter syndrome, writing about it for Broken Joysticks. For others facing similar struggles, Gittins advises others to own their accomplishments, “don’t discount your own hard work and efforts,” she says. “Even if luck has helped you on your way to where you are, that is no reason to doubt your worthiness for being there. Luck isn’t everything. And you certainly didn’t get there just because other people are trying to be nice. The world simply isn’t that nice.”
As for the unicorn moniker, while she initially jokes about being born the year of the horse, she is able to recognize the uncommon position she is in, “I understand that, while over half of gamers are women, we only make up 22% of the industry, even less than that when it comes to programmers and CEOs like myself,” she says. “I wish this weren’t the case, because I think the industry would benefit greatly from having more women developers and leaders.”
“Luckily, the industry is growing and I see more women rising up within it. I hope that, one day, I will no longer be considered a unicorn and that there will be majestic herds of us everywhere!
As for other women looking to found their own studios, Gittins encourages women to do their due diligence and really think about what they hope to achieve. “Take your time to plan what your goal is and how you are going to achieve it,” she says. “Surround yourself with great people, both within your team and your support network around you. And take care to balance between your studio’s needs and your own needs. A day of rest hasn’t brought a studio down, but the lack of one has brought more than one developer to their breaking point.”
She also sites other independent developers she admires as helping her to continue driving forward. “I have some wonderful friends in the game industry that I look up to,” she says. “Rami Ismail and his support of game development communities and work to encourage diversity and culture understanding. Ty Taylor, a brilliant game designer, and whose games have made me rethink how I approach puzzle design in Potions. And Matt Endsley, who is one of the best programmers that I know and he is also one of the most grounded game developers I know as well!”
As for what she’s playing now, Gittins, like a lot of developers, has had to put off many anticipated games in order to focus on her work. “There are so many things I want to play right now,” she says, “like Witcher 3! Right now, I’m still lighting raiding in World of Warcraft, and I play the occasional Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm games. I must admit, I’m rather a fan of Blizzard’s work!”
“I also have been playing Neko Atsume and Clash Royale on the phone, as well as Tumblestone and Factorio on the PC.”