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The Mary Sue Interview: Naughty Dog Game Designer Emilia Schatz

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In recent years, few game developers have pushed the envelope further than Naughty Dog has. Between their amazingly written characters and beautifully designed worlds, every game that the studio releases is an absolute must-play. I recently got a chance to talk to Emilia Schatz, one of the lead game designers at Naughty Dog, about working in games, coming out, internet harassment and pizza.

David Ochart (TMS): How did you get your start in the gaming industry?

Emilia Schatz: I went to the University of North Texas and was a student at their Laboratory for Recreational Computing (LARC), a fledgling game development program mostly focused on coding. I worked my way through school making educational mini games in Flash for online courses. I was making some of my own simple games too, mostly in Flash, but I also got a small Tempest-inspired prototype running on a bootleg Gameboy Advance development environment. That was really exciting for me because I was a huge Nintendo fan growing up! I have a special fondness for the SNES and in a lot of ways, the GBA was like a portable SNES.

After I graduated, I continued to work for the school, but applied to all the game development studios in Dallas I knew of. It was months before I heard back from anyone, but finally I was invited for an interview with Terminal Reality, best known at the time for the game BloodRayne. I was hired as a level scripter for a project called Remission, a game designed for young gamers with cancer so they could learn about their disease and feel a sense of agency in fighting it.

TMS: How and when did you get hired by Naughty Dog?

Emilia: I worked for Terminal Reality for about seven years, which typically is a long time to stay at one company in game development. But I was getting restless and I felt I still wasn’t making the games I always wished I could make. So we had just finished up Ghostbusters: The Video Game, and I figured with a high profile game shipped, it was a good time to try to make a change. I sent out my resume and portfolio to a few dream studios, and soon enough, I had a phone interview with Naughty Dog and then they flew me out for an in-person design test and interview.

Our design test is different now, but when I got there, they put me in a conference room with a white board and a bucket of markers and basically said I had 30 minutes alone to design a level on the board and then they’d be back to pick it apart. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but I work well under pressure and by the end of the day I was hired. That was in November, 2009, about a month after Uncharted 2 was released. I started working right at the beginning of development for Uncharted 3. For that game, I designed the French chateau level, the Talbot foot chase, and the underground and collapse at the very end.

TMS: So what exactly do you do as lead game designer at Naughty Dog? What is your average workday like?

Emilia: Actually I’m co-lead game designer. At Naughty Dog, we tend to have more than one person share leadership roles so they also have time to do their own work as well. My workday changes a lot from day to day and over the course of a project. But just to give a general idea, here goes. We have somewhat flexible hours at Naughty Dog, I’m able to start my day a little later than most and get into work about 10:30. I might check-in with the artists and programmers working on the levels I’m overseeing. Or I work on my own levels, creating pre-vis geometry level layout or scripting game events and cinematics.

After lunch, I check-in with other designers and give my feedback on their level design. Often I’ll review designer candidate resumes and design tests, as well as take part in interviews. I’ll meet with Bruce Straley, our game director, and sometimes with Neil Druckmann, our creative director, about story and overall game direction. In mid afternoon, we play a company-wide Uncharted 4 multiplayer game and then discuss our feedback. I’ll then go back to working on my own level until I leave work. I usually do two late days a week and then try to leave at a more reasonable time the other three days.

TMS: Obviously you have Uncharted 4 on the horizon, but what is the future of Naughty Dog looking like beyond that?

Emilia: It’s hard to look that far ahead when we’ve got so much to do on our current game! And in our industry, we’re fairly secretive about upcoming projects because we often rely on well-timed and coordinated PR announcements to generate buzz about our games. But whatever we do next, we’re given a lot of freedom by Sony, our parent company, to create our own direction.

So it will be a decision we make as a studio. It takes people who are excited and enthusiastic about a project to make a good game. We’re making Uncharted 4 right now because it’s the game we want to make, and honestly we have a lot of energy and love in the studio towards the project. It’s going to be great.

TMS: Last year you came out as transgender to your coworkers at Naughty Dog. Was that a hard thing to do?

Emilia: Yes, absolutely. Gender transition is necessarily a very public experience. Although it was terrifying and embarrassing, it wasn’t really much of a choice for me. Less of an “if” and more of a “when”. I had kept up a pretty convincing facade, but I was in a very bad place emotionally for years and things were getting worse for me. I couldn’t keep going as I was. It’s hard to properly explain how it is to someone that hasn’t gone through it, but I felt like I was living someone else’s life and the part that was actually me was getting smaller and smaller. I was suffocating.

So over a few years, I came to terms with being trans and I came out to my wife, family, and many of my friends. My wife and I agreed on a timeframe we were comfortable with for me coming out completely. I talked to Naughty Dog’s and Sony’s HR, as well as made plans with our company presidents so it would go as smoothly as possible. And I think it’s safe to say, for the most part, it has. I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have the support of my wonderful wife and so many of my friends and family, as well as my coworkers and employer.

I can’t tell you how much of a difference transitioning has made to me personally, to my concept of myself, and my outlook on life. Though it’s funny how little has really changed. I still do the same things, hang out with the same people, and when I go to work I still usually wear just jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers. But I feel like myself, and I’m free, confident, and strong. Still, it’s taken so much to get to this point.

TMS: 2014 was pretty tumultuous for the gaming industry in terms of equality and acceptance. Did you see much harassment directed your way?

Emilia: I get Twitter harassment from time to time, especially when I retweet or say things in support of diversity, trans issues, and feminism. But not nearly on the level that some of my friends and colleagues have experienced, and continue to experience on a daily basis. Unlike many indie developers, how I contribute to our games isn’t really understood by the general public so I don’t often get singled out. I’m just one person on a large team. And aside from my Twitter account, I don’t really have a public persona. Maybe I’m just flying under the radar.

But it’s been extremely discouraging and disturbing to witness the the aggressive harassment, especially towards women in our industry, and seeing the degree to which it is shrugged off and excused by the wider community. It’s made me question my career, games, and sometimes the future of humanity! I hope and believe gamer culture can be better than this.

TMS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter the gaming industry, but feels unwelcome because of who they are?

Emilia: The thing is, while I’ve always felt different, it wasn’t until I came out and transitioned that I was actually seen by others as being that way. I worked for years as a designer while fitting right into the status quo. So I’m not sure I’m the best person to advise someone on how to get their foot in the door when they’re already being seen as different. Systemic prejudices in our industry and in the workplace certainly exist. Usually it’s subtle stuff committed by well-meaning people, but some of my colleagues have some real horror stories to tell. I’m not sure if it’s getting better, but it does seem that people are a lot more aware of our diversity problem in the last few years. I’m really encouraged at least by how well I’ve been treated so far since coming out.

I think if you love making games but find yourself someplace you feel unwelcome, don’t give up. Look elsewhere. Game development culture is typically not the same hostile environment that gamer culture can be. Even still, some companies and development teams are better at being inclusive than others. Believe in yourself and your ideas. Look for allies and mentors.You may not find it right away, but there is a place for you in our industry where your talent will be valued.

TMS: What have you been playing lately? Any great ideas you want to adopt for your future projects?

Emilia: I go through long droughts of not playing any games at all – I’m just so busy making them and when I have free time, I want to do other things. And I’m fine with that. Good and safe ideas for game design can be borrowed from other games, but usually my best ideas seem to come more from my lived experience outside games and my own notions of fun and adventure.

I did get a Wii U pretty recently and I’ve been playing a lot of Mario Kart 8 and Captain Toad, which I adore, and that sort of ended my latest gaming fast. And now Bloodborne has grabbed my attention and I’ve been really enjoying that. It’s like, as a friend of mine described it, a really long NES Zelda dungeon, except super gory. As a rule, I really don’t like violence and gore in my games and I wouldn’t have picked this one up if it weren’t for recommendation from my friends.

TMS: What are some of your favorite games of all time?

Emilia: Ah, as I said before, the Super Nintendo really has a special place in my heart. So many of the games that define me at my core as a developer were released on that system. The main ones that come to mind are Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Final Fantasy VI, and Secret of Mana. But on more recent systems, ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Metroid Prime, Super Mario Galaxy, Uncharted 2 (which I didn’t work on), and Portal. Metroidvania type games really appeal to me. I love just exploring a world, poking into all the nooks and crannies, and discovering its secrets. I’ve designed whole levels before and my colleagues play them and say, “But it’s just a bunch of walking around this huge space.” And I’m like, “I know! Isn’t it awesome?”

TMS: If you could do anything outside of games, what would it be?

Emilia: I think I would teach. I’ve known so many wonderful people in my life who are teachers. My mom is an elementary school art teacher, actually! I really believe teaching to be one of the most admirable professions you could do, tangibly improving the world by inspiring others to improve themselves. I love kids, too. Though I’d be happy teaching at any level, I think. Maybe that’s what I’ll do someday when I get tired of this whole games thing.

TMS: And finally, big question here, what toppings would go on your perfect pizza?

Emilia: I’m sort of a non-committal vegetarian. I prefer to be veggie but I’ll eat meat if there are no good vegetarian options. Or… if the meat option is too tempting to pass up! So I’d say mushrooms, caramelized onions, and goat cheese. And sriracha. Lots and lots of sriracha.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is due to be released sometime next year.

David Ochart (pronounced Oh-Chart) is a freelance writer and social media manager. He loves loving things, and he spends much of his free time advocating his favorite things with an almost evangelical fervor. He spends the rest of that free time guzzling tea and scouring the internet for gifs. He can be found and others @DavidOchart.

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