Game Changer: Game Maker & UX Designer Catt Small talks Multifaceted Skill-sets, Interactive Technology and Diverse Industries
Welcome to the sixth installment of Game Changer! Because it’s important to signal boost the work of women in the games industry (especially lately), we’ll be interviewing the awesome, brave, and talented women who bring their voices to indie and mainstream game development. Check out previous entries: Jill Murray, Anna Megill, Brie Code, Becky Dodd, and Kate Craig.
Emma Fissenden (TMS): Can you tell me a bit about your journey?
Catt Small: I’ve been interested in creating and interacting with digital experiences for a long time. When I was a kid, I played all kinds of games, read American as well as Asian comics, and watched a lot of cartoons and anime. Some might say I was a massive nerd. I enjoyed drawing a lot and spent hours creating ideas for comics, cartoons, and video games. My parents were very supportive of my artistic, nerdy endeavors and encouraged me to practice as much as I wanted as long as my education didn’t suffer.
When I grew older, I became very into the idea of making art using tech. My parents worked to help me attain technological literacy using tools such as Mario Teaches Typing and educational computer games. Despite growing up in a lower-middle-class family, I was privileged enough to have access to a computer throughout my life.
Constant play with technology helped me hone my digital media skills. I spent a lot of time creating interactive dress-up dolls and websites as an adolescent. I also tried my hand at making formal video games but the tools available at the time were harder to learn. However, the process of making digital dress-up dolls taught me a lot about programming, some of which still comes in handy today.
Now I work at SoundCloud as a Product Designer during the day. By night, I make independent video games by myself and with friends as well as teach women and marginalized people to code. I find the work I do to be quite fulfilling.
TMS: How did you end up where you are today?
One day after class, I visited a high school friend who was attending the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. I found out how much easier game development had become and became interested in game development again. I started jamming with some of the people I met and have kept making games ever since.
I took on the artist role in game development until I felt comfortable enough to code my own games. My first solo game, Train Jumper, was created in 2012 for Glorious Trainwrecks using Stencyl. I’ve made many more games, some of which can be played on my website. Nowadays I mostly work in Phaser, Unity, and Construct 2. I like making 2D games because they are usually simpler, though I am interested in seeing if there are experiences that are better conveyed in 3D.
TMS: What prompted your initial entry into the gaming industry?
Small: It was a total accident! I just kept making games and talking to people about making games. Over time, I naturally grew a network of people and found myself attending many small and large industry events.
At some point Phoenix Perry, a professor at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering and maker of many things, took notice and asked me to help her create the Code Liberation Foundation, a group that teaches women to program video games. After I helped to start Code Liberation, people really started to pay attention. I also got better at making games through the process of teaching game development. Some say “those who can’t, teach,” but I think those who can should be the ones who teach.
I currently only have one foot in the industry because I like making different kinds of things. Games are just one type of interactive digital experience. I plan to continue exploring the ways people interact with technology and how we can use technology to increase mutual human understanding.
TMS: Can you describe what running Tech Under Thirty involves?
Small: Tech Under Thirty is a pet project of mine that I run with two other wonderfully nerdy ladies. I started it a few years ago on a whim and decided to keep it going since people seemed to like it. Every few months, we run an event about a subject related to technology, including video games. Once we come up with an idea, I ask around for some space at SoundCloud or another tech-friendly company like Microsoft. Many places offer space for free because they want to recruit people and some also supply us with food.
Tech Under Thirty has hosted all kinds of events. Most of our events run for 3 hours including setup, networking, the main presentation or panel and Q&A. Some of our most recent events were a game development panel, interaction design talk, and side project show & tell.
TMS: According to your personal website you also co-founded and run Code Liberation, Brooklyn Gamery and Buttered Toast Studios! Aside from the fact that this means you’re extremely busy, can you talk a little about these organizations, what your role is, and anything you’ve learned in the process?
Small: Code Liberation is a group that aims to teach women and other marginalized people to code video games. I helped to found the group in 2013 and still teach some classes. Recently I’ve stepped into more of a mentorship role so that I can help other women to teach. It was hard for me to let go of teaching as much as I was previously, but it’s been rewarding to accept the role of a mentor and help others grow. I’ve learned a lot about humility and letting go of the reins these past few months.
Brooklyn Gamery is a small game development studio I started with my good friends Chris Algoo and Dennis Liaw. We created Brooklyn Gamery in 2013 after winning second place in a hackathon for our game, Prism Shell. I have mostly focused on art, visual design, and UX design for that project but plan to step into other roles when possible. My work with the team has taught me that you need to pick your partners wisely because you’ll all be in it together for the long haul. Additionally, it’s important to learn some legal jargon because businesses come with a lot of paperwork.
Buttered Toast Studios is another group with which I make games. I created the art for our chemistry adventure game, Al the Chemist. Working on this project has taught me that feature creep can transform your game from a 3-month game into a 5-year one. Game development newbies should start small and scale up because your first few games will probably be bad. It takes experience and lots of failure to get into the groove of making good games. Gladly, Al the Chemist has gone through many changes and we’re looking forward to releasing a demo soon.
TMS: Can you comment on plans for your own future? What about your hopes for the future of the gaming industry?
Small: Over the next year I’ll be releasing more games. Prism Shell will soon be released on Android, iOS and other devices. Next, I’m planning to polish and release a personal game about microaggressions, sexism, and navigating the tech industry as a young Black woman, tentatively called sweetXheart. Finally, I’m working on a game for my thesis that’s about religion and sensuality. The game, currently called SenseU, aims to help people like me who grew up in religious, sex-negative households become more comfortable in and confident about their bodies.
In the far future I plan to continue creating interactive experiences with the goal of increasing empathy in our world. I hope to keep mentoring people and create a unique space within games and tech where people can share their stories through digital media. I’m also very passionate about workplace culture and want to eventually be in a position to influence culture for the better. Games and tech are both lacking in many kinds of diversity, and some common facets of their culture are evidence.
I hope that the game industry continues to mature. Games don’t just need to be about mechanics, but the best games are very engaging. I’m interested in seeing how we can balance storytelling with interaction and create new, interesting experiences. I’m also excited to see people share their stories through games as the industry gets more diverse.
TMS: Do you have any advice for people—especially women—who might be considering a career in games? What’s one thing you wished the younger you would have known?
Small: Even if you love making games, it’s okay not to be 100% in games stuff all the time. You can make other things, too, because games are just one type of interactive experience. Some people make one thing all the time and get totally burnt out (and some are totally fine, of course). People say being a Jill-of-all-trades is bad but having an array of skills will actually benefit you greatly.
Game design and UX design involve many of the same skills that one must use in different ways. However, you will tweak your game hundreds of times more than you would an app design, because not only are you designing interactions but also trying to find the sweet spot of what some refer to as game feel. Usefulness matters much less when it comes to games – it’s all about balancing complexity with value to increase engagement and make people feel like the game is worth their time.
TMS: Can you talk about anything really difficult you’ve had to overcome as a woman in the games industry?
Small: The hardest thing for me has been dealing with constant feelings of inadequacy and social awkwardness. Specifically as a Black woman, I have multiple sets of cards stacked against me. It often seems like people underestimate the things I am capable of, and I don’t fit some common narratives regarding women in games.
When I first started hanging around the New York games scene, it was difficult to deal with the fact that your success is all about who you know. Part of becoming a good game maker is connecting with others, learning from each other, and lifting each other up. It didn’t feel like anyone outside of my little circle at NYU Poly was interested in working with me. I tried to befriend many people but always felt very different and out of place, and I think that really hurt me.
I’ve worked hard to become capable on my own but always wished more people saw my potential and were interested in my stories. I hope that the industry grows and becomes more welcoming to people who are different. I’m working to get more people into games so that everyone can feel like they belong.
TMS: Quick fire questions! Favourite game you’ve worked on?
Small: That would probably be Train Jumper. You can kick people and jump on their heads as you run for the train. I plan to remake it one of these days.
TMS: Three favourite games of the past year?
Small: Mount Your Friends, Smash 4, Stepmania 5.
TMS: Of all time?
Small: Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Persona 4 Golden, DDR Extreme.
TMS: Most frustrating sequence you’ve played in a game?
Small: Games that don’t allow me to skip cutscenes. It’s okay until you get to a hard boss and you have to rewatch the same cutscene every time. Another peeve is in DDR when there are multiple arrows pointing in one direction but my brain can’t properly tell my legs what to do in time to hit all of them. A lot of my friends who play DDR have the same issue.
TMS: Favourite character?
Small: Knuckles! I like the color red a lot.
TMS: Favourite character of yours from a game you’ve worked on and why?
TMS: First game you played?
Small: That is hard to remember, but my first seriously memorable video game experience was Sonic 2. I still replay it every few years.
TMS: Coffee or Tea?
Small: Tea all day. Unfortunately coffee is too bitter for my tastes.
Emma Fissenden is a writer of all trades. When she’s not pushing through her next rewrite, she’s playing too many games and editing fiction at @noblegasqrtly. You can find her on Twitter @efissenden, or check out her other series for TMS, Bad Gamer.
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