Q+A – Stevie Case

In the world of gaming, Stevie Case is a legend. She first skyrocketed to industry fame in 1997 when she won a match of the online game Quake against its creator John Romero. At the time, there were only a handful of serious female gamers. Case’s death-match win against Romero landed her a promotional gig as a full-time professional gamer. From there, she used her industry knowledge to get a job at the Dallas gaming company Ion Storm, where she eventually worked as a level designer.

Now Case is out on her own with Monkeystone Games—a small development and publishing company she formed with Romero and two other colleagues. Located near Dallas, the venture was launched in July 2001 and produces games for such hand-held devices as cell phones, pocket PCs and the Game Boy Advance. Monkeystone also creates downloadable games for PCs. These scaled-down titles are a far cry from the graphics-heavy, first-person games Romero and Case worked on at Ion Storm. Here’s what Case had to say about her start in the gaming world, the rarity of women in the industry and her work at Monkeystone.

You originally got into the industry as a professional gamer. Was it always your goal to turn gaming into a career?

For me it really evolved into a career. I was a college student studying political science and was planning to go to law school. Growing up, I had always played games, but it was during my first year of college that gaming really turned into a lifestyle.

How did you make the switch from celebrity gamer to designer? Was it diffcult?

That transition was a conscious decision. I was playing professionally, but as much fun as it sounds, you have to be constantly improving—playing six to eight hours a day. Over time I started learning the industry and moving in the direction of game design. I was into first-person shooter games and started designing levels as an amateur because it seemed the way to get in. Eventually I was good enough to land a job at a big company.

What was life like once you started working at Ion Storm?

It was definitely more challenging than I thought it would be. The first job I took at Ion Storm was in quality assurance, testing games over and over for bugs. It sounds like fun, but you have to play games all day that aren’t finished—they’re broken. Eventually a position opened up on the creative team, and I moved up to level design. You have to be creative within the framework of the head designer’s vision of the game. It’s also extremely difficult to be creative on deadline.

You’re still one of a handful of women in game design and development. How do you think the role of women in gaming is changing?

It’s been horrible or great depending on when you ask. It gives me that foot in the door. At the same time it’s such a male industry that I’m sure guys think I’m not as serious about gaming, and it’s made me grow a lot. Now I’m just “one of the guys” on the team, and I like it that way. I think the role of women has evolved over the last few years, and the girl gamer as a novelty act has now come to an end.

Do you think more titles will be geared toward women as more of them get into the industry?

That transition has already started somewhat. Designers are trying to create games that they would like to play. It’s only natural that the male-dominated gaming world creates a lot of games geared toward men. As more women get into the industry, I absolutely think we’ll see more titles not only for women, but that will appeal to men and women equally or will specifically make an effort to be gender-neutral.

What’s it been like running your own company?

Every day is a challenge. We had all primarily done big first-person shooters. Monkeystone’s focus was a total paradigm shift, and the market is extremely different. We work on everything from games for a PDA—targeting businessmen—to titles for the Game Boy Advance. With every game we’re asking ourselves, “Is it too ‘gamy?'” Someone who plays casually isn’t looking for the same things that we are. Over time we had to learn what matters is that the game-play elements are enjoyable and fun. All that matters is whether it’s fun to play. It challenges the designer when you have those limitations.

What’s it been like to work on the shorter development cycles for wireless and hand-held games?

It’s wonderful. At Ion Storm the games had three-year development cycles. Our games can take a month to eight months to produce. The whole concept from initial idea to finished game is in such a short timeframe that you really feel it happen.

What’s your role at Monkeystone Games on a day-to-day basis?

It changes every day. I’m the COO, so my primary role is to make sure the team has everything it needs to make games. It could be putting soda in the ‘fridge or it could be acting as a producer on a game. Our team is very small—we have eight people working here right now—so you feel like you’re making a bigger impact. We always want it to be a tightly focused team so everyone can be a key player in development. For one game I may do music and sound, and for the next game, I may design levels.

How’s the business doing financially?

It’s been going pretty well. I think it took us a while to find our stride. Money was one of the factors that led us to pursue a cross-platform approach so we decided pretty quickly to go beyond wireless games. We’ll make games on platforms that are more proven. Everything is unknown such as “Where’s the market and how do you get users to pay for it? How do you get it on a cell phone?”

What’s in the future for Monkeystone? What kinds of projects are under way?

Right now we’re about to ship a PC-downloadable game called Congo Cube. It’s a puzzle game in the same genre as Tetris. We’re also working on another cell-phone game and one for Game Boy Advance based on a cartoon license.

Will you continue to create games for hand-helds and phones?

It’s a great opportunity to innovate without investing a ton of money in development. The market is so new that there’s still room to do things that have never been done before. In the last six months, we’ve started to create games that cross platforms. Congo Cube is starting out as a PC downloadable, but we’ll eventually do a version for Pocket PC, smart phones and regular cell phones. We want to take a game that works and adjust it to every platform it can fit on.

Is there a game design or development credit you’re most proud of?

I would say the game design I’m most proud of is my first credit as a developer with Monkeystone-Hyperspace Delivery Boy. It was an action puzzle adventure and the first game that I served as producer on. Every day was a huge challenge in figuring out what needed to be done. I had to coordinate everything to make sure we were all working on one big vision. The game turned out really well and I learned so much. It’s where I really cut my teeth as a producer.

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