Interview: Karaoke Revolution Party Dev Team

At the end of this October, the second annual Women's Game Conference was featured as one of the highlights of the larger Austin Games Conference. The Women's Conference was a unique opportunity not only for women in the industry to network with other females in the game development community, but also for all those interested to attend lectures emphasizing the contributions of women both as consumers as well as designers of electronic interactive entertainment.

Many issues of importance regarding gender and video game creation were discussed with great candor at the convention. Brenda Brathwaite, a Senior Designer at Cyberlore Studios (architects of the Playboy: the Mansion title) discoursed on the recurrently controversial topic of sex in video game offerings. Members of the famous cyber clans Frag Dolls and PMS were similarly on hand to field questions about being professional FPS players of the female gender.

Also invited to present at the colloquium was Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom, a Senior Producer at Harmonix Music Systems based in Cambridge, MA. Among her many impressive credentials both in the software and film industries, Tracy has been Project Leader on the line of Karaoke Revolution rhythm action games as well as Producer on the venerable FreQuency / Amplitude series. Tracy spoke at the conference about the gender and ethnic diversity of her development team and how such heterogeneity had a positive effect on the final design of Harmonix's latest project, Karaoke Revolution: Party.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to be able to conduct an e-mail interview with Tracy and her Lead Designer Elena Siegman about Karaoke Revolution: Party and the issues of gender and cultural diversity in video games in general.

Michelle: Tracy, 13 out of a core 44 people on your software creation team for Karaoke Revolution: Party are women, which translates into a figure of roughly 30% for the entire group. Is such a statistic considered a large number by game development community standards? How does the ratio of female to male members of your crew compare with industry averages?

Tracy: Yes, 30% women on a dev team is very rare. The recent IGDA Diversity survey indicates that about 11.5% of game developers are women. It is not unusual to have 0-2 women on a development team.

Michelle: In addition to the comparatively large number of females working on your design team, you seem very proud of the fact that women were represented in every discipline on your game development team (production, design, art, code, audio, QA), several of whom were in positions of leadership. How does having strong female voices in all areas of game creation have a positive effect on the industry and result in a higher quality end product for video game consumers?

Tracy: Diversity among a development team is very important. A diverse team brings a range of experiences and perceptions to the design table. As women's life experiences are different than men's, so is the way they interact with UI, their association with their character, and the expectations of the gameplay experience.

At Harmonix, we foster a collective design approach where team members of all disciplines are encouraged to give feedback to the design team throughout development, fostering a broad spectrum of ideas and reactions to the game while in development. Having people from different walks of life within each discipline makes people more comfortable voicing their opinions at the department level as well as company-wide.

The more diverse a team is, the greater the potential to attract a wider demographic by being aware of different perceptions and integrating solutions that are friendly to players of both genders.

Michelle: Further to the previous question, it has been said that the reason so few females seek employment in the programming aspect of the IT sector is because they are reluctant to work the punishing, or as some would say, "macho" hours expected by certain software companies. Would you agree with this statement? For comparison purposes, what is the work environment at Harmonix like? Have you any advice for the ladies out there about how to get into the video games business yet live a successful personal and professional life?

Elena: "Quality of Life" issues are a big topic of discussion amongst game industry professionals lately. While this is definitely a huge issue for the industry as a whole, I wouldn't point to it as the sole reason that so few women are drawn to the game industry. It's certainly been noted as a part of the problem, largely because women in general are often busier, and take on more responsibility with regard to their families.

The work environment at Harmonix is great - it's a priority for management to create a work environment that fosters a balanced life for the employees, which makes a big impact on the people who work here. We're encouraged to take time off when we need it, and in the rare crunch periods we do have, the company takes good care of us, feeding everyone when we stay late, and taking measures to de-stress everybody, like half hour massages for everyone! Regarding advice to women who want to break into the game industry but are concerned about maintaining work/life balance - it's not always easy, but it's certainly possible.

The work is difficult no matter how many hours you spend at the office. When you work with a group of smart and intelligent people who are passionate about what they do, you have to bring your best game to keep up. But that's the payoff - it's exhilarating, creative work. I think the core issue is that you have to be passionate about what you do, and in the scheme of things, few women have been exposed to the kinds of games that they can be passionate enough about that they would even think about this industry as a career option.

Michelle: Perhaps you could inform our readers somewhat further about the development team you work with: clearly gender equality is an important issue for you, but what about ethnic and age diversity? Is it challenging to come to a consensus regarding game design decisions while collaborating with such a diverse crowd of contributors?

Elena: Our development team for Karaoke Revolution Party, as Tracy noted, was really large and diverse, I won't bore you with the numbers again! Our team was diverse not just in gender, age or ethnicity; the development team was diverse in lifestyle, musical preferences, preferred aesthetics, you name it. We have open channels for communication here at Harmonix - anyone with an idea is encouraged to post them to our newsgroups, which the design team responds to and often incorporates into the game design.

This method is definitely challenging - people get emotionally attached to their ideas, and sometimes hairy issues will come up where views are diametrically opposed - but the pros far outweigh the cons. There were many times when we'd get tons of offbeat and different ideas from the team, and it would be a rush. Someone would come up with an idea and I'd think about how a homogenous development team of people all on the same creative wavelength would just never have an idea like that.

Michelle: Given your work environment, you must have some opinions on how women and certain racial groups are currently being portrayed in the video games of late. Would you share some of your thoughts on this topic with our readers?

Elena: Women and non-whites are often portrayed stereotypically, or as instantly recognizable fantasy archetypes in almost every video game you play - if they're portrayed at all. The exceptions prove the rule, which is the really unfortunate part. If a game even has a playable female or non-white character, there is often only one available. When a development team has only one character to play around with, it's unlikely that creative risk will be taken. When the majority of games portray women in the context of male fantasy, or use over-the-top imagery, motion or voice over to try and get the concept of race across, it turns some people off - people who very likely could be interested otherwise.

I don't think it's the fantasy portrayal that's the problem - it's the lack of a palatable alternative. There are lots of games that I've felt I've had to hold my nose to play - that is to say that the presentation of a character's gender or race was so offensive to me, sending very loud "people like you are not even on our radar" messages - but I enjoyed the game enough to get over it. I often ask myself how many people like me are out there that didn't want to get over it.

Michelle: At the Women's Game Conference in Austin, you recently gave a talk about Karaoke Revolution: Party's character creator feature that allows players to customize almost every aspect of their on-screen avatar's appearance. Do you feel that permitting such character editing will translate into a significant increase in the fan base of the Karaoke Revolution series?

Tracy: We recognized that the Karaoke Revolution series is particularly appealing to the female market and that character customization is a feature that many female players are drawn to. One of the main character design goals in KRP was for players to be able to create characters that either directly reflected themselves or were fantasies of who they would want to be as a performer. We created a feature in our Character Creator where a player can easily and quickly customize the avatar's body by blending between 5 gender-specific body types that come from the real world. The goal of this design was not to explicitly increase the fan base with this feature, but to tell our fan base and a large portion of our target market that we know who they are.

Michelle: In addition to the character customizing options offered by Karaoke Revolution: Party, for the first time in the history of the franchise, Sony's EyeToy USB camera peripheral will be compatible with the PS2 version of the game. Was it your intention not only to offer fans the option to alter avatars to reflect personal tastes but also to allow gamers to see themselves reflected on the game screen in a very literal way using the EyeToy?

Tracy: Absolutely. It is extremely cool to see your face mapped onto a 3D character singing the song that you are performing live in front of your friends at a party. You have the ability to customize your body, clothing, and hair and drop in your face. It's the closest thing to actually being IN the game!

Michelle: Harmonix CEO and co-founder Alex Rigopulos has expressed his wish that the company "reach out to people who don't traditionally consider themselves gamers." Does this policy mean that Harmonix is attempting to target more of the so-called "casual" gamer market?

Tracy: Harmonix is interested in creating games that are attractive to both the casual gamer as well as the traditional gamer. Many of our games have been designed to attract the party gamer- traditionally a walk up and play experience that benefits from the social dynamics of a group. It is our intention to drive music making through game play as mainstream casual entertainment.

Michelle: On the whole, are women casual gamers?

Tracy: Women are as diverse a group as men. You will find hard-core gamers that are women just as you will find casual gamers that are women. Studies have shown however, that the majority of women spend less time at a given play-session than men do but not necessarily less time over the course of the week or month. This is most likely the reason why the casual game market is full of women, many of whom don't even consider themselves gamers. Casual games are easy to access with a low barrier to entry into gameplay but are challenging to master.

Michelle: Is Karaoke Revolution: Party a "casual" game?

Tracy: Absolutely. The microphone, a well-understood peripheral, is extremely accessible to the casual gamer. Our difficulty tuning, our feedback system, the intuitive game play makes it ideal for the party gamer who has never played before. Yet if you want to be challenged, bump up the vocal judging level, or play some Sing and Dance mode.

Michelle: You have said that in creating Karaoke Revolution: Party, your goal was to devise a game that "men and women and boys and girls [will] love to play together." How did you come up with the track list for the game? Do males and females like to sing the same types of songs? What about adults and children? Did you feel compelled to make some difficult compromises with the soundtrack for the sake of diversity?

Elena: Although Konami was largely responsible for the final track list, we have input here at Harmonix on what songs ultimately make it into the game. The largest factor when picking from a list of available songs was balance - primarily in musical genre, gender and age appeal. Some songs are pretty universal - I'll bet you had no idea how many guys there are out there that love singing "Material Girl" - but others are big hits with a specific demographic. We definitely had to make difficult choices and recommendations. If we picked songs based solely on how much a small group of folks here liked them, many players would have been left out of the fun. I would always be surprised in playtests by what songs people knew. How do a bunch of 13 year old girls born in 1992 know all of the words to the song from Flashdance, which came out in 1983?

Michelle: The majority of the rhythm action titles of the past few years have been bundled with some kind of peripheral whose usage is often necessary to play the game (e.g. the microphone for Karaoke Revolution). Does this trend signify the end to such puzzle-based music titles like the FreQuency / Amplitude series?

Tracy: Not necessarily. The future of music gaming imagines a wide spectrum of innovation that intersects many traditional video game genres. However, alternate controllers like microphones, drums, guitars, and dance pads all come with a prior base of knowledge that is connected to experiencing music. Designing a music-making game play experience with intuitive physical actions that the player is familiar with creates a more accessible product to a wider demographic. The more that the player understands the context of the experience and the closer that simulation feels to real music-making, the closer we are to our goal at Harmonix: to bring the joy of making music to non-musicians through video game play.

Michelle: As you're no doubt aware, Madonna's latest music video "Hung Up" features the singer jiving on a Dance Dance Revolution arcade platform. Did the debut of that clip signal the end of music games being ignored and dismissed as mere video game subculture? Are music games now officially mainstream?

Elena: Madonna is famous for spotting a trend and making it mainstream. She's done it time and time again, and it's a very exciting indicator that music and rhythm games are becoming a part of larger pop culture. I wouldn't say that music games have reached AAA status yet, but they're certainly much bigger than the subculture that they once were, and I'm confident that they'll only get bigger as more games and new experiences become available.

Michelle: Looking over the track list for Karaoke Revolution: Party has prompted me to ask one final question: in a real-life karaoke sound-off, who would win: Neil Diamond or Burton Cummings?

Tracy: Neil Diamond, of course.

Elena: Burton who?

Many thanks to Tracy and Elena for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their thoughts about the video game trade in general, and their latest project Karaoke Revolution: Party with our readers!