Designing Independent Games with Nina Freeman- Episode 142
Nina Freeman is a video game designer known for games with themes of sexuality and self-reflection. She is currently a game designer at Fulbright and was in Forbes 2015 list of influential video game industry figures. In this episode, we talk about ways to self-promote and stay relevant. How streaming narrative-driven games is more helpful than harmful.
Nina Freeman is designer that currently works at Fullbright, for Tacoma , a futuristic murder mystery set in space. She is notably known for her indie game Cibele, which intersperses live footage of Freeman with gameplay, to capture when the first wave of young people began flirting and connecting in online chatrooms. Most recently, she released Kimmy, a five-act, interactive novel about her mother’s childhood babysitting job in the 60s, and Lost Memories Dot Net, a game based on her experiences making websites in the early 2000s.
How I Started Making Games
Nina originally was living in New York and “had just finished my Undergrad degree in English literature fairly recently. I was working a job in the department of education as a data analyst and I was kind of all over the place. And I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do. And then I fell in with a group of game developers. They were kind of like, my friends, and I was hanging out with them and a bunch of them were starting school at the NYU Game Center so we were attending a bunch of game jams and stuff.”
“I was at a weird place in my life, so I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do.
She recalls how she “was at a weird place in my life, so I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do.” Thankfully, her decision to continue to hang out with a bunch of friends push her “to teach myself how to code at those game jams.” This was happening around a time where she was “trying to figure out what I wanted to do next in life. Trying to find something I was passionate about outside of my day job.”
Unexpectedly, the early flash games she worked on in those game jams “kind of took off on the internet and gained some traction.” In which she thought “Wow, people are actually playing this! Oh my god. This is so cool!” That boost was enough to inspire her “to keep up with it and [she] haven’t looked back since.”
She mentions how this was “the time when Gone Home came out, Kentucky Route Zero, and Cart Life and alot of these, like, pretty now well-known narrative games within the indie space.” All of which had a strong influence on her work and really fueled her desire to really get into games.
Learning by Doing
Nina mostly “learned by doing for the most part” and “teaching myself how to code to contribute to these projects.” With this technical training in motion coupled with her background in writing she was well on her way to producing games that she is widely known for in her career. “I had a lot of practice as a writer and had a really refined style from poetry. I was already doing vignette poetry and personal experience and other ordinary life stuff and that was kind of where I was coming from as a storyteller. So i guess I kind of combined my ability to put something on screen with my ability to write.”
When assisting her friends on game jams she felt that “I was learning design at that point but I wasn’t really thinking about it that way, until later, when I actually started going to school and stuff.” Most of her education on game design was “practically-oriented at the beginning. Just learning by making things.” A method she really preferred because “It was nice to come from a organic-not-school-oriented just like having fun and partying and making stuff” because “you can find some different things if you work in that way. As opposed to when you are working in a more structured working environment.” She thrived under those conditions and reiterates “for me personally the more informal stuff was really good.”
“the most important thing regardless of what path that you take within that space, is actually, to make a game, make a whole game, and finish it and release it. And don’t just email it to two friends and call it a day. Actually ship it and release it on .itch.io or you can get it on Steam or whatever.”
Her one advice for game designers working on a personal project is that “the most important thing regardless of what path that you take within that space, is actually, to make a game, make a whole game, and finish it and release it. And don’t just email it to two friends and call it a day. Actually ship it and release it on .itch.io or you can get it on Steam or whatever.”
A designer who holds their work too close to the chest will be setup for failure but “putting it out there for people to play and getting that feedback [from someone] you don’t know really well. It's’ probably the most important steps in becoming a designer. Listening to that feedback and responding to it and learning from it” Generally students fall into this trap where they sit on an idea too long without showing anyone their work. Instead, Nina advices that students “continue that loop [of constant feedback] until you are confident in your voice.”
When asked if Nina ever scrapped an idea or didn’t finish she shares that “she would rarely have prototypes that she would keep to herself. Basically every idea that I’ve actually executed on, I end up releasing it” and she thinks “it's better to put things out there.” She finds that her “creative process is way more public,” and “that has worked well for [her].”
Personal Narrative Storytelling
All of Nina’s work tends to draw from her personal experience but feels that recently “there are tons of small creators that makes personal stuff, but that is not that unique, in my opinion” however she agrees “people claim that differentiates my work.” She continues that “personal games are becoming so much more of a thing. I guess I make a lot of games about sex, which is less common, but even with that, I’m not the only one.”
Side Work and Professional Work
“I have a lot of freedom, because I can release games outside of my day job to experiment. [Mostly] because I have a way to support myself. I have collaborators like Erin Freedman who’s like a programmer I work with that would work with me on stuff outside of our regular day stuff. I can release things that are ‘more risky’ than a lot of developers can. Alot of developer can’t release anything outside of work. So I guess that is one unique thing about my situation is that Fullbright is totally chill with me releasing and selling my own work outside of the company.”
This is very rare perk for game developers in which Nina takes full advantage of. “When I was working on Tacoma, I shipped Cibelle, Bum Rush, Lost Memories Dot Net, and Kimmy.” When asked if any her of side projects see tremendous success, would she quit her day job? Nina responds that she feels really close to Fulbright and “Steve was like my mentor on Cibelle which was my first big commercial project. So even before I was at Fulbright, there's the Fulbright influence on my work by being close to Steve and getting so much feedback from him. So I feel personally invested in Fulbright’s success at this point. So I would never bounce like that if I make a lot of money.” Her balancing her work professionally and personally did take some sacrifices where Nina practically “only worked and didn’t do anything else for basically two and a half to three years.”
“That was really rough, and not healthy. And bad! Which I’m not doing anymore. But I ...sure... did that!” she laughs. While working on Tacoma, she was really motivated with her side projects because “a bunch of them were commissions” from places she really respected and “wanted to work for.” She carried within her the mentality from Grad school and treated her personal work “like homework.” She comments that school should really “unteach that because that could lead to really bad work habits.”
On developers being able to work outside of work she believes that it should be encouraged because “that’s what is going to inspire them at work and inspire later games the studio is going to work on.”
Starting at Fullbright
Nina first met the cofounders of Fullbright, Steve, during the Unwinnable Party at GDC where she asked him to come over to play her game because “I’m a big fan.” He gave very important feedback on her game thesis, Cibelle, and was invaluable to her as a mentor. Eventually Steve “flew her out to Portland” and “one thing led to another where she took a job as a level designer.”
Her first industry job happened pretty fast and her “ability to even have expectations was kind of compromised by the fact I defended my master thesis a week before I had to work there.” Upon starting though, she didn't have much time to think about things but “I had this mentality I’m going to go learn as fast as I can so I can contribute on the level of everyone else. Because I was much more green than everybody else on the team.”
The timing was great because she joined pretty early onto the project and had a steady start for her to catch up and “learn everything she needed to learn.” Looking back, her proudest contribution to Tacoma was the concept of the sync device. During Tacoma’s developments there were alot of brainstorming sessions to fix finding the key codes throughout the levels. Which became very distracting for players when ‘rifling through things to find these’ and would miss out everything else. Her pitch was that Amy, Tacoma’s main protagonist, had a USB stick that would take awhile to sync data with the ship per area which solved this game mechanic issue.
At Fulbright ideas flourished where everybody would “ just hangout and talk a lot.” This is a refreshing thing to hear when new developers at bigger companies would often be ignored.
Nina focuses on making games she wants to play and never relies on her personal project for income. This frees her from any stress about losing the target audience or if her games will sell well or not. Making games with her friends without all that fuss she admits “is a pretty privileged position for my personal stuff that I managed to maintain.” How her game resonates “sometimes lands and it becomes something people like and sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s something I try not to worry too much and try to make stuff that is interesting to me.”
“People finding me through personal work and reaching out because the kind of stuff my collaborators and I are doing fit into what their goals are.”
Nina receives many of her commission with “people finding me through personal work and reaching out because the kind of stuff my collaborators and I are doing fit into what their goals are.” Manchester international Festival was an example of a commission that asked her for her personal work to be displayed at the festival which was “really nice.”
Attending Indie Developer Events
She recommends attending local events for game jams. Because in her personal experience that helped her when going to bigger conventions like GDC to be surrounded friends she knew from the industry. Otherwise, “It’s easy to get lost” when going to GDC by yourself. Attending non-specific gaming events can be beneficial too. Sometimes being around similar interest outside of games can lead to opportunities in the future. Nina shares “the one big benefit I found in New York is that I met a ton of comic artists and illustrators in New York that I ended up working with later. They didn’t work in games or anything but we had overlapping circles.”
How is the Game Dev Scene in Portland?
One of the cofounder’’s wife is from there so they obviously had a strong connection to Portland. Nina also points out that Portland is pretty cheap to live “compared to the bigger cities like New York and San Francisco.”
“You want to have connections with people in your life, and if I am not having social interactions where am I going to find inspiration?”
While working on Tacoma Nina shipped four games in her spare time. For her, time management was simple because she would reserve time after work and weekends to finish her side projects. It wasn’t until after shipping Tacoma where she had time to sit down and reflect “why am I feeling so awful?” This pushed her to course correct and have since “been taking it slow” and is “force unlearning that [bad] behavior.”
Overworking is a habit that she developed during grad school working on her master thesis. Something the educational system doesn’t really prepare you for when working too much. There is a great growth rate attached when working on lots of projects but that way of life burnt her out and Nina’s “social life was really taking hit.”
Nina says “You want to have connections with people in your life, and if I am not having social interactions where am I going to find inspiration?”
Narrative Games and Streaming
Nina have always had a healthy relationship between streamers and her games, “People are finding me through twitch and stuff so I feel like its really good especially if you are putting in the effort in finding the streamers that have the attitudes that you want to engage with. It kind of is a bit overwhelming to get through [but] it’s really worth the effort.” Connecting with potential players is always great and spending the effort working with streamers is necessary “because the community is there” and “it’s a great way to engage with potential customers.”
What Nina Looks Forward in Indie Games
Lately, she was really impressed with All our Asias, a personal narrative game about an Asian American developed by Sean Han Tani. Nina was initially attracted to the PS1 era-graphic style of the game and praises the 90’s nostalgia that she grew up with during the first generation Playstation 1 games. Something that she hopes will see a resurgence in the indie community.
Sponsors & Gratitude
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