Hey Shelby, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you tell us about yourself?
Thank you for interviewing me! I am a graduate of the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English. Right now, I’m a co-founder and lead narrative designer on a team of 6 for the indie game studio, Caldera Interactive! When I’m not writing for Caldera, I’m writing for my full time job at Pixelmatic and their super nifty game, Infinite Fleet.
This may sound a little strange at first, but I love gender. I love dismantling dominant ideas about it and then piecing them back together, asking why the entire time I’m looking at those pieces and then getting overwhelmed when I don’t have the answer. Questions of masculinity, of femininity, of the way they’re represented in our lives and in the media and how we can do better is usually at the heart of a lot of what I do and the stories I try to tell. I believe everyone deserves to see themselves in video games, in one way or another, and I want to try my absolute best to tell the stories I can in the best way I can. I also know I’ve got a lifetime of learning ahead but I’m excited for that part too.
During my time at the UofA, I worked as a research assistant in an artificial intelligence lab, and helped to write code evolving agents to become self-sufficient. I also ran deep learning experiments to train a neural net to recognize and categorize speech accents in the video game Dragon Age: Origins. During one summer I was lucky enough to work at BioWare as an associate software engineer. The position was connected to some of my research, and I got to meet so many wonderful people! In school, I know I said I majored in English, but secretly, I majored in video games! Studying them, developing them, learning about them… Video games are extremely interdisciplinary, so understanding some of the programming side as well as the writing side was an invaluable experience. I always wondered if my professors were getting annoyed with me because almost every paper I wrote for English I always tried to connect back to video games, or gender, or my favorite intersection: video games AND gender!
How did you get into game development?
I think I was around six years old when I sat and watched my dad play Serious Sam on his computer. I thought it was the coolest thing. As I got older and my basic motor functions improved, I got to play games too! I still watched him play titles like DOOM 3 and Resident Evil 4 (sometimes he’d let me try!) but I would also play my own games like Barbie Explorer and Call of Duty Modern Warfare II. I distinctly remember in the sixth grade I asked for Ninja Gaiden 2 for Christmas. Basically, all this is to say I loved video games from a very young age, and played a lot them across a lot of genres. It wasn’t until high school I realized an actual, real life grown-up career, could be in creating them (thank you to Matthew, a dear friend of mine who introduced me to the idea). The rest is history! I went to school to write for video games, and it still feels a little unreal that I get to do that now!
You co-created Panic Mode, a podcast about video game design with Aidan Herron. Who should listen to PM? Have you had a favorite design topic?
First let me say Aidan Herron is the absolute best and I’m very lucky to have him as a partner in life and in game design. I think Panic Mode is for anyone who aspires to be a game designer, who is a game designer already, or who really enjoys thinking about the structure behind games! Aidan and I hoped that it would spark a lot of creativity from people in thinking critically about a myriad of topics from the culture surrounding video games like toxicity online, to design principles like what is top-down design (check out episode 2)!
I’m sure we don’t always get everything right (we’re still learning about game design too!) or talk about these topics from every angle, but I think that’s part of the fun of game design. There’s so many ways to create something, and that’s okay! It’s hard to pick a favorite topic, but I think I tend to enjoy the ones where Aidan and I disagree. He’ll come in from one perspective and I’ll talk about a different one and we’ll both argue, amiably of course, for why we think our points are valid. I think we did this in episode 22: The Souls Genre. I learn a lot from those kinds of episodes! I hope Aidan does too!
This year you co-created Caldera Interactive with a team of past and present University of Alberta students. What has the process of creating a studio been like? When can we expect to see more of what Caldera is making?
Co-founding Caldera with five other awesome team members has been wonderful and wildl. When Jeff Cho came to me saying he wanted to start a game studio and include me of all people, I felt honored and excited to help make something amazing! I’m very lucky to work with the talented Jeff Cho, Derek Kwan, Titus Lo, Isael Huard, and Mickael Zerihoun to make this studio a reality, and with all of us being co-founders and co-owners, learning and problem-solving together has been a real highlight. We’re all contributing and working hard to not only design and develop a game, but to build Caldera for the future! We’ve talked a lot about the kind of studio we want to be. We’re really aiming to be an ethical game studio, valuing things like sustainability, diversity, and intersectionality both in real life on our team, but also in the games we make. It’s important to us to create games and tell stories that are for a wide audience of underserved gamers.
We recently incorporated and that was a big moment. It mainly involved some serious paperwork management, but in doing so we accomplished a first step as a studio and I think that’s what made it so special! Another exciting moment was when our brilliant artist, Titus Lo, designed our logo because we were able to really see Caldera. But there’s also a statement of values that logo represents, as well as legal structures outlining share agreements and director relationships… there are these little things that need to click in place to make life easier down the road. We’ve been very fortunate in speaking with other developers and receiving some much-needed advice, and having a plan to address a variety of outcomes for the future is something we’ve been taking to heart.
As our game development process ramps up after this November, we’ll be posting updates on our social media so you can follow our progress there!
You’re currently also working on Infinite Fleet (a game by Pixelmatic). With a larger team, do you find the dynamic is different than with Caldera?
Pixelmatic has been an amazing time so far! It’s true they have a bigger team, but something that’s especially fun (and selfish) for me is that the team has a plethora of industry experience, whereas at Caldera we’re still quite new to the industry! It’s awesome to learn from so many of my Pixelmatic team members and then bring that knowledge back to Caldera.
I’ve noticed that with any team size one of the most important aspects is communication. It’s imperative for both teams, large and small, to ensure everyone is on the same page and up to date with ideas going into the game. With Pixelmatic we have lots of online meetings because many team members come from all over the world (their main office is in Shanghai!). Because it’s a larger team, it’s a little unrealistic to have thirty people on a single voice call (but that could be kind of fun so who knows??), instead it becomes more about ensuring the right people from the right departments are getting the information they need. With Caldera we all live in Edmonton which makes in-person meetings a lot more realistic, and it’s a little easier to organize six people’s schedules!
It also helps that I work with awesome people on both sides. As one example, I’ve been working closely with the art director for Infinite Fleet (hi Wayne!) and he’s taught me so much about what to look for in character design, in lighting, in concept art, and in camera shots to really complement the narrative and the characters and the emotions that we’re going for. I’ve enjoyed working alongside him and the rest of the team so much and I can’t wait to see what we continue to create as the game evolves.
What are your thoughts on the game development community in Alberta?
This community has been wonderful. I know Caldera would like to thank everyone who has responded to our emails, who sat down with us and gave us their time and their experience to help us learn and grow. We are so grateful for the developers who came before us, and how they’ve helped to pave the way! People have been so welcoming, encouraging, and willing to just sit down and talk about video games with us. It’s awesome! In the future, we hope to pass this on and be able to share our own challenges and triumphs, lifting up other developers the same way we’re being lifted up now 🙂 Thank you to everyone who has shared their experiences, their time, their advice with us. It’s helped a lot, and it’s meant a lot.
I think this community is at its best when it creates space for new people, and when we are kind, respectful, and inclusive with one another, and when listening to diverse perspectives! I’m looking forward to seeing how the Alberta games industry grows long term and I hope Caldera can be a part of that!
Finally, a fun little question I like to ask. If you could work on any game series what would it be and why?
This is a fun yet tough question! My first thought was writing for Ori and the Blind Forest but honestly the story of the first game was just so perfect I don’t want to touch it!
I’d love to write for DOOM. The gameplay is insane, and wonderful, and just pure bloody fun. I think there are a lot of equally insane and wild directions the story could go in! I just think how much fun it must have been to write the opening of DOOM (2016) like: “and then DOOM GUY punches the elevator. Cue the epic soundtrack. Cut to title card.” HELL YES. I also have this recurring dream of Doom Gal making her debut. I just hope the world will be able to handle her 😉
Thanks Shelby for taking the time to be our November 2019 Community Spotlight member.
Shelby is a video game writer/podcast host/studio co-founder in Edmonton, AB.
Follow her on Twitter and check out panicmode.net as well as calderainteractive.com