Laralyn McWilliams is Chief Creative Officer at Skydance Interactive and will be at GDC 2018 to present the talk You’re Not Broken: Finding Your Creative Way Through Difficult Times.
Her Vision Track talk will discuss ways to recognize when your creativity is affected by stress, loss or other derailing emotions; methods for connection and communication with other creatives; emotional and practical tools to begin to reclaim your creativity. Here, McWilliams gives us information about herself and what she does.
Tell us about yourself and what you do in the games industry.
I’m a game developer and designer, currently Chief Creative Officer at Skydance Interactive in Los Angeles. I started off in the days before anyone on a dev team had a job title (I was a combo of producer, artist and coder), then became a producer for years until suddenly “game designers” existed and I knew that’s where I belonged. I was occasionally in a producer role after that, but for the most part my career post-2000 has been as lead designer, creative director, or in company leadership. Along with my design work, diversity on our game development teams has always been important to me, and I’ve written about it several times on Gamasutra.
What inspired you to pursue your career?
I fell in love with attractions at Disneyland when I was a kid—I knew I wanted to create worlds. I got my first home computer when I was in high school in the early 1980’s (a TI-99/4A) and taught myself BASIC. When I first played Scott Adams’ Adventure game, though, my goals solidified: I wanted to create INTERACTIVE worlds. That wasn’t really possible as a profession in the early 1980’s though, and this was the height of the period when tech ads/culture started steering toward men.
It never occurred to me to study programming in college even though my freshman year I was an operator on the giant VAX computer system. It wasn’t until after college, working, law school, and a bit more working that I saw Myst and couldn’t take it anymore. I had to find a way to create worlds. I taught myself to make 3D graphics, taught myself better programming in the multimedia software I used for my day job, made a game demo, sold it to Micropose, partnered with a local game studio, and started my own company. This was around 1994.
Without spoiling it too much, tell us what you’ll be talking about at GDC.
We all deal with events in our lives that derail everything: events like divorce, death of a family member or friend, layoffs, bankruptcy, or a diagnosis of severe illness. When you’re going through these events, they rob you of your creativity—an essential part of every game developer’s job, regardless of discipline. They can also steal your focus, energy, and self-confidence. My talk provides tools to help you climb out of what feels like a pit of darkness, not from a psychological perspective (although that’s part of it) but from a professional and creative perspective. I really want my experiences dealing with three rounds of cancer to help other developers stay positive, engaged and creative.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work?
There’s a reason co-op games are popular and also feel evergreen to play: people are fascinating, challenging, rewarding and unpredictable. Anyone in team/company management knows that understanding the people on your team and striving to improve both their work lives and their work product is a challenge, but one that’s incredibly fulfilling. We’re also working primarily in VR, and it’s always an exciting leap off the cliff when you’re taking on design for a truly new platform that provides new player experiences.
What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
It’s a tie between seeing a team working well together and enjoying the act of creation, and seeing players enjoy the game we worked so hard to build. That’s game development at its best, when you’ve been a part of a group that had a vision and realized it, and that vision can become a part of players’ lives. Ultimately there’s magic in helping to create memorable moments for our players.
The subject of your talk is incredibly relevant for anyone paying attention to the news in 2017. How do you encourage people who live and work online to feel justified for creating?
Creation is an act that helps both creator and audience. I believe in the fundamental power and value of pure entertainment--I don't think entertainment is important only if it has a "message" or deeper meaning. Brightening players' lives with entertainment is, in itself, meaningful. The process of creating even something that is "just" entertainment is therapeutic in many ways--it gives you something to focus on and escape from the woes of the world (whether those woes are personal, societal or political). Of course, all of the benefits for both creator and audience are enhanced when we put more of ourselves into what we create: our struggles, failures, triumphs, losses and learnings.
Two great examples are Crashlands, created while a developer was going through cancer treatments but not directly itself addressing cancer, and That Dragon Cancer, which clearly expresses the developer's experiences. The bottom line: whether you express your struggles in it or not, the act of creation promotes healing.
What helped you maintain the drive to be creative as you were dealing with cancer?
That's a key part of what I discuss in my talk. It's really hard--and often impossible--to maintain the drive to create when you're dealing with a life-changing event, whether that's cancer or divorce or unemployment or the death of a loved one. I really struggled to even feel creative when I was going through chemo, much less actually BE effectively creative. And that's OK. That's why awareness and forgiveness are such an important part of my talk. You need to be cognizant that you're in a situation where it's hard to feel the mental focus and freedom creativity requires, and give yourself room to work more slowly and less effectively than you do when all's well. I share some of the focusing and motivational tools I discovered as a part of the talk.
Do you have any advice for those aspiring to join your field someday?
Design is one of the toughest disciplines in terms of breaking in. The best advice I could give is to build stuff, constantly. Actually that’s the advice I give even to working designers. Be fascinated with tools and how other games are built. Get in there, whether it’s with the Elder Scrolls Construction Kit or Super Mario Maker or Unity or Unreal, and try to build something similar to what you’ve seen and liked. Then try to build something you’ve NEVER seen. Build stuff, break stuff, and learn stuff—that’s the core loop of being a game designer.