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Killer Women: Jennifer Hepler

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If you could tell developers of games to make sure to put one thing in games to appeal to a broader audience which includes women, what would that one thing be?

A fast-forward button. Games almost always include a way to "button through" dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don't enjoy listening to dialogue and they don't want to stop their fun. Yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combats even if you're a player who only enjoys the dialogue. In a game with sufficient story to be interesting without the fighting, there is no reason on earth that you can't have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.

Companies have a lot of objections, such as how to calculate loot and experience points for a player who doesn't actually play the combats, but these could be easily addressed by simply figuring out an average or minimum amount of experience for every fight and awarding that.

The biggest objection is usually that skipping the fight scenes would make the game so much shorter, but to me, that's the biggest perk. If you're a woman, especially a mother, with dinner to prepare, kids' homework to help with, and a lot of other demands on your time, you don't need a game to be 100 hours long to hold your interest -- especially if those 100 hours are primarily doing things you don't enjoy. A fast forward button would give all players -- not just women -- the same options that we have with books or DVDs -- to skim past the parts we don't like and savor the ones we do. Over and over, women complain that they don't like violence, or they don't enjoy difficult and vertigo-inducing gameplay, yet this simple feature hasn't been tried on any game I know of.

Granted, many games would have very little left if you removed the combat, but for a game like Deus Ex or Bioware's RPGs, you could take out every shred of combat and still have an entertainment experience that rivals anything you'd see in the theater or on TV.

Do you have an opinion about the current state of the industry with regard to females and gaming? If so, what is it?

I think that the biggest detriment to more varieties of games being made which appeal to women and casual gamers, is simply the fact that people who don't love games don't become game designers. A game company tends to be filled with people whose best memories come from the games they played, who spend all their time swapping war stories with other gamers, and it's not too surprising that they end up wanting to make games that recaptures those experiences. A lot of ground has been broken in other media when someone who is dissatisfied with his existing choices decides to try something new (Samuel Beckett comes to mind, as the self-professed playwright who hated drama).

I think as games become more mainstream, more people of more varied tastes will join the field, and that will include women. I think right now, though, the biggest hurdle from the point of view of the companies is how to reach women once you have a product they would like. Most women, certainly all women who aren't active gamers, can't be targeted by the typical ads in game magazines or on gaming websites. It's much, much harder to tell someone who doesn't yet know that they want your product to go out and buy it, than to convince someone who is already looking for his next gaming fix that yours will be the best.

jade_gallery_pc_12_640x500.jpgAgain, I really believe Bioware's Jade Empire would be a fantastic first RPG experience for most women, but I doubt many even saw it who weren't already fans. And because of this, Bioware is unlikely to produce any games that streamlined again, since their more hardcore audience didn't like the lack of inventory, easy combat and other features which made it so newcomer-friendly. I really believe that there is a large group of women who enjoy other genre products (from fantasy romance novels, to anime, to the Lord of the Rings movies), who would enjoy an interactive RPG story with some of the more logistical challenges removed, but I honestly don't know how to let them know it's out there.

If you can talk about it, can you tell us some about the project you are currently working on?

I am currently the Managing Editor of Dragon Age, which is Bioware's "next-generation Baldur's Gate in an evolving world." Basically, I'm the number two writer on the project, out of a current staff of four writers, and have really enjoyed the chance to work on several of the largest chapters in the game. The game is a western fantasy epic, but in an original IP, with a very detailed world and darkly heroic storyline. To see more about it, go to http://dragonage.bioware.com.

Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to get into the industry?

I would definitely recommend scrounging up the cash to check out GDC -- it's basically a meat market for people who want to work in games. Bring a professional resume and a portfolio if you're an artist -- there will be people there, probably dozens, who want to look at it. When I went, I was expecting something more like a science fiction convention, where most of the networking is done informally, but at GDC there is active recruitment going on throughout the show. That's where I met Kevin Barrett from Bioware, and a few months and several writing samples later, moved up to Edmonton. I'd also recommend checking out the IGDA, and seeing if there's a special interest group of theirs that's relevant to you -- there's a lot of networking done through the various mailing lists, and it gives you people to hang out with when you do scrape together the dough for a ticket to GDC.

For writers specifically, though, I would say to make sure you have experience writing as many types of stories as possible. I personally think it would do every writer some good to write a few spec scripts for TV shows -- whether or not you want to work in TV, you'll learn a lot about how to structure drama in a small space and how to suit your voice to an existing world and characters. Don't try to write exclusively for games -- whatever opportunity you get to pad your resume with paid or produced/published works will help you in the long run.

On the other hand, make sure you know what's out there in terms of games; you don't have to be the biggest gamer in the world to be a great game writers, but you need to understand game fans and what they like in their gaming experiences. Make friends with hardcore gamers if you aren't one yourself (marrying one works even better), and make sure you enjoy hanging out with them and hearing their war stories. If you can't have fun talking about games, don't bother to try to work in the industry, because the biggest perk about it is getting to hang out with some really smart, fun, opinionated creative folks and shoot the breeze about a topic you all love.

What are your favorite games? Favorite movies? Favorite Authors? Inspirations? What do you like doing in your free time?
As I think I've mentioned before, my favorite games are probably Deus Ex and Jade Empire. I'm also a huge pen-and-paper RPG fan, with particular love for Shadowrun (pre-third edition), Legend of the Five Rings, and the World of Darkness.

Favorite movies are a little harder question. I was blown away by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, especially because I'm not a huge Tolkein fan and he made me love them anyway. I absolutely adore Bryan Singer's X-Men movies, which I think are possibly the best ensemble pieces ever made. I love Three Kings, Chicago, Galaxy Quest, Memento, The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, Fight Club, Beauty and the Beast, and a whole bunch of others that range just as far over the map as those. I personally find television a lot more influential on my work (small surprise after working in the field), and I'd cite The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, House, Gilmore Girls, ER and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit as personal favorites and excellent examples for anyone studying character and dialogue.

I have a huge number of favorite authors, but most of my choices tend to be female writers writing science fiction or fantasy with strong romance elements. My top picks include Melanie Rawn, Catharine Asaro, Kate Elliott, Sharon Shinn and Jacqueline Carrey. I also enjoy Tom Deitz, Tad Williams (other than the Dragonbone Chair stuff) and George R.R. Martin.

My biggest inspiration though, is definitely my husband Chris. We started dating and writing together our freshman year of college and have been together every since. He's the one who introduced me to roleplaying and the one I've giggled, argued and cried over every manuscript with. Now he's also writing at Bioware, on a different project, and we still never get tired of talking endlessly about the theory of writing and how to make it fun, how to break it down to teach the best process to other writers, and how to break new ground in our games. He's always pushed me to make my writing just a little bit better than I'm satisfied with, and I can't wait to see what kind of dad he'll be this November.