“If you want to attract female talent into gamedev you need games made by women for women” Interview with Nika Bender, Live Service Producer at DICE

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Nika Bender has come a long way from moderating Playfish forums and product management at Star Stable to becoming a Live Service Producer at DICE. We talked to Nika and found out how she fell in love with gaming at the age of six, what difficulties arise when you make games for younger kids and teenagers at the same time, and how to battle perfectionism with the fine art of “good enough”

We know that you studied in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and then all of a sudden you went to Sweden. Why so? What happened?

— Back in Dubrovnik, I met my husband who was a fellow student at the university. After getting the BA degree he wanted to go to Sweden and I wanted to see the world – to experience a different country, culture, and ways of living. So, both of us applied for a master’s degree in Sweden. We both got accepted at Stockholm University, to continue studying Journalism, Media and Communication. And that’s how I ended up in Sweden.

— Well, I did not expect that, I was thinking about some personal journey and you always dreaming of Sweden.

— Sorry to disappoint you, hehe! But that’s the joy of life. Sometimes you just make those random jumps and they turn out to be one of your best life decisions. For me, it was my move to Sweden, even though it wasn’t planned. That’s one thing I’ve learned in life – you should always be brave.

Speaking of bravery. If I’m not mistaken you got into gamedev through being a volunteer moderator. How did it become a reality for you?

— I had been a forum moderator since my teens. I was always very structured, so I loved making sure that everything is in order, and that everyone is following the rules. I always liked to help people.

At that time there was an explosion of Facebook games and I joined Playfish forum because I was playing Pet Society intensely. It was a very sweet time and I met so many amazing people from all over the world. Even after 11 years I’m still in touch with other moderators through social media. One of the sweetest memories is how for one Christmas we sent Christmas cards to each other. So, I have Christmas cards from all over the world like South America, Europe, USA, Australia. It was a wonderful experience!

— Do you miss being a moderator?

— It’s more of a nostalgia than anything else. I miss the people, it was a really wonderful community. Back then I was studying and working at an internet café. So, I was on the computer the whole day, more or less. I would be hanging out on the forum, we would chat, we had a common interest and it was fun.

— Were you already interested in video games at that time? How big were the gaming industry and video games in your life back then?

— I wouldn’t even call it a gaming industry, but when I grew up, I realized I was a gamer my whole life. At the beginning of the 90s, my dad had one of the first PCs at work, back then in Yugoslavia, and I would go to his office and I would play this game called Alley Cat. It was this super old pixelated game. I would always go with him to the office so I could play this cat game. In fact, that was the first game I’d played. Then it was my neighbour’s Gameboy and then I got this clone of an Atari that had Nintendo games.

— In Russia, if that’s what you’re talking about, in Russia it’s called Dendy.

— I wouldn’t be surprised it existed in Russia as well. My parents bought it as I really wanted it, and I played on it all the time. I never knew what type of a console it was, only recently when someone was talking about the Atari I realized my console was just a copy. Most of the games I knew were unknown to the owners of the “real” Atari. I had some confusing conversations.

— Your bachelor’s degree from Dubrovnik is in Journalism and PR. Would you say your degree helps in your current work or your previous work in Star Stable in any way?

— Overall, I’d say that it does help me in my work. Before moving into product owner/game producer role, I worked with customer relations, so my communication knowledge helped a lot. Additionally, knowing and understanding the basics of public relations and public speech have been of help. I think that especially showed in my work with marketing and PR as I would easily understand what we are trying to achieve and were able to support from game development perspective.

“I didn’t know that you could work in the gaming industry for a living”

What was the first role in the proper game development you had? Where did you start?

— It was many years ago at Stardoll. I was a customer relations manager covering most of the ex-Yugoslavian countries by handling translation and localization to Croatian. I worked with customer support, chat moderation, campaign management, and email marketing as I was trying to grow the game in that market.

— How did you get your first position? Were you — like — looking for a job in the gaming industry?

— Back then I did not know that you could work in the gaming industry for a living. As I finished the first year of my master’s degree, I got a part-time job at Stardoll. Around the same time, I realized that what I was studying was not really my thing. This was the first time where I really had a lot of fun at work, so I figured out I’m going in the right direction when it comes to my profession.

You also worked at a lot of IT startups. So, comparing all the game companies and startups, what was the one job you enjoyed most?

— Working with the game production is where I finally found myself. Until then, I would try all these different positions, and usually it would be fun for a year or so, and then I would get this need to start learning something new. After joining Star Stable game production as a Product Owner, I only continued having a craving to learn more about game development. That is how I knew “Okay, this is it”.

Nika in the Star Stable office

— You got into Star Stable in 2015. How did that happen?

— One day I received a phone call from a recruiter asking me if I have ever heard about Star Stable. And the thing is, I had, as I had been following them ever since I was with Stardoll because they were both targeting a similar audience. It was the only other company in Stockholm that was making games for girls. Not only that, it was also a game about horses, and I am one of those girls that always dreamt about having a horse or being a horse whisperer.

So, when I got that call, I was so excited. I remember the recruiter was pleasantly surprised when I answered from tip of my tongue: “Yes, of course, I heard about this, please do tell me more”. I joined the team and was with them for almost five years. However, I left back in February.

— That’s recent. And now you are going to work with DICE.

— Yes, I joined the new team at DICE EA as a Live Service Producer for Battlefield V.After five years at Star Stable (which I call my second family), I again felt the need to continue growing, but as a game producer. When I got connected to DICE and learned that they’re looking for producers to join their live service team on Battlefield V, I realized that was a perfect opportunity because it was different enough and would offer me further opportunities for learning new things about making games. Also, I really liked the team and the company. It just felt like it is time for a change.

“There is a lot of money in live service games”

From your experience what challenges will the MMO market have in 2020 with all the games becoming live service? It’s harder and harder I think for MMO games to have their own place.

— In today’s day and age, MMO games need to turn into live service if they want to continue living. One of the main reasons for that is because the core of MMO games are the online and the social aspects. In order to monetize the game successfully, and continue with the retention, you need to give the reasons for people to come back. And that means you need to continuously be working on the game.Start Stable as an MMORPG game has been a live service game for nine years, and with its successful growth, it has shown that is the way to go. Also, if you look at any other MMO live service game, they are still around, regardless of their age. However, working on a live service game is quite a challenge, unless you have experience working on continuous and regular updates. It is a different production experience from when you work for years on a game, release it, and then you’re pretty much done with it.With live service game, you’re never done and there’s always a next deadline. You need to understand when it’s the best time to release new content, what type of content, how big each update should be so you can get the most value for the effort that you’re putting in.

— Do you think the live service thing is to stay? Because I’m seeing a lot of players, used to the waterfall type of games that are ready and that’s it. Do you think that’s going away for good? 

— No, I think you’ll always have both types of games and players that enjoy them. We will definitely continue having games such as Witcher 3 or Ori games. There’s still a strong market for “traditional” games and DLCs, as there’s also a strong market for the live service games. So, I think we’ll continue having both. Studios that know who their players are will know which type of game they should create.

I can see how agile projects bring a lot more money to a company. If you look through several years you see that for example The Witcher came out, made some money and that’s it.

— Well, that changed a lot now after the Netflix show…which says a lot about the importance of product’s marketing. There is a lot of money in live service games, that’s why they are so pushed by the business owners. I would say it is also a more business-oriented way of thinking, because that’s what brings the most money for the amount of effort that’s put in. But as a gamer myself, I strongly believe that the developer should build the games for their players, and that’s why I think we’re going to have both types of games.

“I think things will change once we have more and more girls gaming”

Let’s get back to Star Stable. From my perspective, Star Stable is doing a great job engaging girls. What do you think we should do as an industry to attract more women to game development and gaming in general?

— One thing that I noticed while working at Star Stable — they didn’t have to go the extra mile to attract female talent. They would get quite a lot of job applications from women, which then also reflected in the gender balance in the company – over 50% are women.And another thing that I realized when it comes to attracting female talent, is the importance of the product. Star Stable is a game for girls made (in a big degree) by girls. If you want to attract female talent and get more women in gaming you need games made by women for women.

— I’ve been playing multiplayer games for quite some time. And every time I see a girl join some kind of a match or a game there are these sarcastic comments and questions like “are you really a girl, like what are you doing here?” Is there a way that we can battle these hardcore players’ attitude of seeing women playing video games as something awkward or strange or even being aggressive.

— I have been experiencing that my whole life. In recent years, there have been a big movement on social media which brought this issue in the spotlight. A lot of very smart women are talking about it, and from my personal experience I can only say that it is about education – it’s about how we teach our sons and our brothers. That kind of attitude is not coming from nowhere. Yeah, you can tell that person how that’s not okay, but if they don’t see it themselves and don’t understand why that is not okay, then nothing will change. I also have a feeling that things will start to change as we get more and more girls into gaming.

The way how I personally deal with it is that I usually ignore it or block the person in question. It is not nice to have experiences like that, but for me it was easier to ignore it or not take it to heart.

It’s just weird to me because I don’t think you see that in other mediums. Like, I haven’t experienced somebody saying “Oh, you’re a girl, so you can’t enjoy the movie I’m about to watch”. So, the gaming industry is kind of more sexist in a way.

— I noticed it depends on the culture. Comparing Croatia and Sweden, I have different experiences in how people around me see girls or women that play games. However, the interesting things was that I experienced more negativity from “non-gamers”, especially when I was younger, I would often be the only girl among the boys on LAN parties, and everyone was really sweet and supportive. I never was discouraged by “gamers” around me, but more by my parents who were more traditional, and thought that gaming was a waste of time, and not something for girl/young woman.

“It is difficult to cater to both 8-year-old and 18-year-old gamers”

You’ve worked on monetization for a long time. How do you monetize a game where you have to work with a younger audience that can’t legally pay?

— If you have a game that targets children under 13 – in most of the countries, you need to be compliant with certain regulations. So, for instance, Star Stable is both COPPA and GDPR compliant. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a U.S. federal law, and The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy. This means in some regions, if you are a child under 13, your parent needs to approve your online account registration. Moreover, this means your parent will receive emails about your account and will be doing all the payments. That’s the first thing you need to investigate if you’re creating a game for such a young audience, and if you’re going to monetize that game.Star Stable devised a monetization model that’s very unique. It’s not free to play, although it is free to try. As a new player without premium account, you have access to a small part of the map, some quests and some events around the year; you pretty much try out the game and see if you want to purchase it or not. So, as it is a paid game, you can purchase premium membership called Star Rider, and there’s both subscription options, but also a “Pay Once” option. Additionally, every week players with premium account get an allowance of premium currency, which means you can save to buy the cool horse.This monetization model is working great for Star Stable. I think it’s a fair model for both kids and the parents. I also know that the Star Stable customer support team is considerate if there are any issues when it comes to payments. They handle that right away as they understand that the audience is younger kids. Usually, if they get contacted by parents, they cooperate and try to solve their issues right away.

— When advertising, do you target the kids or their parents that are the real payers? 

— It depends on the campaign, but when I was at Star Stable, we would often target both.

Wording is very important when you have a game that targets children. I was at Stardoll when they got fined by the Swedish Consumer Agency for using too aggressive wording for sales and campaigns. There are certain rules in this case, that you must adhere to. You need to avoid wording like “buy now”, and any aggressiveness in your sales communication if you are working with such product or a game.

When I joined Star Stable, we made sure to look at the communication and set up guidelines; that there is no “buy now” wording, no offer countdown, and similar. Of course, these restrictions make things a bit more complicated for people working in sales, but if you’re working with younger audience, ads must be more informative. Like “Hey, this is the offer, you know when it starts, when it ends, this is the price, go here for more information”.

Judging by the trailers and info online, Star Stable is both for elementary school kids and teenagers? Five years’ age gap is not a big deal for me now, but when I was six it was like most of my life. So how do you make the game appealing for such a wide age range?

— I would say that’s an everyday challenge at Star Stable. Most players are between eight and eighteen years old. Which is quite a wide range. There’s also a lot of players that’ve been playing for a while. Star Stable has players that have been with the game for eight years, and their needs changed. So, the players are staying with the game and they’re growing up together with Star Stable.

— Like with Harry Potter.

— Yep, but Star Stable still caters to a certain audience and it is difficult to cater to both 8-year-olds and 18-year-olds. While I was with them, we would try to make content that it’s understandable for younger kids, but also appealing to young adults. I was involved in the production of a quest line where we introduced the death of one of the NPC’s. The team working on the quest also tried using the game as a media to teach how to handle grief and death of someone close to you. That’s a topic that the eight-year-old can still play and maybe not fully understand, but still be interested in it. However, an eighteen-year-old can maybe find some help with handling the grief if they experience it.

— So, you have to be educational and fun at the same time.

— Yes. And be careful, in a way, because Star Stable is heavily based on the text. So, there’s a lot of quests and a lot of text. You must make it understandable for a 10-year-old but fun and interesting to an 18-year-old. Sometimes we were not able to cater to everyone, sometimes we would focus on a certain group and we wanted to give something to them, and sometimes we would try to cater to everyone.

— “Only join this quest if you are 17?”

— Well, this affects gameplay. It is tricky for us to understand the level of difficulty when it comes to gameplay because it may be a 10-year-old who finds it way too difficult and then a 17-year-old we’ll be like “Oh, it’s actually challenging”. It is a struggle. It does require, you know, testing things out trying to find the balance.

— When working on testing, do you actually involve kids or are there adults trying to think like younger kids?

— I would say the amazing people that I worked with at Star Stable just create things that they consider fun, and nice, and pretty. When it comes to big new things that we were not really sure about, we would invite players in the office to do some playtesting before content is released. This would allow us to see their reactions and get some feedback.

Sometimes we would not have enough time, so we would try using the agile approach. In that case, we would build and release an MVP, get the feedback, and tried to understand how players received it. If there were certain questions, we’d try to get answers from them. That would really depend on the project.

— Back in February 2020 you gave a speech at the Thing conference saying “perfection is overrated” and that it’s better to use the “good enough” approach. What made you adopt this idea? 

— This pretty much came from reflecting on my previous experience. One thing I noticed working with a lot of passionate people is that they tend to try and make things perfect, which is not always good. So, I tried to find a way to explain that being good enough is not a bad thing.

We just have a wrong perception of this concept. That was the starting point. And then, you know, I continued building upon it and explaining why and how and what I do with it, but that’s where it came from.

— So, actual experience made you think that this isn’t working? 

— Yes, actually, it does come from failing. Failings are great because you learn new things every time. This came from a number of my personal failures and the failures that I’ve seen around me and I was a part of. So, I wanted to share that you don’t have to be a perfectionist and that maybe there is another way to do things and it works better for everyone.

— So, I don’t think this would be a lie if I said that crunches are commonplace in the gaming industry right now. Do you think that “good enough” philosophy can somehow help game developers to avoid that where possible?

— That’s actually one of my points in the “good enough” talk. It helped us at Star Stable, we didn’t do crunch. We had weekly updates every Wednesday, with a new content update. In the past when I was a product owner, there we had no crunches.

— How do you define the state of good-enoughness? Is there a point where you run into the office and yell “Enough! The horse is good!”?

— You need to have an actual criteria. You need to know what the requirements are for you to reach the goal. For instance, with the horses we worked a lot to improve our pipeline and to understand how we can balance the value versus effort.

So, for instance, we decided that one horse has a certain cost and that means there has to be a certain quality standard and it needs to include certain things. If that’s done, that horse is now good enough. But prior to that, you must have everything defined, so you sit down, talk about it, and know what makes a horse – good. You need to understand what your goal is.

— There are projects where the gamers are like: “Oh, why are the textures not ideal? The grass was better two years ago”. Maybe you’ve seen some videos comparing GTA V to GTA IV. The players are really nitpicky when it comes to bigger titles. Would that approach work for big projects? 

— Of course. Because in the case that you mentioned, the goal would not be to make any grass. The goal would be to make grass of this particular quality. And you reach it. The project size doesn’t matter, it’s all about the way of thinking. 

If you know your players care about certain things, for instance, in the Star Stable we had a lot of expectations on the horses, so there is a certain quality requirement we couldn’t go below. If your players have certain expectations, you need to meet them. That is the “good enough” because that is the minimum we need to do to actually reach our goal. It is up to a person who defines the goals to set them up. And if you’re good at what you do, you will know your players’ expectations.

The good enough is not to do the minimum. It’s to find the necessary minimum and realize if you really have to spend this extra ten hours on polishing that grass or the current state is actually what’s good for the players. Maybe it’s time to focus on something else they need to see.

Star Stable office

“Once you go down crazy cat lady road, you just need more”

— What professional media do you read to keep updated on the innovations within the industry?

— Well I’ve mostly used Twitter, that’s kind of like my newsfeed for a lot of things. I follow Gamasutra and Game Industry Biz, but again Twitter is my main news feed. Waking up and seeing what’s new is my morning ritual.

— Do you use any time management tools in your everyday work?

— At work, I use Atlassian tools, been using Jira and Confluence for years. Sometimes I use post-its, notebooks, or online tools for tasks (Google Tasks or Microsoft To-Do), and Trello as well. For me Trello is the easiest one to use as it has a simple and intuitive user experience.

— Does it not become harder to keep track of all the time management tools?

— That’s the thing – I’ve been trying to find one solution for everything; however, I haven’t yet managed to find the one tool for every need I have. So, I change them based on my needs. True, in the past, sometimes, in an effort to handle a long backlog of tasks, I’d tried using different tools, which in the end would make it more difficult to track everything.

— How do you spend your free time?

— Watching Netflix, cooking, and serving my cats.

— What are you playing right now?

— I’m trying to finish Ori and the Will of the Wisps with — like — having everything at a hundred percent. I’m on the last chapter of the Ultimate Edition. And I’ve been playing Battlefield 5, The Outer Worlds, and Star Stable. I like different games and I often switch between them depending on my mood.

— You’ve mentioned your cats. Did you know that in Russia every third household has a cat?

— I had no idea. Good to know.

— How many cats do you have?

— I have two for now. They are my little flowers. The older one is Sakura, and the younger one is Dahlia. Sakura is a Japanese word for cherry blossom flower. And Dahlia is, well, Dahlia flower. We didn’t name them by the way. We got them with those names and they just matched, so we kept them. And hopefully they’ll get two brothers, soonish; we will see.

 

This is Sakura

— Four cats is a lot.

— Well, once you go down crazy cat lady road, you just need more.

 

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