Interview with game designer Emma Haley

Interviewing game designer Emma Haley


Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’ve been interested in art and media for as long as I can remember. When I was really young, I wanted to be a photographer. I’ve always had this obsession with spaces and capturing space.  I got a 1987 Minolta SLR from my parents that I was in love with. I have albums full of forest scenes, landscapes and I always remember looking at buildings and trying to capture them from interesting angles or get really close up to little details within them.  I always wanted to see the little things that noone else noticed.  I thought my camera was special, because it was so old, so when the photographs were developed, they looked like they had been taken in another time.  There was something really profound in that for me, like I was manipulating time.  After I had my photography ‘phase’ I moved onto film making in college.  I really enjoyed that.  Instead of expressing one moment in space to the viewer I was able to tell a story by moving around.

In a way, reflecting on that makes a lot of sense why I am so interested in games now.  When I went to study games at university, it seemed like second nature to me and I didn’t think about it too much.  I had actually gone to university to do film again, but had chosen Computer Games Design as an extra module.  My first class of Computer Games Design something clicked and I walked over to the lecturer at the end and said, I want to do games full time. Now I look back, I realise that I’ve always had a connection with wanting to work with spaces, it’s just that those spaces are virtual and contained within a computer now.  I sort of feel like sometimes games are a throw back to those times I would carry my camera around a forest and try to find things that noone else saw, that I could share with other people.  Exploring a virtual environment is very much like that for me.

And the years went by, and by my third year I was fully prepared to be an environment artist which is what my final project focused on.  I ended up studying Norse architecture for my final project so I could develop concepts for a 3D environment.  That was the most fascinating thing for me at university, is that you had the resources to delve into other disciplines in order to make your ideas come to life.  I ended up staying on at University to do a Masters and studied games from a more theoretical perspective (the study of play, what is known as ‘Ludology’), whilst continuing 3d modelling on the side.  So right now I am at a point where I study and research games from a critical viewpoint, whilst also wanting to be a successful artist, I’m still learning.

Right now I am working full time at Evolution Studios.  We are a Sony company working on a launch title for the PS4.  I am not currently doing environment art here, I’m an in-house QA tester, which has allowed me to delve into all the areas of game development.  I sit with the artists though and we are always showing off our portfolios to each other!  It’s very inspiring being able to sit with such talented people everyday.

What was your big break and where would you like to see yourself in the future?

I would say I have not had my big break yet.  So far this has been a really long journey for me, from that moment where I wanted to be a photographer to now.  I feel like I’ve come a really long way, but I have not had that great epiphany yet.  I think it’s probably very difficult for people to know when they’ve *made it*.  Or maybe that’s just because I’m still quite young.  However, I broke into the industry through Twitter mostly.  It has been an immensely useful tool for me to network.  I got offered my first ‘contract’ through a friend I had made on Twitter who knew someone with a new company and some rather whacky ideas about what kind of game he wanted to make.  After that it was odd contracts here and there to do some 3D work.  I’ve been very lucky with the opportunities I’ve been given, but a lot of that has come from making an effort in online communities and putting myself out there.  I got a lot of attention on Twitter during my Masters because I made a text based game that could be played through Twitter.

My future is blurry.  I’m at the age now where I’m bursting with ideas but I don’t have the ability to carry them out because I’m trying to make a living and I’m scared of taking a risk.  I feel like I’m at a transitional period in my life, and it’s all still quite confusing and a bit scary.  Right now I’m taking things as they come, and trying to improve my portfolio, skills and contacts as much as I can.  I try to give myself as much food for thought by talking to people and going to events.  In my idealism, I’d love to be creative director of my own company, and working with talented and inspiring people, although I already work with a lot of them!  I have mid-20s blues, where I feel sometimes that I’m not doing enough towards my dreams.  I am quite content right now in the work that I do with Evolution Studios and the work I did at Traveller’s Tales, and I feel very proud to work here.  But sometimes feeling content is not such a good thing for personal development.

What do you enjoy most about making video games?

Developing video games is an ongoing process.  Making personal video games as I have done in the past, if you are working for yourself, then you can make changes until you are happy.  I’ll give you an example, when I was creating a text based game for twitter, I was able to create an area, play through it, and then make a decision on what options the player could have, I could change what things the player could see and have access to so that I could express what I wanted to the player.  With video games it’s always been about implementing an idea, testing it, and then changing it to what is desired.  So I suppose the most interesting part of video game development is prototyping ideas and playing around with that.  Because it’s a digital medium you can really do that so quickly and easily, or at least it’s getting easier to see changes you make on the fly.  Change a bit of code or script, or change a piece of the environment to have more fauna, or less, or move a rock a little to the left.  In reality, you should lock down ideas at some point and start to manage the project, but bouncing ideas and playing around is really enjoyable to me.  You can be innovative at any stage of game development but at that stage it feels more playful and loose.

Also as a games QA tester, we see a lot of bugs. Sometimes these bugs can be hilarious so that is really fun.

Emma Haley game design

How important is it to be a “perfectionist” when it comes to designing a game and its environment?

It really depends on your idea of perfection.  For me, a game becomes perfect when the sum of it’s parts come together harmoniously.  Some of my favourite games (which I believe to be perfect – Journey is one of them) have been crafted in such a way that you never notice anything out of place, everything feels seamless, and as a player you are just guided through this world and sometimes, your mind allows you to be completely taken with that world.  I think for games, immersion is perfection.  If you can achieve a connection with a player through your environment and hold onto that connection, that is perfection.  For me, games are not just about what I design, it’s also what the player contributes, what they give to the world.  They are the person walking around, examining the little nooks and crannies, becoming curious and poking around corners.  You have to remember that when you’re designing a game, you are designing a space.  Even if it is a 2D game, or a text based game.  You are creating an imaginary space that contains a story to be told, a world to explore, strategies to be unravelled.  That world doesn’t come to life until the player participates in that space and contributes their own effort into it.  In that sense, I often see the player as an author of that world too, and so I sometimes think that games are a conversation between designer and player.

As an environment artist, it’s all about realising the designer’s vision for them.  You have to understand and communicate with the designer on what their world is like, what is their world telling the player.  So I don’t think it’s important to be a perfectionist in that sense, but instead you need to be a very good listener and communicator, and be able to visualise and interpret ideas.

If you are working for someone, then you would expect them to be more picky than you about the work you create.  In my experience, it’s been that I’ve been far too critical on myself and they’ve been very pleased with the work.  I don’t always think being a perfectionist is a good thing, it means you have expectations and with that comes let downs.  I know that I have felt really disappointed in a piece of work once it’s finished, and that’s because I’ve been too worried that it’s not perfect.  If you are contributing a piece of 3D work to a game, it can be the prettiest and most beautiful 3D asset in the entire game, but if it doesn’t harmonise with the rest of the game, if it doesn’t sit right, then how can it be perfect?  It’s really about all the parts coming together.

If you are making a game yourself, it’s probably impossible to look at individual items in your world and be fussy about them.  If you are making a game, its a good idea to step back and take a look at the whole picture.  And this is true for all mediums I am certain.  Focus on individual little details and it won’t necerssarily work in the end.

Emma Haley game design | Inteview

You mentioned earlier that there’s a huge element of playing around with things until you get them “right”. I understand there’s some element of perfectionism but can being too much of a perfectionist can mean never finishing a game/never being satisfied?

Yes, I really think it depends on your ideas of perfectionism.  In my eyes, perfectionism can get to the point where you are messing around with the tiny details, like moving the rock around a bit too much.  Sometimes the vision could end up getting lost amongst attempting to focus too much on the very minor details.  A good idea of perfectionism is communicating visually what the designer asked of you.  If you are working with someone and have a perfectionist designer asking you to work too much on the tiny details, it can end up feeling demanding and tiresome, especially when you are satisfied that you’ve replicated what the designer asked for.  So it’s about compromise, as an artist.  And about being adaptable.  And not losing yourself and the vision  in obsessing too much over the tiniest details.  Just remember the bigger picture!

Emma Haley game design

Do you feel like video games receive enough credit as ‘art’? Do you feel they deserve a recognition in art galleries?

This was a really thought provoking question for me.  I think there are problems with games as art.  This has been an ongoing discussion since the 80s, where Mary Ann Buckles attempted to prove to her peers that text based games could be taken seriously as literature and they scoffed at her.  Yes, I believe games can be credited as art if they allow themselves to be opened up to discussion and criticism.  I think some games are still very immature in their delivery, and very shallow in the themes they present.  I’ve seen it where people who criticise games get silenced, and there’s a rhetoric still going around that if someone .  But that’s only with individual games or developers.  There is a huge amount of what I would consider ‘art games’ that are really interested in opening up discussions about what games can be.  The potential has always been there for games, its just how you make use of the medium to express ideas and connect with the player.

On the flip side, there are art games which are just not taken notice of because they are not marketed or sold at retail.  A lot of games I have played recently that circle around on the internet are beautiful and interesting.  However the problem might be that they are being exhibited quite freely on the internet in game communities but not exhibited in public spaces where people who might not be interested in games can investigate and learn that there are games that don’t follow typical conventions, that they can be innovative, thought provoking and very often, emotionally moving.  So several things need to happen before we see that.  It would be amazing to see these games exhibited and I hope we can move forward and get them there.

Interview with game designer Emma Haley

Finally, do you have any last messages for anyone aspiring to get involved in the video game industry?

Anyone can do it.

There are several options for you if you want to get into the games industry.  First of all ask yourself, what is it you’re interested in doing?  If you’re not sure of that, then that’s perfectly okay.  Even though I’m an environment artist at heart I have dabbled in a variety of things related to games, you do not need to feel limited to one skill.  The beauty of technology today means that there are so many free resources for you to get started.  If you want to try out 3D modelling, I suggest Blender which is a free program with all the tools you need to create 3D assets for games.  Sculptris is a free 3D sculpting software which allows you to sculpt models in 3D.  The most important thing you need is passion.  Whatever it is you want to do, work at it and work very hard.  The games industry is not bothered if you have been to university or not – some of the most successful people I know have not been to university, but they have worked very hard at improving their skills, getting feedback off others and adapting.  If you go to university, then that’s great.  It means you’ll get access to resources such as assistance from lecturers, access to a variety of software you need to create games and books in the library.  Being at university means you’ll be with peers who are interested in the same field as you, which means you might be able to do collaborative projects easier.  However, outside of university there are tons of options for you.  Get involved in the mod community online, start going to game development events to meet people, get on Twitter and start interacting with the community.  The beauty of game development is that you can do it in the comfort of your own home and you can meet people doing the same thing online.

At the end of the day, if you have passion, you work hard, you can take criticism and adapt your work to suit needs, these are the key skills of being a game developer.  The rest will come naturally after experimenting and making mistakes.  Everybody makes mistakes, or takes great falls.  After my first year of university I thought I had flunked it all and that I was useless.  I carried on, despite my desire to want to quit, and now I can tell people that you can take falls, and you are allowed to fail.  It’s up to you to come back from failure and learn from it.  Failure and mistakes are never an end-game, it is a turning point.

More importantly, the game industry needs you and your creativity and imagination so that we can all grow together.


Follow Emma Haley on twitter here.

Sections of this interview are featured in the second issue of Young Arnolfini’s zine. You can grab a copy from designated locations around Bristol now!

One thought on “Interviewing game designer Emma Haley

  1. This has been a really interesting read! Thank you Emma for the insight and taking your time to give detailed answers! And thanks YA for this!

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