In our continuing series on women in esports, we chat with Marie Mejerwall, senior game designer for Jagex. Mejerwall has worked at top-level studios on a number of AAA games, including Batman Arkham Origins for WB Games Montreal, and Deus Ex Mankind Divided at Eidos Montreal.
A Senior Game Designer and an eight-year veteran of the games industry, Marie has also been a part of the esports area since its early days, with varied roles from shoutcasting to tournament organizer. At Jagex, Marie is responsible for progression, AI, and core gaming elements for a new, unannounced MMO. Though she can't tell us much about the upcoming game, Mejerwall talks all about the process of development and what's coming for the future of esports.
So Jagex has a new, unannounced MMO. I can't wait to hear about it! Is there anything that you can hint at for us?
I am working on an unannounced project, and we’re exploring some interesting and exciting ideas right now. We’re not ready to share more just yet so you guys will have to be patient and wait!
Can you talk about your work on AI for the game, as well as the day to day for you at the company?
Right now, I'm responsible for a couple of features, but I don't have time to design them all myself. I usually spend my mornings jumping between my excellent co-workers to give direction, feedback, and sign-off on design documents they write for me within progression systems, controls, camer, and character appearance.
Before and just after lunch there are usually a few meetings, which can be about anything from brainstorming how items are going to work, discussions with the art team on how our characters are animated, to more production-focused reviews, where teams show off what they have been working on.
During the afternoons I always try to find some time to do AI design work. For instance, yesterday I was figuring out things like which reactions are instant (like death) and which ones are delayed (like selecting the player who attacked as a target), and how to structure the systems to support both. AI is fun and challenging, and I always try to push its envelope a bit for every project I am working on.
You have a history with huge franchises. What was your experience like working on Arkham Origins and Deus Ex?
Working on Batman Arkham Origins was overwhelming at first — I came in somewhat late in development and it was my first time with a big game engine, so there was a lot to learn. I was lucky to be in a team where we were all just 'gameplay programmers' and thus I got to expand my knowledge a lot, which has helped me immensely in my career.
I could work one day with the timing and combos of Batman's ‘freeflow’ mode, to then coding a new scripted camera panning around the player after a level up; the next day I'd jump on the functionality of proximity mines, and the next week I worked on the AI for the game's first boss, Killer Croc. I fell in love with AI and it's been my biggest passion ever since.
Just being on a game of that caliber and fame itself was also an overwhelming experience. We got internal videos showing how our theme was being recorded by a philharmonic orchestra, which was really cool. I was in the room at the E3 Sony press conference in 2013 when the game was announced and got to experience a full hall of gamers, reviewers and industry colleagues going nuts over it, the guy behind me was screaming with shock and amazement.
After the announcement, fans of the series started doing stunts and uploading them on YouTube. We started understanding how big the thing we made was to the community.
When the game was released at midnight, we all sat on Twitter and just followed the endless active stream of players and reviewers writing something about it. It was the one night where game developers were rock stars. It was a truly great time. Deus Ex was a similar experience.
What got you into video games?
When I was five years old, our father came home with a FAMICOM, and from that moment I was sold. I knew I wanted to work with games, but I didn't know how, and during those early years the answer was, "any way I can." I started writing for a female gaming community; organized tournaments; was a game reviewer; I had my own gaming part of a Swedish tech TV show for a while; had an internship about MMOs at IBM... Eventually, I found my way to game development as it was almost the only really stable career within games at the time.
What got you into esports? Can you talk a bit about your history there?
I started playing Counter-Strike version 1.0 with my neighbourhood friends in 2001. Our first team was called "Men in Tights" as a parody of Monty Python or so. I soon started my own team and a strong scene grew in Sweden. We all hung out on IRC quakenet, geekboys online community, at IT cafés and huge LAN parties. I found my way to a female gaming site, started writing for them and soon found myself as one of the driving forces organizing the female Counter-Strike tournaments at DreamHack for several years.
I was also active in the Stockholm BarCraft scene after the StarCraft II beta was released. I had to stop when my game dev career took off and I left Sweden, but I've kept dabbling in it during my spare time. When I was living in Montreal, I helped out as admin for SC2 the first time Dreamhack had an event there. I started getting into SMITE, started a big community, produced a YouTube show, casted a bunch of tournaments online, started coaching one of the top 12 North American teams, organized tournaments in my local Meltdown esport bar... I never really can stay away for long, my passion for esports always wants an outlet.
Where to you think we're going in the future of esports? Is there a game you see moving towards prominence?
I don't see esports having a one specific prominent game — I see it as an umbrella for multiple genres to flourish. For a long time in esports, we've had the fighting game community, FPS community and RTS community, then the MOBA community came. These communities won't go away, but they will keep switching to games within their own genre that rise to the top at any given time.
More genres are also breaking through into the esports scene thanks to streaming, and the accessibility that allows fans to follow whatever kind of game they want. Now almost any game can be an esport game, and the border that defines it is getting more fuzzy. Is it that it exists an online tournament? Or LAN-tournaments? Or a whole ladder/league system? That there are organizations that own teams in it? Etcetera. esport has become more just the act of playing games competitively, the same way as "sports" is playing games physically.
I believe esports will surpass traditional sports in developed countries, because it's much more accessible. The society recognition is here — we've gone from being these misunderstood kids who "throw their lives away," to a respected practise getting covered by mainstream media. Real-world sports teams have picked up on the revolution too: many are now, in addition to their traditional sports roster, signing esports teams. A lot of money is starting to flood in, and at the same time esports are getting bigger audiences, bigger arenas, and putting on more professional productions.
Not many years from now, I think esports will have its natural place in society just like traditional sports, and eventually in many more years, slightly surpass it.
What are your feelings about women in esports and the video game industry in general these days?
It's problematic because of sexism and harassment. I feel like it's been going back and forth, or not moving much at all. For game developers, we thought it was slowly getting better, then Gamergate happened, and it felt like harassment was allowed even more openly – to the point it's almost socially acceptable. Some studios are trying to deal with it both within their dev team and in their games, but more need to step up. We – the industry as a whole – keep having a lot of meetings to discuss this where almost only women and a few male advocates attend, so it means preaching to the choir with few needles being moved.
For esports, it’s pretty much unchanged in my experience. It can depend a lot on the community you are in. Some communities are infamous for being toxic, while others are known for being for gentlemen condoning all kinds of bad mouthing. That being said, there are bad apples everywhere.
There are definitely some common problems between being a woman in game development and a woman in esports. One is that there are some inappropriate behaviours happening when people should stay strictly professional. For example, when I was playing and jumping onto a voice client with a mixed team online, I would start coordinating with the team until some guy suddenly asks me to send him my photo, when all I want is to play the game! Another issue across both esports and game dev is that you almost need to prove yourself for having skills.
I think there are a few things that need to happen — we need female role models, we need men who other men respect and look up to advocate for women and stand up against bad behaviours, and we need special support to nurture the growth of women entering both industries (for example female-only tournaments or game jams only for women).
Are there female players we should be watching?
Many! Missharvey is a friend and long-time CS:GO player who used to play in my tournaments and is still active, zAAz and CAth as well. Keep a close eye on Scarlett in StarCraft 2 who has increased streaming a lot on her twitch channel lately. Checkout Nulisa in SMITE, even though she doesn't post a lot, and within the fighting evo community, there's Kayane who has started her comeback to Soul Calibur.
What has the move to Jagex been like?
I've moved countries and companies a few times, and it's just something I do at this point, even my cat is used to flying! The dev team has been very welcoming, and I've gained a lot of trust and responsibility in a short amount of time, even though I’ve only been at Jagex for a few months. So overall the feeling is great, and even though I miss my old co-workers in Vancouver and Montreal, there's always the next dev conference around the corner where we can meet.