Welcome to the next installment of our Gnome Spotlight: Notables series. The notables series is a look at game developers in the gaming industry doing good work. The series will focus on female game creators and game creators of color primarily, and each entry will be a short bio and interview. We’ve currently got a group of authors and guest authors interviewing game creators and hope to bring you many more entries in the series as it continues on. If you’ve got a suggestion for someone we should be doing a notables article on, send us a note at email@example.com. – Head Gnome John
Laura Simpson is both a game and user experience designer, who designs compelling and creative games. In 2017 she concluded a successful Kickstarter supporting Companions’ Tale, a storytelling and mapmaking game that builds up the mythos of a hero from the perspectives of the people and world around them. She also authored the nanogame “Driving to Reunion” for the #Feminism anthology. Laura co-created and shares the Sweet Potato Press imprint with Dev Purkayastha. Sweet Potato Press, as described on its website, creates games that “tell surprising, memorable stories from a variety of perspectives.”
Her works include: Companions’ Tale, “Driving to Reunion”
Talking With Laura
Note: This is an abridged version of the full interview. Some questions were added after the fact to divide the interview up more and promote readability.
Question 1: Could you start off by telling me a little bit about yourself and how you got into game design?
I’m Laura Simpson. I’m a game designer, and also a user experience designer. That combination really informs how I approach game design and they just kind of inform each other. I’ve been a gamer most of my life. I would say that, I was that kid running around saying, let’s play pretend. I got an Atari when I was five, and every new generation up until—when my parents wouldn’t buy them for me anymore, then I’d buy them for myself. And I would make up games. I was really interested in games and technology, so I played a lot of various online based games, like stuff in Prodigy (an online service that predates the Internet in the 90s), like Mad Maze, a RPG on Prodigy. I was really excited about what type of emergent narrative you could get out of those sort of games. I played a lot of MUDs and MUSHs in the mid to late ’90s. Instead of hanging out and having fun in the outside world, it was like, I’m going to have some fun on the internet with these randos.
Question 2: So how do you think that influenced your game design now?
I think that the way that a lot of those MUDs and MUSHs were structured was a big influence for me. It made me really think about how to make it fun for everyone. Sometimes you’d just be sitting in a room by yourself, essentially, and then someone would join, and you had a lot of … A lot of the communities, you had control over your own narrative, and there was a lot of talk about, what does it mean when someone tries to force a narrative onto you?
I got really used to the idea of autonomy. I would put the effort into introducing myself. My first experience with Vampire Masquerade was through a MUSH and thinking really carefully about how I interacted in the world and the environment around me. Even though there wasn’t a ton to really reinforce the environment.
But I think that all of this really kind of informed me, and I had a really strong concept of wanting to play games, wanting to play with other people, wanting to have a good time.
Question 3: What other experiences have influenced you as a gamer and designer?
I went to Smith, a women’s college. I was a part of this science fiction and fantasy society, even though the organization wasn’t explicitly about gaming, I attended during a time when there were many members who wanted to game.
And that was a huge deal to me. One of my first GMs was a woman. I eventually GMed some games myself, and we were really encouraging, even when it went badly, we were really encouraging.
There was just a lot of room to be interested in gaming, to read game books, and just to be an ecstatic fan.
I think that the timing of being there really meant a lot for me in terms of growing into gaming, being able to have access to people who were interested in it, passionate about it. There was one particular [first year] woman in my senior year who was like, “I’ve ran games for all my friends throughout my high school years.” And we had this incredible game of Big Eyes, Small Mouth. She really introduced a lot of structure in the thematic arcs, and all the women in the game, we all got to be mighty, big heroes. It felt great.
In this close-knit community, there was an opportunity to explore. We were all between 18-22 and we were trying to figure ourselves out. It was a fruitful time to explore different social dynamics and expression. You’re growing so much during that time, and you’re also trying to figure out what it means to navigate a game, and a game table.
It was an opportunity to be really flexible about what kind of gaming that you do.
Question 4: So how did you move, then, from playing and all these games to designing and making your own?
After college, I had a gap when I wasn’t playing with other people in-person. I was mostly doing online gaming. World of Warcraft had come out, so I was playing that, as well as other RPGs, like various Final Fantasies. I moved to Florida to complete a second bachelors in fine art. In my senior year I discovered a passion for new media and electronic art. I took a game design class, but I did not do a game design for my thesis.
Also around that time, I met some indie gamers in New York. It was totally different from what I was doing before. I was playing really small, intimate games where I was actually sitting at the table with the person who might have written the game.
With all those things on my periphery, I realized I wanted to stay in the know of what’s going on with tabletop roleplaying games. I started thinking: what else can I do? What do I feel comfortable doing? What kind of topics do I want to take on?
I started reading a lot more, and socializing with all these indie game designers. They had different ideas for games that astounded me. It felt similar to the design process involved in a strong community of practice.
The community also reminded me of art. There’s a lot of exploration and sharing concepts you want people to engage with. There’s an adage in both design school and art school: in design, you’re solving problems, whereas in art, you’re creating them. Then, in gaming, you’re doing both. You’re engaging people and creating the situation for them to think about and react to. The players have to come up with ways to comprehend what’s going on and contextualize it, because everyone has different experiences. I find that exciting.
Then I got into user experience design, which developed into a design practice where I can think about each aspect of the experience I want someone to have, such as the table atmosphere or the type of play I want to see or encourage.
The experience expands beyond the game’s genre or the type of play taking place. It includes safety concerns and the questions I want someone to think about at the table. For example, what does it mean to have an unreliable narrator, and accept their humanity? In Companions’ Tale—it’s all about questioning what exactly makes a hero a hero, and humanizing this person. It is also about understanding that there’s not a single ownership of the truth, and expanding the meanings of archetypes.
Question 5: Do you want to explain a little bit about what Companions’ Tale is?
I describe it as a map making story game that tells the hero’s journey through the perspective of the hero’s companions.
The hero is not a playable character, nor are they represented by any type of face card. The hero is not necessarily like the heroes in Hollywood blockbusters; they are a person who has done some acts others consider heroic.
In this game players are not only telling the story about this person who’s a hero, they’re telling these stories about the companions, the people who occupy all these different roles that are important to this hero’s life. In the course of play, each player has a lot of autonomy over who the companions are, how they see themselves, and how they see the hero. Each person has their individual spotlight and moment to share their truth and importance. No one says, “No, the hero really wouldn’t have done that.” It’s really important to allow someone to say, “I am the mentor of the hero,” and they tell a story about [their time] with the hero.
The only thing that the players do not have is power over their face. I commissioned a set of 20 cards that all have different faces, different ages, different backgrounds. They’re all different potential faces of the companions. Any of those faces can be any of those companions.
Question 6: Why is that?
At first, I had the cards face up, giving players a limited choice. Then, during an early playtest with an alpha of the game, a player drew the lover card and looked at the faces. They chose a young light-skinned woman who looked very feminine and said, “Oh, this looks like the lover.” So I asked them what they meant by that. I don’t want to reinforce these sort of ideas. I want people to actually challenge themselves.
I decided in this one moment, that the companion’s face is not something players are going to choose, because every single one of these face cards could be someone’s lover. There’s not a limit on who you can be in love with. And the same thing for any of these other roles.
Question 7: Do you enjoy playtesting?
Playtesting makes me super happy because you have an opportunity to put together something and see what happens. I love it when players point out something that’s not working, because it’s an opportunity. It lets me take that mechanic, that rule set, or the way I laid something out, and make it better. That’s really important.
Question 8: So what is your advice for play testing, then? What advice would you give someone who wants to be better at play testing?
As a user experience designer, I design software. One part of being a user experience designer is writing scripts for when doing usability tests with software. The idea behind scripts is that they take away the pressure of having to remember what to say.
When you’re playtesting, think about the things you want to test, what makes sense to test within the timeframe you have, and how you want feedback. Some people want to give feedback as it goes. Other people want to get to a certain point, and then get feedback.
Experiences will vary. If you’re unsure the first time you playtest, tweak your process a little and try again. You don’t have to have one single way of testing.
Don’t be afraid to change your plan if it’s not working or stop people mid-game. If you’re doing a playtest, you want people to have fun, but you’re really there to gather information so that your full game is fun.
I tend to say, “Okay, so I’d like to do this type of scenario,” and I set it up. I’m not there to GM; I’m testing whether specific mechanics, the ordering, and game works. I think people get caught up this idea that they’re playing a game for recreational purposes, but during a playtest, the focus is really about testing. Players will understand.
Question 9: Where you think gaming in general is going, and where do you hope it goes?
I think that gaming is becoming more inclusive. At first, when I went to conventions, I would sometimes feel a little sad and lonely. Now I meet all of these wildly different people who are really excited and passionate. It’s way broader than I ever thought it’d be.
There’s also so much room for making different types of games. I love that there’s so many different types of games and creators. I think that that variety is going to continue growing and improve even more. The resources are out there.
Kickstarter is also, in many ways, creating more equal, even ground. It’s not perfect, but it allows people to take a concept and reach people that would otherwise never hear of it.
Gaming is also mainstream. It’s not weird to be gaming. It’s incredible. We’re not so niche anymore. I love that there’s so many different people, and I love meeting people who are interested in playing all kinds of games.
Question 10: All right, I have one last question, unrelated to gaming entirely. What are some books, TV shows, or songs that you think people should check out?
I know it requires a subscription, but you should watch Star Trek Discovery. It’s amazing. I think some people go in expecting Next Generation, but it’s not. The genre has moved on. A lot of other space-oriented entertainment has happened since then. I think it’s completely worth the subscription.
As for reading, look up N. K. Jemisin. You should read all of N. K. Jemisin without exception, no caveats. I adore all of her work. She is incredible. The Dreamblood Duology has such lush and incredible writing, you could smell the air just reading it. So, yes, all of it. I recommend all of her work.