How Heather O'Neill (and Heather Wilson) Make Games

(This is a co-interview by the co-designers of Schrödinger’s Cats, Heather O’Neill and Heather Wilson. Heather Wilson's responses are in light blue. –A)

 

Tell us about yourself - Who are you? What do you do?

I’m a creative and social person but love math, science and spreadsheets too! I have a day job and work on games in my spare time. In addition to making games, I run BestConEver which is a small event company that hosts game days and mini-conventions (50 people or less).

I am a tabletop gamer. I love strategy based games as much as bluffing, social and party games. Over the last 5 years or so I’ve been offering advice or suggestions on other people’s games but didn’t really consider making them myself. Back in 2012 I created my first game with my husband Chris. After that, I knew that I could actually do this and started working on a few ideas. Schrödinger’s Cats is just such a marketable idea that we felt it should be the first one in (hopefully) a series of many.

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I am a writer and crafty type person. I’ve worked in the video game industry for the last 10 years and I have my Master’s degree in Library Science. I read an unhealthy amount and do not like chocolate or vanilla.

Like Heather, I’ve played games for years but never really made my own. I’ve been friends with Heather and Chris forever. In 2013 we started talking about making games together. They are both incredibly creative people and a lot of fun to work with. As Heather said, Schrödinger’s won out because it’s so marketable, as well as being one of those ideas that you just laugh about every time it comes up. Who doesn’t want to play a game where cats are the scientists putting each other in boxes?

This post has affiliate links, which directly support Andhegames.com at no extra cost to you. If you have any questions about anything recommended, let me know. - Andrew

 

If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try?

Since I’ve only made 2 games it makes things easy! Schrödinger’s Cats would be the best option. It can seem intimidating and math heavy but the cute cat art and cat physicists ease that fear. Once you play a round it most people find it’s not difficult and have a lot of fun!

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Schrödinger’s Cats as it’s the only game I’ve made. Although I’m going to recommend Heather’s other game, Demon Realms. It’s fun, funny, and quick to play.

One fact that we probably don’t know about you:

I’m an avid tennis player and captain a team.

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I love to cook, but I don’t like making the same thing twice.

What tabletop games (including digital board/card games) are you playing most right now?

For the past few months I’ve been into Splendor, Friday the 13th, Belle of the Ball, and Roll for the Galaxy.

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Carcassonne and Small World on my phone, I’m super into the convenience of being able to play some of the games I enjoy most on the go. I also really like Belle of the Ball and Splendor. Billionaire Banshee is a game a former co-worker of mine at Harmonix Kickstarted we finally got our copy and have been playing that in my house a lot.

What are your all-time favorite tabletop games?

Pinochle, Fiasco, Bohnanza

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Bohnanza! It’s one of the only games I have serious competitive feelings about. Hanabi, Master Labyrinth by Ravensburger (I have a really old copy that’s missing a couple of the magic wands), and Snare, an old word card game from the fifties.

What draws you to make games?

Since I play a lot of games I see an outlet for a fun or new concept I’ve come up with. It’s a good marriage of being creative while at the same time making calculated decisions. That pretty much sums me up!

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Games are a great way of interacting with a theme that you like. Do you like Adventure Time? Then you can play Card Wars. Do you like cats and science? Then you can play Schrödinger’s Cats. I make games because they are way to give players (and myself) that interaction. I like the way I am helping to create an experience for other people.

What are you not naturally good at, that you’ve learned to do for your work?

I haven’t typically been good at narrative writing. However, when I broke it down into game concepts and characters I found that I did a much better job getting the story and feel across.

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I have a really hard time with math and understanding rules in the abstract. That’s something I’m still working to overcome. Writing and editing rules helps a lot! If I can explain a concept to myself then I know I can explain it to our players.

Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product?

I haven’t made too many games yet. For Demon Realms there really was no process. The idea came to me one night the the whole concept and most of the game was written that night. For Schrödinger’s Cats a bunch of us had been taking about the concept and then over 2014 our development team put our ideas together and it evolved over a series of months. For the new projects that I’m working on I am working on the overall concept and feel then working that into a mechanic that makes sense for the theme.

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Heather covered our process on Schrödinger’s. For the other games I’ve worked on I am usually the person who takes the gameplay and fleshes out the concept on the theme side, so I’m often coming in towards the end of the process. With the game I’m working on right now we are in the brainstorming and gameplay design stage. In specific I am doing a bunch of writing and world building.

What design-related media do you consume on a regular basis?

Not much. I’m on Twitter and I follow big news on the internet but that’s about it.

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There are a couple of interesting Facebook groups that discuss design that I follow.

What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without?

Excel, Wikipedia, Coffee (Amen to the third! -A)

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A thesaurus, Google sheets & docs, and my local library.

What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest?

I try to get it in front of as many different types of game players as soon as I can. That way I’m hearing from all sides before going too far in one direction.

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Agreed, as soon as possible. The sooner you have something playable, the sooner you know if it’s worth moving forward with your base mechanic.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them?

Time to work on them. When a spark of an idea comes to me I try to jot down everything about that right away so that when I come back to it later I won’t forget anything. A lot of my design time is in tiny chunks of 30-40 minutes as opposed to a whole afternoon.

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Distraction! I am very easily distracted from the things I am working on by things I want to be working on. I recently heard some really good advice about finishing the thing you are currently working on before you move onto the next thing because you may never go back to the first thing. If you are inspired by something new, take notes and come back to it.

How do you handle life/family/work balance?

Since game design is more of a hobby I try to fit it in where I can. Schrödinger’s Cats is really the first big game I’ve made and I’m hoping to do more. I’m sure real life will get in the way but at this point I haven’t been doing it long enough for it to be a problem.

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Working in the video game industry I have learned from 60-80 hour work week experience how to keep a healthy balance, don’t work 60-80 hours a week! ;). Seriously though, I find that making schedules for myself is invaluable. Knowing when to sit down on work on which thing, and when to hang out in the park with my dog, helps keep them from creeping into and over each other and makes sure I don’t leave anything out.

Do you have a second job? If so, what do you do? If not, when/how did you quit your day job?

Actually game design is my second job. My first job is project management for engineering department at AT&T.

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Tabletop game design is my second job as well. My day job is in the video game industry, I’m currently the Producer/Community Manager for Brace Yourself Games, makers of Crypt of the NecroDancer. NecroDancer is a rhythm based roguelike for PC, Mac, and Linux. Before that for about 9 years I worked at Harmonix, creators of the Rock Band franchise.

How many hours/week do you generally devote to game design? How many to other business-related activities?

I probably devote less than 5 hours a week to the design and 8-10 on business related stuff for the game. Being that we just finished a Kickstarter, the administrative side is overtaking my time to work on new games - but I still am!!

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It really depends on the week. I try to make sure I am spending some time on both design and admin everyday.

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers?

Being that I have been around game design for so many years I have seen that just a good concept will not work. The concept and theme are important but be sure you’ve really thought out the game play. Playtest and be open to feedback!

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Don’t over complicate your ideas. Maybe you are designing a complicated game, and that’s legit, but be really honest with yourself about whether or not you need all of the elements you’ve included.

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received?

Be comfortable and happy with yourself. Don’t feel bad about doing things for yourself.

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Do whatever you want to your hair, it will grow back.

Who would you like to see answer these questions?

Chris O’Neill, Phil Cartagena and Josh Degregorio of Cray Cray Games, they have a Kickstarter running right now for their game Find It & Bind It