Ask An Indie: Ellen Burns-Johnson

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Welcome to Ask An Indie where we interview local independent game developers to learn how they make, do and create.

The Indie: Ellen Burns-Johnson, Instructional Designer, Allen Interactions.

What inspired you to start making games?

I’ve loved games since forever, but my professional interests have taken me down a path more aligned with learning psychology and human behavior. Several years ago I realized that good learning experiences felt very similar to my favorite games—challenging, evolving, complex, and emotionally engaging.

At what age did you create your first game?

When I was 30! I made a Twine game at the Midwest Game Jam.

What formal training do you have that has helped you?

My background as a learning experience designer has helped me quite a lot in thinking about game dynamics and working with development teams.

I think my time as a teacher prepared me for play testing, because I’m comfortable sitting back and watching players figure things out. That’s a big part of the fun for me—watching people get stuck, and then try different things until they overcome the challenge. I don’t feel the need to jump in and explain the game to them.

Seeing players struggle a little bit with the game is like seeing a student work hard to figure out some sticky assignment. You can’t learn something for someone else, and you can’t play a game for someone else. You can offer guidance, but you have to let people figure things out on their own.

Of course, sometimes players get stuck because of bugs that I forgot to squish. Then I help out a bit more. :)

What are some of your favorite tools or resources?

People are my favorite resource. I’m an extrovert. I can learn just fine from online videos and documentation, but I need to be able to talk to people about what I’m doing. It’s part of my creative process.

Having a network of fellow artists and developers is great for when I have questions, but it also gives me a place where I can tell stories about what I think I’m trying to do. Telling stories about my ideas helps me make sense of them.

How many people does your studio employ and in what capacity?

Allen Interactions has a few dozen full-time employees and many part-time contractors, organized into multiple studios. Project teams include instructional designers, writers, artists (who might also do photography, video editing, animating, etc.) web developers, and project managers.

What game(s) have you published and on what platforms are they available?

A few friends and I made a two-player dungeon escape game called Dicer and Clasp: Dungeon Skedaddle! for the 2018 Global Game Jam. If you like quirky games with cute characters and you have a friend who also likes these things, go check it out!

What is the most challenging thing about being a game developer in the Twin Cities?

It’s hard to balance art with the rest of life, though I don’t think this is a challenge unique to the Twin Cities experience. My full-time job has elements of game design in it, but for the most part gamedev is something I pursue in my “off time.” The amount of off-time I have varies, so the amount of progress I make on my game varies. That can be frustrating and it can create a real gumption trap.

What is the most rewarding?

The community here is amazing. People are so enthusiastic about learning from each other and supporting one another. When I’m feeling stuck, the community helps keep me motivated.

What advice would you give someone trying to break into the industry?

Industries are made of people. Find ways to meet people—not just online, but face-to-face. Check out the GLITCH Immersion Program and the IGDATC monthly meetings.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Don’t feel like you need to follow someone else’s path in order to “make it.” You control your own definition of success; you can decide what “making it” looks like.

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