Home / Gaming / Game Designer/Author Jess Hartley on Breaking Into the Gaming Industry, Conventions, and More

Game Designer/Author Jess Hartley on Breaking Into the Gaming Industry, Conventions, and More

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Jess Hartley is a gaming guru, talented author, and mother of three. She travels the country extensively as a guest speaker at various gaming conventions and in my mind is an exemplary example of someone dedicated to their craft and loving every minute of it.

Gaming is a big part of your life. When did that interest start and what's the appeal for you?

In terms of general gaming, I've always been a gamer. I can remember playing checkers and chess with my parents, playing Monopoly and Life with my sister and cousins when I was very young, and one of the first Christmas gifts I remember vividly was a handheld electronic game (back when they were a big deal) called Merlin. It was incredibly simple by today's standards, but it could play tic-tac-toe and several other games via a grid of blinking red lights. It sounds archaic now, but it was amazing back then.

I came into RPGs (role playing games) much later in life. I bought a copy of the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) "Red Box" when I was in my early 20s and tried to teach myself and my friends how to play with varying degrees of success. But my "good ex" introduced me to what gaming was supposed to be like, and we had a group of friends who played while he was stationed at Fort Lewis (just outside of Tacoma, Washington) for several years. He and I were the only ones in the group who had a place off of the base, so they'd arrive en masse just after they were released on Friday afternoons and we'd play off and on until Sunday night when they had to head back to get ready for work on Monday morning. We did a lot of Advanced D&D (First and Second Edition) but also GURPs and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Marvel and Aftermath — pretty much everything we could get our hands on. It was a social thing back then, with a lot more emphasis on discovery and destruction than on in-depth roleplay for our group (although there were certainly some ongoing character stories that were very intense roleplay).

I discovered the World of Darkness even later than that, maybe 15 years ago, first online through MUDS and MUSHes and then through LARP (live action role play) and tabletop. The shift of focus from exploration/exploitation (i.e. killing things and taking their stuff) to interpersonal story and political machination was something I found very appealing, and that has taken up a large portion of my interest over the past decade or more.

I'm a fairly new visitor to the world of "indie games," although I'm a fast fan. The opportunity to incorporate new dynamics, like style/fate/peril/luck points is really intriguing to me, as they shift more of the responsibility (and benefit) of creating the story proactively onto the players, rather than having it rest solely with the DM/GM/ST (dungeon master/game master/story teller). That really appeals to me, since it both encourages a greater depth of investment on the part of the players, and allows for greater diversity in storylines and themes.

How has working with White Wolf been?

For the most part, it's been great. I've learned a lot about the industry and had the chance to really hone my skills — writing, editing, game creating, etc. Writing on deadline for a wide variety of different developers, and on teams with a broad spectrum of experienced and new writers can be really challenging, but at the same time, you learn so much. If you don't keep moving forward, keep your head above the proverbial waters, you don't make it for long, so you get better to keep "alive" in the industry. Thanks to my time with White Wolf, I've had the opportunity to work on projects I'd never have been able to touch otherwise (like Changeling: The Lost), and to work with some fantastic writers, editors, developers, artists, and game creators. I've been able to travel to conventions all over North America and meet with other game professionals, folks who are running game stores or events, game masters and players. It's been an amazing opportunity.

The best part, however, is knowing that you've helped create products that people are having fun playing and reading. There's nothing quite like having someone come up to you and say, "You know that monster you made? It almost killed my character last week — we had such a great time!" Knowing you've helped folks have fun is a fantastic feeling.

What inspired you to start One Geek To Another and how has it been going?

One Geek to Another was kind of a tangential product of the blog posts I did just before GenCon this year, which focused on using conventions to break into the gaming industry. (As was Conventions for the Aspiring Game Professional, but we'll talk about that later.) Some of the information included in the blog posts was very basic (hygiene, personal interaction, etc.) because, well, if you don't meet certain basic assumptions and standards of behavior, it's very hard to overcome that and get someone to take you seriously. The blogs met with a lot of support and approval within the gaming community and the larger geek community as a whole — they were posted on SlashDot and reached thousands of readers, which just blew me away. The response was absolutely amazing.

In the course of talking with folks about the blogs and their reaction to them, I really began to get the feeling that there was a niche there that wasn't being filled. Everyone can use someone to come to for advice, and while there's a lot of places to get advice on running games or being a good player, there's little about how to handle some of the interpersonal and social challenges that arise within geek circles. While I have nothing but respect for Miss Manners and other advice columns, sometimes the challenges that we face as part of geek society are best addressed from within, by folks who understand things like cosplay, fandom, alternate sexualities and religions, or the unique social dynamics behind activities like gaming, movie nights or conventions.

So, I decided to throw myself into the proverbial lion pit and create One Geek to Another. We're now in our third month of weekly columns and are available not only on my website, but also at Pen and Paper Games, the Ideology of Madness, and we'll be excerpted in issues of Big Iron Vault, a gamer lifestyle magazine. Reactions have been universally positive, and we couldn't be more pleased.

You attend a lot of conventions. How did you get into that and do you have advice for people attending for a first time?

My first convention ever was Orycon in Portland, Oregon, some *cough*fifteen*cough* years ago. I got a late start in joining the gaming/geek/sci-fi community, and often felt like a black sheep for having an interest in reading fantasy/cosplay (aka playing dressup)/medieval history/gaming/etc. as I was growing up — back when "geek" was an insult, rather than the reclaimed badge of honor it's become today. So stumbling across hundreds of people all gathered to celebrate those same "abnormalties" was like coming home — very similar to the first time I went to an SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) event.

For many years, I attended conventions like Orycon and Norwescon as an attendee. I played games, went to panels, stood in line for autographs, and came home with way too much geeky paraphernalia from the vendor's room, but I only contributed as a consumer. After I wrote my first novel for White Wolf, I organized a lot of book signings at bookstores and ended up being invited to act as a guest at some conventions. By this time we'd moved from the northwest to the northeast, so we attended LunaCon, Arisia, ConBust (at Smith College in Northampton, MA), and a lot of local conventions. Word gets around, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to more events, further away: UBCon in Buffalo, NY, Anime North and FanExpo in Toronto, and Connecticon in Hartford, among others. After we moved back west (this time to Arizona), some of the folks who'd had me out for northeast conventions wanted me to come back to speak on panels, run Q&A sessions, and generally act as a connection point between their con attendees and the gaming industry. It's a role I love to play. I'm still a gamer at heart, first and foremost, so the chance to chat and play with folks from all over the country — all over the world — is something I'm very grateful for.

Now that I'm in the southwest, I've had the opportunity to attend some great conventions out here too: RinCon in Tucson was fantastic in October, and I just came back from NeonCon in Las Vegas. Next month, there's a great little mini-con in Mesa — Game Dayz held at the Gamers Inn the first weekend of the month. It's always a lot of fun.

As far as advice for new convention goers — rest up beforehand. Come prepared with whatever food/drinks you'll need, or money to obtain them while you're there. Take care of yourself. A good standard is 5-2-1. Get at least five hours of sleep, two decent meals, and one shower (not negotiable!) every day!

And don't be shy. Conventions are a great opportunity to meet new friends, try new games, learn new things. Challenge yourself to break out of your habits. If you're a steadfast D&D fan, try playing a different RPG. If you've only played video games or tabletop, give a LARP a try. If you've only played Magic: The Gathering, try out a new board or card game. Sit in on a panel, then go up and talk to the people who spoke after they're done presenting. Walk around and ask questions about what's being played — you might just discover your next favorite game!

Conventions are full of opportunities to try new things. Most of the game sessions are one-shot (rather than part of an ongoing chronicle) and limited duration (between two and six hours in length). Most are designed either with pre-generated characters, so you can just sit down and play, or will take you through a fast character generation before game begins. And there are tons of demos — people come to the convention specifically to teach new folks how to play their favorite game. Sometimes you even get to play with the creator!

And, if you're interested in getting into the gaming industry, conventions can be an awesome opportunity. I wrote a 34-page .PDF product, Conventions for the Aspiring Game Professional, that addresses how to best use conventions and other face-to-face events as a way to put your best foot forward as an aspiring game professional — whether you're an artist, a writer or a game designer. It's available for download for $1.99 from Flames Rising, DriveThru RPG, Indie Press Revolution, and Paizo — wherever you prefer to get your electronic game materials from.

How do you fit in writing with your family life?

I'm really blessed to have a spouse and children who both understand and support my career. I couldn't ask for a better team to help me with my writing. They understand when I need to shut the door and get a project done, and they are always willing to help me brainstorm and throw ideas around. My youngest invented the symbol and part of the name for the Bodhisattvas of the Broken Cage from Lords of Summer. I was talking with my husband about what I was trying to create, and she chimed in with the idea of using a sigil that had a birdcage with a sprung door. My family has always been like that, supportive and creative and… well, they're just really amazing.

And, I have to say, the whole freelancing thing started for me because of my family. As much as I love writing and my career, my family comes first, and it's been great to be able to mold my projects and schedules around my family's needs as well. They put up with me working 12-14 hour days sometimes, but then there's other times when I can get away for a few days or even several weeks at a time, to concentrate on family stuff. My daughter's allergies were really bad last year, and she missed almost five weeks of school because of a horrible cough. No one had any idea what was causing it or how to stop it, and I felt very fortunate to have a job where I could work and still be there for her when she needed me, without trying to wrangle sick days or FMLA time off.

Do you have any advice for people wanting to break into the gaming industry?


I came into the industry knowing nothing about how it worked, and consequently made a plethora of mistakes or just wandered around in the dark for several years. I was fortunate enough to stumble across some helpful industry professionals, folks like Matt McFarland, Joe Carriker, Ethan Skemp, Chuck Wendig, Rich Dansky, and Ari Marmell who were willing to answer a newbie's questions and not laugh (too hard) at how little I knew. With their help (and the aid of more folks than I could ever list in one interview), I managed to get my footing and proceed without making too many career-destroying mistakes. But I remember how scary it was, to be fumbling around with no real idea of what was happening. Because of that, I've always tried to be accessible to aspiring game professionals, and to share what I've learned with them.

I'm always available to answer questions – folks can just drop me an email or catch me at a convention, and I'm happy to make time to chat with them. I'm also working on providing the answers to the most commonly asked questions (and most frequently made mistakes), both through One Geek to Another, through products like Conventions for the Aspiring Game Professional, and through interviews like this.

My short answer is: Do your research. Learn as much as you can about how the industry works. Figure out what you want to do, within that framework. Find out what the company(s) you want to work for are looking for, and provide that to them. Use all available resources (forums, panels, current game pros) and treat it like the business that it is, not just the next step in your recreational enjoyment of games.

Can you tell us a bit about Tinker's Damn and where it currently stands?

Tinker's Damn is a steampunk-themed, non-collectible card game that I've been working on as an independent project. It's still in the fine-tuning stage, but I'm hoping to finish working out all the details and have it ready for public consumption next year some time. I'm still debating self-publishing it, versus finding the right home for it with an established game company. There's pros and cons to both options, but my focus right now is on making it the best and most fun game it can be.

You have your hands in various types of writing related ventures from gaming to fiction to editing. Do you have a favorite and if so which is it?

I think that writing is a lot like cooking. You may have favorite dishes, but very few chefs want to make the same dish over and over every night. Each has its own pros and cons, and a good mixture keeps your hunger honed to keep taking on new projects. Gaming, for example, is a great opportunity to collaborate with other writers and creators, but it can be limiting because you're working in someone else's intellectual property. Original fiction gives you much more flexibility for creativity, but can be a little lonely if you're accustomed to working with a team and bouncing ideas around with other creative types. Editing is like the bread served between courses. It clears your palate and helps you learn how to make your own writing better by catching mistakes and thinking how to improve others' projects, but it lacks the sheer joy of creating that writing possesses. I'm very happy to be working on a plethora of projects right now, running the gamut from gaming to novel-length fiction to short stories.

Have you found that the state of our economy has affected the gaming industry and if so, how?

Oh, definitely. I think the current economic crunch is affecting the gaming industry on multiple levels, in some positive ways and some negative. More and more families and individuals are looking for ways to entertain themselves while getting the most bang for their buck. It's difficult to beat play-at-home games for that. Even the high-end RPGs or board games offer (literally) countless hours of enjoyment for a very low investment. For the cost of two hours of passive entertainment – say a pair of movie tickets and refreshments at a theater – you can buy just about any game out there and play it over and over with different groups of friends for years. Games are the affordable entertainment.

But that's not the only way the current economy is affecting the industry, of course. Many folks who were working day jobs and freelancing on the side are finding themselves unemployed and scrambling to make ends meet by adding in additional freelance work. Others are finding that their day jobs have become so demanding they don't have time or energy to freelance (or they've had to take a second full-time job, which leaves no time for freelancing). Some companies are farming out work that once belonged to in-house employees to freelancers, to keep expenses down. Some are even lowering freelance rates or benefits (reducing the number of copies an author receives of the books they've worked on) in order to try to lower overhead. More freelancers are looking towards the video game industry to try to make better income, and more companies are hiring new writers/artists because they'll usually work for less. Some freelancers have begun looking towards creating their own .PDF or POD (print on demand) products, to try to supplement their income, and some game companies (such as White Wolf) are also focusing their attention on those electronic avenues as the wave of the future.

There's lots of movement going on out there, and lots of ripples spreading across the industry as a whole. Where it will all be in a few years is hard to say.

What upcoming projects do you have?

I've got so many irons in the fire, I can't see the fire any longer! I promised myself that this year (fall to fall, since the new year starts after the convention season ends) would be the year I branched out. After several years of writing almost exclusively game content and almost exclusively for White Wolf, I'm spreading my wings and taking on some new challenges. I just worked on a game supplement project for Margaret Weis Productions, called Supernatural Adventures. It was very exciting to be a part of, in no small part because I'm such a big fan of the television show that the game is based on.

I've also been working with Lone Shark Games on some interesting projects. The one that released in October was for Old El Paso (yes, the Mexican food company) for their international "El Tacodor" promotion. After years of working mostly on things that only gamers see, it was kind of neat to be able to point out, "Hey, I did that!" to friends and family members who aren't gamers and have them have some clue what I was talking about.

As for current projects — well, some are under non-disclosure agreement, which means I have to be hush-hush about them. But I'm contributing an essay to The Bones, a book that Will Hindmarch is creating about gamers and their dice, and in the upcoming Family Games: The 100 Best by Green Ronin. I'm working on finding a home for my original novel, La Serenissima, and a short story based in the same world as the novel will be part of an upcoming anthology that should be out after the first of the year. I'm also doing some game-related fiction work and some indie supplemental work, but I can't really say more about that at this point. I think next year is going to be really interesting, and I can't wait til some of these projects start coming out.

And, of course, we've already talked about Tinker's Damn and One Geek To Another. Between those and the others I've mentioned, I'm staying pretty busy. But I'm always looking for new opportunities, so if you hear of something interesting — let me know.

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About Jennifer Williams