For the Love of All Games: How Catherine Herdlick Broke Into the Industry

By Jill Duffy [09.04.07]

 Catherine Herdlick has one of the biggest smiles I encountered all summer. She's downright cheery with sky blue eyes and high cheeks, certainly not what I expected from a director of production at the busy casual game development studio Gamelab. Before we met, I imagined her having the austere manner of a sergeant, someone who dresses in dark gray and has heavy glasses that slide down her nose. Needless to say, I was completely unprepared for her peppy greeting when we met at Gamelab's New York office.

Herdlick is the director of game production at Gamelab, best known for its PC title Diner Dash. She's been in the industry a little more than four years and is credited on several Gamelab titles, including Egg vs. Chicken and Shopmania, among many others. What's unique about Herdlick is how widely she embraces all kinds of games, from children's museum displays to interactive walking tours (see the sidebar at the end of this article for a complete list of titles and side projects she's worked on). It's her open perception of games that helped her break into the industry. How did you initially break into the game industry?

 Catherine Herdlick: I initially broke into the game industry by getting an internship at Gamelab through an instructor I had at graduate school at Parsons School of Design.

GCG: What kind of internship where you looking for?

CH: I was working on my master's thesis for a show. Literally the night that we put up the show, a former instructor of mine from a game design class at Parsons posted to our student mailing list that Gamelab was looking for a programming intern that summer, and I didn't have anything lined up. I applied for it, and I went there, and I started the next day.

GCG: How did you go from getting that internship to getting a job?

CH: I went from that internship to getting a job because, well, I didn't exceed expectations as a programmer, but I made myself useful in other ways! I noticed development holes at the company, and I filled them and did a good job. I sort of created a space for myself at the company.

GCG: You became an intern at the end of your master's program, and then you worked as an intern through the summer. And then you were hired on at the end of the internship?

CH: I was hired on after about six months. It was pretty much the new year: January 2004. I spend three months as a programmer. We didn't have any new projects yet, but we had projects planned for the next year and knew we were going to need project management and production, which is kind of used interchangeably at Gamelab because we don't have a tiered system. There's no executive producer, associate producer, project manager.

For the next three months, I did something else. I was sort of project managing a potential new project, but it wasn't in development so it was kind of like training. I was also working on some game design in some other consulting projects I had.

GCG: You said you stepped in and filled holes. Can you give one or two examples of things you did?

CH: For instance, we would be in a design meeting and notes needed to be taken and consolidated. Somebody needed to follow up and make sure that decisions that were made in the meeting were being followed through on [and I did that]. That was probably the biggest one.

When new people came on, I would be friendly and outgoing. I guess just being generally outgoing was also something. Being energetic helped.

GCG: Tell us a little more about your educational background. For your master's you said you went to Parsons. Can you tell us what you did before that and a little more about what your master's degree was in specifically?

CH: I went straight from high school to college. I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I got a basic liberal arts education, which I'm actually a huge advocate of.

A lot of people at Gamelab have undergraduate degrees from liberal arts concentrations, which is sort of curious and interesting. I got a BA in this major particular to Wesleyan called College of Letters, which I generally say translates to general humanities. It's Western history of literature, and philosophy, focusing on a foreign language. My foreign language was Spanish, and I spent a semester in Madrid. I wrote a senior thesis that was a play, which is not unlike games: it's interactive and creative. I wrote a play based on Spanish history and The Odyssey -- and it was before O Brother, Where Art Thou?

GCG: Then you went to Parson's?

CH: Then I spent a year working at the Children's Museum in Boston doing education programs and community outreach.

Then I went to Parson's School of Design in 2001 to 2003. I did an MFA in design and technology. I graduated from there. Actually, while I was at Parson's, I worked at the Brooklyn Children's Museum and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

When I was working at Gamelab, for a long time I was more of a "perma-lancer," working freelance more permanently but not full-time because there wasn't a full plate of projects to keep me busy. I worked for a period of time with MaMaMedia, too, which is a children's interactive consulting group. I also worked with New School University for a period of time. In my old department by doing crossover work with the Parsons Institute of Image Mapping to create a game for the last election about voter statistics. I was brought on to help with game design and project management.

GCG: Even before you were really making games, it sounds like you were doing a lot with technology and interactive media and things like that. Have you had any other unrelated jobs or quirky jobs?

 CH: I was a babysitter for a long time. I was a waitress. I worked at a movie theater when I lived in Boston because I wasn't earning enough money and needed some supplemental income.

GCG: Is there anything you can take from those part-time jobs that you can use now, like a skill or a way of being around people?

CH: I did definitely! With babysitting, I love spending time around kids because they're uninhibited. They're excellent feedback systems. They're just raw feedback about whatever's happening whether it's good or bad.

It depends on how young they are, but I was with very little kids. It sort of makes you spontaneous, which I think is really important in the workplace, particularly as a role as a producer. Things are popping up all the time, like fires to put out.

GCG: What's the best thing about being in a producer-type role?

CH: One is working with all the different people and making sure the people are communicating with each other.My two favorite things are talking with the people and knowing everything that's going on. Having an intimate understanding of the audio and the visual and the game design and how the programming is working out -- is it robust or buggy? Is the programmer having problems? Having a read of the pulse of everything that's going on in development at any given time.


Also, not just knowing it, but using it to make sure everybody else who needs to know something knows it. You need to make sure people are talking to each other and that there aren't any gaps in communication.

The reason I like that is because when I do that effectively, work is more efficient and people are happier. I like that aspect of being responsible for knowing the status of everything on the project at any given moment and using that to prevent problems.

GCG: This may be a bit of an over-inflated stereotype, but is it a control issue?

CH: Well, I definitely have a controlling personality! (laughs) That's no secret.

It's great to have an outlet for it in my career where it's productive instead of trying to control my friends or other things in my life that I cannot control.

It's also been a challenge. One of the reasons I am really liking agile development is learning to feel comfortable with a certain amount of chaos and understanding that that's a part of it, an important part of it. I've gotten better at that over the years, too, understanding that I can't control everything.

GCG: What's the worst part about being a producer?

CH: The worst part about being a producer is kind of related to the control issue. Part of control is wanting everybody to agree a lot of the time, and wanting to diffuse every situation. Hearing every one's opinions about something, particularly management or a publisher's concerns, or when we get to that point, the portal's concerns about the game, and distilling -- knowing that somebody's going to be disappointed. Either the team is going to have to do a lot of work, or you have to say no to the publisher. The communicating is fun, but also really really stressful.

Sometimes a compromise is worse than your way or their way. Dealing with things like that is the worst part.

The other worst part is dealing with turnover. Any time there's turnover, be it in a publisher, in the team, a feature, in the design, it just ends up always being really stressful and disruptive.

GCG: Who do you interact with the most?

CH: Probably the game designer. It depends on the project and also the phase of the project. Sometimes it's the publisher, and sometimes it's constant conversations with the publisher, particularly during beta to gold. You're discussing what can be done in the time remaining. And asking them for our check!

A lot of the time I'm communicating with the publisher when I'm not directly communicating with the publisher. Between deliveries, I keep a running tally of things I want to make sure I include in the release notes. I'm basically in mind communicating with them all the time.

GCG: What are the release notes?

 CH: In every delivery to the publisher, I'll include a list of the things that have changed since the last time they saw a build of the game. Sometimes this includes, to greater and lesser degrees of detail, a summary of which art is final or semi-final. The most important things are new features usually, and a list of questions for them to answer. When I write the release notes, I also include a list of questions.

I always propose a time to talk on the phone to discuss it so that it won't get to the deadline before we can consolidate that feedback. If it's a delivery for approval, I like to remind them that it's a delivery for approval and that we need to know within a week and that we're going to be sending an invoice.

GCG: A producer I know once told me once that producers work the least amount of overtime, but a good producer will work the overtime with her team.

CH: That's probably true. Before we did agile development, I worked -- and this is a control thing! -- I worked more, and I had more to do in terms of "I'm going to crunch tonight and do it." Not always, but I would think, "I have to rewrite the whole schedule. I have to rewrite everybody's tasks for the next four weeks and outline it in great detail." Now we do it as a team and it's more distributed over the day. Each day I have to work a certain number of hours.

To think of myself now versus four years ago, I spent some time in the office slacking off, and I spend no time doing that anymore. I mean, literally none. I'm here and I'm working. I'm exhausted when I go home, but I do tend to not work very much overtime.

But it is imperative that if the team is staying really late that you be there, that you can't have them stay late and they say, "Good night! It's six o'clock, so see you in the morning!" and they're still there in their pajamas with scraps of food everywhere. If they're working late, you have to stay with them. Sometimes that means I am just hanging out reading the news, but usually I'll just tweak around with my release notes.

GCG: What advice do you have for people who want to get into the game industry specifically in production?

CH: When I was at Parsons, I did do a lot of team projects and often did find myself, looking back now, in what was considered the producer role -- coordinating the team, reminding people of deadlines, keeping everything together. Sometimes I'd also have another role too, like designer, or programmer.

I think if someone wants to get into the game industry, generally they should be making games, even if they are paper games -- they don't need to be digital. I do the Come Out & Play street festival --

GCG: -- What is that?

CH: It's a festival for street games. We had the first one last year. Greg Trefry is the executive director of it. He and myself and two other guys put it together last year. It's over the whole weekend. It's games played in public space all around New York City. We're actually doing it in Amsterdam, too.

The games use cell phones or flicker tagging, and some of them include no technology at all, like hide-and-seek or something. That's an example of thinking of a pretty low-tech solution to whet your appetite in game design.

If you want to be in a producer role, it's incredibly important to understand at least in an amateur way game design, visual design, and programming. It's virtually impossible, I think, to manage a team of those people with out it.

In music, unfortunately, everybody is a little bit less knowledgeable in explaining themselves about audio, but you have to be able to deliver critical and constructive feedback about all of those things.
For production, understanding general principles of each of those things, not necessarily mastering each one, but just sort of understanding that if you are going to master one, master game design.

The most important thing is to practice good organizational skills, which can be done. Since high school, I've written out my tasks for the evening, and then for the week, and I put in parentheses how long they'll take me. I do like a time estimate. (laughs)

GCG: For stuff like that, it sounds like it's already part of you and that's why you're attracted to production. It's kind of hard to decided today's the day I'm going to be an organized person if you're not already.

CH: There's also an element of embracing parts of your personality that you might not be proud of. The control thing is an example.

GCG: What's something you wish you had known before you got into the game industry?

CH: It would have been nice -- this might sound petty -- but the industry has one of the greater imbalances in compensation between males and females. I guess it would have been nice to know that ahead of time.

GCG: Are you talking about salary?

CH: Yeah, salary. It's different at Gamelab because we're so small we don't have tons of money to pay anybody very much money.

Also, in our niche of the industry, you have to be very sensitive about PC things.

GCG: By PC you mean politically correct and not PC as in a platform, right?

 CH: Yes. For instance with Diner Dash, there were several people who thought we were being racist because the black business woman, the successful black business woman who leaves big tips, is impatient. The response was, "You're saying all black people are impatient," and we felt like that's wasn't it at all; we were trying to include a black character and not have all white people. Things like that.

I guess it shouldn't have come as a surprise but it did. I went to a school that was obsessed with political correctness that I definitely didn't expect to continue to think about political correctness. In the gaming industry, the attitude seems like it is "Whatever! We'll do whatever we want!" But I guess it's a changing trend in the industry.

GCG: What games are you playing now?

CH: I'm actually not playing a ton of games right now because I don't have very much time. I'm playing Guitar Hero II --

GCG: -- In the office?

CH: No at home. And we've been playing kickball, which is not at all a digital game!

Interview by Jill Duffy
All screenshots courtesy of Gamelab

Catherine Herdlick's Game Credits

Games credited with Gamelab
 Egg vs. Chicken, PC casual published by PlayFirst
Shopmania, a PC casual game published by iWin
Subway Scramble, PC downloadable casual title published by PlayFirst
Worldbuilder 2, an online game and sequel to WorldBuilder for LEGO
Ayiti: The Cost of Life, an online game developed in cooperation with Global Kids and South Shore High School in Canarsie, Brooklyn
Out of Your Mind, PC casual created in collaboration with Curious Pictures
Downbeat, published by VH1 Games
Gangs of GDC

Other games and projects
 Lawn Games for Life (ARG), Game Designer
Come Out & Play (Festival), Co-Founder and Volunteer Coordinator
Bike Friendly City (Street Game), Game Designer
Cripplebush Ghost Tour (Interactive Walking Tour), Experience Designer
Case of the Coveted Bottle (ARG), Game Designer
Cirque This! (Circus), Performer

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