The Trials of Games Journalism and Indie Development: An Interview with Eline Muijres
Hailing from the low lands of the Netherlands, Eline Muijres has been one-third of indie studio Game Oven since 2013 until its recent closure this past April. She then went on to help get strategy game Interloper from Monogon Games ready for release, taking care of promotional and localization duties.
I had the opportunity to talk with Eline about her humble career as a video games journalist, an independent game developer, and now, a communications manager at the Dutch Game Garden.
How was your experience working as part of Game Oven, and how different was the development process like for the first game compared with the last game you worked on at Game Oven?
Game Oven was my first real full-time experience working in a game studio. The first game I worked on was technically Friendstrap, but that was more of a small silly experiment, so I count Bounden as my first game. Bounden wasn't a standard game development process by any means, I've learned. Game Oven consisted of 3 people (designer, developer, and me), but there were so many more people involved: 2D and 3D artists, an additional programmer, a composer, a filmmaker, and the Dutch National Ballet (choreographer, 8 dancers, and a marketing team). Bounden was very clearly an experimental art game, and we worked hard to figure out how to make people dance, and how to make the game fun as well. We made some making-of videos to share the unique development process with the world. I think it was a wonderful project to work on, and it taught me a lot about design and marketing.
Jelly Reef was the last game I worked on at Game Oven, and it was completely different. While Bounden had a very clear vision from the start, we struggled with Jelly Reef's vision in the beginning, not knowing what to focus on. The game was more like a game (instead of being so weird and experimental), our team was smaller, and roles were changed as well. I did a lot more production-related work, and our developer now did a huge chunk of design as well. There was a lot of pressure during the project, and it definitely wasn't easy working on it in the last months when we knew the studio would close down, but I'm still very proud of what we made. I worked more closely with the developer and the artist, and I felt I had a larger influence on the actual design, which was very motivating.
You've labeled your areas of work as "production, PR, and marketing."
Are multiple areas of expertise a necessity for independent developers, or did you grow up knowing you wanted to work in more than one area?
I definitely didn't know what I wanted to do when I was younger! I'd say it depends on the size of your company. Of course, when you're in a team of just 3 people, nobody ends up doing just one thing. I think most developers would love to just focus on making games instead of all the things around it, such as selling it and running a company. That was why I joined Game Oven. I'd take care of marketing, PR, localization, writing applications, finances, production stuff, and more. The thing is, indie developers usually don't have money to hire someone who does that, and even if they could hire someone, they'd rather have an additional programmer or artist first. So in that way, most indies are forced to do all these things besides designing their game. Personally, I enjoy doing a lot of different things. If I would work at a big company, my role would be a lot more specific: I would only do community management, for example.
Did video games journalism play a role in your growth?
I've actually worked in video games journalism for a while as a freelancer. For me personally, it definitely helped in getting to know a lot of people in the industry; I pretty much went to every event I could go to. Gradually, I found out I was more interested in game development instead of reviewing games, and after getting my master's degree in New Media & Digital Culture, I wanted to get a job at a games studio.
How important was your master's degree in getting a job at a game studio?
I don't think my degree had much influence. At university you learn how to be a researcher, and learn about games as a cultural medium. I think what mattered is what I did besides that: going to events, getting to know the people in the industry, writing about games, etc.
What do you think game studios look for in prospective employees?
When I see job applications, I look for experience - of course, depending on the role (hard skills are important). If someone has a degree but has no experience, that doesn't tell me much about the person. It's a lot better if the person makes games in his spare time, joins game jams, and writes about games, whatever it is.
What does video games journalism mean to you as a professional in the video gaming industry?
From an indie developer's perspective, I think video games journalism is getting less relevant. An article doesn't have any impact on game sales; I think the focus has shifted to YouTubers and livestreamers. It's easier for the player to get an impression of the game that way. Of course, emotionally it's still pretty awesome to read someone's experiences about your game! I've had very interesting conversations with journalists who were critical of my game - you learn a lot from them that way.
Do you think it is a good or a bad thing that people are reading less and watching more?
I wouldn't say it's good or bad. I guess it also depends on your game - some games are really suitable for videos, and that's great. Other games require more analysis or a different kind of attention. I personally don't read reviews, but I really enjoy reading interviews, or articles on the industry or wider trends.
Do you see online videos becoming an over-saturated market, similar to articles now?
Videos are already becoming over-saturated, but I'd like to see more diversity in streamers and the kinds of games they play. All you see now is Minecraft, League of Legends, and GTA, and streamers are usually white guys trying to be funny. It's hard to find channels that cover indie games, but I guess that's not what the average viewer is interested in.
How important are institutions like Dutch Game Garden (DGG) to independent developers, and how has it influenced the Dutch, as well as international, gaming industry?
DGG has had a huge impact on the Dutch games industry. Before DGG existed, we had a game industry with no major publishers, one major studio (Guerilla), and pretty much no indie developers. With the DGG, together with the start of game development courses at Dutch universities, grant offers to encourage development, and of course, the rise of self-publishing, that all changed. Now, the Dutch games industry has a central hub and a lively indie scene. The indie studios in the DGG incubation program have benefitted from the business skills, advice, and support that DGG offers, but also from each other. Some of those indies became very successful as well - think of studios like Vlambeer, Ronimo Games, and Abbey Games. DGG is also in this weird space between developers, educational institutions, the government, and other industries looking to collaborate with game studios. DGG connects these industries together, organizes events, and makes the games industry more visible.
How does your current role at Dutch Game Garden differ from your previous roles?
It's pretty different! At DGG, I'm not focused on making games, but rather on supporting the developers in our building. It's a busy job, but I get a lot of energy from organizing events, contacting people, and helping people out.
Are there any upcoming projects of note you are currently involved in?
Right now, I do work at DGG 3 days a week, and I plan to do some other projects the remaining days of the week. Or teach myself some new skills, which could be fun as well!
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.