Thriving in CapNY: Women in Digital Gaming

Women in Digital Gaming
CapNY offers a level up for those looking to break into the gaming space. Jobs in game design, character development, software, and so much more are plentiful with 24 studios (7 large, 17 indie) calling the region home.

An Industry BOOMING

Many have produced games of our childhoods such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as well as present day digital escapes like Cooking Mama. At present, CapNY is home for more than 500 employees in the gaming industry from large, developed studios like Blizzard Entertainment to smaller, indie studios like Dang! Studios.

The education needed for many of these roles can be earned at one of several CapNY schools. Specifically, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute –ranked 7th Best Undergraduate Game Design Program by U.S. News & World Report– offers up to a Ph.D in critical game design, among many other programs. The University at Albany launched a video game design program in 2021, shortly following the launch of its increasingly popular eSports program launched in 2019. 

We caught up with five women who are making their mark in the CapNY digital gaming world to discuss their paths, favorite CapNY spots, and what they love about working in the gaming field. From the moment an idea for the game gets going to the time it’s launched in stores, there are so many moving parts and years of expertise that go into every game out there. These ladies shared more about what they do as well as what advice they have to others looking to break into the industry.

Millie Harris, Technical and VFX Artist at Aestronauts and RPI student

Millie Harris

Hometown: Barrington, RI
Currently Lives In: Troy 
Favorite CapNY activity: Troy Waterfront Farmers Market

Harris has always loved gaming and art. She wondered, when it was time to start looking at colleges, if it might be possible to pursue both. She found RPI and then saw it was.

“I met all the people here. I knew that this was definitely the right fit for me and they have a really, really amazing game development program as well,” she said.

As part of her studies, she and several other students got to work on Aestronauts, now a small game development studio, through the STEAM garden program. Since it’s a small shop, she has to pitch in everywhere but her focus is digital sculpting, which uses software to push, pinch, shape a digital object to its desired look. Talk about a perfect match of technology and art!

“I take those sculpted models and I get them game ready, and then I create rigs for them so that our animator can bring the characters to life,” she said. “I feel like I can kind of touch on a bunch of different aspects of development and not just stick in one pillar or another, I can kind of reach into the art world a little bit and also like the technical programming world which is my favorite thing about being a technical artist.”

The gaming world is still a male-dominated industry; Harris notes she is often one of a few women in her classes. But, finding those other female classmates and creating a supportive environment has been incredible, she says.

Kathryn Ruiz, Founder, Lead Artist, Designer, Director and Producer of Eco Resilience Games and RPI Associate Professor

Kathryn Ruiz

Currently lives in Glenmont, NY; studio in the Catskills
Favorite CapNY activity: Hiking, biking along the water–particularly the Hudson

Eco Resilience Games combines science, technology, and art to raise awareness about the condition and health of our water supply through immersive worlds to raise awareness for how to protect our real world. 

Ruiz worked on some of the first virtual reality programs in the 90s and it started her on a path to become a game creator and educator.

“I saw that I could express what I wanted to express through virtual, audio, and spatial ways using virtual reality. And gaming then began picking up speed and began commenting on our culture and I was hooked.”

Now, she teaches several courses in RPI’s Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program and encourages her students to create games that contribute to the greater good and perhaps shy away from often violent or graphic games. She does this in a course called Games & Guts which challenges her students to create games outside of the gore realm. 

Just like her most recent launch, Algae Bloom Dynamics, a game focused on the magnitude Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) have in freshwater around the world. The game enables users to experience a clear-water lake that begins to have inputs of phosphorus from human activities. As this continues, underwater clarity will decline as the non-harmful algae begin to make the water green. The user must then make a plan to restore the water quality.

“We use our technology and design to show people what can happen to our world,” she said.

Steph Relyea, Producer, Blizzard Entertainment

Steph Relyea, Producer, Blizzard Entertainment

Hometown: Plattsburgh, NY
Currently lives: Troy
Favorite CapNY activity – Whitewater rafting in the North Country, more locally – exploring downtown Troy

Relyea has always enjoyed gaming, but it was a spur-of-the-moment decision that started her journey to working behind-the scenes. She spotted an opening for a QA test at then-Vicarious Visions (now Blizzard Entertainment) and she went for it. It was a great learning experience, she said. In that role, she tested the games for function and overall experience.

After leaving the industry for a few years, she returned as a tools tester which helped her become a specialist in the software. Through the studio’s mentorship program and combined with her years of experience in the service industry, production seemed like a great fit.

“I have learned so much, I have challenged myself so much along the way, I love to learn and overcome new things,” she said. “As hard as it is, putting yourself out there is the key. All it takes is one person to give you a chance and it can change your whole path.” 

Day-to-day, she helps manage the teams and people that create games like Tony Hawk Proskater, Diablo IV, and Destiny. In a way, things have come around again now she’s mentoring those who were in her shoes at the start of her gaming career. Production roles can be a lot of juggling many moving parts and a key piece of success is making sure you don’t take on too much, she said. 

“If I can’t take something on and complete it without being stretched thin, I’m not going to do it. But that was one of the hardest things to learn, saying no when you’re at your max,” she said.

Adrienne Lange, 3D Character Artist, Blizzard Entertainment

Adrienne Lange, 3D Character Artist, Blizzard Entertainment

Home state: Connecticut 
Currently lives: Colonie
Favorite CapNY activity – Indoor rock climbing and the Troy or Colonie Farmers Market

Lange was always an art lover but initially pursued a career as a behavioral therapist. Eventually, she felt a pull to pursue a more creative job. She taught herself the nuance of game design and technique to build on her natural artistic ability. 

“I did online courses, YouTube, and built up my portfolio,” she said. She then began applying to game design jobs and landed at Blizzard Entertainment. 

Now, she creates the monsters, animals, creatures, and people that are a core piece of a game. She has to make sure they look how they should before they move on to animators to start moving. 

“There is a lot of collaboration and working together so you have to enjoy those things in addition to being a creative person,” she said. “But yes, it is very, very exciting to see something you’ve created walking around and talking in a virtual setting. Exciting not only personally, but because it often represents a lot of people’s work.”

Being the creative mind behind many characters, including some in Diablo II, is a particularly rewarding career highlight for Lange. “I grew up watching my dad and eventually playing Diablo myself,” she said. “For me to be working on another game in the series is a truly full circle moment.”

Muse en Lystrala, Executive Director/Lead Composer Queenship Game Studio

Muse en Lystrala, Executive Director/Lead Composer, Queenship Game Studio

Hometown: Providence, Rhode Island
Favorite CapNY based activity: I love hiking in the Catskills and High Peaks and getting burgers or garbage plates after!

As Queenship’s founder and a small company owner, she wears a lot of hats. As lead composer, she composes and records all the musical and sound assets for Queenship’s games. Juggling all these things –even with help- sounds exhausting, but she makes sure her employees take care of themselves. It’s perfectly on brand too, as Queenship’s games focus on mental health and management.

“I love that each day is different. One day I may be working on marketing tasks, the next composing music, the next writing narrative,” she said. “And as a person who suffers from chronic illness, I am very much a fan of the “work smart, not hard” school of thought, and doing this permits me to do just that.”

Coupling her love of music and gaming became a viable career option while she was studying at SUNY Schenectady. She started a chamber ensemble called Geek Musica, a classical group that performs video game and film music. A couple of years in, she started doing game jams at the Tech Valley Game Space. 

“After a year and a half or so of digging into the guts of game development, I realized that I had a good set of skills to either work in game development or to start my own company,” she said. Queenship was accepted to RPI’s Level Upstate accelerator program in summer of 2019, when the company also got its first investment and they have launched two games, and a third is very close!

Starting her own company means she’s not only the lead creative person but the human resources department, marketing, finance, and so much more. She has learned every aspect of what goes into a game as well as valuable workplace lessons.

“The best advice I can offer other women/femmes/femme-presenting people is this: prepare to be on your own, at least for awhile. It’s harsh, but it’s true. Seek out and befriend other women/femmes/femme-presenting people in games to learn from, to be mentored by, and to assist when you’ve started doing well. Develop new and existing skills by reading, watching YouTube tutorials, or investing in continuing education at your university or via an online platform like Coursera.

You’ll need to know a lot, and you won’t always be able to count on the big players to give you the information you need or want. Join Discord servers that aim to promote marginalized people, like Game Dev Galaxy or POC in Play. You’ll find people who have struggled to get to where you want to go and want to help you succeed.”

Written by: Lauren Mineau

Lauren Mineau is a marketing and communications professional with a passion for highlighting the places, spaces, and people that make upstate New York a great place to be. Her experience in local news, B2B marketing, and higher education, ignited her passion for telling stories of things people are curious about. In her spare time, you can find her searching for the perfect iced coffee, juggling five craft projects at a time, or cracking the perfect pun.