Who Says Women Can’t Make Games?– Meet Ariella Lehrer, CEO Legacy Games13 Dec 2014, Posted by Advice for Aspiring Producers, Children's Media, Expert Interviews, Game Design, Learning Science, Mobile App Development, Online Games, Videogames in
Ariella Lehrer is a 30-year veteran of the games business. As a female, she is a rarity and a much admired pioneer. She has founded and managed three companies, all of which were involved in the design, production, and marketing of interactive games. Currently she is the CEO of Legacy Games, which is based in Los Angeles, with development studios in Hungary and Poland. Legacy began 16 years ago making medical simulations like Emergency Room, graduated to adventure games such as Law & Order, which morphed into hidden object games like Murder, She Wrote. Currently, Legacy is focused on casual to mid-core mobile games. In her own words, “this business is a roller coaster, and we’ve had to zig and zag multiple times to stay relevant.”
- 1. You have been in the interactive industry for many years and yet you also have a PhD in cognitive psychology. Was it always your intention to be in gaming? How has your degree, if at all, aided you in pursuing your video game career?
I loved the study of cognitive psychology; my dissertation focused on how comprehension and memory varied depending on the medium – video, audio, text. I was also intrigued with computers (back in the Jurassic age when we analyzed research data on mainframes). I had absolutely no idea what to do with my graduate degree, other than I didn’t want to teach in academia. I thought my background might lend itself to designing educational software, and took advantage of a couple of lucky opportunities. First, Governor “Moonbeam” Jerry Brown had just left office, (the first time), and was starting an educational technology foundation. (He was always ahead of his time.) I presented myself as an expert who could help him write whitepapers. Of course I didn’t actually know anything about computers and schools, but back then, no one else did either. Second, I scored a meeting with Modie Katz, the then CEO of SoftKat, the first distributor of educational software (in zip lock bags, no less). I convinced him to hire me to evaluate products that he was considering for distribution. (I agreed to work for free for a few months, my ace in the hole.) From that, my educational technology consulting business was born. It took about five more years before I actually ventured into game development, with storied companies like Walt Disney and The Learning Company, and another five years after that when I left the children’s software category to focus more on games for women.
- 2. How did you get started in the interactive arena? Can you tell us about the early days of your career?
It’s almost painful to remember those days – lots of hard lessons. The first product I ever produced, Children’s Writing and Publishing Center, was a huge success, so much so that we almost immediately got involved in litigation with The Learning Company; they were unhappy with their contract, given the unexpectedly high royalties we were owed. The next product we made was Mickey’s Crossword Puzzle Maker. Of course, it was supposed to be called Disney’s Crossword Puzzle Maker, but someone at Disney decided that they should reposition a lovely little picture crossword puzzle maker for 6-10 year olds and instead, market it to preschoolers. After those two experiences, I thought it’s time to try publishing our own products. How hard could that be? Hmmm… Our first titles were Mutanoid Math and Word Challenge. Needless to say, while the gameplay was good, we were terrible at creating children’s characters. I cringe just thinking about it.
- 3. Did you always intend to be an entrepreneur? How did you decide to start your first company?
I never thought I was going to be a businesswoman. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the only professional women were teachers, nurses, and secretaries. I never took a business class in college. One of the main reasons I decided to not work for a big company was because I wanted more job flexibility. At the time, I had three young children at home (eventually four), and my husband, David, traveled quite a bit. I was willing to work long hours, and did, but wanted to set my own schedule. I borrowed from friends and family to start the business, and have been self-funded ever since.
- 4. You are one of very few women in the gaming industry. Why do you think there are so few women in gaming? What unique challenges, if any, do you face as a woman in gaming?
Unfortunately I am not surprised by the recent Gamersgate controversy, pitting women in the gaming business against a hostile group of male gamers. Women play lots of games on mobile devices. That is not true for consoles, however, which are the platform of choice for “core gamers.” Predominantly male, they prefer games that are often violent, multiplayer, competitive, and require lots of strategy and long play times. This divide in the games business has resulted in an ugly culture war that is profoundly discouraging to young women.
As an industry, we are not inclusive and way too arrogant and immature in our attitudes towards what makes a good game, in my opinion. We need to do a better job attracting women and minorities, especially now given how broad the audience is for mobile apps.
- 5. How has mobile and online gaming affected your business?
Legacy continues to sell casual games at retail, mostly hidden object compilations through Walmart, and while that business is stable at the moment, it is obvious that it won’t continue indefinitely. Both the retail and digital distribution of downloadable casual games is on the decline. As a result, Legacy is currently focused on mobile and touch games. We have had some success with match 3 physics games like Atlantis: Pearls of the Deep and continue to devote time and resources to mastering free to play game mechanics and game genres that dominate mobile.
- 6. How has the market for video games changed? Do you feel audience demands are different?
Each hardware platform attracts a different customer. Facebook gamers are more female and older than mobile gamers, for example. As the type of devices that one can play games on increases, the number and variety of gamers increases also. One of the areas that Legacy excels at is creating customized software games and apps for hardware with unique “form factors”. Specialized versions of our game are bundled with extra large tablets, specialized styluses, 3D cameras, etc. Each of these platforms attracts different kinds of customers and requires apps that show off the unique features of the hardware.
- 7. You have worked with many impressive licenses. What are the pluses and minuses of working with licensed properties?
I have always believed in creating games with licenses, especially in markets that are more mature and/or with “infinite” store shelves, like the itunes store. Discoverability is a huge problem, and licenses, especially those that can drive traffic from outside the app store, are hugely helpful. The minuses? It cost more, both because of the advances/royalties required and because it will add significant time and hassle to the development process. Apps that are story or character based particularly benefit from integrating a popular license. Legacy is currently pairing the Crayola license with a series of kids creativity apps, with good success.
- 8. What product or service have you seen lately that really excites you?
The HP Sprout is a great new hardware concept. It includes two screens (including a horizontal mat that is touch sensitive), a projector, Intel’s 3D camera, and most importantly, the ability to capture 3D images and turn them into objects that can be manipulated digitally.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to see where HP is taking this, considering the strategic importance of their 3D printer business.
- 9. What are you most proud of in terms of career accomplishment?
Two things. I love to mentor young people, and am very proud of the accomplishments of some former employees. (I won’t embarrass them by mentioning any names.) Second, I am proud of the Legacy titles over the years that have reached super sales status, e.g., Children’s Writing and Publishing Center, Emergency Room, Law & Order, Murder, She Wrote, Atlantis: Pearls of the Deep, and others.
- 10. What is the most surprising result you experienced in your career?
Legacy created a serious medical simulation, called Emergency Room, that came out the same month that the hit TV show, ER, also launched. We sold more than one million units of the game, which allowed the player to take the role of an ER doctor and realistically examine and treat 400 different patients. I then re-invested our sales revenue to acquire the ER TV license and create another type of simulation, more like The Sims than the Emergency Room game we made previously. You can guess what happened. We spent more than a million dollars creating the ER game, which for that type of complex simulation wasn’t nearly enough. The game failed at retail.
I learned that you shouldn’t shoot for the moon unless you have the expertise and resources to be successful.
- 11. What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career? Did it pay off? How and why or why not? What are some of the things you’ve learned about taking risks?
Legacy almost went bankrupt during the 2009 “Great Recession,” when the bank chose that inopportune moment to terminate our credit line. I had a choice of either funding payroll myself, or going out of business. My husband and I decided to put our retirement savings into Legacy, to keep us afloat long enough until the economy turned around. (Yes, my husband is a great guy.) Soon after, Legacy received money from the Department of Homeland Security to create a product, as part of the infamous Stimulus Bill. Legacy weathered the economic storm, barely, and was able to repay the debt with interest. Honestly, owning and running your own business is replete with risks. I don’t recommend it unless you have a strong stomach and can get by with little sleep. Plus the video game business in particular changes platforms and direction every 4-5 years, and you have to figure out how to stay in front of the trends.
- 12. We call this blog, Influences and Influencers, who are the people who have influenced you? Have you ever had a mentor? Can you tell us about him or her?
One of my big regrets is that I didn’t reach out to seek more help from knowledgeable people in the industry along the way. Would have saved me from making some big, rookie mistakes. I’ve only recently joined a peer consulting group (Vistage), and the networking and advice have been invaluable already. In terms of game industry mentors, I met Robert Wallace about five years ago. Bob is probably the most respected game business guru out there and has helped more game companies sell up and out than anyone I know. He thinks about the business in a highly disciplined way, patiently helping developers organize their internal processes while always focusing on quality and the big picture. Bob inspires me to be a better professional.
- 13. If an aspiring digital media or videogame producer came to you for career advice, what would you tell him/her in terms of building a career?
Take a long term perspective, focus on quality, and pay particular attention to your personal reputation. The game industry is still relatively small, and you might be surprised at how tightly knit it is.
- 14. If you could start all over again, what career would you pursue?
I love kids and count my four children and five grandchildren as my biggest achievement (to the extent I can take any credit). I would do something with kids…but not sure what.
Authors Note: In August 2014, PBS reported that adult female gamers have unseated boys under the age of 18 as the largest video game-playing demographic in the US. This growth is largely attributed to smartphone adoption. Furthermore, “[Many] women who previously only gamed with their families are now embracing gaming as an individual leisure activity as well,” Nielsen analyst Nicole Pike explained to The Wall Street Journal.”