In Bustle’s Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice – from the best guidance they’ve ever gotten to what they’re still figuring out. Here, game developer Sally Blake talks about the games that shaped her, standing your ground in the industry, and becoming the CEO of her own company.
For Sally Blake, gaming is in the blood. Her mum was given a Sega Mega Drive as a wedding present and she and her brothers spent many hours in their childhood getting to grips with the classic, three-button control pads. More consoles would follow, but it was the N64 that Blake credits for her gaming passions. “When I played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on that console, I was just so blown away by it,” she tells me via Zoom. “I thought to myself, ‘I think this is what I want to do.’ And then I started writing my own game narratives and designing characters.”
When Blake first attended school, a career in game development wasn’t really a thing yet. With no set path to follow, she “studied anything vaguely related to gaming in any way,” which eventually lead to a degree in Computer Animation. While studying at uni, Blake worked a volunteer role as a playtester for Team17, the developer behind the Worms series. This job gave her the experience needed to land a job at Ubisoft as a Quality Assurance Tester on the Just Dance and Watchdog franchises before moving into production and development.
Now CEO of her own development company Silent Games and founder of advice and support group Women Making Games, Blake also has her first game on the way (more on that later). Below, she shares the best (and worst) career advice she’s received, what it means to be a developer, and how women can carve out their own space in this industry.
When did you start your own development company, Silent Games?
I was at Ubisoft for six years, and I was about to go on to a sequel when I thought to myself, “I think it’s time for something new.” My goal since I was little was always to make my own games and to have my own studio, so I just felt like I knew at the time actually to do it. Being in the game industry beforehand helped me with budgeting and things like that, which I had done a bit since I was a producer.
What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I’ve had a lot of help from people in the industry over the years. There’s a Slack channel for the UK game industry, and everyone on there is accommodating. The best way to learn is to have no shame and ask everyone as many questions as possible. I think that knowledge would have helped me initially, and gaining that knowledge was really helpful. That gives confidence to investors that you can actually execute your idea, which is part of the pitching process.
What’s the proudest moment in your career so far?
I’ve had some really big “pinch me” moments in my career so far, like going to E3 for the first time to represent my work. I watched it when I was a teenager with my little brothers, so having the opportunity to go is what I really dreamed of doing. Getting the investment for our studio from Amplifier Game Invest was also a major achievement, which meant we could hire many people to work with. To get that long term investment was amazing.
Does being a developer put you off playing games in your spare time, or does it enhance your experience as a player?
I still play! I know some other developers that don't and say, “please go outside and touch grass”, which is fine; everyone's got their different interests. But gaming has always been my number one passion. I've been playing Mass Effect recently; it’s the first time I’ve played it. People love Pokemon Snap at the moment, which is such a chill game. I’m playing World of Warcraft Classic as well with my friends.
I do have other hobbies. I like cooking and I’m studying Japanese... But gaming is still number one.
Has lockdown affected that in the past year? Have you played some games that you didn’t think you’d play?
I think so. I normally play single-player titles, but I've been playing more online with friends – especially on Animal Crossing. It was amazing to meet up with your friends in their towns during lockdown. I've also been maintaining relationships online by talking to my friends on Discord – we’ve been playing loads of games together.
You’re also the founder of Women Making Games. What’s been your experience as a woman working in the industry?
It really depends on where you are, what strategy or project you’re on and who your teammates are. Whenever I raised topics regarding diversity a decade ago, I'd have tricky moments. It was definitely met with disdain rather than acceptance. That’s why I found Women Making Games, which gives newcomers a platform to seek advice and support. There are people in our group who’ve been around like myself who can bring that mentorship, which I think helps keep people in the industry.
What else do you think needs to be done for the industry to change?
Having women in senior leadership positions helps. Just having that role model who understands what you’ve been through is extremely beneficial. Ultimately, it’s that feeling of being treated like everybody else – you don’t want anything more than that. I’ve seen that change and have found it easier over the years, especially since I’ve found my place in the industry, so I’m confident about being here. I’m not really bothered by what people say anymore, and I think gaining that confidence can really help as well. I would definitely encourage women that there are places for them in the industry.
What advice would you have for young female developers trying to break into the industry?
I would say it's essential to find what your passion is. You can be an audio designer, a writer... you could be basically anything. The initial hurdle is figuring out where you fit in and where your skills are. My advice would be to talk to people in the industry if you can or look at all the various job roles available and see which ones fit you best. That's something I would have benefited from because my skill set was probably too broad at the start. It's good for people to figure that out early if they can.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
If people criticise you, you can take what you want from that. Their opinion of you doesn't need to change who you are or what you're doing, and you can take the information that you think is relevant or useful and discard the rest. And if people are bitter about your success, it says more about them than you. So it's very much learning to stand your ground, be confident in your choices, and listen to feedback if you think it's useful.
And the worst?
I've worked in companies where overtime is a big thing and people think that if we crunch the game [get it developed as quickly as possible], it'll be better for it. I don't think that's good advice because people will obviously be tired and won’t perform their best when they're overworked. But the tide is turning on that kind of thing, thankfully, because it's not a good path to go down.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.