The pandemic, for all its devastation, has been great for the videogame industry. More people stuck at home has meant more gamers: Videogame spending in the U.S. was up 30% between April and June year over year, according to the NPD Group, a market-research firm.
It would seem like a great time to launch an ambitious new game—except for the fact that the countless engineers, coders, artists, publishers and marketers needed to put one out are also marooned at home. This and other pandemic-related hurdles threatened to compromise the June release of “Valorant,” a team-based tactical shooter game seven years in the making by Riot Games, a Los Angeles-based subsidiary of
a Chinese conglomerate. Yet the game got out on schedule, and to great acclaim, largely thanks to Anna Donlon, its executive producer. Her job is to keep all the developers, engineers and designers in sync, on track and under budget.
“Trying to organize hundreds of people toward this massive thing that’s going to launch globally on the same day during a pandemic—I don’t know that any of us knew that it was possible,” says Ms. Donlon, 46, over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I think most people would’ve bet against us, honestly.”
In team-based internet gaming, players from around the world come together to fight foes in fully realized virtual universes. The work that goes into confecting these landscapes can be staggering. At Riot Games, a company best known for “League of Legends,” a decade-old computer game that remains popular, Ms. Donlon sets the course for around 150 developers.
To make sure everything is humming along smoothly, Ms. Donlon used to rely on strolls through the open-plan office to “feel the energy.” She could usually sense when there was a problem, she says, and she solved most issues by getting people in a room together. But with everyone working remotely since March, she could no longer tap people on the shoulder to check the status of new character designs or the latest bug fixes. Whiteboard sessions over how to address user complaints became long, exhausting teleconferences with few body-language cues. With most recording studios shut down, getting voice-overs for characters in every language in time for launch proved impossible.
‘I learned a lot about leadership during this pandemic.’
“It forced me to really think about how to stay connected with my team without having over 150 calls a week,” she says. “I learned a lot about leadership during this pandemic.” Ms. Donlon discovered early in the lockdown that the best way to update her staff on the state of the game was through a weekly video. To liven up these broadcasts for her Zoom-fatigued colleagues, she spliced in segments of her making layer cakes and banana-cream pies, sometimes with help from her two children, who are 7 and 10. “To relieve stress, I like to bake,” Ms. Donlon explains. Her staff took to these homespun primers, and many began posting photos of their own creations. “Without those videos, I think the team would’ve struggled to feel connected to our work, connected to our colleagues,” says Dave Heironymus, technical director for “Valorant.”
In an industry renowned for its sexism, Ms. Donlon is something of a rarity. Her career, she says, has been a surprise. She loved playing videogames growing up, but she sensed that her passion was somehow less “acceptable” for girls than for boys. She got back into gaming when she went to college at California State University, Northridge, but never saw a future in the industry. Her plan, instead, was to write novels in a cabin in the woods—“with cozy sweaters and a fireplace,” she recalls with a chuckle.
Everything changed, Ms. Donlon says, when she got a temporary job in college at a company called Knowledge Adventure, which creates educational games for elementary students. “I fell in love with it,” she says. She began by answering phones but was soon mentored by a senior female staffer to become a production coordinator. As Ms. Donlon rose through the ranks, she dropped out of college to focus on her career. (She finally completed her creative-writing degree when she was 30.) She then sought work at a studio that made the kinds of games she liked to play.
After bouncing around at some smaller firms, Ms. Donlon moved to Treyarch Studios, a subsidiary of
Blizzard Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif., where she became a senior producer on “Call of Duty,” one of the biggest franchises in the business. “That felt incredible,” she says. It’s also where she met her husband, a software engineer. Now that they are both working from home for rival studios, she says, “We’ve had to hyper-NDA each other.”
The further Ms. Donlon moved into the industry’s “hard-core” games, the fewer women she would see, particularly at the top. The asymmetry could be uncomfortable—she often felt pressured to accept what she calls “locker-room behavior”—but mostly it was discouraging. “No one said, ‘You’ll never make it because you’re a woman,’” she remembers. “It just felt implied.”
Ms. Donlon has worked for the past five years at Riot Games. In 2018, two women alleged in a lawsuit that Riot Games paid them and other women less than their male counterparts, unfairly denied them promotions and subjected them to harassment in a “sexually-hostile working environment.” Riot Games agreed to settle the suit for $10 million, but California officials concluded that female employees of Riot Games might deserve more than $400 million. Joe Hixson, a Riot Games spokesperson, says the company is working toward a resolution through the courts. Ms. Donlon wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing, according to the company, and says she hopes she can be “a role model for women coming into the industry.”
Ms. Donlon has also been outspoken about the harassment that many female gamers face, and she admitted in April that she doesn’t play with strangers on “Valorant” because of the abuse or sexual propositions she gets. “If you ask most people if they’re cool with women playing videogames, they would say, ‘Why not?’ But what women encounter in games can be a different story,” she says. She is working with developers to craft better tools for punishing misconduct and encouraging good sportsmanship. “We can’t prevent people from acting out, but we can try to prevent gamers from experiencing it,” she says.
“Valorant” may be out, but Ms. Donlon is still busy tinkering with the product. She manages the designers who are freshening up the game with new agents and environments, and she oversees the engineers who are fixing the technological bugs that distort the evenness of the playing field. To better understand what gamers now want from “Valorant,” she runs surveys, scans player-behavior data and responds to gripes on
But the game’s growing fan-base—“Valorant” appears to be poaching players and pros from the wildly popular “Fortnite”—means that the company needn’t worry about the product’s appeal and can instead focus on improving the gamer experience. “Our goal is for this game to be around for decades,” says Ms. Donlon. “That’s the dream.”
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