So what does a game producer do, exactly?
Kayleigh Calder explains her role in making Diablo IV's Lilith more than just a big bad monster.
What does it really mean to be a global company? Well, it means that a dream born in England can take its first steps in Ireland, can grow and develop in Southern California, and can come to fruition in the bowels of Hell (which is not Southern California, despite what you’ve heard).
Kayleigh Calder, lead game producer for the forthcoming action role-playing game Diablo IV, had been a gamer since before she knew the term—at age 7 she’d pore over StarCraft instruction manuals, and by 10 she’d be plotting star navigation maps in spreadsheets next to her Dad as he blasted into deep space on his PC. She might not have had the terminology for what she was, but she knew she had the passion.
One soul-sucking job in banking was all it took for Kayleigh to hit pause and re-evaluate the direction of her post-graduate life. “It was destroying my soul from the inside, making me very unhappy. I was like, ‘Oh God, is this my life?’”
Spoiler: It was not. Here’s how Kayleigh tapped back into her childhood love, found her sense of purpose, and helped to make Diablo IV a huge evolutionary step forward for the series.
How does someone fed up with the banking industry in the UK end up shepherding the latest installment of the Diablo series?
I've always been a really big gamer, and at the time in the UK there weren't a ton of visible internships or programs like, "Gaming is a career for you." It wasn't a mainstream path for people to go down. I'd worked in retail game stores and I thought that was the closest I would come to it.
I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft at the time, and right before Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard was doing this big push for customer support GMs [Game Masters]. They had recently opened an office in Cork, Ireland. My grandparents lived there and I’ve spent months at a time in Ireland, so it wasn’t a big culture shock. I pursued the opportunity, got hired, and moved.
What were responsibilities as a Game Master?
I was in-game help for World of Warcraft—meaning I responded directly to players and had whole conversations with them while investigating their issues.
I had to develop my “CS [Customer Service] persona”—you were respectful and kind and supportive. There are still a lot of stories about fun interactions players have had with GMs, some of the problems they had were silly, like they got stuck somewhere and didn’t know how to get out. Other players would be having a really bad time—like issues with their accounts or something—and it was great to be able to make their day better and help them with a bit of levity.
So you had your foot in the door of the gaming industry. How did you plot your course from there?
The WoW team was on a European press tour and they came to the Cork office. I can remember being in that meeting and they were talking about what a producer does and I was thinking, “I could do that job. And I think I would really enjoy that job.” I just recall thinking it sounded so like me, very much up my alley.
What was it exactly that clicked for you?
All of it—the problem-solving aspect of it, working with people. I was a bit of a theater kid when I was growing up, but I wasn't so much interested in being on stage. I was the stage manager. I also did an archeology degree and I love history. I’ve always enjoyed trying to get a grasp of the big picture and put things together. And I'm also just naturally bossy. [laughs] I think that's just been a thing. But I enjoy working with people and helping them solve problems and supporting people with what they're doing. I like being able to work in environments that require a lot of critical thinking and puzzle solving and bringing some order to chaos.
But it all still seemed so far off for me. Aspirational. But in 2009 I went to my first BlizzCon—it was my first trip to America ever, actually—and they gave us a tour of the Irvine offices. At the time there were open QA positions that were being made available to employees in Cork. I interviewed and eventually got the job offer to come to California and work in QA. I loved learning more and more about how games were actually made—video games are such an interesting blend of this very creative, out there, imaginative process but also these very technical, tangible products built off those ideas.
You had no culture shock moving from England to Ireland. What about Ireland to California?
Definitely! You think, we all speak the same language, how different can it be? Well, very. And everything I knew of the States came from pop culture—I wasn’t prepared for simple things like figuring out what bread you like. There are so many different options! Why? [laughs]
Once you had sandwiches conquered, how did you transition into a producer role?
I worked in QA for a few years, learning more about the whole process of game development. And I was now in a position to talk to more people about the realities of life as a producer. What’s involved? I started moving more into test leadership, which is part game testing but also part project management and production. I started building those skills.
Eventually I came onboard Diablo III as a QA analyst and then a test lead. So I worked on Diablo III for over 8 years, and I saw Diablo IV develop basically from the start.
As you moved into more of a producer role in Diablo IV, was the plan always to have the character of Lilith be the “big bad”?
That was something that we knew pretty early on, that Lilith was going to be the centerpiece of the story. One of the things that really mattered to us as a team was representing Lilith as a whole, well-rounded character. We spent months talking about it: What are her motivations? Why is she doing these things? We wanted to understand her, and that was a central tenant that helped drive the story. I find it an absolute honor to have been able to see this game develop from the start.
Did your archeology degree come in handy at all?
It did! The team is very collaborative, and when they were designing certain areas I saw the influences and was like, “Oh, Scottish Highlands and Northern England and Celtic-y kind of stuff! Here are reference images for, like, 15 ruined castles that I love!” I sent a lot of background information on Skara Brae, which is this Neolithic settlement in Scotland.
If there’s someone out there—in Ireland, or beyond—who is in the same position you were years ago, what advice would you have for them?
The first thing I would say is, take some time to research and learn about the different areas of game development, to help you work out what you’d be interested in pursuing. Don’t be disheartened if it takes you time to figure out what you want to do. There are lots of resources out there, like GDC [Game Developers Conference] talks about game development. There are also articles that people have written, by developers who've been developing for even longer than I have. I highly recommend digging in and looking at that.
The other thing I’d say is it’s OK to ask questions if you have the opportunity. There are many developers who are super excited to talk about what they do, to share their experiences, and provide insight on their own journey, everyones was different, and there isn’t just one way to get started, it’s a mix of finding ways to learn about the job you want, building the skills and applying to opportunities when they come up, it might not happen right away, or you might end up somewhere other than you expected in the long run, but it’s worth taking the chance.
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