Call Her the Dungeon Master
In her Blizzard debut, seasoned producer Ash Sweetring makes her mark on Diablo IV’s Sanctuary and slays a few personal demons along the way.
As a shy kid who struggled in school, Ash Sweetring found video games to be an early lifeline, fostering young friendships and unleashing heroic aspirations during her childhood in suburban Utah. Of all the games Sweetring played growing up, Diablo III uniquely inspired her to become a developer. After dropping out of gaming college to chart her own path through six indie game studios and 17 mobile titles, Sweetring recently joined the design and art team for Blizzard’s much anticipated Diablo IV. Now at her dream studio, Sweetring says her career has come full circle as she exercises hard-won abilities — including mastery of long-undiagnosed ADHD — in the dungeons of Sanctuary and beyond.
—As told to Activision Blizzard Newsroom’s Marli Guzzetta
When I was 17, I played Diablo III for the first time. I scooted right up to the TV with my controller because I wanted to be immersed. It was my first dungeon crawler. Immediately, what drew me in was the characters: They were dark and powerful and diverse and introduced me to a world of gaming I hadn’t previously known existed.
I said, ‘I need more of this’ and started playing Diablo III on PC, where I learned more about the ways a player can experience a game, like what graphics work for different game styles and what resolutions are best for different effects. I attribute all of that early awareness to Diablo III.
Growing up, school was always challenging. I was never able to listen to someone speak and write down notes. I can understand something the moment you show it to me, but the instant you take away the visual cue, it removes my ability to tell you what I’m comprehending. It took me a lot longer to come up with answers than my classmates. I wouldn’t know until my late 20s that I have ADHD. A lot of education is one size fits all, 'you're all learning this way.' But that's just not the case.
But I loved video games and wanted to get involved at a higher level. We have one of the largest game development universities here, the University of Utah. I applied immediately after high school, got in, and failed historically. I’d drop out and start back up again, then drop out and start back up again …
While I was struggling in school, a friend who was lead quality analyst (QA) at a major studio reached out and said, “Hey, why don’t you take the knowledge you’ve acquired so far and apply it to a real-life scenario; work for me as a contractor in QA.”
So I hit the ground running with QA while I was in and out of school. I would work very full days, then try to do like three hours of classes. To unwind, I created a cosplay of the witch doctor from Diablo III. When it blew up online, I just knew that Diablo would be part of my future somehow.
As my first art director said, production is a job that you create for yourself. It’s not something they put out in the world by saying, ‘We need a producer! We don’t know what we’re doing!’ Normally someone comes in and says, ‘You need a producer? Here I am. You’re welcome.’
So that’s what I did for myself. While doing my QA work, I embedded myself into one of the art teams. If something was waiting to get to me to be tested, sometimes I just went to the art team and said, ‘I’m gonna look at it now and send it back with my notes.’ And they fostered it and said, ‘Wow! She knows what she’s doing; let’s give her an opportunity.’ That’s how I moved from a QA position to an associate producer position.
Dropping out was a blessing in disguise, because it enabled me to work with so many indie studios—I think six in all—and have boots on the ground making video games. New IPs, old IPs, borrowed IPs. Every experience offered a new opportunity to learn and to help. I was able to help launch 17 different mobile titles in a relatively short time. Now, I’m a very experienced producer and I very much have confidence in what I’m doing.
The moment I saw a producer position available for the Diablo team, something in my sweet little heart just reached out to me and said, ‘Ash, this is a moment. You need to take advantage of this opportunity.’
When they invited me to accept the position, I cried! Knowing that people at my dream studio believed in me and my talent and my work was a feeling I will never be able to describe.
I started in January on our design and art teams for Diablo IV. I help manage these wonderful designers and artists from around the world. Any time you enter a dungeon or a portal or a cellar, you can know I helped form it.
And these places we’re building are so beautiful! You might see waterfalls sprouting everywhere or running rivers and small critters—it all feels immersive and believable.
A decade ago, I was shy. Now, as a person with ADHD, I have so many tools to help me be a better producer and I'm comfortable in leadership roles. If I’m not sure I comprehend what someone else is telling me, or they’re not comprehending what I’m telling them, I make sure to follow up and see what I can do to better help that person understand.
The confidence I’ve attained at work has helped me in other areas too. Recently, I came out as a member of the queer community. I absolutely would not have been able to do that 10 years ago.
I wake up every day knowing I’m not just going to a job; I’m putting my talents to something that so many people care about so deeply. My dreams are skyrocketing, and my heart is full, because I’m potentially making some girl out there feel the way I felt, playing Diablo for the first time. I’ve come so far since then, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
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