She was in the New York Times. She keynoted a conference. She worked at Microsoft, Dreamworks, EA and Ion Storm. She is respected, responsible and riveting. And she develops videogames. Now, meet Denise Fulton …
Just Something I Did
Fulton grew up playing games. “My dad taught computer science at the university. So, I grew up around computers, and playing games from the time I was tiny,” Fulton says, listing games as one formative influence.
Fulton recalls her small-town Ohio upbringing. “I grew up playing Adventure on the Commodore; lying on the shag rug, playing the Atari. That was my background. I never thought it was strange. And I never thought it was notable. It was just something I did.”
Though they were an influence, games didn’t stand out, either. “I always took [gaming] for granted.” Fulton says, “It was just one of the things I did. I’ve always been a book-worm, I always liked movies and I always listened to music. I never thought games were unusual.”
Nor did she consider it a possible career. “I never thought I would end up in the videogame industry,” Fulton recalls. “Never crossed my mind when I was growing up.”
Today Fulton is studio head at Midway Studios-Austin. She climbed the ladder, and now holds a position of power. And when you talk about the path to get there, there is an overwhelming temptation to focus on gender.
Tempting, except, for Fulton. “Don’t let gender define you,” she has stated more than once, and publicly. “The very best people don’t think about their gender a whole lot – male or female – because it’s beside the point.”
Fulton believes strongly in achievement, and meritocracy. “Focus on the achievement, not the gender.” Which is not to say she hasn’t faced other challenges with gender, and the videogame industry.
Fulton tells one story of working at EA, and one of the women that worked for Fulton says “Hey, I’m pregnant. I’m not sure how to go about this. Do I take maternity leave?”
Fulton replies, “Gee, I don’t know, I’ll go find out.” After checking with HR, Fulton discovers that EA didn’t have a maternity program in place. “You can take that two ways,” Fulton recalls.
The reason wasn’t because EA didn’t want it. It wasn’t that they didn’t think it was important. It was that it hadn’t yet come up. It was that simple.
Fulton instituted a maternity program, and notes that many things are like that. “It’s not necessarily a bias where people are being malicious, or not wanting something to happen, it’s just that it hasn’t come up.
“And you, as a woman – or as anyone in this industry – can make these changes: if you just trust that it can happen.” And given all this, Fulton still believes the best defense will be more women in the industry.
Seattle Sounds Really Cool
When Fulton studied graphic design at school, she thought of herself as an artist, not a tech person. However, “computers weren’t scary to me. And that made a big difference. When I took classes, I didn’t have a problem getting in front of a computer and starting to work there, and I started to make a niche for myself, as a woman with computer skills, early on.
“When I finished school, I had a choice,” Fulton recalls. “I could have gone to Hallmark to make wrapping-paper. Or I could have gone to Microsoft to do UI design. At the time, I’m 21, I’m thinking ‘Seattle sounds really cool.'”
Fulton moved out to Seattle, and entered the game industry. “Once I got in Microsoft, I found that I really liked it. I liked the environment, I like the structure, I liked the opportunities.”
From there, Fulton went on to work at Dreamworks Interactive, at EA for a number of years, and most recently at Ion Storm. “I worked on different types of games. I’ve worked on kids’ games, sports games, mature titles,” Fulton says, adding, “I like the industry more and more the longer I’m in it.”
“I think you do what you’re meant to do, ultimately,” Fulton says. “Like me, I’ve always had a bent toward management and organization. And when left to my own devices, I just kind of do that instinctively. I’m a big believer in the adage that ‘real managers are born, not made.’
“I think you have the instincts for it, or you don’t. You can learn some of it, but most of it is just innate.” Which is not to say that people always end up doing what they’re meant to, “But I think if people really look at themselves in the face, they can recognize what they find easy, and what they don’t.”
Fulton also uses this as a filter for others, particularly those looking at management or production positions. “A lot of programmers and artists reach a point in their careers where they decide they want to get into management,” Fulton explains, “because they see it as a path into a more responsible or higher-paying position.
“I just look at them and ask, ‘Do you like spending your days in meetings, and doing lots of documentation? Do you like organization and budgets?’ Because if you don’t, you’re going to hate it.”
Fulton’s previous experience was in production. Most recently, she functioned as Executive Producer at Ion Storm. Since joining Midway Studios-Austin as studio head, Fulton has had time to reflect on some of the differences between being a producer and being an executive.
“I have to be a lot more disciplined about trusting the people I work with to do their jobs, and not diving into the details too much and getting in their way,” Fulton explains. “I have to be careful to keep my perspective. It’s a matter of keeping that right balance – identifying problems, but not being the one to solve them all the time.
“As a producer,” Fulton recalls, “I had to get down in the trenches, roll up my sleeves, and do work on the project. If I did that here, it would actually be detrimental to the overall health of the studio.
“Now, I mostly sit in on reviews. I know what’s going on with the projects, because I’m kept up to date by the studio directors. But I have enough distance from the projects that I can ask meaningful questions.”
Fulton’s strength is in building teams. “What I’m best at is finding and coalescing groups of people so that they work together effectively,” she says. “And I learned early on, you can always find someone who’s way better at things than you are, in any single area. So, what I do is try to find those people and put them together so they interact in interesting ways. Because, you know, Harvey Smith is a better designer than I’ll ever be. Brett Close is a better producer than I’ll ever be. Tim Little knows the tech … What I can do is identify them and help them work together more effectively. At the highest level, that’s what my job is about.”
What Can I Say?
“I’ve always been first-party,” Fulton admits. “I’m a publisher girl, what can I say?”
It’s not entrepreneurial, but it has its advantages. “If you’re first-party, you’re negotiating with a publisher who has a vested stake in your growth. As an independent developer, you spend a lot of time trying to find publishers who want to come work with you. Then, once you have a publishing deal, it’s all about managing perceptions – pretending things are going swimmingly, even if there are problems. I think being first-party is a nicer way to play the game. Maybe you don’t have the biggest cut of the pie in the long-run, but you have a better chance of making quality products, I think. There are very few third-party developers who can take the time to make something that they can be really proud of.
“At Midway Austin, quality is the biggest thing we’re striving for, because that’s what people take pride in. That’s why they’re here.”
Playing to Win
As a company. Midway has told analysts they are betting on next-gen consoles, saying that during a console transition a publisher can leap from a lower tier to a higher one.
Midway has spoken widely about placing a bet on next-gen consoles, and the leap-frogging a publisher can do during a console transition. “I think Midway is poised to do that. I genuinely do,” Fulton says. “I’ve drunk the kool-aid. I buy it.”
“And they’re not skimping on quality,” Fulton reports. “They mean it when they say, ‘Look, the only way we’re going to win is by making the right kind of games.'” That means giving developers the time, money and resources to make them great. Fulton adds, “And that’s pretty cool. You don’t see it very often.”
With Great Power
“I’ve always felt responsible,” Fulton says. “I tend to take ownership of things just because it’s my nature to do so.” That tendency has increased since becoming a studio head. “It’s this weird two-edged sword, because on the one hand, to succeed, I need to delegate really, really effectively.
“[But] ultimately, my head’s on the line if everything goes wrong. So I have to keep an eye out, and make sure things don’t go wrong. [But] I trust the people I work with. I really view it as a team effort,” Fulton says. “Ultimately, it’s the guys down the hall who are making the games happen.”
With all the attention Fulton receives, does she want to be a rockstar? “Not me, man.” She says, explaining, “I recognize the need for rockstars, I just don’t want to be one. I want to be the person behind-the-scenes; that’s my ideal role. I don’t ever want to be famous.”
Fulton explains that having to represent the studio in public is a new role. “I’ll do what it takes to make our studio succeed.” But that doesn’t mean she has to become a public figure, especially when others at the studio are better suited to that role.
For example, Harvey Smith, Midway Austin’s Creative Director, recently appeared on an MTV special along side Will Wright, David Jaffe and Cliff Bleszinski.
“I’m excited about the games we’re working on,” Fulton segues. “And I enjoy the people I work with. You know, I’ve had great work relationships in my life … and that’s what matters in the long run.”
Creativity by Numbers
“Very little that I do is creative, vis-à-vis the products,” says Fulton. “When I’m in creative meetings, I tend to keep an eye towards how the execs, or our customers, are going to respond – rather than focusing on my own ideas. I’ll offer a suggestion occasionally, but it can be dangerous.
“In my position, you have to be careful,” Fulton explains, “Because people take you more seriously and more literally than they should. So I’m very cautious about making suggestions. It’s really important that the team knows they’re just suggestions.
“There are other areas in which I can get more creative.” Fulton finds that running a studio in itself is creative. “Figuring out SKU plans, budgets, personnel plans, that’s fun to me – like puzzle solving”
Management: An Art Form
“I really think management is an art form,” Fulton states. “I’m endlessly fascinated by the way people interact, and how they work together, and how personalities shape the culture, and how values shape the culture. I think all of that is fascinating.”
A large part of Fulton’s job is to convey directives from corporate, e.g. “we have to ship this product a quarter earlier,” or “marketing thinks this feature is really important,” etc.
“A lot of my job,” Fulton says, “involves communicating information from outside of the studio in a way that people here can understand it and become invested in the outcome. That takes a lot of finesse.”
Whenever there is management in a creative industry, the question of artistic control arises. “There are a million people in this industry who think of themselves as creative executives,” Fulton elaborates. “They always know what’s right, creatively, and feel comfortable mandating changes. And I think that’s dangerous.
“I’d much rather think of myself as a creative auditor, or creative coordinator. I have a genuine appreciation for games. I play them all the time, and I love all sorts of other media as well. This gives me the context to evaluate where we’re going, and, hopefully, spot missteps. In the end however, it’s more important that I trust the creative people I’ve brought in to make the right decisions.”
Make Great Games
In the end, Fulton offers one defining statement: “I don’t want to be recognized for being one of the few women in the game industry. I want to be recognized for the great games we make.” And when you consider the skill and loyalty of those around Denise Fulton, there is every indication that is exactly what will happen.
N. Evan Van Zelfden expects great things for the future of games. Games are the greatest art form to date, he asserts. This is why he plays games, writes about them, and continues to work in the industry of games.