On Board Game Development: Brenna Noonan

In the gap between game design and publishing there’s an important stage – game development. This important step is how you get from a great concept scribbled onto index cards to the finished product you’ll open when you bring it home from your FLGS. For more details, we talked to Brenna Noonan about her experience in the industry and her own love of games.

What got you started playing board games? 

I started out playing text-based PC RPGs in the early days of the Internet, so I was definitely a video gamer first. But I always had a love of storytelling and deep narratives, so that eventually led me to D&D and other TTRPGs. From there it was a natural progression to board games. I’m primarily interested in board games as art objects, or as  Gesamtkunstwerk, something tangible that merges gameplay, art, aesthetics, and experience. 

What is a game developer and what inspired moving into development? 

A game developer helps refine the core design and shapes it into the eventual final product. My first professional development credit was on Everdell, but I had also played around with RPG writing and video game development on platforms like Twine. I’d always been involved in creative fields through my background in classical music composition, and I think creative ability translates to a lot of different genres and disciplines. Being creative necessitates that you’re operating with some degree of empathy to be able to view the work from different perspectives and backgrounds, and not just view everything as it relates to your own perspectives and tastes. It’s really about serving the work itself and what it needs to be its best, not just what you want. So when working with the creative team at Starling Games, when we had just signed Everdell, I was able to comment on a lot of different things, not just the gameplay but also naming conventions, art direction, product design, worldbuilding, etc. The creative team at Starling was very close and collaborative, and that resulted in very open communication with nothing being off limits. So even though, for example, I wasn’t an artist, my input on art was still valued. And even though I had never developed a board game before, the rest of my team was able to recognize that I had that core creative experience and insight and really welcomed me into that process. So Everdell was my first development project and after that I became a regular part of the creative team, and developed most of our subsequent titles.

What do you like most about the development process? 

Definitely the collaboration, and the iterative process. I love tearing a game down to its basest level and finding out what makes it tick, just to build it back up better and stronger. Getting to work closely with the designer and other developers is its own reward, and is an enormously important part of my creative process. I thrive off that collaboration. That’s really why I haven’t ventured into game design myself, because I prefer the team effort of development. 

Whats been your favorite project to work on? 

Probably Everdell and the expansions. We’ve been at it for a few years now so working with that team is just very comfortable and fluid. And we know the world really well by now so it’s just a very fun space to go back to and to continue exploring.

Do you find the community supportive? 

Absolutely, the community’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It’s incredibly tight-knit, and people really try to lift each other up. I’ve met some of not only the most talented, but also the kindest and most generous people because of this industry. That said, I’m a white, able-bodied cis woman, so that absolutely affects how I move through spaces in our community and how I’m regarded. We of course still have issues with gatekeeping and prejudice that we as a community need to address, and it’s something we all need to be proactive about in order to make our community safe and welcoming for everyone. 

Whats been your biggest challenge to date? 

Probably being taken seriously as a professional woman in the industry. I think people often discount my contributions to games or think I’m “just” a marketing person. I’m often put in a position where I need to defend or prove my knowledge and accomplishments, which is really frustrating. That said, I think this is a common issue for a lot of game developers. I think development (and therefore developers) tends to be pretty under-valued in the industry, and a lot of people probably don’t realize how much development work can go into a game after the initial design, and the positive results it can help bring about. 

Whats your favorite game? 

Probably not a very satisfying answer, but I really don’t have one! My tastes change a lot, I definitely go through phases. I can say my current favorite game is Res Arcana, it’s a really tight design that I admire a lot, and lovely to look at and engage with. That’s a game that I definitely think represents the “whole package” that I referred to earlier.

Where would you like to see the industry in 5 years? 

I hope that it continues to grow, and that it becomes even more welcoming and accessible for all gamers. I’m also looking forward to our industry “growing up” a little — a lot of people in the industry are really underpaid, or doing board game work as a side gig, and I’d love to see it grow and evolve to make this a more sustainable career path for more people. I’m also really looking forward to seeing how games have changed in 5 years, what people are experimenting and innovating with. 

What advice would you give people who wanted to move into game development? 

Obviously, you need to play a lot of games to learn the lexicon of play and to study the medium you’re working within, its history, and how it will contextualize your work. But I also encourage designers and developers to seek inspiration and enrichment outside of board games. Go see a new film, listen to a new composer, go to an art museum, find some free lectures on UI/UX design, read some poetry. Inspiration is seldom cyclical so you need to break that feedback loop of just board games. I think being too insular and too singular can really stunt creativity, and exposing yourself to new mediums can open you up to how you conceive form, structure, aesthetics, experience… Develop a diverse praxis so your well never runs dry.

You can find Brenna on Twitter.