Interviews | 16/08/19: Emily Ludolph

Heather Chandler Talks Fortnite, Hoarding Ideas, and How to Take Education Games to the Next Level

Heather Chandler is a veteran producer who has led teams at Epic Games, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Activision. As Senior Producer on Fortnite, she launched one of the most popular games in history. An evangelist for the gaming industry, Chandler also serves as an advisor to Endless specifically on the Endless Mission. 

We sat down with Chandler to talk about what it felt like to lead the team of aces on Fortnite development, why collaboration is the real superpower of the game industry, and her prediction that a commercial mindset might spell success for the future of educational games.

Q. You had a background in film. What drew you to gaming?

A. Games are appealing because of the combination of entertainment, technology and interactivity. Whenever you combine those elements, you are sure to have some fun challenges to work through with the game development team.

Also, for me, it’s all about the people you’re working with, bringing all the pieces together, connecting with the players, and creating something lots of people can enjoy and form a common ground to talk about or get excited by.

Q. You led the launch of one of the most successful games in history. What was it like to work on that team?

A. Working on Epic is almost like working on a startup—they’re all working towards the same goal and trying different things to see what’s going to stick. It’s very agile and you can get things done very quickly. 

Getting a game released is tough. It doesn’t matter how large or small the game is, it still has the same set of stuff that needs to get done. When you work at a place like Epic on a game like Fortnite, everyone who works there is  at the top of their game, has a lot of passion for what they do, and are very knowledgeable about what’s going to make the game good for the players.

Q. You do a lot of public speaking about STEAM, especially with kids. What’s a piece of advice you like to ask people to keep in mind?

A. Specifically, with kids, when they’re super enthusiastic about making games, they’re always really worried about sharing ideas. I have had to do a lot of education on the difference between having an idea and actually executing on the idea. I say, “Look, if that’s the only idea you have, you’re probably not going to get very far with it.” You need to be able to generate a lot of ideas and some are going to be good some are going to be great. Some are going to be bad. Having the idea is only a small percentage of all the work that needs to go into it.

Q. You’re working as an advisor on Endless. From your perspective, what is the landscape of educational games right now?

A. Educational games have generally struggled to become commercial and have strong appeal to a larger audience. It’s hard to see them as something other than an educational game because they don’t usually have the production values, polished UX, or feature-richness that you will see in many commercial games. Therefore when people are looking for something to play for leisure, educational games are not usually the first thing that comes to mind. People seek out educational games when they have something specific they want to learn, or in some cases are exposed to these games as part of an educational curriculum.  

Now that games are becoming more commonplace in schools, people are seeing there is a lot of potential to think about how to make educational games that are more well-rounded and can be viewed as something more than just a learning tool.  So, I am really excited by Endless’ desire to make something that is more commercial and feels cool and polished.

Q. Why is being commercial a good thing to aim for?

A. One of the reasons to make a commercial game is to make a profit. Profitable games are going to have a strong showing in the marketplace. If you want players to be interested in purchasing your game, you have to put a lot of thought into what the player wants and is willing to pay for.  This means looking at what competitors are doing to attract players and provide a fun and polished experience that keeps people coming back for more. Taking this approach to a commercial game means the developers are looking at the game through a different lens and are focused on making a game that has good UX, a strong game loop, and clearly a clearly defined progression system for the player that has both large and small goals for them to achieve.

That’s where I see Endless fitting in, because from the get go, they want this game to be commercial and they are looking to commercial games for inspiration on how to design and develop this experience for the players. 

Q. What’s an example of a game that does bridge the gap well? How is it successful at it?

A. Minecraft was so revolutionary because at the heart of it, the game itself is very simple: you build things and you defend them from enemies. Players were not boxed in to thinking of the game in a certain way and weren’t presented with a detailed instruction manual on how to play the game. Instead, they were presented with an environment that allowed them to experiment and build different things, and create their own game play.  The game encourages people to think outside the box and create things from their own imagination. Then, they get to share these creations with other players. That’s very powerful, and has been a huge turning point in how people think about educational games.

With educational games, what you’re really trying to teach is a different way to look at solving problems. How to think outside of the box, how to work well with other people, how to think critically, how to assess a problem. Minecraft definitely showed academics and people interested in educational software that there’s a different way to do it.

Q. What advice do you give people who want to get into game design?

A. You have to be very open minded. You have to be very collaborative. You have to be able to let go of your idea and let it take its own life someplace else in the game industry. It’s that willingness to acknowledge that there’s not one person who is responsible for making it into what it is. Also, think about how the player is going to experience your game and what they hope to get from it.  When you watch people play a game you’ve created, you may be surprised at the things they respond to positively and negatively. Don’t assume you know what the player will think about the game, until you’ve actually had people playtest it.