“I want to make the world a better place through my games”
Some people know when they’re very young what they want to be when they grow older. Others find their calling much later. Anna Högberg Jenelius seems to have always been destined, for lack of a better word, to work in the games industry — she just didn’t know it right away. Her mother took a gentle nudge to steer her onto the game developer path. But let’s start from the beginning.
Anna and her brothers received an NES for Christmas when she was only two years old. Perhaps too young to play games, but this was the start of a life-long interest in games. As she grew up, Anna continued playing games, such as future favourites Baldur’s Gate and Portal, and she also had a practical placement at Good Game, a review site for youths. She and her siblings also liked making their own games using a tool called The Games Factory.
When it came to thinking about a future career, however, the games industry was not really on the table. Not yet, anyway. Anna felt like she needed an actual degree and a serious job; in her mind, the games industry didn’t fall into that category at that time. Instead, she started studying biology at the university. She felt that this could be her calling. It wasn’t. After six months, she dropped out and found a job at IKEA, unsure what to do with her life.
A slight push in the right direction
Then, one day, everything changed. And this change came from an unexpected place.
“One day, my mother — of all people — suggested I should study game development,” Anna says. “She had read a few articles about how well the Swedish games industry was going. Thinking back, the timing was funny since this was around the time Grin went bankrupt. So I’m not sure what the article was, but I’m glad she read it. Soon afterwards, I started studying game development at Stockholm University. Before my mother suggested it, I had never really considered game development for a career.”
Anna has a bachelor’s degree in Systems Sciences, but the program encompassed many aspects of games development, such as design, programming, and graphics. In the last year of the three-year program, Anna came to a realisation:
“I realised my coursemates were great. Everyone was very social, and we had a great community amongst ourselves. And it hit me that if all of us are going to apply for jobs at the same time, the competition will be extremely tough. Not just from my coursemates, but from everyone who wants to get into the industry.”
Doing quality work
To get a little bit of a head start, Anna applied for and received an internship at a company called Imagination Studios, a motion capture and animation company. She also took on a few animation jobs during the last period of her studies. Then, in 2012, Anna was finally ready to start working with games properly. It was time to start finding her way in a big, sprawling industry. It didn’t start well, but as we will see this may not necessarily have been a bad thing.
“I thought I was going to work as a graphic artist, but I wasn’t great at it,” Anna says. “I sent out my portfolio and applied for a few jobs but never heard back from anyone. But then I applied for a QA position at Paradox. I had met some people from Paradox at a convention, and the person interviewing me recognized me and already had a good impression of me. So I got the job.”
Anna soon became assistant manager for her team and was later reassigned to Paradox Development Studio as senior QA manager. She had arrived in the gaming industry and found her footing, but it was only the beginning. After three and a half years at Paradox, Anna decided to go Indie. The studio was growing, and Anna wanted to make her own games rather than be a small part of a giant machinery. She views her time as QA as immensely valuable, however.
“I think everyone who wants to work in the games industry should start in QA,” Anna says. “At least for a few weeks, like some sort of military service. You learn so much in QA. You get such a great overall view of game development. For example, what happens if the graphics aren’t done on time? You get a holistic view of game development, which has helped me a lot. And, in turn, my broad education, where I wasn’t expert at anything, but I could do a bit of everything, was helpful in my position as QA.”
Going indie, twice
Starting an indie studio was never going to be an easy ride. Still, Anna has been working as an indie developer for approximately seven years, five of which have been at her current company, Valiant Game Studio. Her games are narrative-focused, with clear themes. She mentions Papers, Please, and This War of Mine as games that made her realise the power games can have. Her first venture into the world of indie development was with a sole proprietor company. She had about six months’ worth of savings and set out to make a game in that time. She did. And she learned a lot. But the game, a point-and-click adventure called Midwinter, didn’t sell well.
After releasing the game, Anna worked as a teacher and freelancer for a while to make ends meet. Then she founded her current studio and limited company, Valiant. After the learning experience that was her first company, Valiant was an effort to go indie for real and build something bigger and more long-term. Not succeeding with her first company didn’t deter her. Instead, she decided to make another attempt, strengthened by all she had learned along the way.
Valiant’s first game, Pendula Swing, took approximately two and a half years to complete. This larger-scale game needed more work with securing funding and finding the proper help with various aspects of the game. Anna is currently working on her next game, KreatureKind. She still needs to supplement her income by performing consultant and freelance work now and then, but her true passion remains to create her own games.
“To me, it’s important to make the games I really want to make,” Anna says. “I want to make the games I feel should be available on the games market. I want to make the world a better place through my games. I always have a story to tell or a theme I want to deal with. So many people play games, which means that we can reach a lot of people through games, in a playful manner. Game developers have the opportunity to make a difference and be a force for good. For me, it makes it even more important since I have friends who actually work with saving people’s lives, for real, while I play around with games. So I think about what I can do to use the voice I have to say something that makes a difference in a positive way. When I leave this world, I hope my contribution to it made it a better place to live, rather than worse.”
To create a hit is, of course, challenging. If it weren’t, everyone would do it. But Anna stresses that sales figures aren’t the only measure of what makes a game successful. Instead, she suggests that especially indie developers can decide what success means for them and that perhaps a small but passionate player base who got something real out of your game means that you have succeeded.
“On a market where so many new games are released every day, reaching an audience is difficult,” says Anna. “But if you manage to reach the right people with the right game at the right time, it should be celebrated as a success.”
If at first you don’t succeed
Managing a company and making games while doing freelance work to make ends meet does, however, sound like a lot of work. When Anna was younger and felt she had much to prove, she sometimes tended to work too much. But these days, she tries to pace herself more.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint”, Anna explains. “In the long run, if you work too much, you end up paying for it. If I’ve programmed for six hours and my brains are practically melting, I find it’s better to rest and continue the next day, for example. If I work more for a period of time, I must make sure to take care of myself afterwards. But even though it may be tough at times, being an indie developer is worth it. Making games is the best job in the world. You get to be so creative in many different ways. My job comprises programming, working with audio and graphics, marketing, and business development — it has so many levels. You are never bored and there is always more to learn.”
Anna stresses the importance of contacts when advising people looking to work in the games industry in the future.
“Be friendly to the people you meet in your career. When you study, be friends with your fellow students, because you will meet them again later in your career. It might give you an advantage at a job interview, or open up collaboration options later on. Treat people well, don’t burn any bridges. The games industry in Sweden is fairly small, after all, and people do talk to each other.
A more practical advice, especially for graphic artists and designers, is to always make sure to update your portfolio. I know you’ve probably heard it before, but it is nevertheless very important. You won’t get a job based only on your degrees, you need a strong, up-to-date portfolio that shows off your work.”
Anna repeatedly stresses that you don’t have to be the best at everything to make games. However, before we finished our conversation, she told me about a lecture by indie developer Mike Bithell, which made an impression on her.
“He was talking about all the errors he made,” Anna says. “But despite doing all these things wrong, he still made a successful game. So I thought, perhaps I could also do this. It felt good hearing that you can make mistakes and you don’t have to be the best at everything to make a game. If I hadn’t heard that, I might have suffered from impostor syndrome, but instead it made me think that if he can do it, so can I. It helped me take the plunge into indie development.”
The fear of failure could, then, lead to not succeeding in the end, ironically. A mistake can hurt, but in time it can also lead to something better if we learn from it. The Swedish author PO Enquist once wrote about pain and that it’s wasted if we throw it away without learning from it. It seems you can apply this to game development as well.
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