Interview with Margaret Wallace
Margaret Wallace grew up in a "gadget" household, and as an undergraduate she studied the intersection of technology and culture.
An Interview with Margaret Wallace Co-founder and CEO, Rebel Monkey
Date: November 27, 2007
NCWIT Interview with Margaret Wallace
BIO: Margaret Wallace is the Co-Founder and CEO of Rebel Monkey, a New York-based game development studio focusing on casual games. Before Rebel Monkey, Margaret co-founded and was CEO of Skunk Studios. Prior to the establishment of Skunk Studios, Ms. Wallace produced and designed games at Shockwave.com, including Shockwave Tetris, and contributed to Mattel's Planet Hot Wheels. She also created CD-ROM and online content for Mindscape Entertainment (then also encompassing SSI & RedOrb Games) and at a start-up called PF Magic, makers of the "virtual pets" game series, Dogz and Catz, a brand currently published by Ubisoft. Ms. Wallace was recently named in Next Generation as one of the Game Industry's 100 Most Influential Women of 2006. She serves on the Steering Committee for the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Casual Games Special Interest Group. Ms. Wallace was a Co-Editor of the 2006 IGDA Casual Games White Paper and a member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences (IADAS). Ms. Wallace holds a B.S. in Communication from Boston University and an M.A. in Communication from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.
Lucy Sanders: Hi, everybody. This is Lucy Sanders and I am the CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology or NCWIT. This is one in a series of podcast interviews that we are doing with women who have started IT companies. They have given us some fabulous stories and wonderful advice along the way. This is another one today with Margaret Wallace. With me are Lee Kennedy, Tricalyx Co‑founder and also Director of NCWIT. Welcome, Lee.
Lee Kennedy: Thanks, Lucy. It is great to be here.
Lucy: And also Larry Nelson of w3w3 Internet radio and king of technology in Colorado, the voice of technology in Colorado. Larry, welcome.
Larry Nelson: Thank you. I'll settle for Lord Nelson.
Lucy: Lord Nelson. Absolutely. So, Larry, why don't you say a bit about w3w3.
Larry: Well, we're a web‑based Internet radio show. We started in '96 and in 1998 I predicted the Internet would die. But, anyhow we got past all of that, and in the meantime we host many wonderful business shows. We're all business. We have a high tech bent, and I have to tell you this series that we've started here so far with NCWIT has been absolutely extraordinary. We get great feedback from business leaders, business owners as well as even young people who are listening.
Lucy: Well, they are going to love the interview we have today with Margaret Wallace who is the Co‑founder and CEO of Rebel Monkey. I have to tell you I just love the name of this company. When you go to Margaret's site and you read things like this: We're about fun times for all, so stay tuned for exciting announcements. I thought that was just wonderful. Before Rebel Monkey Margaret was Co‑founder and CEO of Skunk Studios in San Francisco. So tell us a bit about your new company, Rebel Monkey. It was just launched this year in the casual gaming space.
Margaret Wallace: My pleasure, and hi to everyone. It is a pleasure to be here. I'll give you some background on Rebel Monkey. We are, as you said, a casual game development house. That means we focus on video games that are for the rest of us, the people who don't have eight hours a day to spend learning how to use our controllers or don't feel like hooking up a Playstation or an Xbox although casual games do appear on those platforms. We make games that hopefully will reach the widest audience possible. At least, initially, casual games are distributed on the Internet, but you'll find them, as I mentioned, on mobile phones and other causal platforms. Rebel Monkey is a company that has been around since the beginning of 2007 so we're a brand new company. I have co‑founded Rebel Monkey with a gentleman named Nick Fortugno, and Nick is probably best known as being the lead designer on the blockbuster mega hit, Diner Dash. Diner Dash is a really fun, downloadable game which focuses on the life and times of a women named Flo. She is the heroine in the game, and you play the game to build her restaurant empire. For some reason that game just ignited the imagination of casual game players everywhere, so Nick Fortugno has really enjoyed a lot of attention and success because of that title. I met him about five or six years ago, and we just realized we had a lot in common in terms of our vision for the casual game market and for video games in general. That's how Rebel Monkey was formed. Rebel Monkey is located in the center of Manhattan. We are located in the neighborhood of Chelsea in Manhattan, and we are still pretty small. We are still under about 10 people, and we are hiring, by the way.
Lucy: Let's go. I'm ready to move to New York.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. It's been really fun and, as you said, our focus is on casual games. Right now, the casual game market is typically defined as being predominantly female, predominantly women in their 30s and 40s and 50s although men and college students and kids and people of all ages do play casual games. It's just a matter of how you categorize them.
Lucy: With that kind of customer dynamics, do you do anything different with the game designs or how does that feed into what you do?
Margaret: Making a casual game is very different from making regular console or hard core games. The audience of casual games isn't going to have many hours to spend learning how to play their title, and so with that in mind everything that you need to show a player in terms of how to play has to happen within the first 30 seconds of trying the game. Also, the kinds of controls you use in casual games have to be a lot simpler than if you think of a Playstation controller that has all of these different buttons and shoulder buttons and X and A. With a casual game you are pretty much relegated, at least for the PC, to your left mouse button, and so it really gives the designer a lot of structure for what they can do in terms of designing the game. Some people might think it is limiting, but actually I think it lets you focus on what kind of entertainment experience you can give to the audience and giving them the best entertainment experience possible. What else is different about casual games? The themes of casual games are much different than what you would find in what people think of as your typical video game. We expect when we make a casual game that not only are adult women going to play and adult men but their children and their grandchildren and their nieces and their nephews. Really, when you are designing a casual game you have to keep the broadest audience in mind possible. That means you wouldn't really want a lot of blood, guts and gore or a lot of excessive violence, any kind of theme that might be considered a little too adult might veer into the R‑rated territory. Those kinds of things really have not shown themselves to be successful within the casual game marketplace. I love making casual games because the duration of casual game play is much shorter and quicker bursts of entertainment. The themes that you focus on are really just kind of fun and unique and not simply relegated to dungeons and dragons and wizards and stuff like that. The themes are very acceptable, very much in tune with what's happening in pop culture, and I really enjoy the fact that I can make video games that a grandmother could play with her grandchildren and feel OK about it.
Lucy: And that's really important, I think, that the casual gaming space is not just entrepreneurial but very high tech which gets us to our first question around technology and how you first got into technology, Margaret. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Margaret: Sure thing. It's a really good question. I grew up in a household where my father was always bringing little gadgets home to play with them. When video cameras first came out he was one of the first people that anyone knew who had a video camera, so I think my interest in technology started from when I was a child. Then, when I went to college I was a communication major, and I studied the social and passive mass media on culture. So, I was a communication/anthropology kind of major. When I was undergrad I studied the attack of new technology on society and how people use technology and to what end. Specifically, technology in everyday life was something that always fascinated me. So this is going to completely date me but when I was undergraduate, for example, I helped conduct primary research as a research assistant for a book called "The Social and Cultural Aspects of VCR Use". That was a hot topic way back when, studying the VCR and VHS. And I also wrote an undergraduate thesis on how people were using ATM machines. I went to college as an undergrad in the 80s, and ATM machines were relatively new back then. It was this new thing around, in terms of how people access their money. Instead of going to a human teller they would use an ATM machine and I just found that endlessly fascinating. I think from that point on I always was interested in how technology gets integrated into everyday life and how that transforms personal and also social experiences.
Lucy: Well, you know, I think Larry still uses his Betamax. Don't you, Larry?
Larry: Well, I guess it's a seven 1/2 inch floppy disc.
Lucy: OK. So, Margaret, you have to tell us how you decided to be an entrepreneur and why you like it so much.
Margaret: You know that's a really great question. And I was speaking recently to a group of MBA students about this very topic. I think that fundamentally when you as a person have a passion that is just bubbling up inside you; that you just can't contain your enthusiasm and you just feel that you have this incredible calling to pursue something, I think that is a sign ‑ the beginnings of where at least my entrepreneurial ship came from. As I mentioned, I started in games industry about 10 years ago, back in the day just as the dot com boom was growing. I started at a little company called PF Magic. PF Magic made the first ever virtual pets, Dogz and Catz. Later a product called Oddballz. And for some strange slips of fate I ended up working for this start‑up called Pet Magic. I think that was the first time I saw how a start‑up environment worked and how much fun it is to just put your heart and soul into something you really believe in. Back then at PF Magic, when we worked on those virtual pets, we really believed in them. We loved those little critters that lived on your desktop. We would have knock‑down, drag‑out arguments on the big questions of life. You know, should they live or die? Should they be allowed to breathe? I was just like, this is where I belong. This is the world I want to be. Software development really just, it's just a whole ‑‑ it gives you everything at your disposal. Whereas people who make film, for example, they have to assemble a cast. They have to find a scriptwriter. You need that to a certain extent when you're doing software. At least in my eyes it was more achievable ‑ the forum for which I could see my inventions and my creative aspirations take life. Subsequently after Pet Magic, I had an opportunity to work at a few other start‑ups. I was at a company called Shockwave.com, in its early days. Just being on the West Coast in the Bay area in the middle of the dot com boom, seeing things work really well, seeing things fail just miserably. Just being part of that and being part of the excitement of having a passion and seeing it to fruition, and living and breathing it every day and every night. It's so much more fulfilling as a personal choice and as a way to live my life than almost anything I had ever done before. I guess, to kind of circle back to the beginning of your question, what inspired me to take the entrepreneurial route? I would say, it was that burning passion, part of me might be an inventor. I really love coming up with inventions and seeing them implemented from start to finish.
Larry: Over the years with all the different things that you have done, I'm sure there have been many people that have been important to you, that have made a big deal of difference, have been the mentor and so on. If you were to pick out one person, and I know that's tough, but it you could pick out one person who was your most important mentor, a turning point in your life, who would that be?
Margaret: Oh, that's a great question. I keep saying that, but you guys are asking really thought‑provoking questions and really difficult questions. So thanks a lot, Larry. To pick one person... OK, off the top of my head, I would go back to my teachers. And if I had to pick one teacher I would say it was a professor I had as an undergraduate in college. Her name was Julia Dobrow, and she, at the time, was a professor at Boston University. And for some reason, I don't know why, sheer luck perhaps, she really kind of took me under her wing. Now at the time, I was interested in being an academic. I was going to teach media culture in society. That was my thing. New technology was a focus. She basically had me help her conduct research for her book, so I just got to learn so much about communication, intercultural communication, because she dealt with themes of that. She also dealt with themes of the impact of new technology. I just think that she opened my world in terms of, I don't want to say taking myself seriously because I always took myself seriously, but I think she helped give me focus. I think she helped give shape to my aspirations. And I really do have to credit her with giving me that extra shot I needed to focus like a laser beam, as another person in my life used to say.
Lucy: But you can't mention, because Larry said you can only mention one.
Margaret: Exactly. Note my self control.
Lucy: Yeah, very admirable. Well, teachers are really, really important. A very important influence and it sounds like this one, in particular, was for you. Along the way, in addition to having mentors and people who have influenced you, you have probably also had some tough choices to make. Some things I think you may have mentioned earlier, companies that either wildly succeeded or failed miserably. What is the toughest thing you have had to do in your career so far, Margaret?
Margaret: OK, can I give you two answers for that?
Margaret: Or just one?
Lucy: Yes, of course you can give us two.
Margaret: OK, I think the toughest thing that I had to learn in my career was to develop patience. I grew up on the East Coast, where people will say what they think without really thinking. I believe early on, when I started in the industry, if I felt impatience about how quickly we might have been progressing on a project or if I saw one of the start‑ups I was a part of, maybe going down a path that maybe didn't seem to make sense. Look, eighty percent of your audience does this, why are we focusing on the twenty percent that don't really care. You know, those types of questions. I think when I started off, in video games in particular, I was this brash and brazen twenty‑something year old. I would not mince words. And so I would just say, well it's so obvious we should do this and this. I have learned the art, I think, of patience and diplomacy, in the sense of everybody needs to be heard. That's what makes a strong team. At the end of the day, the strong leaders are the ones that can guide the team or make the decisions at the end of the day. But really everyone's opinion is valid, which I always believed, but just my impatience. Do we have to go through this? Do we have to go over this? Time's wasting. I've kind of cooled my jets a little bit on that front. It's been very beneficial. And then closely related to that, or somewhat related to that in terms of it being tough, is just knowing when you need to cut your losses. If there is ever a path that you take in your career, or a project that you take on, or business decision you make. Every business decision counts. Even the smallest ones in six months to a year's time can come back to haunt you for better or for worse. So there are times you want to make the best decisions, but there are times you are not going to make the best decision. And really coming to terms with that as soon as possible and acting on cutting your losses or rectifying something that may not be going as you planned, as soon as you can, rather than letting something fester, which I think can be death to any start‑up. There's no room for festering. So there goes that impatience again. [laughs]
Lucy: It's clear you've learned a lot, being in a number of start‑ups over the years. I'm sure you can give some good advice to people that are just thinking about getting into a start‑up or being an entrepreneur. So if you were sitting here with a young group of people, what would you advise them?
Margaret: In terms of giving advice to younger people, who are interested in either beginning their own startup or joining a startup, it really depends on who that person is, what they are looking for and whether they are starting something from scratch or joining something that is already happening. I think that if you know that you are an entrepreneur early on and my route to being an entrepreneur was a lot more circuitous than that I think then the best thing to do is first of all try to get out there and meet as many people as you possibly can. There is no one in the industry that you are interested in who isn't worth talking to, at least, once. And it's just amazing. I'm sure you guys have had this experience, too. You will meet somebody randomly at a conference or on a project, and two years down the line you run into them. Three years down the line you see that person again. Ten years down the lines you still see that person. You both have done different things in your lives, but the people you meet along the way will be the people you encounter over and over. So, I think the most important thing is get out there and meet people. Talk to people. Be a good listener and specifically for women I would say women who feel they have that entrepreneurial spirit need to ‑ I don't mean to stereotype but ‑ evangelize themselves and not be shy about putting themselves out there because you are only going to get noticed insofar as you speak up. In a lot of ways ‑ be a good listener if you are planning to join a startup and you are at the very beginning of your career. Find out all you can about them before you work with them. You don't want to spend two or three years of your life working for something that has no future. Really just try to take every opportunity and really think about what's good for you. Don't feel compelled to act on an opportunity because you are worried another opportunity won't come your way. Ask questions and learn everything you can. I think that's what I did starting out as an entrepreneur with these different startups, and I just absorbed the culture and I learned everything I could by hook and by crook and maybe even despite myself. At the end of the day that all kind of meshed together, and I draw from those experiences on a daily basis. I can say that for sure in running this company and my past company.
Larry: Well, networking or whatever we want to call it, is really critical. That is a fact. One of the things I can't help but think about is here you have gone through all of these different things. You've got this new company now called Rebel Monkey. How do you bring about balance to your personal and your professional lives?
Margaret: The balance thing, I would say that I give you a lot of entrepreneurs who don't bring that balance into their lives. And I would admit for me I go through phases where I will keep in mind that it's good to take a breather because when you own your own company the work just never ends. You could work at five o'clock in the morning. You could work at two o'clock in the afternoon. There is always something to do. And there is always something to think about and there is always something to address or fix or pay attention to. When I am at my best in terms of keeping that balance because really if an entrepreneur becomes too myopic and too entrenched in their company and they don't get out and they don't see the world and they don't talk to people and they don't go to the movies, they are not going to be very good at running their business because they are just going to be a mess. So, when I am really treating myself well and my business well at the same time, I am doing things like I'll go to the gym; I'll go to yoga. I have a lot of friends who are around me that I can draw on for support. I have other fellow entrepreneurs who are at different stages of their own startup experience that I can hang out with and commiserate with. One thing I have had to learn not to do is ‑ and I'm not very good at it ‑ I try not to turn on the computer and check my email at two o'clock in the morning. I was doing just that this morning, so I didn't really succeed this time. But, it's always a matter of just remembering that the world isn't going to end if I take a four hour break or I take a Saturday and I go on a road trip, for example, or I go to a spa. I love going to spas!
Lucy: Yeah that spa thing! I really liked what you have to say there around treating yourself well and things going better for the business when you can. In fact, it's been a theme of these interviews that people seldom have balance every day. It's more of an integration. It's more of a phase type of thing as well.
Larry: We're actually going to take a train to a spa right after this interview.
Lucy: We are! We're going to the spa? Good! That is my kind of interview where we go to the spa. I also thought that some of your remarks that every business decision counts, even the little ones. If you think about it that way, it's only obvious that you're going to make some mistakes. I thought that that was especially good wisdom. So, Margaret, this really leads us to our last question around your future. You've accomplished a lot so far, a lot of wisdom, a lot of great casual games and critters. Virtual critters that have personalities. And don't tell us if you've killed them off or not we don't want to know. What's next for you? You've already achieved a lot. Why don't you tell us what's down the road a bit for you?
Margaret: Well, what is next for me and for Rebel Monkey? My heart and soul is basically poured to rebel monkey right now and I have so much enthusiasm for what we're going to be accomplishing as a company. Again, the work environment here is just a great work environment. The people we have hired ‑ we had some bumps along the way because this is a brand new studio ‑ the people are great. So I want to keep the environment and the culture here at Rebel Monkey as positive as it seems to have always been so far. I have a great business partner, Nick Fortuno. Not that we don't challenge each other, it not that we don't disagree at times but our competencies complement each other so well and our vision for Casual Games is so much in sync. I want to maintain that. We're going to be coming out with some brand new titles at the end of the year. Everything that Rebel Monkey makes, just by the way that sets us apart a little more than your average video game developer. We own everything we make. We don't do any work for hire. We don't do any contract work. We don't work with the larger brands because we don't own them. So the brands that we work with are our babies, for lack of a better word, our pets. As a company, we've made our mark in downloadable games for a specific audience and I think we're going to be looking to expand our audience to other age groups because they're out there. They're already playing Casual Games and I don't think there's enough content that's been made to serve them. So we're going to be completely expanding our presence with these newer audiences and exploring other kinds of business models that are out there in addition to the try before you buy model which is what you see with downloadable games. If you like it, you pay 20 bucks to own it forever. I think there is a lot of exciting stuff that I see happening in Asia and Korea around multiplayer gaming. That's pretty exciting. So I think that if Rebel Monkey came up with an impromptu tagline it would be 'Evolution of casual games.' I really think that's where my co‑founder, Nick, and I really want to put our focus. We want to evolve casual games to the next level. We want to expand the audience and we want to make some blockbuster brands for people to enjoy with their families and with their friends.
Larry: Lucy and Lee, you two really pulled together some fantastic heroes for the National Centre for Women and Information Technology Series. This is just fantastic!
Lucy: It's wonderful. Margaret it has been fantastic. It's been really interesting to hear I didn't know as much about casual games as I thought I knew. So now I know a lot more. It's been really interesting!
Lee: I'm ready to go download some and play them.
Lucy: Me too!
Larry: Well take a train and get there! Margaret, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. And by the way, listeners out there pass this interview along to others that you think would be interested because they can download it as a podcast at w3w3.com. And of course it's hosted at www.ncweb.org. That's it. Tune in and thank you for joining us.
Lee: Thank you Margaret.
Lucy: Thank you Margaret.
Margaret: Thank you everybody!