Sunitha Kumar Girish is the CEO and founder of Laughing Buddha Games LLC in Clayton, CA, with over 14 years of experience working at companies like Microsoft Corporation as a Program Manager, PopCap Games as a Senior Product Manager and Electronic Arts as a software developer. While at Microsoft, she worked on diverse projects like Games Explorer for Windows 7, Bing.com UI/UX, developing custom web forums and software implementations for internal Microsoft teams. Sunitha also worked on social features for Bejeweled Blitz, a Top 10 mobile game for PopCap Games, that was later acquired by Electronic Arts in 2011 for $1B. Currently working on edutainment games with her own company, she is passionate about her company’s mission of “do good while gaming” and is taking it to the next level, with key partners to create transformational games that focus on developing social emotional skills for kids of all ages.
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Sunitha Girish received her MS in Computer Software Engineering from Golden Gate University in 2004 and her undergraduate BA degree in English from Saint Mary’s College of California in 2000.
Playing and making games for a living seems like such a dream job! How did you get into the gaming industry?
I started off as a technical customer service representative for Maxis Games at Electronic Arts, manning phone lines and spinning off helpful emails to customers who were having trouble with their Sims games. Playing games between calls and emails all day, with a really cool group of colleagues, and helping people have a positive experience with their games was so much fun, that I knew I wanted to get into the business of making games for the rest of my life.
What is the mission of your company, Laughing Buddha Games?
Laughing Buddha Games combines strategies used in commercial games, and powered by an adaptive learning platform, our games meld social causes into seamless STE(A)M virtual environments, to showcase global issues, educate and empower the player to “do good through gaming”. Our focus on empathy and social emotional skills make our games rich in story, and simple in play.
What are the inspirations for the games? How did you come up with StarSmasher?
My kids. They are constantly learning and I’m always looking for ways to help them with that! Given my interest in learning and my love for video games, I knew I wanted to experience building a game from scratch.
StarSmasher started off from a simple game template that grew organically into the story it is today, with my children’s help. They enjoyed the catapult mechanic and watching the stars shatter, and watching them interact with the game gave me ideas to refine the design.
The gaming industry is so very competitive! When coming up with a new game, what does a new game designer need to do to differentiate and succeed? What have you found to work successfully or fail horribly?
Cool game mechanics, engaging story lines and fun rewards are now a part of most game ecosystems, so to stand out, you have to engage with your target audience early on and frequently, to provide a level of trust and community that you can help build momentum for your games.
From personal experience, if you don’t market your game and start the buzz early, you’re not going to gain traction as quickly as you’d like.
StarSmasher’s release metrics showed us that when we invested in generating buzz around the game, even with a simple Facebook post, it was able to generate downloads for our game. So, in a nutshell, watch your data and invest in your social channels – the information you will get back can be ridiculously useful to decide what to do next.
Owning your own company forces you to wear many hats. What part of it do you like the most, and what do you like the least?
I love product development – connecting the dots and finding the right people to make things happen is my favourite part. That said, the challenges to owning a business are many, but as the proverb goes, “You eat a mountain in small bites” and with the right support and partners in place, challenges become opportunities to come up with creative solutions!
Initially, not having the infrastructure of a large company was challenging, but nowadays, it seems like everything is optimised for startups to thrive. For example, as a small startup, having access to Amazon Web Services makes it possible for me to design and develop scalable gaming solutions for our players, and with the global reach provided by Apple’s AppStore, Google Play, Kindle Fire, Sony and Microsoft, we are able to reach players from around the world, who do care about social impact through gaming.
What’s the process of creating a game, from brainstorming to launch? How long does it usually take? What things do you do to market and distribute your games?
Depends on the type of game, I think. Games have a product lifecycle like all software: the process moves from requirements analysis, to development to QA and finally launch, with many checks in between to validate that everything is chugging along nicely. We usually run a weekly sprint release with a product backlog of features that we prioritise with the team for our builds. It took us about 5 months to come up with a beta for StarSmasher, from ideation to launch: we are working on optimising our processes as we go along.
That said, we just finished porting StarSmasher to Unity 3D in a record 20 days (woo-hoo, Sailakshmi, Surendra and Pradeep!) and are planning to release an updated version of the game for mobile (iOS/Android), web and TV, over the next few weeks. Please do check out the game and tell us what you think: we want to hear from you!
For our next wave of games, we have already begun the design process and given how ambitious our mission is, we are focused on getting it right. We’re planning at least 3 months in the analysis and design process and have a couple of new interns to help us, so we’re really looking forward to how it is all finally going to come together!
For marketing, we plan to leverage the expertise of our marketing partner, RTB Media, and will be distributing our games through Google Play, Apple’s App Store, Facebook, Amazon’s Kindle Fire and connecting with indie publishers to get our game on other game distribution channels for mobile, PC, TV, and web platforms.
How has becoming a mom changed your perspective on your career (if it has at all). Did you have to change your process at all?
Becoming a mom has taught me to value my time: optimise is a favourite word in our home! I try to prioritise everything I do to work around my children’s schedules and I find myself feeling more thoughtful about the impact of what I do for and around my kids. It’s important to me that my career gives me the freedom to have time with my children, when they need me. Of course, my husband, the amazing soul he is, makes all of this possible for me by helping me out with everything that he does; his understanding and support is truly the reason for my success. (Thank you, love!)
There have been a lot of studies pointing to the negative effects of “screen time” and children. What is your stance on this? Do you (or will you) let your kids play video games? If so, what amount do you think is appropriate?
As a gamer, a game designer, a woman and a parent, I am in the unique position of being on all sides of the table and while I agree that some of the content out there can be questionable, we find that curating “screen time” and play time gives us the ability to teach our children about technology and how to use it freely.
Of course, we play video games together – my oldest is currently exploring the Sega franchise on his Kindle Fire, so we (my husband, my son, I and many a hapless guest) take turns going through levels and beating the bad guys. It’s quite a lot of fun and something about seeing your 5 year old beat the boss in a level you couldn’t get past is so awesome on so many levels, that I can’t even describe it without a smile. That said, being called a hero by your starry-eyed kid when you do the same, is pretty great too!
What creative activities do you like to do with your children?
Depends on what they’re in the mood for: reading books, building train tracks, Legos, painting, gardening, baking cookies – just not all at once! I love spending time with them – that, in itself is so much fun and I’m grateful for every moment of it.
Do you have any tips, advice, resources for a mom who wants to get in this field? What skills are important to learn?
Yes, creative confidence and intellectual curiosity will get you anywhere you want to go. Be willing to code and learn because the resources are out there. Volunteer for game conferences, try an internship. Pick up books on game design and experiment! Be fearless in discovery.
Fill in the blanks
My current pet peeve is that I don’t have enough time!
If I weren’t a game designer, I would be a writer.
My favorite game is WoW.
If i could be a game character, I would be Lara Croft, Tomb Raider!