#MeetIronGalaxy – Evelyn Fredericksen

Published by
Keenan Moralicz
April 25, 2024
Evelyn Fredericksen Blog Header Image

Making games requires teamwork that includes many people with different talents. Helping those people work together to create something with a cohesive vision relies on steady leadership. Recently, in our search for a new Head of Game Design to join us at Iron Galaxy, we were looking for someone who could lead by example and bring some new life and ideas to the team. Luckily, we found someone who could draw on lots of interesting experiences. Introducing, Evelyn Fredericksen.

Iron Galaxy: Hi Evelyn. Thanks for being the latest interviewee for our #MeetIG series. Tell the internet about yourself. What would you say you do here at Iron Galaxy?

Evelyn Fredericksen: I'm the department head of design. A lot of my role boils down to team management, budget creation, oversight, project deployment, and problem solving. If I had to pick one thing I love most about this job, it would be the emphasis on people. I love helping other folks get the opportunity and support they need to learn and grow.

A big part of that support is feedback, which is the lifeblood of any game dev. We do challenging work, using ever-changing tools and processes, and we work on games whose scope is big enough to require that we treat development like the team sport it is. On top of that, we often work on partner projects, which require strong collaboration and communication with the partner's team. That's a lot of moving pieces, and if any one piece falls out of sync, it can become a problem for the whole team. So, proactively setting clear expectations is important, as is the shared awareness that no one is telepathic. Empathy is important in my role, especially when it comes to avoiding or mitigating miscommunication.

IG: We’re sure glad to have you in our corner. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

EF: We're human so it seems like an obvious thing to say: I can't read your mind. In my case, I'm a pretty literal person, so I can sometimes get tripped up by straight-faced sarcasm or one of those "This is a statement that implies a question" things. To my wonderful husband, this trait is a source of loving amusement, along with my tendency to make accidental puns. To many other people, though, my literal mindset could become a source of misunderstanding unless I tackle it head-on, which is what I've learned to do.

I tell people proactively that I tend toward the literal and that they should feel free to let me know if I'm ever failing to pick up what they're putting down. I passionately support setting expectations and giving timely feedback. I use myself as an example of how easy a misunderstanding can be, as well as how easily we can overcome misunderstandings. This is a difficult and competitive industry so if you're here, we already know you've got brains and mad skills. Whatever the problem is, we can figure out a solution! But we won't do that by leaving the problem unspoken and unaddressed. If you see something, say something.

Over time I've gotten plenty of experience with handling difficult conversations. It was tough at first: it feels much nicer to give people kudos than course corrections. But the latter have gotten much easier over time, especially once I started thinking of them as a matter of support and fairness. Most major course corrections really needed to be addressed earlier. Folks often react to these belated talks with understandable shock and a sense of betrayal: why, they wonder, didn't anyone tell me until now? Delayed course corrections mean problems that grow and fester, as well as unnecessary friction that makes a constructive pivot less likely.

As managers, we want to set our people up for success. Course corrections are part of that success, as is building trust and psychological safety with your team so they know any course corrections are coming from a place of genuine support and caring. We're all human; we all mess up sometimes. Game designers in particular are experts in kludging so most of us have a story about how we broke something critical in Live or checked a zillion files and marked them for deletion, then had to scramble for a fix. That's the gold here: how we do we respond after messing up?

IG: That’s a great question that sounds to be a good mark of a talented designer. If you could give someone who wanted to follow in your career’s footsteps one piece of advice, what would it be?

EF: I'll give three pieces of advice here. First, ideally you'll figure out what you want out of a career more quickly than I did, but don't worry if you don't. We're all on our own journeys, and sometimes it takes a while to decide where you want to go and how you want to get there. The gaming industry is full of people who didn't expect to wind up here. Keep an open mind and be willing to dive into different disciplines, projects, teams, and studios. Variety is a spice that helps you navigate your "What do I want to do?" journey. (Insert Dune joke.)

[Editor’s Note: A Fremen, a Harkonnen, and the Emperor of the Known Universe walk into a bar… Wait, were we not supposed to take this literally?]

Second, don't get too hung up on having the perfect degree or the perfect experience before applying to a job. Don't let perfect get in the way of good. Another way of thinking about this is, don't tell yourself no; make the hiring manager do it. You might be surprised. It's rare that a candidate is a perfect match for a job description, and a good company will help you learn whatever you're missing. It matters that you can do the job well, but it also matters that you can learn new things, thrive in a team environment, and support your teammates when needed. That includes caringly nagging your teammates if they are in danger of overworking. Burnout is a real risk in our industry.

Third, part of a learning mindset is asking for help. Again, the work we do is challenging: the fastest way to learn is to speak up and ask questions. I recently saw a social media post advising job applicants never to admit to ignorance. Maybe that's good advice with other industries, but in my experience it's terrible advice for our industry. I've been part of many, many hiring committees, and it's typically easy to tell when an applicant is glossing over inexperience. We'd much rather hear an honest response that demonstrates creativity in leveraging your existing experience (e.g., "I don't have experience in X, but I did tackle Y, which makes me think Z would be the right approach") and/or the hunger and ability to learn.

IG: We’ll never turn down more advice. Keep it coming. What are the challenges of crafting content and narrative for online games?

EF: Crafting content that appeals to players is important, but so is crafting content that the game team enjoys making. You want healthy overlap between these two categories, along with great tools and processes that make crafting content and iterating on it fast and easy. On top of that, never rest on your laurels: keep pushing the bounds and trying new things. Be honest about what works and what doesn't. Build a culture of trust, experimentation, and learning. That's the kind of stuff that drives game success, team morale, developers' career progress, and the IP's future.

Keeping the narrative plates spinning can be a challenge. The trick is not to follow up on every story thread at once or nonstop. Be picky and transparent about why certain threads are getting prioritized: the reasons will change over time, and that's fine. If you can't think of a cool way for a thread to continue, let it lie fallow for a while before you try picking it back up. Watch out for overloading narrative into a space that can't accommodate it (e.g., subtle story beats or NPC speeches in a multiplayer shooter). Remember that not all players care about story. Overall, do it well, but don't force it.

It's not necessarily wrong to make narrative choices that go against players' popular "head canon," where they've made up story to fill the gaps your game has left open. But it's not necessarily right, either. Be ready to kill your darlings if a better idea comes along. Overall, we want players to come back for the next batch of content or story. That means having players feel invested. Fight predictability and stagnation, but not to the point where you sacrifice strong, relatable story or characterization. It doesn't matter how clever something is if players don't care.

IG: Spoken from experience. You’ve clearly worn many hats during your career in game development. What learnings from past positions nudged you into a leadership position in design?

EF: I started out in the industry as a QA technical engineer at Blizzard Entertainment, but over time I was also asked to tackle writing and editing tasks across the company, including in our games. This work led to my becoming the first member of a new central team called Creative Development. Specifically, I was asked to create bibles for the studio's major IPs, as well as act as a narrative, writing, and editing resource for both Blizzard and our licensed publications. It was a cool combination of creative and analytical work in our games and beyond. Years later, I'd hired and trained up a team to continue that work, and I took a temporary assignment on the World of Warcraft dev team.

In-game design work was even cooler than I had imagined, which made my decision easy when I eventually received an offer from a much smaller studio with only one game team. Their interviewers proactively warned me they didn't have my current studio's long-established tools and processes. "We'd need your help building those," they said. Those words were music to my ears: it was clear there would be lots of opportunity for me to learn and grow. So, I accepted their offer and turned in my notice.

Over the next two years and change, I went from a mid-level game designer to lead, and I learned a great deal more about what it meant to be a game designer. One of the most helpful things I learned was to walk around the studio while I was still putting together GDDs, borrowing people to explain my goals, pitch my ideas, and get their input and buy-in. Doing that helped me craft better GDDs. Great ideas can come from anyone, and getting other perspectives strengthened the resulting design. It also saved a lot of time, ensured everyone was on the same page, and made feature kickoff a breeze.

Unfortunately, the studio's biggest investors bowed out after a few years, and layoffs hit. Afterwards, I found a new role at a mid-sized company, Hi-Rez Studios, as an advanced game designer on a shooter game under development. Then an executive producer from another project, the hero shooter Paladins, hit me up. He was also the game's acting tech director, and he had way too many direct reports. He'd heard that I had management experience from my previous studios, and he asked if I would help him out by becoming his team's technical manager. I accepted and started managing the team's Design, Programming, and QA groups.

Eight months later, that same executive producer became a critical need elsewhere in the company. To my shock, he volunteered me to take over as Paladins' new executive producer. It turned out that I'd already been doing a lot of that job, and the rest, I soon learned. It was critical to figure out what our lean team should take on next, and we had to get creative to work around time and resource limitations. Sometimes we needed to make pivots, too. As a live game, we had to keep trying new things to keep the game feeling alive and engaging.

When the industry downturn hit the company years later, layoffs struck, and I volunteered to be part of them: I knew the team could manage without me. Then I saw a job posting from Iron Galaxy for the head of the design department. I recognized Iron Galaxy's name from the great work they had done for a past studio I'd worked at. So, I applied, thinking it would be amazing if I could join them. The rest is history, yay!

James Bond-inspired poses featuring Evelyn holding a pistol and a co-worker from Evelyn's Blizzard days holding a shoe
A background photo used during a 2008 BlizzCon panel about the Blizzard DVD Team

IG: It’s been amazing and our future with you here is looking bright! What kind of archetype(s) would you like to see more in character designs?

EF: More variety would be great. The world is full of beautiful variety, and a lot of character designs don't have anything close to that kind of variety. I've heard the arguments about how this or that specific character trait is simply better for sales, and that's why it gets disproportionately used in fiction. But (a) characters with that trait are the most common so familiarity is driving that popularity, not some kind of inherent superiority. And (b) making the same basic characters over and over has a lot of downsides in our creativity and in real life, including sales.

I'd also like to see more heroes who aren't chosen ones, who don't fit the mold, who have to struggle. Being a chosen one feels too easy to me. It doesn't feel very heroic to me if a character's heroic nature is an accident of birth rather than something they earned.

IG: Reflective answer. What is your hometown?

EF: Depends on what you mean by "hometown." I was born in Savannah, Georgia, a city that is covered in trees and flowers. Pretty much anytime someone wants to trim a tree, there's an argument: that's how much people there love trees. To be fair, hurricanes almost never hit Savannah so falling tree limbs are fairly rare. I've lived in four other states since then. I'm currently living in beautiful Nashville, Tennessee, which is nicknamed "Music City" for good reason. I'm a wimp about spicy food so I haven't tried the area's famous hot chicken, but there's plenty of other great food here.


IG: Aside from playing video games, what’s a favorite hobby of yours?

EF: Reading books, primarily fantasy and science fiction. Good characterization is my critical requirement for enjoying a book. Dragons are always a bonus, though. As a kid, I fell in love with dragons, and I'm still likely to read anything that features a dragon. In terms of real-life creatures, though, I appreciate stories that include cats or dogs, both of whom are adorable.

Evelyn and a Deathwing Statue
Evelyn and a Deathwing statue

IG: Dragons, cats, and dogs. You know exactly what tickles a gamer’s heart. What’s something you feel everyone must do once in their life?

EF: I'd recommend trying something totally new, something that pushes them beyond their comfort zone. It's a quick way to learn and grow, and it can also teach us to be more forgiving of mistakes, whether they're ours or someone else's. Furthermore, it's good exercise for the brain.

IG: True that. What’s your favorite book or series?

EF: I love too many books to be able to name a single favorite book or book series. However, the most adorable book I've read in the last few years is The King's Captive by K. M. Shea. A woman who can turn into a housecat ends up becoming the unwilling pet of a powerful spellcaster king who has no idea she's a shapeshifter. Having never owned a pet before, he is stubbornly determined to win over his new cat. Unwilling to divulge her secret, she remains in cat form, but tries to help him track down the cause behind a number of strange and increasingly dangerous incidents. It's a sweet story with magic and a side of mystery that also manages to be very funny at times.

IG: The perfect read for a Druid. What game have you spent the most time playing?

EF: World of Warcraft, by far. I played every class and every profession. My husband often played with me, and it was a lot of fun in many different ways. I haven't played it much in more recent years, but it will always have a place in my heart.

IG: What race and class would you often play as?

EF: A Night Elf Priest.

Concept art of Evelyn as Night Elf Priest from World of Warcraft
Concept art by Wei Wang

IG: Shifting away from games but staying in the media realm, what movie have you seen the most times?

EF: That would be Aliens. It's a fantastic blend of science fiction, action, and horror, as well as solid characterization, snappy dialog, and an awesome female lead. Aliens is particularly impressive for how quickly it makes many other characters relatable and memorable, including an android.


IG: Bishop prefers the term “artificial person.” What’s one superpower that you would like to have?

EF: Supernatural intelligence. It would be so cool to be able to learn everything immediately, and you'd be able to help everyone around you, too. No matter how much you learn, there's always so much more out there, and it can sometimes be challenging to set aside time to learn new things.


IG: With limitless capabilities unlocked with that superpower, it’s nice to hear that you’d first jump to helping others. If you had one wish, what would you wish for?

EF: Excellent health for everyone, in all senses of the word health. Physical, psychological, financial, and more -- it's all interconnected, and we humans are interconnected with each other. Being healthy is about our whole existence, including the existence of other people.

Evelyn protecting her skin’s health, fighting the Sun with a hat, scarf, sunglasses, sweater, and sunblock
Evelyn protecting her skin’s health, fighting the Sun with a hat, scarf, sunglasses, sweater, and sunblock


IG: Your empathy is remaining a consistent throughout this interview. To close us out, what fictional universe would you choose over our own and what if there was no coming back?

EF: I'd want to live in the Star Trek universe as a member of the Federation during its heyday, preferably as a Vulcan or human. The Star Trek universe is imperfect but utopian in multiple ways. That said, I added a requirement to my choice because being part of the universe could be pretty iffy to downright awful for folks who aren't Federation members. To be fair, you could make the same sort of "special requirement" assertion about most fictional universes outside of some children's books. (Shoutout to my second-place choice, which would be L. Frank Baum's land of Oz!)

Thank you, Evelyn, for indulging us on all our curiosities about your career. Hearing stories about how your career has unfolded and led you to Iron Galaxy has been a delight to read. Your realms of expertise in game development serve as great inspiration for anyone looking to grow within design, relationship management, and understanding the common video game player. We’re excited to see how design grows under your umbrella with your leadership at Iron Galaxy!

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