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Ogdensburg native a pioneering Facebook game designer


It’s game on as Brenda L. Garno Brathwaite seizes the next level of her career.

About a half dozen years ago, Ms. Garno Brathwaite, daughter of the late George and Jean M. Hare Garno of Ogdensburg, earned the monicker the “sex in games lady.” It came about from her work as lead designer on the hit game “Playboy: The Mansion” and by serving as chairwoman of the International Game Developers Association’s special interest group on sex.

“That was just a bizarre part of my career,” Ms. Garno Brathwaite said in a phone interview earlier this month from Silicon Valley in California. “For 20 years before that, I guess it would be ‘role-playing lady.’ I haven’t even thought about that in years.”

She is likely too busy. These days, Ms. Garno Brathwaite works in social game development — the type of games played on Facebook as opposed to on a console.

In 2010, Ms. Garno Brathwaite co-founded Loot Drop, an independent mobile and social game development studio, with John Romero, who has designed such classic PC games as “Wolfenstein 3D,” “Doom” and “Quake.”

“He was basically the creator of the first-person shooter,” Ms. Garno Brathwaite said.

Loot Drop, based in San Bruno, this past spring, in partnership with video game giant Ubisoft, launched its first title, “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Commander.”

Besides her work in the gaming industry, Ms. Garno Brathwaite, 45, was a professor of game design at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. She has worked on game development since 1981 and has credits on 22 titles. She is a regular speaker at conferences.

Her career began at Ogdensburg’s Sirtech Software in the 1980s when she was 15. Sirtech, based in Ottawa, published “Wizardry,” a series of fantasy role-playing games that was one of the most popular computer game series of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Ms. Garno Brathwaite, a 1984 graduate of Ogdensburg Free Academy, first worked at Sirtech as a tester and later moved up through the design and content creation ranks to become lead designer on the award-winning “Wizardry” series.

Sirtech closed its Ogdensburg operations in 1998, but Ms. Garno Brathwaite continued to work for the company’s Canadian office through 2001, after she graduated from Clarkson University, Potsdam, in 1989 with a degree in technical communications.

After her 20 years at Sirtech, Ms. Garno Brathwaite worked for gaming companies EA, Atari and others before teaching and co-founding Loot Drop.

She said she was always into all kinds of games — from board games to pinball.

“I still remember where every single arcade in Ogdensburg was,” she said. “When I first saw the machines in the Ogdensburg bowling alley, I was so phenomenally interested.”

She said her career is a matter of good timing.

“I had a love for games, got into it at the beginning of the industry and I just never left,” she said. “I heard a lot of game designers say, ‘It’s not a job, it’s a calling.’ I do this because I have to. I don’t have a choice about doing something else with my life.”

‘Recon’ on Facebook

The Facebook description for “Ghost Recon,” which is a popular console series, invites players to “lead an elite squad in a fast-paced strategic combat experience that challenges everything you know about Facebook games.” Ubisoft calls it “the first gamer’s game on Facebook.” Like most Facebook games, it’s free to play.

Designing for Facebook has particular challenges, as opposed to designing console games, Ms. Garno Brathwaite said.

“The first is the technology,” she said. “Facebook isn’t a dedicated platform like an Xbox or PlayStation 3 that has all of these high-end graphics and processors.”

She added that many Facebook gamers are using “low-end machines.”

“You can’t push crazy graphics,” she said. “Trying to cram as much game as you can into something that is relatively slow is a huge challenge.”

She added, “From a game designer’s point of view, the significant challenge is trying to make a game that the more casual players on Facebook would enjoy, but the hard-core gamers who are ‘Ghost Recon’ fans would also enjoy.”

In the “Ghost Recon” Facebook game, Ms. Garno Brathwaite said, a character can either be a reconnaissance and assault person or a specialist. Each player has a base camp, in which “buildings” can be developed, “which basically allow you to buff up your guy,” she said.

“The better your base camp, the better your soldier will be,” Ms. Garno Brathwaite said. “Your friends can hire you to go on missions with them. Or you can hire your friends.”

Getting with the program

Ms. Garno Brathwaite noted that females working on “shooter” games are uncommon in the gaming industry, but she can’t imagine doing anything else.

She said the best advice she can give to someone hoping to design games for a living is to learn how to program computer code for games.

“So many people are trying to get into it that learning how to code is one of the most significant things you can possibly do,” she said.

But Ms. Garno Brathwaite doesn’t know how to code.

Instead, she said, she functions like a game’s architect.

“I direct the game like a director, or design it like an architect,” she said. “Then, coders and artists build what I design. I am constantly evaluating every single build, every screen, every piece of art, to see how it feels when it’s in the game and being played.”

Ms. Garno Brathwaite’s 11-year-old daughter is learning how to code.

“Getting that core knowledge is important,” she said. “First, you have to master the language.”

difficult topics on board

It was Ms. Garno Brathwaite’s daughter who inspired her to design a series of non-digital board games solely as an exercise. Her daughter came home one day and told her mother in a matter-of-fact way that they learned about the slave trade in school that day.

“In games, we cover a lot of subjects, but we often don’t cover difficult subjects,” Ms. Garno Brathwaite said. “I wanted to see if a game could capture and express a difficult topic; if games could do what every other form of media could do.”

In her game “The New World,” players must get boatloads of slaves to the new world. Challenges include the amount of food on ships versus the amount of people to feed.

She then wondered about other difficult topics. She created “Train,” a “game” about transporting Jewish captives during the Holocaust.

“If you talk about difficult moments in human history and leave out the Holocaust, in my opinion, you are cheating,” Ms. Garno Brathwaite said.

She also created the prototype board game “Mexican Kitchen Workers” that deals with illegal immigration and a game that explores the difficulties of Irish settlers in North America and which is based on her heritage.

“The irony for all these games is I never intended for anybody to see them,” she said.

But she said she spoke at a conference about them and there happened to be a reporter there from the Wall Street Journal. The paper did a story on “Train” in 2009.

She then found herself taking the only existing copy of “Train” to places like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She gave a talk about her unconventional game series — called the Mechanic is the Message — last fall at a TEDx — Technology, Entertainment, Design — conference in Phoenix.

“It’s kind of funny, because now, when I go to a game developer’s conference, the ratio of people who come up to me and say, ‘Wow, you made ‘Train,’ versus, ‘Oh, you worked on ‘Wizardy’ is probably 10 to one in favor of ‘Train,’” Ms. Garno Brathwaite said.

But “Train,’ she said, can’t be bought because it’s not mass produced.

“And it won’t be,” she said. “The games were just a design exercise. You feel wrong to make a profit off the Holocaust, or any of those other things.”

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