Denise Fulton

37, video game producer, Austin
Denise Fulton
Illustration by Andy Friedman

Gaming has come a long way since the days of Pong and Asteroids. At the vanguard of the latest wave of interactive, multiplayer video games is this native of Bowling Green, Ohio, one of the few women in the industry to crack the ranks of upper management. As the studio head of the Austin office of Midway Games (the company that brought Space Invaders to the U.S. in 1978), Fulton oversees a staff of 180 programmers, designers, writers, and artists. She began her career on the West Coast as a graphic designer at Microsoft, then worked her way up to senior development director at Electronic Arts, where she oversaw its enormously popular NHL series. She moved to Austin in 2002 to work at the now-defunct Ion Storm, where she produced the sequel to the cult hit Deus Ex, and joined Midway two years later.

What’s the biggest difference between the video games that you’re producing and the ones you played as a kid?

The production values have gone up so dramatically. Today’s games have much more in common with TV and cinema, and you’re going to see more and more blurring of those lines as we go forward. Graphically, of course, there’s a big effort to make things more realistic and immersive, to make you feel like you’re actually in the environment.

Besides better production values, how are games more sophisticated than they used to be?

Well, take Grand Theft Auto. What made that game exciting wasn’t the violence but all the choices that players had to pick from. It wasn’t as linear and scripted as the games that came before it. You were dropped into a very interesting environment and then you had to choose your path through it. Players really responded to that. But it’s funny—on one end of the spectrum, more and more players want to author their own experiences, and on the other end of the spectrum, they want stronger characters and more-robust, cinematic storytelling. Those two things can be at odds with each other, but designers are starting to meld them in interesting ways.

How is the evolving technology changing video games?

With Xbox Live, PlayStation 3, and the Wii, we have the capability to connect players with other players so they can interact with each other, and that’s a whole other realm. Playing video games isn’t about one guy sitting in his bedroom—it’s about connectivity and community. In World of Warcraft, which is huge right now, you can play with literally thousands of other players. You’ve got your character, which you create, and you walk through this very detailed virtual world. The people you see around you are other players. You can talk to them; you can do quests with them. It’s mind-boggling.

Will new technology also allow games to become more portable?

Absolutely. You already have Nintendo DS’s that you can carry around with you, as well as cell phone games. There is also virtual portability. With Xbox Live, you have your gamer profile, and you can go to your friend’s house and access your information.

Will avatars change in the next generation of games?

It’s all about choice and being able to choose who you will be in the virtual world. You see it on MySpace and Facebook. People want to have a presence. They want to create and customize their own identities. Players want to say, “This is me. I’m here, and this is what I’m about.”

Ten, twenty years from now, what do you see on the horizon?

You’ll definitely see the continuation of these trends, especially the social aspects of gaming. There will be more-interesting characters, richer narratives. And there will probably be that groundbreaking thing that we don’t know about yet that will change everything!

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