ESA Foundation Scholar Q&A with Kaila Harris

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you’re studying? What sparked your interest in video game development?

Kaila: I’m originally from Los Angeles, California. I went to San Diego to get an electrical engineering degree because I thought it would help me make video games later down the line. But then, I got into a car accident and I thought to myself, “I’m tired of sitting around. I’m going to go make video games.” So, I went off to DigiPen Institute of Technology and I’m set to graduate soon. I was going to be working on my portfolio while I was doing my engineering stuff but when I got into the car accident, I couldn’t work anymore. Then I thought I would just go full tilt into video games.

Q: As you said, you are set to complete your degree in Game Design at DigiPen Institute of Technology. You also hold another degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of San Diego. Can you talk more about why you chose to pursue these two degrees?

Kaila: For my electrical engineering degree, I wanted to stay close to the technology field and possibly go into video games after I filled up a portfolio. And, DigiPen was a good way to practice game design and see if I would really like working in the video game industry. I found that I really did enjoy it, so I wound up staying there all four years, making a lot of new friends and finding out which design path I liked the most.

Q: We saw you have already worked on several video game projects, such as Space/Time and Skies Over Paradise. Was there anything you found particularly enjoyable as you created them?

Kaila: Space/Time was one of the first projects I made with an all designer team so I wound up doing audio programming. I really liked meshing one art form with another. I grew up with musical training, so being able to put that into a video game was a lot of fun. Skies Over Paradise was an interesting game to develop because it was a port of a board game I made my freshman year, so seeing the differences between how analog games play versus digital games was an eye-opening experience.

Q: Do you create video games in your free time? What has been one of the most interesting things you’ve learned through tinkering/self-exploration?

Kaila: I mostly make video games on the side and they are typically narrative-driven experiences. The thing I found out was that narrative experiences take a lot of time to make it very good and bring it up to a high-quality level. Most of it is just me having fun, so I spend my free time on that and hopefully I can do some narrative-driven experiences in the industry soon as well.

Q: If you look back at the time when you were a freshman, and then look at where you are now, in what ways has your skillset expanded?

Kaila: I learned how to talk to other disciplines more. The designers have their way of speaking, the tech people have theirs and the arts have a language of their own. So, I learned how to communicate with my peers and my teammates more. I took on a few leadership roles and found which ones I liked better. I wasn’t sure if I would like production more or team lead more, and I discovered that I had an affinity for both. That was a surprise!

Q: Could you share more about those leadership roles you took on?

Kaila: During my sophomore year at DigiPen, I led Outbreak, which is a human vs. zombie game. Once I took over the position of executive producer, I didn’t get to do as much of the design, but seeing everything from a high-level and working with the administration and my team, and interacting with the players was an experience that I enjoyed. The game runs in real-time, so once it starts, the developers are on the field and they’re playing at the same time. This means you have to troubleshoot at the same time you’re playing the game and you still want to keep the immersion alive. That was a tricky, but fun experience.

Q: What kinds of video games do you see yourself developing after you graduate? If on a development team, what role would you like to play?

Kaila: I’d probably like to do a competitive game or something systems-heavy. I’d like to go for a mid-level company. If they are experimenting with a system or story that I believe is interesting, I’d like to be a part of that. I imagine that I would like to be a producer or even lead designer one day.

Q: Where do you see yourself working after you graduate? Is there a company or region you’d like to work in? Why?

Kaila: One day, I’d really love to work for Ubisoft. It doesn’t seem possible right now because I’d like to stay in the area but I was a huge fan of Assassin’s Creed growing up, so being able to work there would be a dream.

Q: What is your all-time favorite video game?

Kaila: If I had to go for my favorite video game of all time, it’s a toss-up between Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Kingdom Hearts II.

Q: How did you find out about the ESA Foundation scholarship?

Kaila: I found it while looking for scholarships for game design. There weren’t a lot, but when I found the ESA Foundation one, I saw that it was for women and minority students involved in the video game field and I thought, “Wow, this is neat!” So, I applied for it and got it the second year I applied.

Q: What did the scholarship mean to you and how did you use it?

Kaila: The scholarship was very inspiring because it showed me that I can do this. It helped me stay in the area and keep attending DigiPen so that I could work on games.

Q: We know you recently attended the 20th anniversary of Nite to Unite. What part of that evening stood out to you?

Kaila: The part of the evening that stood out to me was meeting the other ESA Foundation scholars because prior to that I didn’t know any game students that were not DigiPen-affiliated. So, seeing how all of the other scholars worked at their own schools and all of the similarities that we shared despite being all over the country was a lot of fun. I’m still in contact with a few of them so it was great. The evening was very inspiring as well.

Q: Do you have any advice for other ESA Foundation scholars or aspiring game designers?

Kaila: To the ESA Foundation scholars, I’d say keep trying even if everything is falling apart. Take a break if you need to, but get back up and go for it. For aspiring game designers, I’d say be aware of version control. Have multiple, redundant backups of your stuff because I’ve seen terrible things and wish that I’d had more backups!

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