We recently had the opportunity to sit down and visit with Zi Li, a revered game designer and producer who has helped deliver award-winning titles including “Dissonance,” “Paralect,” “MiraLab,” “Dungeon Crash” and “Epic Knights.” Shining in both PC and mobile platforms, Li has also engaged her talents for the award-winning “Leviathan” virtual reality project and for the short films, “The Birthday Girl” and “Fly.”
Li, a Guangdong, China native, has a well-founded background for the field. She received a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Digital Media from Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Interactive Media & Games from the University of Southern California.
Dispatching her design brilliance, Li has been instrumental in the development, design and execution of cognitive puzzle games, fantasy RPGs and adventure games. She works with Firefly Games Inc., that operates offices in both Shanghai and Los Angeles, and had prior stints with Digital Domain 3.0 Inc., Floor 84 Game Studio and Ericsson Communications.
Li has constructed a standout career with a formula comprised of artistic creativity, engineering ingenuity and a command of computer programming and design principals. We are excited to share her story below in our exclusive interview!
What was it like to grow up and live in Guangdong?
ZL: To be honest it was kind of boring. I grew up in a middle city. Its economy is okay to maintain people’s basic needs. But we don’t have much to do. People are very chilled and always have morning tea, afternoon tea and night tea. Being chilled and relaxed is not in my nature. I always want to go to other places and see what is exciting and creative. I guess that’s why I am here making games.
What games did you grow up playing?
ZL: I did not grow up playing games. My parents were very strict when I was young. They don’t allow me to access to anything that could make me feel addictive. I was learning painting and into manga when I was a child. I always wanted to do art.
Unlike a lot of game developers, I didn’t fall in love with games first. I have particular types of games I like. I love visual art and engineer first and then found games that express meanings and allow me to feel smart when I am playing are very attractive. That’s why I get into game industry.
What drove you to pursue a career in game design?
ZL: I would say I’m driven by the idea of communicating thoughts through art pieces. For me game is art. Game designers are the same as other artists.
I was good at science related fields when I was a kid. I thought my ability is enough support me to become an engineer in the future. On the other hand, I spent more than 6 years studying paintings until high school. I always thought I could become a part time artist. I did an animation later. I found that doesn’t satisfy my needs of expressing my engineering mindset.
Later, I got clearer that in the field that science intersects with art is what I’m really passionate about.
For me, games is a media that allows both science and art collapse together.
What is your favorite game genre?
ZL: Puzzle. I like games that can make me think and use my logic.
What are your top three favorite games all-time?
ZL: Braid, Machinarium, Windosill.
How would you describe your job as a game designer and producer?
ZL: My job includes a wide range of tasks. As a producer, I work with different teams and communicate with each team about their perspective of the game. Also, because I’m a game designer, I also work on game design decisions and help with correcting the game development direction.
What does it take to be a successful game designer?
ZL: I think a good game designer should be innovative, open-minded, and passionate. Other skills will come along as long as the game designer knows what he or she wants.
How did your academic career help shape your professional career?
ZL: I got an engineering degree in Digital Media. We learned lots of basic knowledge about films, animation and games. I learned how to program and work on cinematic pieces during my study in the Digital Media Department. I found my passion in films and games by trying out various media.
Then I went to graduate school for Interactive Media and Games. I was majoring in game design. I knew that this program is not only limited in traditional games. It matches what I want out of games. So I started as a game design student in the industry and gradually figured out my strength. I was involved in various games projects and learned different skills, like design methodology, cinematic expression and so on. They definitely help me to become a game designer and producer.
“Dissonance,” for PC, won the Indie Prize and the Experimental Game Showcase at the Out of Index Festival. Tell us a little bit about it.
ZL: Dissonance is a puzzle-adventure game developed by Team Dissonance. I created Dissonance as a bridge between puzzle games and a psychology concept cognitive dissonance. It started as my personal project. With six months development, the team has expanded to over 10 people. The developers transmitted the psychological concept cognitive dissonance into the core mechanics of game to make it more than just a puzzle game.
What place do puzzle and psychology games have in today’s gaming market?
ZL: Puzzle games are always popular. But I don’t see many games combining puzzle and psychology together. I think as one of the art media, comparing to other media, video games are still new and have lots of potential. Hopefully it will be growing and explored the usage in different areas.
The fantasy RPG – “Dungeon Crash” – has over one million downloads for Android and Apple. How would you describe the game and what’s made it such a success?
ZL: Dungeon Crash is a fun and adorable game which has playful battles accompanied by strategic role-playing elements.
The gameplay is deep and fun. Players always have the next goal in the game. The main goal of the game is to collect the best team of warriors, mages and healers. When a player is trying to work towards the main goal, he or she can balances other elements like gear, upgrade system, guild and so on. There are numerous things a player can do. Each person has their unique way to get close to the goal. Also they can show off their progress through fight against other players to get to the top position on the leaderboard.
Share with us a little on your background in art and how that’s helped shape you as a game designer.
ZL: At the place I grew up, my life contains 3 major activities: taking regular classes, painting and notebook shopping in bookstores (I collected notebooks when I was younger). Like I mentioned earlier, I spent 6 years studying painting. Also, my dad loves poets and calligraphy. He loves sharing them with me. I think this type of environment helps to build my aesthetic standards, creativity and cultivates my passion in arts.
I do think game design is a pretty flexible area. A lot of times, game designers need to make decisions with their aesthetic and design sense. Those things are very abstract and hard to grow in a short term. I’m glad that I grew up with practicing my aesthetic consciousness.
You contributed to the art that’s featured in the PC game, “Paralect.” What is the premise of “Paralect” and how did you enjoy working as an artist for the game?
ZL: Paralect is a 2D platformer that uses gameplay, visuals and narrative to tell a personal story of cultural un-rooting. It explores the paradigm shifts caused by culture shock and adaptation and investigates how those transformations affect one’s vision of people, their environment, the place you initially came from and, most importantly, the place you wish to call home. It is a story and a world inspired by the creative director Loan Verneau.
I had great time working Paralect. I like the concept a lot. I think the protagonist reminds me a lot of myself. I feel attached to the character. The game is programmed with C++, so all the art asset needs to be designed carefully. Loan and I spent time together figuring out how to interpret the design through programmed visual elements. It is great that I got to apply what I know into the game and learning new ways to express ideas in games at the same time. It also helps me to grow and build up experience to make my independent games.
“MiraLab” went on to win the Gold Award in the Education Category at the Serious Play Conference. Was the educational aspect a motivator for the Miralab team in creating the “MiraLab” concept?
ZL: The world in Miralab is a media arts world and accompanying design methodology that emerged out of a multi-faceted exploration of a naturally occurring biological process: the lifecycle of Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish. The biological structure acts as a contextual framing, research prompt, and unifying theme that generates multiple interdisciplinary arts and science media explorations. It foregrounds knowledge and outcomes associated with arts and design practice experimentation within the realm of interdisciplinary arts science research. It asserts how the unique potential arts practice engagement contributes to interdisciplinary learning. This abstract briefly describes each mode of exploration and contextualizes it within a larger poetic science methodology. It considers this methodology’s contribution to a new understanding of interdisciplinary arts science research centered in transmedia design principles.
That said, the “Leviathan” project you worked on implements some VR along with other components. What’s “Leviathan” all about?
ZL: The Leviathan project, based on Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, takes place in 1895, 20 years prior to the source material. In Westerfeld’s story, World War I is reimagined with bioengineered fabricated animals replacing technology and facing off against large mechanical robots. While the books focus on the tension of war, the Leviathan Project emphasizes the experimental exploration in the concept of fabrication. By taking place earlier than the series, the project builds a world of wonder and amazement for the unknown and the unexpected possibilities that can suddenly arise.
“Leviathan” received the New Frontier Project award at the Sundance Film Festival and was featured at CES in Las Vegas. What were the responses and feedback you guys got on the project?
ZL: Players are amazed by what Leviathan offers. In the Leviathan project, we adapt the techniques that can track the player position in a room. So what players need to do is put on the headset and walk around in the room. It is simple and intuitive.
They love that they can walk around in the Leviathan world and observe the world and the stories as an officer. They can get immersive experience while creating their own version of story.
What opportunities does your role as producer allow for at Firefly Games?
ZL: As a producer, I get the chance of communicating with each team and overseeing the project I’m responsible for. Also, I have been communicating with other producers from other projects to share our experiences and tools. I have lots of practice in project management, negotiation and various problem-solving skills.
What can gamers expect to get from Firefly releases?
ZL: Firefly Games focuses on the games that are intuitive and fun for mobile gamers. We have three games out there and are developing more games. Hopefully players can find that our games are fun and relaxing.
What are some of your hobbies outside of the gaming realm?
ZL: I like reading books and watching animated films. These two media can always offer me endless inspiration. Currently, I’m reading a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
What types of games are you looking forward to designing and producing in the future?
ZL: As an artist, I hope one day I can make a game that offers players a unique experience in a way that they reach part of the mind they have never explored before. I always have fun knowing myself and learning about myself. I find it fascinating that a lot of us don’t know ourselves very well. And a lot of art pieces help us. For example, the pilot in The Little Prince does help me to see that I’m just like him. He wants to be a painter, not a pilot. And I’m a person who always wants to be an artist instead of an engineer. I hope people can try the game and then say ‘This game is affecting me. I never knew that I’m a person like that.’