In many ways, it feels as if Maria-Alexandra Timmer was always meant to work on South Park: The Fractured But Whole. Maybe it's her sense of humor, maybe it's her desire to be a space captain, maybe it's because she used to ditch school to play videogames, or maybe it's her relentless work ethic and curiosity.
Growing up in Romania, Timmer wanted to be a painter before she became fascinated by Jacques Cousteau, and decided to pursue science, ultimately earning degrees in mathematics and computer science. Now, seven years into her career at Ubisoft she's worked on a medley of franchises including Assassin's Creed, Watch Dogs, Far Cry, Driver, and Rocksmith.
As an associate producer, Maria has many responsibilities that frequently change depending on what stage of development a game is in. She regularly coordinates activities and schedules for the team at large, brainstorms new ideas with designers, and comes up with new gameplay features. In this week's entry in our Women of Ubisoft series, I sat down with her to talk about her career and experiences in the games industry.
When did you first know you wanted to work in games?
Maria-Alexandra Timmer: There was never really that one moment. There were a lot of moments that organically made me realize that games are the thing I know most about, and that maybe I would be best suited to working in the industry. I used to skip school to play games, so I guess it was obvious at a young age. Originally during college, I really wanted to be an engineer, but I realized as I went for job interviews that I didn't have as much to say. It felt like more of a powerful tool but not a means to an end, for me. Once I started going to interviews for jobs in gaming, I had a ton to say, because I knew so much about them and I was super excited to talk about games.
What prepared you most for this job?
MT: I don't think it's one thing in particular. It was more of a chain of experiences that came together. For example, when I was working on Far Cry Primal, I was a project closer, so I've learned a lot about shipping games. Even before that, I had positions where I learned how to coordinate teams better, and how developers work, which taught me how to see the big picture and make things more efficient.
**What's your favorite part of the job? **
MT: Project closing, since I'm more versed in it, I like it more. It's usually when "firefighting" starts and problem-solving is your day-to-day. I like being in a new context, and a new situation and being presented with this completely new problem and having to figure out how to solve it quickly.
Did you have any female or non-binary role models at any point in your career?
MT: No, not professionally. I don't remember ever having many female colleagues or managers, until recently. I am now surrounded with highly competent, inspiring ladies in all departments.
**Why do you think that is? **
MT: There's the very obvious aspect that videogames have traditionally been a male-dominated job space. That said, I've never seen a context in which females wouldn't be capable of thriving. I think to fix it, you'd have to start with education during the formative years. I'm lucky; I had the type of education and family that encouraged me to explore any of my interests, especially science. It was completely normal for me to play games and play with the boys. I wasn't wearing pink or being pushed into any stereotypical form. I was doing what I wanted, and what I wanted to do was play dress-up, but I also wanted to play with robots and videogames. A lot of kids around me didn't have the opportunity to do what they wanted, or get to decide for themselves; they were always pushed to be more feminine.
**You mentioned education. Is there a specific thing you think needs to change? **
MT: In school, it always felt like most girls were afraid of the sciences and math. They would just immediately try to avoid it. I don't know exactly where that's coming from, but it was something I was clearly noticing at a young age. Maybe all that's needed is a little encouraging. Maybe it's not making such a big distinction between the "pink" aisle and the "blue" aisle, or not saying that robots are for boys and dresses are for girls.
Do you feel like your experience as a minority in this industry has been different from your male peers?
MT: Not in my day-to-day work or my career progression, but definitely in smaller things. It feels like it's an industry wide issue but early on in my career it felt that it took more time to convince someone that I was competent, compared to how long it took my male colleagues to do the same thing. That is something I feel is very subtle and it's not always easy to see or understand, but it's something that I've encountered a lot. It's definitely gotten much better since I've been at Ubisoft, but it's always a good reminder that we should pay more attention to how we work with female colleagues versus male colleagues, and see if we're subconsciously more critical simply because the person is a woman.
How do you want to be treated in this industry?
MT: I like the way I'm being treated now in the industry, but that's because the industry is evolving and everyone is paying more attention to women in games, and that wasn't always the case. I think a lot has changed in the seven years that I've been in games, and there's definitely been progress. I would still put more emphasis on showing women more respect and allowing them to voice their opinions.
**Do you think representation is important in games? **
MT: Yes. I think representation can actually help create understanding across all races and genders. I feel like the biggest target audience we have is younger people in their formative years. I think games are where they go for fun, and I think its way easier to absorb cultural elements from videogames. And later on, they're going to talk about those things they've absorbed, and maybe understand someone they wouldn't otherwise be able to.
Have you ever felt like you weren't the target audience for games?
MT: I never felt like I wasn't the target audience, because my interest in the games I played didn't change. But there were times while I was playing games that I've wished there was a female character or a character that had a similar story to mine. But it's never kept me from playing a game.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to young women who want to do what you do?
MT: Go for it! It sounds cheesy, but as soon as you form the intention that this is what you want to do, find the ways to get into it any way that you can. There will be hard times along the way, but I don't think they'll be because of representation, or because they're women. The hard times come from the fact that it's a hard job.
If you could give your past self any advice, what would it be?
MT: Don't ask for permission, just do the thing – and when it's done, take ownership of it (and be confident in your work). I'd also tell myself to stay curious about what's going on around you. Don't just do exactly what your job description says; you'll never learn anything else that would otherwise completely fascinate and drive you. You might be allowing a preset box define you, or your goals. Professional success and personal satisfaction will follow if you keep an open mind and do the right thing for yourself, but of course it will be hard.
Have you ever had a professional failure? If so, what?
MT: All the time! I think in hindsight, each failure, big or small, has propelled me into something way more awesome that I never could've seen otherwise. It's important to take that negative energy and transform it into something you might not even be expecting. Many of my failures have been driving forces for my successes.
How should male colleagues support women in the industry?
MT: It's important to acknowledge that there are differences between how we treat male and female coworkers. As I said, those differences are a lot smaller than they used to be when I first started in the industry, but they're still there. I think just acknowledging that makes us aware of how we're treating each other.
How should female colleagues support each other in the industry?
MT: I think women are more harshly judged, and it's not always from men. Sometimes, women are extra-critical of other women. There should be a bigger push for more cooperation, as opposed to competition. At times, there can be a subconscious feeling that "we're the only two girls on this team, and I want to be the best one," and that definitely is not a healthy attitude. There's so much we're missing out on because of that. There shouldn't be a situation where there's a winner and a loser, because that's not how life works. There's so much we're missing out on because of that.