Sacramento Women In Games - Michelle Fuzari
Continuing with my series highlighting Sacramento women in games, I’d like to introduce you to Michelle Fuzari. Michelle and I connected thanks to Beth Schaal at EA Capital Games. Based in Midtown Sacramento, EA Capital Games is known for their work on Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. This past April, Michelle was generous enough to volunteer her skills and knowledge by leading a sound design workshop for members of the Sacramento Developer Collective. In this conversation with Ms. Fuzari, we learn more about how she blazed her path into game development, what instruments she plays, games accessibility, the best advice she’s ever received, what her dream project is and ultimately how everything she’s loved to do lead to her position as an Audio Artist II at EA Capital Games.
After conducting this interview, I left feeling inspired and encouraged. I hope you do as well! Leave a comment below with the part you resonated with the most.
How did you get involved in the games industry?
I went to the University of Utah, and while doing my general classes I found out they had a video gaming program. So, I joined up on the art side of things and realized there was no sound program. I decided to take it upon myself to learn the sound trade to help out with school projects. I helped out with so many projects I became known as the “Sound Girl”. I then took the video gaming masters program at the University of Utah studying 3D modeling, animation, and of course still teaching myself sound. During that time, I applied to EA Mythic for a sound internship and was able to land it! My sound career took off from there.
What guided you to choose this path?
I grew up with video games. I remember when I was little, I would watch my dad play Myst and Doom. Then we got a NES and SEGA and my brother and I would play all the time. So, I’ve always been a huge gamer. My whole family is also a musical family. We all know how to play instruments, so I’ve always been around music and sound. When I was able to do video games AND sound in college, I was so excited. It was a no-brainer, it’s what I wanted to do.
What are your favorite types of games to play?
I’m really into RPGs, MMORPGs, first-person shooters, sim games, and a few casual games
What games inspire and intrigue you?
The first game that blew me away was Final Fantasy 7. As a kid, it was such an intriguing game with excellent sound design and interesting story. Now, there are so many games that I love. Mass Effect 1 and 2, The Elderscoll Series, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the Civilization series, and of course the Final Fantasy games come out with new and advanced tech and amazing artistry.
Do you play any instruments?
I play the piano and violin, and I’m currently learning the tin flute.
The music on your SoundCloud is mesmerizing! Who are your inspirations?
Oh, thank you! I love messing around with music and seeing what my brain comes up with. I’m greatly inspired by John Williams, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Jeremy Soule, and Bill Brown. They’ve done excellent work in film and video games.
What role do you play with your current job?
I am an audio artist II.
Do you have other professional industry experience in addition to your current position?
Along with sound design I’ve occasionally composed music for games.
Can you provide us with an overview of how sound and audio changes the dynamic of video games?
Think of your favorite moments in video games. Link opening a chest to get a special item in Ocarina of Time wouldn’t have been as rewarding without those musical cues. The sound for an ultimate move in Overwatch tells players to run away or get closer to the action and without that, gameplay would be a mess. The special undead vocal effects as well as the piano cues that play when they spawn in Left 4 Dead tell the players to be on the lookout. Without those cues, the players would have a very hard time avoiding enemies and could make the game too difficult for some to play. The sounds in games help drive moments and can balance the gameplay as well.
You can also change the tone of the game with sound. With Left 4 Dead allowing people to modify the game, you could go download and replace the sounds of undead with cat noises, cartoon sound effects, etc. to make it less scary and more hilarious.
How can sound designers make video games accessible for the audio impaired?
If a person is hard-of-hearing, we generally work with designers to implement closed captions in the game to help iterate what is happening.
Like how games are starting to think of those who have different kind of color blindness, games could essentially think about doing the same with different kinds of audio impairment. For example, if someone can’t process higher tones, there could be some sort of effect they could apply to the game that maybe puts a general EQ on audio, taking higher frequencies out and raising mid and lower tones for them to hear. I can’t think of a game that does so currently, but it’s something sound designers could look at.
For those who are blind, there are some great games you can still play. There are some blind players who can play Overwatch because the sound design was meant to help guide players as to what’s happening in the game. There are also games out there that are purely played with sound and no visuals. The experimental game Vanished by Pixel House does just that.
Did you have a mentor to help guide you through your career?
During college, no. I was all self-taught. When I got an internship at Mythic, my mentor was the audio director, Nick LaMartina. Nick is currently my audio director and mentor at EA Capital Games.
How has your journey been navigating through a predominately male industry? For better or worse, are gender differences something you necessarily paid attention to?
I was the only girl in many of my classes at the video game program at the University of Utah, and in my career mostly men have dominated the studios. And yes, it sometimes got awkward and I suspect there will be more awkward moments in the future. Especially in the past two years of being a pregnant woman and then a mother, there are just some things men won’t understand :P However, a lot of these guys are my friends. Sometimes you must put differences aside to move forward. You’re with these people every day and it’s basically a second home. I consider my co-workers family. If it reaches a limit of something I cannot handle, I speak up about it.
What has been the most challenging part of your career?
There have been many ups and downs. In video games you must expect the unexpected. I’ve been a part of 2 studio shut-downs and it isn’t easy, ever.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
When I worked at EA Salt Lake, I was the only sound designer at the beginning and I only had my internship of 3 months at Mythic studios. I was thrown into the deep end, but I was able to build the sound design from the ground up. I eventually got another sound designer to help me for a while. That help was amazing but being able to get thrown into a full game development from the beginning, on my own, and being able to get the sound design going was an amazing accomplishment for me.
What is the best advice you received that helped you level up professionally? How about personally?
Coming out of college I thought I needed to know EVERYTHING about sound. Yes, you should know the basics, but I thought I needed to know how to be a master at Foley, sound recording, engineering, etc. I honestly thought I needed to go from graduate school to more schooling to figure this all out before I could even get a job. Then when I got the internship at Mythic and I asked why, the audio director told me that I sounded excited and he could feel that I had a passion for sound and was open to learning more. I remember telling him I never had college or professional training in recording or music, and he told me if I had the ear and the willingness to learn as I go, I would be fine. It made me realize that a lot of people in the industry are constantly learning. They weren’t masters when they started, they slowly became masters at what they do.
Do you feel like there was a game changing moment in your life when you knew you were on the right path?
I was so close to becoming an animator out of my graduate school. I was doing audio at the time, but I was just on the fence. When I got the internship at Mythic and was just focusing on audio, that was it. I knew I wanted to stay in audio.
What has been the most fulfilling project you’ve been a part of?
Both Ultima Forever from Mythic and the Minions project out of EA Salt Lake. I worked on Ultima Forever during my internship and that is when I really jumped into audio. I learned so much and was able to so much. Then I was on Minions and made that from the ground up. I am so grateful for these two projects. It really pushed me to my limits and let me know that I can handle large projects.
What is your dream project?
Right now, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes is my dream project. I get to work on Star Wars! I’m helping this world of sound that Ben Burtt created, and I get to work with it and add to it!
Who would you want to collaborate with most?
There are so many great sound designers out there to learn from. If I got to work directly with Ben Burtt, Tommy Tallarico, Jeremy Soule, or Russel Brower…man that is the dream!
What do you want to be remembered for?
That I was able to bring enjoyment to people by putting sound to these games and entertainment.
What advice do you have for women who want to get more involved in their craft?
When I was in Jr. High I wanted to work for NASA as an astronomer. When we had career day and counselors came to help guide us at what careers we should look at, my counselor told me I shouldn’t go into NASA because that would involve math and math is hard for women. Don’t listen to people like this. Do what you love. I didn’t end up at NASA, but I found my calling. A calling in a world dominated by men, no less. Why? Because I found what I loved, and I kept at it. I taught myself the craft because I loved it. I kept pushing to find opportunities to do sound because I loved it. If you find something you love, do it. Ignore the people out there that say you shouldn’t do it because it will be hard or because you’re a woman. You. Can. Do. It.
How critical do you think social media campaigns like #VisibleWomen are to draw attention to female creators?
I’m going to be honest and say that I didn’t know that was a campaign.
What do you think can or should be done to encourage more girls and women to enter game development?
Encourage girls! Don’t tell them they can’t work for NASA or anything else. Let them and encourage them to explore it themselves so that they can see what they’re capable of. And if you find what you like, keep working for it. Get on as many projects as you can to help develop your skills. See what people in the industry are doing, what programs they’re using, and what processes they’re following. If you can’t figure it out, reach out and connect. Connections are so important. I don’t think I’d even be at EA Capital Games if I hadn’t known many people at the studio.
Do you think having a support system of fellow female game developers is necessary? Did that opinion change over time?
I think if we don’t have one, then girls and other women will only see the dominant gender in the industry and might back off from following their dreams. We need women supporting each other and telling others that they too can enter this industry.
What do you think the Sacramento game development community can do to encourage more women to attend events?
Continually reach out and maybe even do events where the panelists are just women. We need to show that we women exist in the industry and others can join.
Because I’m also a foodie, I have to ask, what is your favorite dining spot in Sacramento?
I’ve only been in Sacramento for a bout 2 years, but so far, Kura has been my favorite. Mostly because I went to Kura in Kyoto and Tokyo and it’s great to have that experience in Sacramento.