Celebrating Women in VR: Q&A with Anastasia Ovchinnikova

Oculus Blog
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March 30, 2020
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The talented team at Martov Co brought us Chiaro and the Elixir of Life, which won an NVIDIA Edge Program Prize for excellence in aesthetic achievement. Today, we’re joined by Art Director Anastasia Ovchinnikova to learn more about her career and the studio’s upcoming title, FORGED.

How did you get your start in the tech industry?

Anastasia Ovchinnikova: Art and storytelling have always been my passion, and when I found that in the game industry I could create not only just walls and murals but the entire world, I quit my full-time job as an interior designer to embark on a whole new career. It was a scary, unstable, and absolutely new path for me. After a few years of working for different big companies as a senior concept artist, I realized that I was getting bored—the job I was doing wasn’t challenging enough for me.

At that time, I started to work on my own projects (we all have a dream to make our own game, right?)—but at some point I realized that I needed a team of professionals (3D artists, animators, programmers) to make my dream come true. Around this time, I was introduced to VR and that just blew my mind! Then I knew exactly what I wanted to do. The VR industry is very young, and not that many companies are working in this direction. But I’m a very lucky person, because one day I received an email from Martov Co, offering me an art director position. Without hesitation, I answered ,“Yes!”

Tell us about your current role.

AO: I’m an Art Director at Martov Co, currently working on our new VR game FORGED. My main strengths are in environment and character art, but I direct all aspects of game art in my current role. I’m not only involved in creating aesthetics for the game, I also work on the story and design as well. Increasingly I’m finding it more productive to go into VR to prototype on the Rift since things turn out so differently once they’re in VR.

Who’s your favorite figure from women’s history?

AO: I have always admired Frida Kahlo; she is my inspiration. I love how she never gave up on herself. I think Frida Kahlo was, is, and will always be an inspiration to a lot of young minds, giving them hope and courage to be the best always.

How do you see yourself making history?

AO: Honestly, I don’t want to prove anything to anyone. I just want to create games that I can be proud of. There are a lot of women who’ve had such a rough life and yet a memorable one and my goal is to illuminate their stories in my games and my artwork so that everybody can admire these women.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young girl considering a career in tech or the arts, what would it be and why?

AO: Never, ever give up on yourself. If you have a rough time, just keep doing what you like to do, even if it’s only five minutes a day. And remember: It’s not speed that makes you an asset; it’s about whether or not you’re able to persist through difficult, long-lasting problems without giving up. The process of problem solving is arguably one of the most effective places to learn, and if you give up too soon, you’ll never reach your full potential.

How do you see women pushing the state of the art forward in the fields of augmented and virtual reality?

AO: At our company, women get to do a lot of great stuff; for example our Animation Director Nesrine Ibrahim does all the animation in all our games. It’s so rewarding to load into the campaign of FORGED and see the tadpole twins, Flo and Jet, two of my favorite characters, running around in VR. I always have a certain idea of how they will act in my mind, but it’s amazing to see her bring them to life. Now she’s making mixed-reality avatars of our characters, which is even crazier!

Where have you encountered support and advocacy for women and other underrepresented groups in the VR industry?

AO: We haven’t spent a lot of time traveling to industry events as we’re a small studio and spend most of our time focused on making our games as good as we can, but we went to Oculus Connect last year and it seemed to be a major priority there, which is great.

What concrete steps can people take to help make the tech industry a more inclusive and welcoming space?

AO: I think that if we want to get more women involved in the gaming industry we should make the environment more tolerable for everyone by providing for workers’ basic needs. Women don’t want a burnout culture, they want work-life balance. Canada is much better than the US with healthcare and government-sponsored maternity leave, but still not perfect.

How do you go about designing games for a diverse audience and/or ensuring representation of strong women characters in your own work?

AO: I care passionately about diversity in games. It’s not the only topic in game design I care about, but it’s the one that I feel compelled to focus my efforts and energy towards.

For me it’s important to work on teams that let me have a lot of freedom of expression and a say in what gets made, and then this naturally comes out in my work. For example, we really liked the idea that our main character, Qadira, was inspired by Ethiopian culture, and this is something that might have been more difficult to pitch on a much larger team in the traditional game industry where this might be seen as a marketing problem.

What’s your favorite piece of AR/VR content and why?

AO: I like to play Beat Saber. It’s a good way to exercise while listening to your favorite songs, it’s dead simple to learn and fast to play, and the Quest is such a great way to play VR games.

Also I love Moss. It’s a mix of puzzle platforming and a fully narrated story. When I was first able to interact with Quill, I was struck by how delicate and fragile she seemed. Polyarc sets an immensely high bar for storytelling in VR (and this is what I’m aiming for in our game).

Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?

AO: I think that VR has a huge potential. I would like to design an experience where the technology falls away. It’s like when you’re reading a book and you don’t think about turning the pages because you’re so immersed in the story. We have a wonderful story in FORGED about a strong woman, Qadira, who fights with evil creatures from Dekar. Also she is having an inner fight with her own demons. I would like to tell more stories like that.

Any other thoughts?

AO: I used to think a lot of women-focused talks got in the way of showcasing women’s actual work, since I was always very serious about my art and it didn’t seem important that I was a woman. However, I recently talked to my sister who is looking for programming courses and she had a different perspective.

What she told me was interesting, that nobody at school explained to her what programming is, where you can work, what kind of tasks you will be solving, etc., and I think her experience would have been different if she was male. So I’ve started to see how these women-focused talks are actually pretty important and that we need more women who can share their path.