I met Lisa Foster in an online personal essay writing class more than two years ago and we’ve kept in touch ever since. In addition to being talented writer who can turn out hilarious and heartbreaking prose, Lisa is a game developer. Since she recently launched her own company Big Shoe Games, I thought Lisa was the perfect entrepreneur to spotlight. Why Big Shoe Games? Because, Lisa says, “I want to spread the good cheer and fun times without smashing, stealing, or shooting anything.”
What inspired you to start Big Shoe Games?
I worked for years in visual effects and it bothered me the content was so violent I could never show my young daughter what it was mommy did for work. I bargained heavily to get on ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and I’m so glad I did (she loved it!). I was a single mom and generally the hours in visual effects are really long—they brought cots in for us on ‘Hideaway’ and I had to have a crib put in my cubicle for ‘Virtuosity’. So I got into games.
It became the same thing there. I was often at work at 2:00 a.m. with my daughter sleeping on a blanket beside me. And the violence was just as gratuitous, and often worse—women were always portrayed as sex objects in sometimes misogynistic themes. I felt like I was being part of the problem. I knew I loved to play games, but there weren’t any games out there that were interesting to me. Where were the games that women played? Surely you didn’t have to annihilate others to have fun. I was told that women don’t play games. So I got out. I produced a fun and educational animated children’s show that no one wanted to pick up because, as some of the networks told me, “they are not in the business of educating children.” Apparently children’s shows are only about selling toys.
I became pretty disillusioned with entertainment in general. Then I played ‘Diner Dash’, a casual game that involves running your own restaurant. Bingo! This was fun and not violent at all. I began playing these types of games and had a lot of fun with them. I did realize, though, that sometimes they missed the mark. These game development companies, although now targeting women, were 90% male. No offense, guys, but men don’t know what women want in relationships half the time. It’s just possible, a woman might have a better inside track in knowing what we want in games.
So I got together some of former colleagues, and we designed a time management game. We’re in production now and it’s due out this summer. This is a game that women will love!! I’m thrilled to finally be able to deliver a product that is fun, positive and relevant.
In the meantime, I have partnered with all the major casual game distributors so can offer other games to the public that represent our ideals. Big Shoe Games is all about non-violent games that appeal to everyone other than the 18-25 year old male demographic. I have a couple of nephews in this last category, so I’m hoping even they will get into it.
What sets Big Shoe Games apart from other games sites?
It’s a real mess out there because game developers don’t sign exclusive contracts and distribution, deals can be a little haphazard. A certain game can show up with some online distributors but not all, and some of those distributors will only carry certain versions. You can’t go to one major distributor and get it all. For instance, Big Fish might have a game you want to play, but only the PC version, or iWin has the Mac version but it’s two dollars more and GameHouse doesn’t have it at all.
Because we have partnered, we can offer more content than any one of them do on their own. And we can choose which publisher to go with for each game, so the customer doesn’t have to shop around–we choose the lowest priced title and in addition, the longest demo playing time. The industry norm is a free 60 minutes of play but some distributors offer only 30 minutes. On occasion we’ve been able to offer 80-minute demos. We present all the specials that all the distributors are offering so we’re really a one-stop shop. There is no quality non-violent game that a player can’t access from our site and we present the lowest priced retailer, always.
We also candidly review games, and warn you when a game is lacking or just plain awful, which is something the major distributors are not going to do. And we offer a Mommy Rating because, although most games are family oriented and can be played with your small children, some are best for kids 10 and up, and a few are just for adults, like ‘CSI’ or the Women’s Murder Club.
I believe we are unique in that we give 10% of our proceeds to charity.
How did you get started in the gaming industry? How has being a woman shaped your experience in the industry?
When I first got into visual effects in the early 90s, there were almost no other women in technical roles. The industry has opened up somewhat, but because the hours are so long, it really is a single, young guys’ industry. I know of several divorces that were born of visual effects and if you have kids, someone needs to be home with them because you won’t be. Ever. Core Games are just as bad and because women don’t actually play these games for the most part, it’s really hard to get into a creative role. Most women are in the administrative end of things. That wasn’t me so I had to work hard and play harder to be one of the guys. I’ve noticed I generally cuss more than other women my age!
What’s the best advice you received as you were creating and launching Big Shoe Games?
I didn’t have much funding for the website, and so I signed with a budget host, using an old license of Dreamweaver to build the site. Then, as I researched online marketing, I found I would need streaming content on the site to get the Google page rank up. That was going to cost because I’d need to purchase a new license and add-ons. I tried various shareware systems but always hit a brick wall. I spent a good month slamming into these walls. Then I read an online review at my budget host, about a free content management system, or CMS, called Joomla! and decided to try it. It had a bit of a learning curve, but it was a good decision. Joomla! is so flexible, that whatever changes you decide to make or functionality you decide to add, they are easily and quickly implemented. CMS is definitely the way to go. One caveat: my budget host had real issues with it—load times would take 17 seconds a page, which is clearly not acceptable! It was strange because they had been the ones to recommend it in the first place. When I changed to Rochen hosting (the best hosts on the planet, I’m convinced) Joomla! was seamless and I couldn’t be happier.
What do you know now that you’d wish you had known before launching Big Shoe Games?
Since this is a brand new venture, I’m sure there will be things I’ll have wished I’d known, but let me talk about the mistakes I made at my last online venture. I started a company and named it ‘Spreckels Lane Specialty Merchandise’, because I lived on Spreckels Lane. The url was spreckelslane.com. What a disaster. Nobody could spell this name nor remember it. I should have clued in because I could never order pizza or chinese food for delivery without a problem—even spelling the word spreckels for the order taker didn’t always help. I eventually realized the problem was affecting the traffic to my site so I purchased every spelling I could think of and parked those domains but it was a real uphill battle. Another, smaller site I had (that was named well) did a great deal of business. Porkplaza.com e-tailed pig collectibles and btw, people who collect pigs are the nicest people ever! I guess, if you can love a pig… I eventually closed the business, because of another lesson learned: shipping costs can kill your profits. I resolved to not work in e-tail again unless it was a downloadable product.
What advice would you give to someone starting up his/her own online business?
Make sure the name is easy to remember, easy to say and that the dot com is available—not .net or .ca or .tv or anything else. You can always add those, but the dot com must also be yours.
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