Womenize! – Inspiring Stories is our weekly series featuring inspirational women from games and tech. For this edition we talked to Kiana Mosser, Software Engineer, freelance Animator, Pixel Artist & Game Developer. Read more about Kiana in this interview:
Hi Kiana, thanks for taking the time to talk to us! Could you tell us a bit more about who you are, what you do and your journey towards your current professions?

Thanks for reaching out to me! I’m always happy to share my knowledge of games, tech, and art. I didn’t really have anyone to look up to when I was starting out, so I appreciate that you’re sharing these inspiring stories.

I’m a full-time software engineer with a background in both art and STEM, and a love for developing games in my free time. I do freelance environment art, character animation, and pixel art. Some games you can see my work in include “Super Meat Boy: Forever”, “Rival Rush”, “Midautumn”, “Rubi: The Wayward Mira”, and my personal projects such as “Pinball Gardener”.

My journey is pretty unconventional. I was homeschooled ever since elementary school. When I was still in kindergarten, I used to stay indoors during recess and read encyclopedias, which made my teacher happy but a bit concerned. At home I was frustrated by the thought of having to do the homework I was assigned when I already understood the concepts it was meant to teach, so I started writing and illustrating my own books instead. I brought one of the books I created to my parents asking for the pages to be stapled, and in that moment they realized if they kept me in public school it would likely destroy the passion they saw in me, so they made the decision to homeschool me.

I enjoyed being homeschooled. It let me learn at a pace that suited me while also giving me more time to myself to work on things I was interested in. I continued making storybooks, pencil-and-paper games, and animating flipbooks. When I was allowed access to a computer at age 7 I began learning digital art and programming. My first computer games were mostly browser games made in JavaScript, and I soon learned Scratch, Flash, and RPGMaker. I also started creating pixel art in Microsoft Paint, inspired by arcade games, MS-DOS games, and GameBoy games, though the term “pixel art” wasn’t popular at the time and it was mostly referred to as “sprite art” (i.e. art from games). 

Early 2000’s internet didn’t have anywhere near the amount of resources for beginners that we do today. Forums, small websites focused around specific topics, and sprite databases were the most useful resources to me at that time. In particular The Spriters Resource really helped me with learning game art because I could look at all the art assets that real games used. I also like the Lazy Foo’ Productions “Beginning Game Programming with SDL” guide. It was one of my introductions to coding in C++.

When I was 10 my parents saw that I really enjoyed the challenge of learning difficult material, so they decided to give me an old college algebra textbook and have me work through it to see how I’d do. Within about a year I had completed most of the exercises in the book, and my parents had the thought that I seemed well-prepared enough to be able to take a college algebra course for credit, so they tried signing me up for a community college class to see how I would do but were told that because I wasn’t yet in high school I wouldn’t be allowed to register.

Instead of giving up, my parents kept looking for resources and found that anyone could register for UCLA Extension regardless of age. They signed me up for Beginning Algebra there, and at age 12 I had my first “A” credit in a college class! I took a few more math classes there and did well. At this point we went back to the community college and asked to transfer me. I still wasn’t old enough, but funny enough they couldn’t say “no” to a transcript from UCLA with good grades, so I was able to transfer.

At the community college I transferred to, College of the Canyons, I studied Animation and got my AA in Mathematics and Physics. Getting enrolled in classes when I first transferred there was a struggle because I had no registration priority whatsoever, so I took the California High School Proficiency Exam. I passed, graduating high school at age 14. Concurrently to my college education, I continued learning programming and animation. I formally studied Character Design and Visual Development at the Animation Academy in Burbank, and took classes in various topics in animation at the American Animation Institute. I worked on my own animation and game projects during this time and started taking freelance contract work for games and short films.

I transferred back to UCLA in 2016 as a Math major. While at UCLA I participated in multiple clubs including Bruin Animated Filmmakers, where I hosted weekly workshops on various topics in animation, Bruin Game Studio, ACM Game Studio, and ACM AI. I also participated in the UCLA Alumni Mentorship program, where I learned from Tim Ford, a senior software engineer at Blizzard.

I graduated from UCLA in 2019 with a B.S. in Applied Math, Specialization in Computing. I took a few months to rest and focus on personal development while taking contract work for games before applying for full-time positions. I decided not to work full-time in the games or animation industries due to concerns I had about work-life balance, crunch culture, and not wanting to drain my creative energy. Instead I opted to focus on getting full-time work that used my technical skills, and ended up getting directly hired by a company that valued both my tech and creative skills!

That brings me to today, where I balance working with creating. I like that when I switch between the two, I feel energized. I can apply skills I learn when I’m creating to when I’m working and vice versa. There’s always something interesting for me to do.

Having a background in both science and art is rather rare. Would you say that this combination has an impact on the way you approach your work?

Absolutely! I think art and science are two sides of the same coin. Science is the study of the nature, behavior, and underlying structure of the natural world, whereas art is the creation and depiction of imaginary worlds, in which you get to define your own principles for how the imaginary world should exist. In many ways artists and scientists pursue and utilize the same knowledge and have similar strategies, but for different purposes.

There’s a common misconception that you either have a creative art brain or an analytical science brain and if you’re stuck with one, then you can’t develop the other. In truth, science requires creativity and art requires analysis. That’s why I always feel surprised when someone of either profession tells me that they can’t fathom what the other is like or don’t think they could do it in a million years. 

If you’re a scientist, for example, you already use your imagination whenever you use the scientific method. First you make an observation, then you need to be able to imagine ways to explore that observation and use your curiosity to ask the right questions in order to gather enough data to formulate a hypothesis. The process of making a hypothesis requires the creativity to imagine different possibilities and what such a natural world would be like if those possibilities were true. Then you need to test your hypothesis with an experiment, which again requires creativity in that you need to come up with scenarios that will successfully test each of the possibilities you’ve envisioned and isolate the factors that you’re trying to investigate in a controlled environment that you create. You also need to use your creative skills whenever an experiment doesn’t yield the expected results or go according to plan. Once you’ve performed an experiment to test your hypothesis, you evaluate the results and may repeat parts of the scientific process as many times as needed to reach the level of understanding you need.

Developing your creative skills as a person who works in STEM helps you to see problems from many different angles and imagine all the different branches the underlying logic of a natural system can take. Because reality is not a closed system, the ability to make inferences about external factors that may be affecting a scenario is very valuable for isolating variables. One factor about STEM that doesn’t often have much attention drawn to it is that science is a team sport involving lots of communication. Art is the study of communicating abstract concepts in many different ways, so creative skills are very useful for getting scientific ideas across. This includes but isn’t limited to creating figures and diagrams, technical writing, documenting qualitative evidence, formatting code, creating graphs, creating mockups, and creating simulations. It’s not enough to just document something – the documentation should be easy enough for other professionals in your field, and any professionals from other fields who are interfacing with your findings, to be able to read and understand. Even in scenarios where you’re not communicating with a team, being able to draw a diagram of a problem you’re trying to solve and being able to document the steps you’ve taken for a solution are incredibly useful skills!

Creative skills can also help scientists to be better at gathering data. Effectively gathering relevant data and information isn’t pure observation – it also involves knowing what to observe and where to look. When comparing the unusual against the usual then inferring what needs to be observed and where to search, you can use your imagination to piece together a context, scenario, or chain of events that can lead to making an important discovery.

Speaking of observational skills, honing your art skills involves training your eye to be able to see and analyze specific details. The interesting thing is that artists tend to use the scientific method for this even without realizing they’re doing it! They make an observation about how something looks, formulate questions about why it looks the way that it does and make a hypothesis about how to replicate it based off data they gather, then they experiment with the art tools at their disposal to see if they can accurately depict what they’re trying to depict. As they draw, they are constantly evaluating whether the art they’re producing is in line with what was expected and making adjustments as needed. Once the piece is complete, the artist may evaluate their work and see if it matches the data they’ve based their work on, then repeat the process over and over in order to improve. Artists also have the ability to apply the scientific method to abstract emotions, body sensations, and imagined worlds and scenarios. By comparing their intent to the work they’ve created, they can get closer and closer to a greater truth about what they are trying to capture.

The more you learn and discover about the world using science, the more depth you can give your imaginary worlds. You can use your knowledge to realistically depict details of your art subjects, or you can use it to change details you’re aware of or even invent completely new details. For example, if you’re aware that barreleye fish have transparent domed heads with tubular light-sensitive eyes that can rotate in order to find potential prey, you’ll be able to design creatures that have similar vision systems in scenarios that make sense, such as if you wanted to invent a creature that needs to be able to easily see both above and in front of itself in the sky. Having a lot of scientific knowledge gives you the ability to make creative choices you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make, which grants you a lot of creative freedom!

I think now more than ever, with all the knowledge and resources that are available through the internet and the rapid technological innovation of the digital era, it’s an important time to learn as much as you can from as many different perspectives as you can. The amount of exciting things you can create if you understand both art and science feels limitless! If you can imagine something with art and implement it with science, the possibilities may as well be endless.

Any advice for fellow artists who also aspire to do freelance work in game development? What is a good way to start off and find the time, while also having another job?

I have a lot of advice! First off, here’s some general advice. If you’re just starting out, don’t feel overwhelmed by the seemingly steep barrier to entry in terms of all the skills that go into game development. I think the only qualities that are required are willingness to learn, lots of persistence, and kindness. Everything else can be learned with time and effort, but those qualities come from within! 

The most important piece of advice I have is to be kind and respectful to everyone. Game development is a small industry, and most people would rather work with someone who is kind but less qualified than someone who is disrespectful and more qualified. I can’t stress enough that it’s much more pleasant and productive to work on a team where everyone is working together and supporting each other than trying to tear each other down. This advice goes for experienced professionals too. If someone doesn’t know something, treat them constructively rather than tearing them down. The beginner you talk to today will be your colleague tomorrow, and they will remember how you treated them. 

Genuine connections you make with your peers are very important and can often lead to job opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise had. Recommendations are a common way for freelance game devs to find work. Whenever I see an opportunity that suits one of my peers, I always pass it along, and they do the same for me. 

Be yourself and make the kinds of games you want to see created. You don’t need to wait for any external validation or credentials to start creating, and if you’re already making what you want to make then it grants you the opportunity to connect with (and work with) likeminded people. Although you do have to tailor your portfolio to specific studios if you want to get hired at a particular studio, you don’t have to change who you are – and if you do feel like you’re trying to change who you are, then maybe you need to search for another path forward. 

Now, here is some freelance-specific advice. If you want to do freelance work, it’s important to learn how to market yourself and your skills. No one will come to a store that no one knows about. Put your work where your potential clients and recruiters can see it. Where and how you need to market yourself will be subjective depending on the specific work you’re looking to get hired for. I highly recommend for game developers to at least post their work on Twitter, because it’s a hotspot for tech and game development news, which naturally draws people who work in game development onto the platform in order to stay up to date and network. It can help to learn how the algorithms of the platforms you use work, how people you’re trying to reach generally browse the platform, and if there are any events or activities you can participate in. For example, on Twitter there’s a weekly event called Screenshot Saturday where you post a picture or video of a game you’re working on with the hashtag #ScreenshotSaturday. People who are interested in game development browse through the tag to check out what everyone is working on. 

Make it easy for people looking to hire artists to envision you working on their project. Upload artwork that matches the kind of job that you want to be doing to your portfolio and any platforms that you’re on. If you want to do character designs in a cutesy style, upload character designs in a cutesy style. If you want to do concept art in a Gothic style, upload that. If you want to do environment art and tilesets, upload those. If you want to do animation in a retro style then upload that, and consider making a reel that displays your best work. 

Make sure it’s easy to contact you if someone sees your art somewhere. Watermark your work in a legible way so that if it inevitably gets reposted, people can easily find the original artist. I put my social media username and sometimes website on every single picture I publicly upload. Make sure to thoroughly read every contract you sign. You can be held accountable to any promises you make in a contract, other than in rare circumstances where an agreement is ruled in court to be wildly unreasonable. You can negotiate terms of a contract if you don’t like what you read in it. Sometimes when I read contracts, I catch things that don’t make sense and ask for them to be removed or changed. Always get any promises of compensation and a clear definition of the work you’ll be doing in writing in your contract. 

Speaking of negotiation, I highly recommend learning how to negotiate your pay, and what being paid fairly looks like. Creative skills take a lot of time and effort to learn, and clients are paying for your expertise in addition to your labor and the end product. Never work for less than minimum wage unless you’re doing work for a charitable cause you care about! Consider your living expenses and that you may be taxed a higher amount of your income if you’re self-employed (this is true at least in the USA). A fair starting rate in the international market for game development work would be twice the minimum wage in the USA. At the time of my writing this in 2022, this would mean that a fair rate is no lower than $15 USD per hour. Experienced freelance professionals can make $60-100+ USD per hour. You can calculate what rate you need to charge for your goals and living expenses with a freelance rate calculator. There are lots of them online – I found this one helpful!  Be mindful of how supply and demand affects your ability to negotiate for higher pay. If you’re getting more work than you can keep up with then it’s time to raise your rates. If you’re not getting any work, then rather than dropping below the minimum fair rate, work on personal development, market yourself more, and supplement your income with another job if you need to. 

Let’s talk about finding time to do freelance work and game development or practice your skills. Here’s what I tell everyone: You have 24 hours in a day. Use them wisely! There’s a time management strategy you can use called time budgeting. To budget your time, first start by setting time aside for personal life essentials, such as eating, exercising, hygiene, sleeping, breaks, and some relaxation time. These should be things that you never compromise on because they’re important to your health, and if you don’t take care of your health it will cost you a lot of time and suffering later down the line. Next, set aside time for your necessary responsibilities and obligations. These can be things like your job, taking care of your family, commuting, and meetings. You may want to add a bit of lenience here in case of an unexpected obligation or emergency. Any time you have left at this point is precious free time. You get to choose how to allocate this. In your free time I suggest budgeting some time for things like personal development, work you really care about, spending time with people you care about, reading about things you care about, volunteering for causes you care about, and having experiences you want to have like playing games or watching movies that interest you. How you spend your free time is up to you and you can change how you spend it from day to day. 

If it turns out that you can’t spare any free time at all, then it may be a sign that your time isn’t well-balanced and you may want to consider restructuring aspects of your life or getting help alleviating your workload if possible. Even a few minutes of free time in one of your days can help you work towards your goals and aspirations. Some things you can do with a few minutes of free time are work on small sprites over the course of a few days or even several months, do quick gesture drawings, come up with ideas for projects, write social media posts, or learn from tutorials. You could even consider listening to podcasts or video tutorials during one of your necessary obligations to get some pseudo-free time. Make sure you take care of your health though, don’t stress yourself out too much, and I hope that you’ll be able to get some free time in the future. 

Organize your space. You can gain more time if whenever you sit down to work, you aren’t looking around trying to find where your pen went or sifting through tons of files on your computer. Make it as simple and easy as possible for yourself to start working! One strategy to help optimize your space is any time you try to do a task and you’re met with an interruption, go resolve that interruption the best you can and move on to the next one. If you have a lot of different interruptions it may take a while to get through all of them, but when you’re done you’ll find it’s much easier and quicker to get things done! 

Don’t rely on motivation or inspiration. While they’re certainly nice to have, they’re unreliable and you won’t have them every single time you need to work on a project. Instead, focus on forming and maintaining healthy habits. For example, decide on a block of time that you’ll use for working on your game, designate a place you’ll go every time to work on it, and when that time comes, work on your game in that space. It will be very difficult at first, but once it becomes a habit then it can feel second nature. If you have any good habits established already, then you can actually build on your existing habits to form new habits much faster. For example, if you eat dinner at the same time every night, then you can decide to develop your game every night after you’re finished. 

Since it may come up when optimizing your time or pushing towards your goals, I want to address pressure and burnout. It can be very easy to feel like you’re not working hard enough when you look up and see all the amazing things everyone else is doing, and this can make you feel pressured into working on something all the time. You don’t have to create something every day to be a successful creator. In fact, I’m not sure it’s healthy to draw or stare at a computer screen every day. If you’re feeling burnt out, don’t push yourself too hard or feel guilty about it. Let yourself have relaxation time, make sure you’re taking care of both your physical and mental health, find some other activities to do or spend time on something else you care about, and soon you’ll find yourself feeling inspired again. 

Thank you for reading! I hope some of my advice helps you, and I wish you the best of luck in your journey!

Thanks to you, Kiana, for sharing this valuable advice!

Kiana’s Links: WebsitePrint ShopDonations & Digital GoodsTwitterInstagram

Womenize! – Inspiring Stories Feature by Jessica Hackenbroch