Womenize! – Inspiring Stories is our weekly series featuring inspirational women from games and tech. For this edition we talked to Athena Z Peters, Chief Creative Officer at Rainbow Unicorn Games. Athena speaks about the need and benefits of founding and supporting employee first, equitable, diverse workplaces. Read more about Athena in this interview:
Hi Athena! You’ve initially done studies in the area of acting and theatre, do you feel this is still beneficial in your day to day job?

Everyday! LOL… I became a theatre kid at 6 to fix a speech impediment and chronic shyness. It has completely shaped how I see the world. Everything is a potential story to be told, every group of people is an audience with a different set of expectations and ways to be engaged. I also started playing games at the same time, bit card and board games with my family, as well as my first computer games, “Oregon Trail” and “Super Mario Bros.”.

To me games are just another form of theatre. When I was in school for my degree I was frustrated by the limitations of the proscenium. I wanted to reach out and more directly engage my audience, to create interactive experiences that required them to influence the story being told. So I left traditional theatre and sought out game studios to work for that were doing just that. My first job was working as an actor in Shadowbane running players through live quests as various characters in that world. Also on the side I also participated and now run immersive theatrical companies that do site specific work. Site specific refers to works that are created for a specific venue. I still set a stage, define and guide the throughline of plot, and find new and interesting ways to engage an audience, my audience is now millions at a time vs hundreds. And is reached through a small piece of glass in their pockets vs a stage.

As Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer at Rainbow Unicorn Games, could you share some insights into your founding journey and what to expect next from this new start up?

A few years back when my seven years with Warner Brothers ended, I took a step back from the industry. I was tired and frustrated with what felt like a constant uphill battle in my career of constantly being tasked with fixing big problems, which I was good at, but never given the opportunity to make games specifically for my own market or that I was specifically excited about. I had multiple occasions in which executives looked at me directly in the face and told me that women don’t play games, and thus it was not worth our time and money to create for them, despite the hard data to the contrary, and the fact that I, a woman… who plays games constantly, was standing right there. Additionally, there was a lot of employee exploitation in the games industry I was upset by and wanted to see changed. 

I wanted to know if I could build something from the ground up in an employee focused way that would be sustainable and also create a positive experience for its audience. So I cashed out my 401k, got a couple of business partners/ investors and built a game pub. A physical space allowed me to test out my theories on a smaller/ cheaper scale than a video game space, and I could directly interact with my customer base on a daily basis to gather and respond to feedback. We had pay equality, financial transparency, diversity in background and experience of our staff. And most importantly our space was an open and welcoming community for geeks and game lovers of all types. I also learned a lot about the challenges of creating and building a business such as taxes, local laws, etc. 

About a year into opening my pub, Irena Pereira reached out to me about her desire to create our own game company. We had been friends for ten years, having met around 38 Studios when my ex-husband and I moved to New England for him to work there. A group of us became close friends around being transplants (moving from the Western US) and all getting pregnant around the same time. We have kids born within weeks of each other. We had never directly worked together on a project but had circled each other’s careers giving recommendations on various studios, managers, talented employees, etc. She was running into a lot of the same frustrations that I had and suggested, why don’t we do it ourselves? I had just opened a business and deep in the midst of trying to stabilize it said: “Not now.”

About 6 months later COVID hit and after a few months of trying to pivot to make it work, I had to shut down. I grieved for a few months, but then to process my grief I created a game called “Romancing Jan”. The idea was a role playing game set in a more inclusive fantasized version of the Regency Era. But I wanted to find a way to physically connect people when we were all isolated in a beautiful way. We did it through letters and a newspaper that would arrive in your physical mail box. After I launched it, Irena called me again. “How about now?” she said. “We can start with “Romancing Jan”.”

We set to work, defining what we wanted our company to be: Employee First, Equitable, Diverse. A place that the underserved audiences would find their own stories told. A place we could be proud to be who we are, not have to understate it. Rainbow Unicorns! We then started finding the team. Nikolina we met because she had established Unicorn Pirates, her own game studio that had encountered its own struggles. We all bonded over our shared vision and love of casual as well as more mainstream games and how we could see these things blending in more interesting ways. Nikolina has years of experience in the mobile market in particular with a specialty in operations management. Irena is an expert in the UX field with a focus in games that function as a live service, and my experience has been in product & design on live service games my entire career. All of us have run our own small businesses before. Now we are combining all of that 60+ years of experience and passion for our audience into Rainbow Unicorn Games.
Our mission is simple. Make games for the rest of us. We will do it through building a studio of marginalized creators that gives them the autonomy and flexible and safe environment needed to make their best work for a vastly underserved market.

With your broad experience of different games cultures in various well-known companies, were there any particular personal highlights for you throughout your career?

I have worked on some amazing projects with amazing teams over the years. I think what sticks out to me most though, is my work on “The Lord of the Rings Online”. The thing I appreciated most about that project was how kind that community was and how passionate the developers were. Most 10 year old projects are not considered a career high for people, but the folks working on LOTRO love that game and world so much, it is a dream job for them. And the same for the players. There is a feel you get from the community that they simply want to live in this world and experience it. It isn’t just about leveling and combat for them, it is about throwing their own festivals and having horse races, or just sitting around a campfire chatting about the world.

I learned so much about what a positive game community and game team could be from that project. I was able to implement group brainstorming sessions to create roadmaps that included input from players as well as everyone on the team from customer support to game directors. That created some really wonderful well-loved content. Additionally, I implemented a “Free Sprint” twice a year where developers could spend 2 weeks making anything they wanted for the project. We would review at the end of the sprint and if it was fun, we would add it to the game. Some really neat features that otherwise never would have been prioritized got added that way. We are putting a lot of the learnings I got from that project and implementing them at Rainbow Unicorn Games in hopes that we can create that same sort of magic in all of our work.

Thanks for this interview, Athena!

Athena’s links: LinkedInTwitterRainbow Unicorns Website

Womenize! – Inspiring Stories Feature by Sophie Brugmann