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Spotlight on TEC Women: Johanne Bergill and Georgia Higgins, game designers

Lots of girls would love to be videogame designers when they’re older. But what’s it like to work in videogames, and what skills do you need?

We spoke to creative director Johanne Eikå Bergill and 3D artist Georgia Higgins, co-founders of Penryn-based games studio Polargryph.

Portraits of Georgia Higgins and Johanne Bergill of Polargryph
Georgia Higgins (l) and Johanne Bergill of Polargryph

You’re working on your first game, Soria. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Johanne: Soria is a narrative-driven 3D platform game. You play as a young boy named Ask who meets a young gryphon. Together they explore a mysterious environment to reach a golden castle in the distance called Soria Moria. It’s really a story about companionship between the two characters, so everything you do in the game is to reinforce the friendship that forms throughout the journey.

How did you come up with the idea for it?

Johanne: We started the studio, Polargryph, for our MA in Entrepreneurship at Falmouth University. At the start you have to find a gap in the market. We found that platformers are popular and story-driven ones are quite sought after, but there's not many of them. So we thought we could fill that gap.

As we researched, we also realised that Soria has so much potential to fill another niche, which is Scandinavian folklore. Most of what you see nowadays is Vikings and Norse mythology, which is awesome. But there’s a whole other aspect that hasn’t been explored in the game scene. Plus me and Oscar, our production designer, are both Norwegian, so there's a personal nostalgic aspect to it as well.

Did you know the folklore already, or did you have to do a lot of research?

Johanne: Oscar and I knew some of it from when we were growing up. But we also had to research it because it’s based on a huge number of different fairy tales from different villages in the mountains. It was only written down in the 1800s as part of the national Romantic period of literature.

Polargryph is a team of seven people. What do you both do within the team?

Georgia: Johanne is our creative director, so she gets to go wild with the vision of what we're going to create. As lead artist, my role is to translate Johanne’s designs into art that will work in the 3D world of the game. Soria is a very art-heavy game, so there’s a lot to do!

How did you get into the games industry – was it something you always wanted to do?

Johanne: I was really into books, games and comics from when I was really young. But when I was 13 I saw some concept art for the game Silent Hill 2 – a drawing of Pyramid Head. It looked really cool, and not like any other art I'd seen. I realised that this is production art, part of the process of making a game. Something clicked in my head, and I knew that this is what I want to do. I kept drawing all the way through school, and when I saw that Falmouth had a games design course, I came here to the Falmouth Games Academy.

When I was 13 I saw some concept art for the game Silent Hill 2. Something clicked in my head, and I knew that this is what I want to do.

Georgia: I didn't know that a career in games was a valid option until I was in college. I'd always wanted to become a physicist, so I studied maths, chemistry and physics. But I also took a graphic design course just to keep my art game, and I fell into it quite naturally. I realised that physics wasn't really what I wanted to do, so I decided to change course. An old friend of mine was on the first year of the games course at Falmouth and he told me how great it was. I applied and got in.

On your website, you say employee wellbeing is your highest priority – above the game itself. Why is that?

Johanne: The games industry has a reputation for taking people in and chewing them out straightaway. Employees’ mental and physical health has been an afterthought at so many companies. Constant overtime has become part of the culture, and it's very, very difficult to fix once it’s been established.

We realised that as an indie [independent studio], we have the chance to change that. With our own company, we can make sure that never happens. That's why, for us, employee health and happiness come first.

Do you think that has something to do with being a partly women-led business?

Johanne: It’s actually a guy on our team who is the biggest advocate. We’ve all experienced bad practices in game development, like working terrible hours or doing volunteering work when it turns out that it wasn't what we're supposed to do. So we all know we don’t want to do this to our employees.

What's the best thing about running your own games company?

Georgia: Being your own boss and setting your own pace. Being able to say to the people you work with that maybe today I need a mental health day. Just being able to do that is really nice.

Johanne: The creative freedom. There are lots of responsibilities, and you do actually have to make the game, but that's part of the fun! Every day we work on the game is a new challenge. It's exciting, and it's something I genuinely care about. You may have projects like that when you're working for someone else’s company, but this is ours – and that’s very meaningful.

Every day we work on the game is a new challenge. It's exciting, and it's something I genuinely care about. It's our project – and that’s very meaningful.

What advice do you have for girls who’d like to work in the games industry?

Johanne: If you find that little nugget of passion, just really nurture it. I was 13 when I decided this is what I want to do, and it meant that as an artist, I kept practising and trying to improve my craft until I made it.

Georgia: A more general bit of advice: don't be afraid of coming across as bossy. The older AAA companies are more male-dominated, but on the indie side of games development there's a much more level playing field for men and women than you find in, say, the film industry.

How can parents and carers support girls who want to work in games?

Georgia: Let them explore it. It's a very valid career path – there’s lot of money in it.

Johanne: I agree, and when the country opens again, go to gaming-related events with them. My parents didn't 100% understand that until they started to go to events and fairs with me. That's when they saw the adults behind it and they realised there’s money in this career. I won't be a starving artist!

Follow in their footsteps

Johanne and Georgia studied games design and development at the Falmouth University Games Academy.

Polargryph started life at Falmouth University’s startup incubator, Launchpad.

The biggest UK games-industry event UK is EGX, scheduled for September 2020.


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