We sit down with Ally McLean to discuss her recent article The Incredible Story Behind The Barbie As Rapunzel Video Game to learn some behind-the-scenes stories of how Barbie as Repunzel came to be. From being heckled at GDC, to stalking MC Hammer’s press tour, all the way to how this game even inspired Ms. McLean’s own career. In this interview, Ally takes us through her very personal journey into uncovering the whole story surrounding this not-so-strictly for girls title.
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Kelsey Lewin 00:00
Welcome to episode number three of the Video Game History Hour presented by the Video Game History Foundation. Every episode we’ll be bringing in an expert guest, someone who’s done their research and has an interesting story from video game history to tell. My name is Kelsey Lewin. I am the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation. And I’m here as always with Frank Cifaldi, the founder and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.
Frank Cifaldi 00:21
That’s me. And every episode, we have a guest with us. This time around, I’m happy to bring in Ally McLean. Ally is a game developer and author and I guess I call you an advocate for underrepresented people in the video game industry. Is that fair?
Ally McLean 00:38
Yeah, sure. That sounds good.
Frank Cifaldi 00:39
Yeah, that sounds good. Ally recently published an article on Kotaku Australia diving into the history of Magic Fairy Tales: Barbie as Rapunzel on the Windows PC platform from the 90s. Ally, thanks for joining us.
Ally McLean 00:56
Thanks for having me.
Frank Cifaldi 00:57
So, Ally, it may shock you to learn that this is not a game that I personally played as a child in the 90s. First of all, it wasn’t targeted at me as a boy necessarily, but also, I mean, I couldn’t have. I didn’t even have a computer. But can you briefly just to start us off here describe this game that we’re talking about?
Ally McLean 01:20
Yeah, sure. So, Barbie as Rapunzel is a virtual storybook game from Mattel Media. Pretty much does what it says on the tin. It’s Barbie as Rapunzel. [Laughs] It takes you through kind of a, I guess at the time a semi-progressive fairy tale narrative of Barbie rescuing the prince and negotiating with trolls and that kind of business with a kind of collection of slightly bizarre minigames. Has a bit of a WarioWare vibe to it in some parts. But yeah, it’s a really charming, slightly unhinged game that I really, really loved growing up.
Frank Cifaldi 02:01
Yeah, so it’s just kind of a minigame collection with sort of a narrative wrapped around it, which is essentially Rapunzel. Right?
Ally McLean 02:08
Yeah, basically. Yeah.
Kelsey Lewin 02:10
Rapunzel with the roles reversed a little bit, it sounds like?
Ally McLean 02:15
Yeah, definitely. And I guess it’s that interesting kind of Barbie brand thing of, it’s Barbie as Rapunzel. So it’s Rapunzel, but it’s also, we’re looking at dressing up. We’re looking at wedding dresses, and decorating cakes, and all of that that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the Rapunzel story.
Frank Cifaldi 02:37
So there are sort of Barbie thematic video games in here, right? Like the dressing up and stuff?
Ally McLean 02:43
Kelsey Lewin 02:45
And this is coming off of the back of Barbie Fashion Designer, right? This is after Mattel Media’s first, kind of, big Barbie hit?
Ally McLean 02:54
Yeah, I mean, from what I learned they were all kind of being made around the same time, but Barbie Fashion Designer definitely came out first and was the big runaway success that then gave them the platform to go on and create more games afterwards. But I think Barbie as Rapunzel was kind of already in the pipeline, so it didn’t really benefit from any extra budget, I don’t think. [Laughs]
Frank Cifaldi 03:17
In the article, I thought it was kind of funny that Rapunzel has a companion that she sits alone and talks to in her room named Twitter.
Kelsey Lewin 03:18
Ally McLean 03:28
[Laughs] Yeah, and it’s also a bird. In the opening sequence of the game Twitter the bird flies up and lands on Rapunzel’s window, and they have—it’s got a real kind of 2020 lockdown energy to it. [Laughs]
Frank Cifaldi 03:51
Kelsey Lewin 03:51
Trapped in a room with nothing but Twitter.
Ally McLean 03:54
Aren’t we all?
Frank Cifaldi 03:56
Imagine if Mattel had trademarked all of the character names in this game. [Laughs]
Kelsey Lewin 03:56
Ally McLean 04:01
I asked the narrative designer about that and she couldn’t really remember it, but she seemed slightly unnerved. [Laughs] Might be responsible for Twitter.
Frank Cifaldi 04:14
So, you played this as a kid, but your interest in it kind of got reignited recently. Can you tell us how that came about?
Ally McLean 04:25
So, I am working on an unannounced game at the moment, and one of the things that I had to do was kind of go back and look at some UI elements that were particularly evocative for me. I was just kind of going down one of those endless rabbit holes of looking through games that I loved growing up, and I came across a screenshot of this sidebar of this game, which is like a bookmark with these beautiful Barbie esque icons on it. And it really struck me and kind of threw me back in time, into just the hours and hours and hours that I replayed this game. So, I went and watched a YouTube playthrough of it. I really wasn’t intending to take it any further than that. I really just wanted to sort of relive it and maybe have a bit of a laugh at things like the bird named Twitter. But then I got to the end and started reading through the credits in the YouTube video, and there are so many women who worked on this game. I guess it had never really struck me—I don’t know. When I got into the industry, it was sort of by accident, and I was sort of surprised that people made video games. Like, real people, with their hands. [Laughs] It wasn’t a thing that just happened. Video games didn’t just congeal, and spawn out of the ether. I’d never really thought about who made the games that I loved growing up. I feel like—it’s always like my image of what kind of games were being made and who were making games when I was growing up has been kind of rewritten by the stories that the industry tells about that time. I’d sort of forgotten about all these other experiences that I had personally. Barbie as Rapunzel became kind of symbolic of that for me, so I started getting obsessed with the people who made it and what their stories were. I started reaching out to them and that’s how the article came about.
Frank Cifaldi 06:33
It is kind of an interesting time for video games that sort of fell through the cracks. It’s such a good combination too, because it’s not only something that was targeted at little girls, which tends to be glossed over when we talk about video game history. It’s also in the sort of multimedia era of interactive CD-ROMs that you kind of don’t see on like, MobyGames or whatever, but are of the same sort of background.
Ally McLean 07:04
Yeah, absolutely. Even talking to the team who made it. I mean, many of the people I spoke to were saying, “I didn’t really think about myself as part of the games industry, and I don’t really think about myself as working in games. I made toys, I made interactive experiences.” They didn’t classify themselves in that way, which makes it even harder to find information about what they were doing and their practices, and how in sync that was with the industry at the time.
Kelsey Lewin 07:36
Yeah, and you talk a lot about—the part that I think was the most fascinating to me was when these women did try to kind of stake out their place in the video game industry, going to GDC, the Game Developers Conference, and giving talks and stuff about this and trying to actually educate people on, this is what we found little girls like, and here’s how you reach this market, and just not being taken seriously at all. And even worse than that, being kind of heckled.
Ally McLean 08:08
Yeah. That was kind of the thing with this story that made this evolve into something that needed to take a lot more time. Jesyca Durchin’s story about going to GDC and presenting her research—which is, for the time, pretty groundbreaking, and a lot of the concepts that she was talking about are concepts that people are still using and teaching and talking about today—and she was heckled, and booed, and told that she was rotting children’s brains. It’s obviously quite a traumatic experience for somebody to go through. That was one of the hardest parts, I think, of the research, because I was really trying to understand the thinking of the people who would heckle someone at GDC, but to understand that I needed to understand what it was like to be at GDC at that time. It’s a very different experience to what we would have now. I ended up speaking to people like Ernest who I interview in the article, and we don’t go into it as much as we did in the interview. There’s a lot of material that’s not in the article that came out of these conversations that I’ll have to find something else to do with about what it was like to run and attend and be a speaker at GDC at the time. I think “wild and wooly” was the term that Ernest used. So, there are a lot of things in the mix.
Kelsey Lewin 09:37
Yeah, can you can you elaborate on that a little bit more? I’d love to hear how maybe horrifically different GDC was.
Ally McLean 09:46
Let’s not say that GDC is super great now. [Laughs]
Kelsey Lewin 09:51
I haven’t been heckled yet. [Laughs]
Ally McLean 09:54
It’s true, I have not witnessed any heckling. Actually, I started reaching out to other people in the industry, just kind of saying, “Hey, has anyone ever actually been heckled at any kind of industry event?” Nobody could recount any stories of being heckled by your peers, you know? Only by gamers and by the audience. I reached out to a few people who would have attended the conference that year, and went back and found the GDC conference guides, which were—you both probably know this, but they’re like, comprehensive books that cover every talk that was given, every person who was on the program. Like, these GDC guides were literally bound books. Have you seen them? They’re wild.
Frank Cifaldi 10:49
Yeah, we’ve got—so, there’s the bound books that you would get at the show, which have the sort of speaker biographies and stuff like that. But what’s maybe even more interesting is that, at least in the oldest days of GDC, including the GDC where this happened, they actually published the proceedings, which were the written papers by the speakers that were sort of the written version of the talks, which is really cool. They also published all the talks on cassette, which we’ve actually started to collect. We recently acquired quite a few. I was a little bit worried that, you know, that that talk would just have suddenly materialized after your conversation. [Laughs] Like, “Oh no, now we have it.” But no, we don’t have it. We actually do have a few of the really thick proceedings books, which are really cool. And as far as I know, all of them are unscanned, which is unfortunate.
Ally McLean 11:55
Yeah, I ended up reaching out to a friend that I met at an industry event a while ago who attended GDC, and is luckily a bit of a hoarder. So he’s kept all of the conference proceedings from that time. He was able to go through and take photos of pages that might have been relevant for me and help direct me towards people to speak to. But yeah, speaking to Jesyca about her experience—speaking of GDC and being heckled for what people’s impressions were of what Barbie represented, and what it meant to make games for girls, and what that differentiation was—the overwhelming emotion and the thing that came out of it for me was confusion. That people weren’t really talking to each other. It wasn’t so much this like blind rage, or disgust, or deep hatred of each other. There’s just a lot of people who are very confused and upset about their place in the industry. And I could relate to that a lot as well, in my own experiences in games and the things that I’ve seen the people around me go through. So, it was a really sort of healing conversation to have, I think, to hear about the way that we’ve come a long way from people being heckled for sharing their research around different audiences. But that conversation around, what is my place? What is my value? Who gets to call themselves a game developer and who gets to own the games industry, is still an ongoing conversation.
Frank Cifaldi 13:33
And just to be clear, for maybe those who haven’t read your piece yet who might be hearing about it for the first time here, that the heckling was specifically about, you know, whether a product like Barbie as Rapunzel is empowering to girls, right?
Ally McLean 13:52
Yeah, I mean, definitely the accounts of the heckling, and speaking to Ernest—who was one of the joint owners of GDC at the time and who attended the talk—his interpretation of it was that it was second-wave feminism heckling of, we don’t need this rigid, gendered expectation of what girls should like, so therefore kind of making a game that encourages girls to make choices about what kind of nail polish they want, what kind of lipstick they want is demeaning. The quote from Jesyca of what a man stood up and yelled at her was, “You’re rotting my child’s brain.”
Video Game History Foundation 14:33
Was your brain rotted by playing this game?
Kelsey Lewin 14:36
Ally McLean 14:37
I think my brain’s been rotted by a lot of things, and I would say that Barbie as Rapunzel is pretty low on the list.
Frank Cifaldi 14:42
Kelsey Lewin 14:43
You know, it’s funny because I as a kid just kind of had a visceral reaction to Barbie because I was a tomboy and didn’t want to be associated with anything pink, or cute, or girly. So I completely missed all of this stuff about how Barbie—I mean, I thought of Barbie as a very damsel in distress type character as a child, and that really wasn’t even the reality. Most of the Barbie stuff is fairly empowering. There are princess Barbies and Rapunzel Barbies and all of that stuff, but there’s also astronaut Barbies and computer programmer Barbies. Even in this Magic Fairy Tales: Barbie as Rapunzel game Barbie’s the heroine and not the damsel in distress. So, I think even sometimes it comes from the girls and from the kids and stuff as well, and probably still from adult women and stuff too.
Ally McLean 15:39
Absolutely. I think one of the most interesting conversations around this was another GDC talk much more recently, which was a retrospective on the girl games of the 90s. On that panel, you had people like Brenda Laurel, who was obviously the founder of Purple Moon, and who was making your “games for girls” in quite a different way around that time. In that panel, Brenda does reflect on her own sort of issues with Barbie and the idea of there being one version of womanhood and one version of girlhood. And I think that there are a lot of very valid criticisms of Barbie, and I by no means think that Barbie is perfect. But I think that the thing that I took away from this research and from talking to the people who love Barbie, or hate Barbie, or are indifferent about Barbie, is that Barbie was never going to save us. Barbie was never going to fix the gender debate. [Laughs] However, Barbie and all dolls by extension are a tool for self-expression. Limiting it to Barbie is about fashion, or Barbie is about being pretty, or Barbie is about being girly, I think is a bit reductive. I think looking at the power of Barbie through the way that kids play with Barbie—So, one of the most interesting things about hearing about what it was like to work at Mattel and Mattel Media at the time was the kind of user experience research that they were doing. Because they were a toy company, all of their way of thinking was about these play patterns, and that all came from studying and observing real kids coming in and playing with their products. Obviously, that’s the whole way that we make games now and think about the way that we test games, but at the time I don’t think that that was as widespread as it currently is. A lot of what they were talking about was sort of the insights that they got from watching the way girls played with Barbie dolls. One of the examples—I think it’s in the article, I can’t remember if this got cut or if it’s in there—was about the Barbie digital camera, which was one of the—okay, so some people say it’s the first mass-produced digital camera aimed at children. I spoke to several camera museum people, and people—
Frank Cifaldi 18:12
Whoa, hang on, hang on. [Laughs]
Kelsey Lewin 18:13
Ally McLean 18:15
The hole went deep. [Laughs]
Kelsey Lewin 18:17
Okay, I love this because this is the kind of stuff that I think both you and I do, Frank, where it’s like, this is gonna be one sentence in the article and I will spend all day on it. [Laughs]
Frank Cifaldi 18:17
Ally McLean 18:28
I sure do know.
Frank Cifaldi 18:31
Yeah. And by the way, this is in the article and I love that it comes from—
Kelsey Lewin 18:35
Yeah. It is absolutely great. But I can’t believe you spoke to a bunch of camera museums. That is awesome.
Ally McLean 18:41
And they were so responsive and so kind with their time as well.
Frank Cifaldi 18:46
“No one’s emailed us in months.”
Ally McLean 18:51
The insight that came from the Barbie digital camera, I mean, it’s a whole story in itself. When they actually got young girls in to play with it, they thought that the girls would want to be the model and they would want the photos taken of them, but what they learned from that user testing was that girls wanted to be the photographer. They wanted to be the creator. That totally changed the way that they positioned the product in the market. And when I interviewed Lauren, who was the marketing director on that product, when she told me that story she got really emotional about the way that that changed the way she thought about the way girls saw themselves.
Frank Cifaldi 19:33
You mentioned the team briefly—the name of it anyway—Mattel Media. But take us back, because I’m not terribly familiar with that group. So, Mattel Media is obviously part of Mattel. What else can you tell us about that?
Ally McLean 19:46
Yeah, so, they were kind of this scrappy team. Prior to Mattel Media existing Mattel had kind of had some less than great ventures into the tech area. So, when they started Mattel Media, they did not start it with a huge amount of confidence into what that team could be. They kind of put them in this abandoned—[Laughs] Maybe not abandoned, that might be an exaggeration.
Frank Cifaldi 20:16
Kelsey Lewin 20:17
Ally McLean 20:19
Dilapidated, no electricity. It’s amazing that they were able to make software. [Joking] They were in an old rug factory down the street and around the corner from the big Mattel Media HQ. So, they weren’t even in the same building as the rest of the company. They were tasked with exploring software for girls. It was a really small team. Obviously, their first big hit was Barbie Fashion Designer, and that definitely did change the game for them. But, the way that they were doing things and the way they were talking about their work was, I think you could kind of copy-paste it onto a startup now, because they were all about, we’re gonna disrupt the way that games for girls exist, we’re gonna disrupt the way that kids consume software, we’re gonna disrupt the way that it’s marketed, we’re gonna market it on TV. And nobody was doing TV advertising for this kind of thing at the time. They were very innovative, and they were kind of leveraging all of the philosophy and way of working that Mattel had built up around play patterns and user research.
Frank Cifaldi 21:25
What I found fascinating was, you were talking to Lauren Berzins Kelly, who was on that team, I don’t recall what her role was. But she mentioned that at that time—we’re talking like ’96, ’97, something like that—Mattel was still iffy on video games because of the money they lost on Intellivision, like, 13 years prior to that!
Ally McLean 21:53
Frank Cifaldi 21:54
[Laughs] Which is a little wild to me.
Kelsey Lewin 21:58
Ally McLean 22:00
Everyone that I spoke to from that time, they all were saying, “Nobody knew what we were working on.” Kind of nobody wanted to know, so that they wouldn’t be aligned with it in case it was a massive disaster, because Intellivision had been such a fiasco for them.
Frank Cifaldi 22:19
Right. So, like Kelsey mentioned earlier, the group does eventually sort of have this monster hit with Barbie Fashion Designer. Our friend—oh, who you’ve met now, actually—Rachel Weil has talked pretty extensively about that product. I don’t remember the sales numbers offhand, but this is one of those games that like, should be in some Wikipedia list of greatest selling games of all time and just kind of isn’t.
Kelsey Lewin 22:50
It’s that games versus software debate again with that one, I think.
Frank Cifaldi 22:53
Yes. But there’s this “gameyness” to it? I don’t know.
Ally McLean 22:57
It’s funny. It was such a massive success that everyone I talked to can kind of tell the same story about it as well, where the idea for the game came from one of the executive’s daughters, who was interested in kind of CAD software and, “Can I make clothes for my Barbie doll?” And then suddenly, that became this revolutionary product. I don’t remember the sales numbers off the top of my head either but the story that Lauren told me about it was that it was such a huge success that they actually had physical accessories that came with it as well. It was such a huge success that after the first week they had to, like, charter a plane to get more materials to create more of the accessories to sell with the CD-ROM. Like, when it launched as well it wasn’t successful, so the immediate launch they didn’t do any TV advertising. All of Mattel Media thought that they were going to lose their jobs. And so they had to go in and speak to one of their executives—I don’t know if it was Nancy Martin, who was one of the key people behind Barbie software—but they had to pull from that executive’s personal fund to pay for the first TV advertising for a product of this kind, and then it took off.
Frank Cifaldi 24:27
God, you’d think a company like Mattel, right, would have the sort of, like, toy advertising thing figured out? I don’t know. That’s really strange to think about.
Ally McLean 24:42
I think it felt like a brave new world.
Kelsey Lewin 24:43
It’s a video game. You can’t touch those. [Laughs]
Frank Cifaldi 24:44
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. “Oh, it’s Intellivision”—there probably were, like, salespeople still there from the scary old video game days.
Kelsey Lewin 24:52
Yeah. Well, I mean, the crash and the lawsuits with the Intellivision and stuff—or the FTC investigation or whatever that was, where they said it was going to be a computer and it wasn’t. [Laughs] All of that nearly bankrupted this huge toy giant. So, I mean—it is a little crazy because, you’re right. It had been like 13 years since then. So, maybe get over it.
Frank Cifaldi 25:22
Maybe realize that they’re back? I don’t know.
Kelsey Lewin 25:25
Ally McLean 25:25
It’s funny, particularly for I think a product like Barbie as Rapunzel, because they were following a pretty established formula for a product of that kind at the time, like the Lion King storybook stuff had come out and been massively successful. So it’s not as if they were inventing something, like no one had ever done a digital storybook. It shouldn’t have been such a high risk activity, I don’t think. Yeah. The way that corporate trauma [laughs] can affect the way that products get to market.
Frank Cifaldi 26:00
Well, speaking of trauma, the game enters production. Mattel Media outsources to a studio, which then outsources to another animation studio, which then outsources to another animation studio, without disclosing that they’d outsourced to this animation studio. So we’re now, like, three steps removed, and the product starts coming back, and it’s not looking good.
Ally McLean 26:32
Yeah. So, Media Station—and you could write a whole book about Media Station and the experiences that they had. But particularly working on Barbie as Rapunzel—when I reached out to Aaron Hinklin, who was the producer on the game—well, he became the producer on the game after the first producer stepped away. [Laughs] He told me that there’s a Facebook group of people that worked at Media Station that still chat here and there. When I’d reached out to him to interview him about this game he posted in the Facebook group going, “Hey, someone wants to interview me about Barbie as Rapunzel,” and the overwhelming response from the people in the group was, “Why?” [Laughs] Because they felt like it was the worst product that they worked on, I think because it was, like you said, such a traumatic experience there. This animation studio that they had outsourced to was kind of off the books working on their own animated feature. So, to save some money and make sure that they could spend the time working on their passion project, they outsourced to yet another slightly cheaper animation studio. The descriptions of what Barbie looked like when she came back were not safe for work, I would say. [Laughs]
Kelsey Lewin 27:51
You never got to see any screenshots of this? No one saved this?
Ally McLean 27:54
That we know.
Kelsey Lewin 27:54
[Laughs] That’s a bummer.
Ally McLean 27:56
But I can visualize it. They definitely painted a very evocative picture. Didn’t look good, and obviously Mattel are very protective of Barbie. I was told stories about the Barbie committee, which—everything that you imagine when you hear the term “Barbie committee”, basically. So, a big, scary conference room full of ’90s power suits and big hair, and you would have to go before them and present what you had made. Cindy, who was the executive producer on the title, she was responsible for fixing the problems, basically, with the animation work that came through. Sorry, Cynthia, not Cindy. So, Aaron Hinklin, the producer, told me all these stories about these long, long, long phone calls with Cynthia where they would go through frame by frame and discuss the many problems with the animations, and then an animator who worked at Media Station would stay back every night and go through and fix frame-by-frame every issue with the animations, because even though it was outsourced his name was going to be on it. He felt that his honor was at stake, so he needed to make Barbie look like Rapunzel.
Kelsey Lewin 29:24
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know who hires the studio again if you put out an abomination of a Barbie, right?
Frank Cifaldi 29:24
Ally McLean 29:25
Kelsey Lewin 29:26
Like, “Oh, these guys don’t know how to animate.” [Laughs]
Frank Cifaldi 29:34
Well, and then to your point earlier, Media Station was not just some fly-by-night company. They had a successful product before this, right?
Ally McLean 29:43
Yeah. They worked on—the digital storybooks were their thing.
Frank Cifaldi 29:48
Like the Lion King one you mentioned earlier.
Ally McLean 29:51
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. All of the games that you associate with that kind of round of digital storybooks came through Media Station.
Frank Cifaldi 30:00
Was it Aaron that you interviewed? Was that his name?
Ally McLean 30:02
Frank Cifaldi 30:02
Had anyone ever interviewed him about anything else, or was his first interview… [Laughs] He seemed pretty shocked by the whole conversation. [Laughs]
Ally McLean 30:14
But Aaron ended up going and working for Mattel after Media Station as well. So, he definitely is still very connected to all of those people and has a lot of fond memories about the Mattel Media times. He was at Media Station I think for ’95 to ’98, and then he went to Mattel straight after that. He started more directly overseeing Barbie and Hot Wheels games, and that kind of thing.
Frank Cifaldi 30:42
I found the story a little odd because, I mean, Ally, you’re in game dev. I have been in game dev. And I don’t know about you, but every game I’ve worked on has gone completely stress free and just shipped with exactly every idea—
Ally McLean 30:53
Yeah, absolutely. That’s my experience also.
Kelsey Lewin 30:56
Frank Cifaldi 30:56
Ally McLean 30:56
I’m such a good producer that we simply never have any problems.
Frank Cifaldi 30:59
Right. So, I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. Our games are flawless.
Ally McLean 31:03
I mean, it was the ’90s. Who knows what they were doing.
Frank Cifaldi 31:05
[Laughs] Did they even have computers then?
Ally McLean 31:09
[Laughs] One of the things that Aaron told me about in that time that’s not in the article as well is, one of the things he was most proud of when they were working at Mattel was that they were working on this software prototype for a voice recognition Buzz Lightyear toy that he describes as “Alexa before Alexa”. The number of stories like that that people from Mattel have of like, “We were making—we were pioneering technology before anyone knew anything about it, but because it was toys nobody cared.” So, there’s a lot of stories I think to be dug out of that period of time at Mattel.
Frank Cifaldi 31:49
Yeah, but you don’t write for Toy Magazine.
Frank Cifaldi 31:56
So, do we have any sense of—I mean, we know that Barbie Fashion Designer did really well. Do we have any sense of how the Magic Fairy Tales—I guess series, right? Because there’s at least two of them—do we know how they did?
Ally McLean 32:12
I don’t think it was as successful as the other Barbie games that followed. The budget was super low compared to even other storybook titles, as well. It was like 500k, and that was including the animation stuff and everything. So, that’s pretty remarkably cheap when you consider that the Disney animated storybooks, they were looking at around two mil to get one of those out, through Media Station as well. So, I think that it was not considered a catastrophic failure, but I don’t think it’s in the ranks as in the hall of fame.
Frank Cifaldi 32:52
God, 500k in ’97 money just sounds like infinite to me.
Frank Cifaldi 33:01
I’ve shipped for way less.
Ally McLean 33:06
But did you have a Barbie committee?
Frank Cifaldi 33:08
I didn’t have a Barbie committee, no. That probably would have slowed me down quite a bit.
Kelsey Lewin 33:13
You also didn’t work for Mattel.
Frank Cifaldi 33:16
I worked for NBC.
Kelsey Lewin 33:17
Frank Cifaldi 33:18
I had a Sharknado committee. [Laughs] But they were very nice and didn’t really shoot anything down.
Kelsey Lewin 33:28
What does the Sharknado committee do?
Frank Cifaldi 33:32
Do you really want to derail this, going into Sharknado?
Kelsey Lewin 33:34
No, just, is there anything too ridiculous for the Sharknado committee? Is there any like, “No, that’s just—”
Ally McLean 33:41
I like to imagine they have very specific lore. There’s like somebody whose entire life is dedicated to upholding the canon of Sharknado.
Kelsey Lewin 33:50
“The sharks would never do that. Nope.” [Laughs]
Ally McLean 33:52
Frank Cifaldi 33:52
Right. They did have some thoughts on shark species to include. But if anything, they actually wanted me to go even further than I was. For example, we had sort of a present mechanic, like, you get a present sometimes. This is a mobile game. I mean, of course, you get presents. In my design, it was just a gift box that you open, because that’s what people like. The feedback I got was like, “No, it should be like, inside of a shark, and you like rip it out of a shark, and then that’s how you get your present.” So, if anything, they were not shooting down ideas, they were multiplying the ideas. That present mechanic didn’t make it in the game at all, but that has nothing to do with my skills as a producer.
Ally McLean 34:34
Kelsey Lewin 34:39
Frank Cifaldi 34:47
Anyway, Barbie as Rapunzel.
Kelsey Lewin 34:50
Okay, I want to talk a little bit about—I don’t know if you also went and read this article from 1998 that Ally linked in her article, but—
Frank Cifaldi 35:00
The Ernest Adams piece?
Kelsey Lewin 35:01
Yeah, yeah, the “Designer’s Notebook: Games for Girls? Eeewww!”
Frank Cifaldi 35:06
I as the former features editor of Gamasutra have read quite a few Ernest Adams editorials, so I think I get it just from the title.
Kelsey Lewin 35:17
Ally McLean 35:17
Ernest would very much want me to stress that he was being facetious with the title.
Frank Cifaldi 35:23
Yeah, I got that from Ernest, for sure. Yeah. He is the author of, oh, what is the series? It’s like, “Bad Game Designer, No Cookie”—
Ally McLean 35:32
Frank Cifaldi 35:33
—is I think the name of his series where he goes through bad game design from the last year and—not really reward—like, awarding them at the end of the year, or whatever. Sort of like a Razzies, I guess, for game design. [Laughs] But no, I didn’t read the article, so tell us about the article from Ernest Adams.
Ally McLean 35:55
I guess in a nutshell, he wrote this piece in 1998 called “Games for Girls? Eeewww!” and at the time, his criticisms were largely around Purple Moon. His criticism was largely around why the pink aisle has to exist. So, the idea that making games for girls kind of reinforces stereotypes that are unhelpful, very similar to the rhetoric behind the heckling of Jesyca Durchin at GDC. Although Ernest was not one of the hecklers, he was there. The idea was that the assumption that people like Brenda Laurel were making, that by making games for girls they were empowering young girls, that it was actually the inverse, and that they were creating more boxes and separation for girls to be placed within. He also felt like these games were really low value for money, as well, because they were expensive and in big, pink boxes and didn’t offer endless hours of replay time.
Kelsey Lewin 37:00
The pink tax. [Laughs] But there’s a line in here that I really liked that was about how we don’t put “for boys” on the Duke Nukem box, even though that’s the most macho, over-the-top game that is quote unquote “for boys”. That as soon as you make something “for girls” and write “for girls” on it, you’re immediately just cutting your market in half and just going, “Okay, well, that means if it doesn’t say “for girls” on it, then it’s probably for boys.” And that means that if a boy might have been interested in this game, he no longer is because it says “for girls” on it. That’s not for him.
Ally McLean 37:45
Yeah, and even beyond that, I think a lot of the conversation at the time was around the parents who were buying the products as well. The idea that you’re sending a message to parents that this is the section within which you can choose the products for girls, and then the rest of the things are automatically for boys.
Frank Cifaldi 38:01
Yeah, I don’t know. Like, it strikes me as a perspective coming from a world we don’t already live in, where games are—I mean, I guess it’s a lot better now than it was back then, for sure. But back then, why would you not put that? Because it is the default at this point, especially for PC games in the ’90s, that things are for boys. So, I get it, and I think I might disagree with him.
Ally McLean 38:32
Yeah, I do disagree, I think, with the thesis of his article. And I think even Ernest now—in the piece I include this conversation with him where he does admit that it took him a while to sort of accept that maybe the way of thinking that—the way that it’s summarized in the GDC retrospective panel I thought was really good, I think Brenda Laurel says it. That instead of thinking about this as an “instead of”, we should think about it as an “and”. And so the fact that pink games exist that are marketed towards girls doesn’t mean that girls cannot play Duke Nukem. Let’s prove that there’s a market for things on top of Duke Nukem. Let’s prove that there’s a market for nonviolent games, games that are about self-expression, games that allow you to explore identity, and games that allow you to do all the things that playing with dolls allows you to do. And I think the thing that makes me a little bit uncomfortable about the games for girls movement is that, yes, it’s great that there are games that are ostensibly made for that market. However, I know growing up having two older brothers, there were lots of elements of the games for girls and the girly activities that I engaged with that my brothers would have enjoyed as well, but they were kind of kept out of it. So, I wouldn’t want to recreate the experience of being excluded from products marketed for men by kind of creating a separate gated community for girls only. [Laughs]
Kelsey Lewin 40:19
Well, I think there is a really good quote in your article—I forget, I think it was from Cynthia—but about how Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games and stuff are in many ways extremely similar to the kinds of things that young girls might enjoy about a Barbie game. Like, role-playing as Barbie is not all that different from role-playing as a mage in D&D or whatever.
Ally McLean 40:45
Definitely. And the way that Cynthia talks about her career and the kind of games that she’s worked on as all kind of being about, “How can I find a way to be my most authentic self through my work?” A lot of the criticisms that Cynthia has or her misgivings around the industry, around things that block people from bringing their full selves to the games that they’re making, and her insights around that were really beautiful. Though, I thought it was funny the way that she—one of the similarities between Barbie and D&D was jeweled accessories. [Laughs]
Kelsey Lewin 41:18
[Laughs] Yeah, see, we all like crowns. We all like sparkling crowns, no matter what you’re into. It’s funny, because that reminded me of—like I mentioned, I didn’t like Barbie. I was very anti-Barbie when I was growing up, but I loved Hot Wheels, and I played with my Hot Wheels like someone would play with a Barbie. Like, they all had names and backstories, and they were my version of dolls. So that role-playing element, I think, is really present in all—and I played with my brother, too. There’s this kind of, like—this roleplay thing transcends gender, and when we make it pink, then it becomes for girls or whatever, and when we make it full of dragons and whatever else, then it’s supposedly for boys? But it’s all really very similar to me.
Ally McLean 42:11
Yeah, definitely. I think that just kind of opening up that gender is about a lot more than what’s for girls and what’s for boys. I think that conversation has definitely progressed beyond where we were in the ’90s, although we definitely still have a way to go.
Frank Cifaldi 42:29
So, I mean, what does this game mean to you as a game producer now? Because it seems just from reading this article, and perhaps you’re embellishing a little bit for the sake of a good article, but it does seem like this game had some direct influence on you.
Ally McLean 42:45
No, I think it really did, and I—maybe not in a direct way, in that I didn’t play that game and then say, “I’m going to be a game developer now.”
Frank Cifaldi 42:54
“Eureka, I know what my future is.” Yeah.
Ally McLean 42:56
Like, immediately go and pick up the Agile Manifesto at seven years old. For me, I think—like I said, I grew up with two older brothers, and they definitely loved video games. They were very much into all the typical games of that time that you would expect. Having a game like Barbie as Rapunzel—and there are a few other games that I played around that time as well—that felt like it was made for me, and for my experience, and for something designed around the things that I liked to do. So, I kind of quite begrudgingly participated in combat in games and violence in games at the time, because it felt like the necessary thing to do to get to the collecting part, to get to the customization part, to get to the expression part. So, seeing an experience, I think in some way that was fully designed around the things that I loved and the things that kind of activated that ultraviolet part of my brain definitely has stuck with me. Speaking with Cynthia—I mean, by no means has every game that I’ve worked on been entirely aligned with my personal expression, my creative identity. [Laughs] I think that’s the nature of working in an industry.
Frank Cifaldi 44:13
Kelsey Lewin 44:13
Ally McLean 44:13
[Laughs] Right? I assumed that Sharknado’s a really core part of who you are Frank.
Frank Cifaldi 44:18
So proud of it.
Ally McLean 44:21
Kelsey Lewin 44:21
Frank Cifaldi 44:21
So proud of that two-months game project. [Laughs]
Ally McLean 44:28
That being said, I think a big part of the way that I think about making games comes from this kind of—the conversation with Cynthia was actually really motivating, and inspiring, and a really good reminder for me of why I’m in this industry and why I’m working on these kind of projects. In that it’s about, how can I find ways to make this industry a place where people can express themselves and bring the full depths of their creative identity to the work that they’re doing, and that doesn’t mean they have to be making a dress up game. They can be working on a vehicle combat game and still bring to it, similar to the similarities between D&D Online and Barbie Fashion Designer, bring to it that piece of themselves that is going to—that specificity that’s going to have that connection with an audience on a different level. So, yeah, I didn’t expect Barbie as Rapunzel to be such a connective tissue through all of the things that are important to me, [laughs] but it turns out that it is.
Frank Cifaldi 45:36
It’s so hard when you’re going deep on research like this to not just, like, to become one with it, you know?
Ally McLean 45:45
Kelsey Lewin 45:45
Oh yeah, you start ascribing everything in your life to [laughs] your connection to this game.
Frank Cifaldi 45:52
I’m not saying that as if I doubt that it’s true, you know? That this is a really vital thread, but it’s like, I don’t know that you would have ever figured that out if you hadn’t gone this deep.
Ally McLean 46:04
No, and I think as well the timing was really important to me. I had just watched the YouTube playthrough and just sort of started reaching out to people on LinkedIn who were in the credits—not with any idea that I was going to do a project around it—just kind of to connect with them and to see what they’re up to, and just out of curiosity, and see if they would even acknowledge some Rapunzel fan reaching out to them on LinkedIn for a game that they hardly remember. But, around that time also was when the latest wave of the Me Too discussions around treatment of people in the industry happened online. That was quite a personally really meaningful and emotional time for me, and I ended up taking some time off of work. So, the one thing that I had to focus on and that I kind of buried myself in was this Rapunzel research. I would spend days doing things like watching hours and hours and hours of YouTube walkthroughs of, like, E3 in 1997, to try and find if somebody got a glimpse of what the Mattel booth looked like that year.
Kelsey Lewin 47:18
Frank Cifaldi 47:22
Ally McLean 47:25
Nobody did. [Laughs] But I had printed out the floor plans of the exhibits, and I was watching these walkthroughs trying to identify, “Okay, they’re right around the corner, they’re right around the corner, just turn left, just turn left!”
Kelsey Lewin 47:39
Frank Cifaldi 47:39
Ally McLean 47:39
It was like being a ghost. No one filmed any of it. But that kind of commitment definitely came from that emotional moment, and seeing a lot of hope, and a lot of—seeing how far the industry can come in that time and having a lot of hope for where we could be 20 years from now. It was definitely—I was really projecting a lot of my own thoughts about the industry into the research, which helped it maintain momentum.
Frank Cifaldi 48:15
I do think that your research on this is a really good example of—I don’t know. I feel that the archives kind of failed you here. I feel that even for an archive like ours that’s attempting to catalogue things like trade shows and really diversifying the amount of press material and stuff like that that we—I mean, we have science magazines from the ’50s talking about theoretical AI because that’s a bridge to video games, you know? Like, that’s the extent that we’re trying to cover at the Video Game History Foundation. But even us, you know, when you came to me, it’s just like, “I’m sorry.” [Laughs] “I don’t have anything and I don’t even know where to look for this.”
Ally McLean 49:06
It was kind of validating in a way, when you said that, though. [Laughs]. Because I was like, “Okay, so it’s not just me that I can’t find anything about this game.”
Frank Cifaldi 49:15
Kelsey Lewin 49:16
And it makes me wonder too, because I’m sure—this is Mattel we’re talking about. I am sure that they had cel sheets, I am sure that they had press releases. They probably did have materials, but for this stuff to continue to exist and be studyable later, someone had to have, like, picked that up and saved it. If everybody at these trade shows in the mid ’90s was like, “Psshh, girl games?” and didn’t even pick it up in the first place, I mean, that’s just gone now.
Frank Cifaldi 49:46
Yeah, and I feel that a lot of the people that did hold on to this stuff might have been the sort of traditional video game crowd, right? Not the bigger scope multimedia crowd, especially in the ’90s, right?
Ally McLean 49:46
Frank Cifaldi 50:02
We’ve done a lot of collecting and archiving of video game press material, indeed from that actual year, but we just haven’t come across much from Mattel Media, and it’s just because the archives that we’ve managed to find, they didn’t really cover that kind of product to begin with. That’s not even a fault to them, you know? They didn’t they barely covered PC product, let alone product aimed at girls. Yeah, I don’t even know—like, I agree with you, Kelsey. Surely there were cel sheets. Surely there were like, product order sheets for gaining interest at E3 back then. There probably was a TV commercial? I don’t know, maybe this didn’t quite hit TV commercial level. But yeah, it’s just, we don’t have that stuff. The best that I was able to provide for Ally was that we have E3 show guide books from the years that Mattel Media was a thing, and I was at least able to say, “They were there this year.”
Kelsey Lewin 51:11
“There’s their booth on the map.”
Frank Cifaldi 51:14
Yeah, “They existed,” and, like, “Here’s some names of people that were contact names if you were going to E3.” But other than that, you’re kind of out of luck with our archives.
Kelsey Lewin 51:24
Yeah, and you mentioned a lot of our archive has video game media publications, magazines, and that sort of thing, and you mentioned that they didn’t really tend to cover girl games, or even PC games in some cases. I have to wonder, they probably advertised this in some way. So, maybe it was advertised in, like, magazines for girls, but then you go look for those and no one’s archived those either. [Laughs] You just keep running into the same problem wherever you go.
Ally McLean 51:58
The most success that I had was kind of focusing on the Toy Fair. There was definitely a lot more documentation around the Toy Fair, and a lot more visuals, and things like press tours of the Mattel booth. I mean, it’s night and day, the difference between what’s available of Mattel’s presence at E3 and their presence at the Toy Fair. [Laughs]
Kelsey Lewin 52:22
Yeah, Barbie. That’s a big toy! [Laughs]
Ally McLean 52:25
For sure. One of the tours of the Mattel booth where I was hoping to get a glimpse of the—they had these kind of installations of the software for girls, where you could come at the Toy Fair and play the games. I was trying to get a glimpse of it. I think the best video that I could find was, there was a press tour where MC Hammer came to the Barbie booth at the Toy Fair.
Frank Cifaldi 52:53
Kelsey Lewin 52:53
Ally McLean 52:54
I think it’s Nancy S. Martin who’s walking him through the Mattel booth. I think you just get a glimpse of the software for girls section in the back. MC Hammer did not stop and play Barbie as Rapunzel, much to my distress.
Frank Cifaldi 53:11
At least on video.
Ally McLean 53:12
Kelsey Lewin 53:13
Yeah, that’s true. He was more a Fashion Designer fan.
Frank Cifaldi 53:17
That’s funny, I’ve actually been in that exact scenario. I would not be surprised if Kelsey has also watched footage of a trade show going like, “Just go left. Turn left.”
Kelsey Lewin 53:25
Yeah. Oh, yeah. [Laughs]
Frank Cifaldi 53:26
Kelsey Lewin 53:30
I have also done the triangulate where the booth would have been based on where this person is standing.
Frank Cifaldi 53:35
That one I haven’t done, I have to admit. I have not done that one.
Kelsey Lewin 53:39
Frank Cifaldi 53:39
That’s pretty good. That’s a little bit beyond what I’ve done. That’s mad respect. You’re not a real researcher yet. I guess I suck at that.
Ally McLean 53:48
Kelsey Lewin 53:48
Frank Cifaldi 53:54
The only other thing I really had in my notes—and this isn’t really even a question—is just, I loved the closing of your article where you’re asking, “What is the legacy of these games?” What was it, Nancy, was that her name?
Kelsey Lewin 54:12
Frank Cifaldi 54:12
Cynthia, sorry. Cynthia just says, “I guess, you.” [Laughs] You are the legacy of these games. You are someone that was the exact target audience, who was someone that she probably had in mind in terms of, maybe, making you feel at ease with a computer, might be a way to put it, and kind of showing you that you can express yourself on a computer and it’s okay.
Ally McLean 54:46
Yeah, that was really special. When she said that, I thought about that when I first tweeted out just a screenshot of the game when I was looking at the UI, just kind of like, “Oh, remember this game?” The number of women who replied with like, “Here’s a photo. I still have the CD-ROM.” [Laughs] This game touched so many people, and also, so many women who I know who are in the industry now have really fond memories of playing that game. So, when she said that. I thought of the “you” as the collective “us” of all of the women who were, as you said, made to feel at ease, or for whom these games were a way to familiarize themselves with the tools that they needed to become the creative forces that they are now. There’s an interview with Nancy S. Martin from this book, Barbie to Mortal Kombat, where she— it’s kind of spooky, because she describes in quite specific detail my life. I mean, it’s probably more of a, like, creepy corporation—an insight into the way corporations can control our entire lives. [Laughs] She describes kind of me as the target audience for the games that she was making in the mid ’90s, you know, with the age range and the interests and that kind of thing. So, Mattel have these age ranges for Barbie products, that the kind of Barbie experience you want changes as you move through your life. I was really squarely within the Barbie fantasy bucket when Barbie as Rapunzel came out which is, you know, all about princesses, and fantasy, and exploration, and the high adventure, and that kind of stuff. I was very much within that bucket, so this game came out at that time and really resonated with me. She talks about how they were creating those experiences in a way so that in the future, when those six-year-olds are 26, and 36, and they’re using computers in their jobs, and they’re telling stories, and they’re creating things, that that journey would have been started by those games. I was kind of like, well, sh*t, that’s me.
Kelsey Lewin 57:04
Ally McLean 57:05
So, it was, yeah, kind of a spooky moment reading that and realizing that she had so accurately predicted what my journey would be.
Frank Cifaldi 57:11
[Laughs] Amazing. Well, Ally McLean, before we go, anything you’d like to plug that you’re working on, or that you’d like people to see?
Ally McLean 57:22
Yeah, so, I’m at the moment working on an unannounced IP with DPS Games and Wargaming Sydney. It’s very exciting, and we’re hiring. Please do have a look at Wargaming and DPS Games careers because we’re trying to make this environment where you can bring your full self, and fully express yourself, and make really special games. So, come do it with me.
Frank Cifaldi 57:45
Yeah, go work for Ally. I would, except I got this thing going on. I don’t know. This is pretty good too.
Ally McLean 57:47
Frank Cifaldi 57:52
Ally McLean, thank you so much for joining us on the Video Game History Hour.
Ally McLean 57:55
Thank you for having me, and thank you for all your help with the article.
Frank Cifaldi 57:59
Yeah, no problem.
Thanks for listening to the Video Game History Hour brought to you by the Video Game History Foundation. If you have questions or comments for the show, you can find us on Twitter @gamehistoryhour or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Did you know that Video Game History Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit and that all of your contributions are tax deductible? You can support this podcast and all of our other work on Patreon or at gamehistory.org/donate. This episode of the Video Game History Hour was produced by Robin Kunimune and edited by Michael Carrell. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.