Untold Stories: Maria Ingold, Mireality
In this series, we will be telling the ‘untold stories’ of the games sector and shining a light on the many women who helped contribute to the UK games industry the past thirty years. We’re joined by Maria Ingold, who has worked in visual technology for 25 years and now runs her own consultancy, Mireality.
30 Years of Play: Tell us who you are, what you do and a little bit about your career in the industry.
Maria Ingold: I’m Maria Ingold. My background is in both Computer Science and Fine Art. I’ve been deploying successful emerging visual technology for over 25 years, with over 15 as a Chief Technology Officer (CTO).
30 YOP: How did you start working in the sector?
Maria: I started as a programmer at IBM in 1991 as part of the OS/2 Multimedia team. I helped invent the beginning of what we take for granted now: audio, video and games on a PC. At the same time, I worked on my MFA in Computer Graphics.
After IBM I moved from the USA to the UK and joined Ocean. That was 1996. It was exciting to help innovate early 3D and Windows PC gaming, transitioning games from DOS to a 32-bit operating system. I wrote reusable DirectX 5 modules for a Victorian steam-punk Martian shoot-em-up 3D PC game called Dreadnought. We made the cover of Edge magazine, but unfortunately the game never came out as Infogrammes bought and restructured the company. They later rebranded as Atari.
I moved from Manchester to London and into a more senior role as a Technical Director of a start-up using sound-reactive games technology. Our core product, DancerDNA, generated 3D creatures using a genetic description language that danced and mutated to music. We did visuals for nightclubs like Ministry of Sound and bands including Pet Shop Boys, Nine Inch Nails and Leftfield.
I went on to use games technology for corporate clients – including a 3D racing game for Volkswagen at their Autostadt theme park. It demonstrated the benefits of using a GPS versus a map, something we all take for granted now.
This was now the dawn of a new millennium. I also started delivering streaming technology, first for a streaming radio station and then video.
I eventually became the CTO for a Disney / Sony joint venture called FilmFlex Movies where I built one of the most successful on demand movie services in Europe, first for Virgin Media, then as a white label which powered services like Channel 4’s Film4oD. We launched for under £1 million and we were profitable from year one. All still unheard of.
For the last six years I’ve been consulting internationally in emerging visual tech and innovation.
30 YOP: What was the British games industry like in the early days of the sector?
Maria: It was very incestuous and small – everyone knew everyone. Crucially, it didn’t understand how to operate profitably. Infogrammes, for instance, flipped development from in-house to out-of-house as it thought that might be more profitable.
The games industry didn’t have a viable business model. The big issue was that every team was inventing everything from scratch, rather than creating reusable libraries or a common game engine. So, the timescale for delivery was impossible to predict and monetise.
30 YOP: What was it like to work early in the industry as a woman?
Maria: My favourite story is the one where a guy on another team refused to ask for help from a woman. Unfortunately for him, he needed my DirectX expertise. This was the early days of the Internet, so you couldn’t just google. There was no one else to ask and he knew I had the answers. So, he came into the room I shared with another guy and asked a question. I responded. He just stood there until the guy who sat next to me repeated my answer. This continued until he found out what he needed to know. Yes, we did laugh after he left.
30 YOP: Were there any big challenges that you faced in the early days of your career?
Maria: The realisation that the executive level did not understand, nor necessarily respect, technical teams is what drove me to become a CTO. I wanted to be that bridge between the executive and the people on the ground building the products. I’ve since been described as one of the most commercially-focussed CTOs that people have ever met.
That also led me to become a better communicator, negotiator and influencer. I’m now a global public speaker and have spoken over 170 times, including my TEDx talk, “Innovating the Impossible”.
30 YOP: How did your role in the games industry change and what drove it?
Maria: Several things happened. I moved from programming code to becoming a CTO. That was because I wanted to improve how developers were treated by the executive team and ensure the executive team were well-informed technically when making commercial decisions.
I also started using games technology for more than just games. That was driven out of curiosity for what was possible.
Eventually I shifted from games to video streaming. That also meant I moved from judging games for BAFTA to judging film and TV. I like a new challenge and I love great content, so I’ve enjoyed that move too.
Recently I’ve done a bit with Immersive Reality, which is fun as it uses a range of my expertise, including games.
30 YOP: Have you got a memorable anecdote that shows what the industry was like?
Maria: It’s less one anecdote and more random memories. I left IBM and went to Ocean and got to have blue hair. We all drank seven cups of coffee per day and consumed copious chocolate-covered espresso beans while coding games. Alas, dying it blue is bad for my hair and I can no longer drink caffeine, but man were we cool.
When I moved on to DancerDNA, I remember being in Ministry of Sound and at Pet Shop Boys watching masses of people go wild to the music, games tech and artistry. It was a scale of immediate feedback to the team’s technical and creative delivery that I’d never experienced before.
Then there was the SIGGRAPH conference. It highlighted the intersection of special effects for the film industry, games technology and the future. I remember the CAVE systems – early Virtual Reality (VR) in a room. MIT showcased a precursor to Google Glass in 640x480. I even modelled sound-reactive wearable tech and fibre optic hair for a fashion show. All 15 to nearly 30 years ago.
Everything then felt new and previously undiscovered. Revolution, not just evolution.
30 YOP: If you could change one thing about the sector, what would it be?
Maria: Like most sectors, the games industry would benefit from innovating not just vertically (which leads to evolution), but laterally (which leads to revolution).
The games industry has a lot to offer other industries, ideas that could result in additional monetisation models. Fifteen to twenty years ago, I used 3D games engines for music and corporate clients. Interactivity was essential to move from sit-back TV to video on-demand. And now Netflix is applying game interactivity to films like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Conversely, the games industry can learn a lot from other industries and from people who are different to the norm. Diversity, of thought or otherwise, is what drives innovation. Whether the inclusion of that diversity, and thereby innovation, happens is down to the CEO and the board, so all change has to start there.
This includes representing a diverse range of people in gaming and taking responsibility for the impact of gaming and Immersive Reality on human health.
VR really shows the extent of this. I was at a VR conference. I died in a VR parachute jump. Immediately after I had a VR car experience. I sat in the bucket seat, turned on the radio and the lights, then opened the car door and got out. All good. Then I tried to open the car door from the outside and it passed through my body. I’d just died and a car door passed through my body. My mind decided I was dead. I woke up the next morning still thinking I was dead and a ghost. This continued for 36 hours until my mind reset after the next night’s sleep. I’m an adult. Imagine what that could have done to a teenager.
30 YOP: What would be your one piece of advice for someone starting out in the industry?
Maria: Passion, tenacity, curiosity and an insatiable desire to learn and create are what have defined me throughout my career.
Crucially, you have to love what you do.
Like every good game, you will go through trials and tribulations. Remember, there is no failure, only feedback. Stay curious. Learn everything about everything. And make the impossible happen.
Want to keep up to date for more untold stories? Follow out new twitter account @30yearsofplay
You can find more information about Mireality here: www.mireality.co.uk
Maria’s twitter: @mariaingold