Editor’s note: This is the second of a multi-part series from WRAL Tech Wire that focuses on what’s ahead for the growing triangle videogame industry in 2011. One of the expected highpoints comes today with the release of “Bulletstorm” from People Can Fly, a subsidiary of Cary-based Epic games.

CARY, N.C. – When it comes to the lucrative shooter genre, which includes history-shattering hits like Activision’s Call of Duty titles, Epic Games’ Gears of War games, and Microsoft’s Halo franchise, game studios are basically a boy’s club. But as more female gamers grow up with controllers in their hands, things are slowly changing. Not that gamers’ will notice anything in the on-screen action, which remains as intense and addictive as ever.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 40 percent of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (34 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent). Since 1989, game designer Sheri Grainer Ray, who wrote the book Gender Inclusive Design, has seen the number of women in game development grow from three to 12 percent. The ninth annual Game Development Salary Survey by Game Development Research found that 18 percent of game producers last year were female, the largest percentage of any job in game development.

That’s definitely the case with the newest collaboration from Epic Games (Unreal Tournament 3) and its subsidiary, developer People Can Fly (Painkiller).

The ultra-violent, third-person shooter “Bulletstorm,” which uses the tag line “symphony of blood,” is produced by Epic Games’ Tanya Jessen.

“Chick sensibilities”

“For me, I’m just one of the guys, so I don’t think that my gender has a lot to do with my working conditions, haha,” said Jessen, who considers herself a hardcore shooter player. “I never fight my chick sensibilities knowing that I only work with guys; that’s what allows me to offer a totally different perspective to the team and management.”

Jessen said she’s always thinking about usability and accessibility when she’s working with Polish developer People Can Fly (PCF) because she definitely wants as many people to enjoy the game as possible. Jessen actually started out as a games recruiter eight years ago and then took a pay cut to jump into game development as a contract play tester in 2003. That gig lead to a full-time job as a software development engineer in test. She’s been with Epic the past four years and has been hard at work on Bulletstorm for a couple of years now.

“Just from a production perspective, I think I add a totally unique management and communication style that benefits the project,” said Jessen, who works and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina but commutes regularly to Warsaw, Poland. That studio’s locale, also adds an interesting twist to Bulletstorm.

“I truly think that due to the hardships in Poland over the past 500+ years, the country’s history and culture has absolutely contributed to the personalities who work on Bulletstorm,” explained Jessen. “They’re definitely scrappy and super hardworking. People Can Fly has an amazing ability to deliver at all costs and come up with many crazy ideas along the way.”

The Mature-rated game allows players to torture their enemies before finally putting them out of their misery. In fact, after shooting an enemy in the groin, putting a bullet to his head is called “mercy.” The game has been designed with plenty of interactive objects, from trash cans that can be kicked towards enemies to giant, man-eating plants and deadly cacti that can be used for strategic purposes. The planet Stygia, once an intergalactic paradise, is now an overgrown deathtrap.

“Bulletstorm is like a blood symphony where players use enemies and environments as their instruments, unleashing their inner sadist, killing creatively while creating mayhem all around them,” said Jessen. “We obviously do have a bar for violence, though, and everyone does a pretty good job of balancing the over-the-top nature of it. We never intend for the violence to be taken too seriously, and accordingly, we never expect to be rated lower than Mature.”

It’s not SAW

In other words, this isn’t SAW. (Konami Digital Entertainment makes those games using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 technology.) In fact, the violence is built into a controversial new skill shot system that rewards players points for offing enemies with headshots or lining up multiple executions using the environment and an assortment of weapons. The more creative the kills, the more point to purchase even more deadly weapons.

“There’s a bit of a design cabal at PCF that got together a long while ago to brainstorm ideas and prototype what sounds cool to achieve that new and fun experience,” said Jessen. “The skill shots came out of playing with that ‘first pass’ weapon. That’s where a lot of iteration comes in between PCF and Epic together – to make sure that it’s as fun and over-the-top as possible.”

Players are given an arsenal of weapons to play with, including an energy leash that can be used to collect ammo for the big guns or catapult enemies into the air. Players can carry an additional two guns at any time, including the main assault rifle, the Peacemaker Carbine (PMC), and the Flail Gun, which is essentially two grenade launchers pieced together. Every weapon has special upgrades that unleash infinite carnage on enemies, including a storm of bullets (hence the game’s name).

“One Epic technique that we wanted PCF to employ when building their weapons was to create mini whitebox test levels to help demonstrate all of the various functionalities that each weapon can achieve, explained Jessen. “This would result in a level with anywhere from five to 10 rooms that you could play and see how each insane weapon worked. We probably went through four gameplay iterations of the Flail Gun using this technique. We actually aren’t huge proponents of design docs. We prototype it, make it fun, and we’ll write a doc later.”

Although the Cliff Bleszinski gets most of the media attention around anything Epic, that storm of bullets heading to PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 has been produced by a woman. So there’s plenty of “girl power” embedded into this new Epic shooter franchise.

Part I of Triangle Gaming: An interview with Epic President Mike Capps. Read here.

Plus: Read about a Smithsonian exhibit for videogames. You can help pick the games.Read here.

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