Mobile advertising company Liftoff has invited inspirational women working on some of the biggest mobile games to discuss their achievements, challenges and future aspirations. The series starts with Paula Neves, a psychology major who is now Senior Product Manager at Zynga.
Video games have been a big part of Neves’ life since she was four when she’d watch her older sister plugging away for hours on her Atari. It’s no wonder that when she got to try out Super Mario Bros 3 on the NES a couple of years later, she was completely hooked. Today, Neves has far more gaming skills at her disposal, with more than 15 years of experience in the mobile gaming industry.
Her roles have included a long stint at one of the largest casual and social games developers in Brazil, Gazeus Games. There, she grew from being the only marketing specialist to the company’s Chief Mobile Officer, leading a user acquisition team. After several years at Gazeus, she joined Square Enix in Montreal as a Senior Product Manager—a role she acquired through being a frequent speaker at industry events. She also briefly worked on Jam City’s Jurassic World: Alive as a Senior Product Manager.
Today, Neves puts her mobile gaming knowledge to great use as a Senior Product Manager at Zynga, working on Merge Dragons. Her impressive background aside, Neves’ career has not followed a straightforward path.
Understanding behavioural economics and the psychology of player motivations
When Neves graduated from high school in 2002, she was set on pursuing a career in psychology. It wasn’t until she was an intern in sports psychology at her favourite football club, Flamengo, that she realised a professional psychology career wasn’t for her.
Neves decided to complete an MBA in marketing while finishing her psychology degree. Shortly after, she landed a role at a digital games store, working on search engine marketing. The role involved attending major gaming events, such as E3, which helped Neves to gain connections across the industry before moving on to Gazeus.
Neves said: “In Brazil, there weren’t a lot of opportunities. I didn't think that working on video games would be possible, so I didn't consider that as an option at the time. It all turned out really nicely because psychology is now a major area in free-to-play.
“Behavioural economics is huge in gaming, and in mobile free-to-play, it’s on another level. If you're selling a single-player game, you have to worry about what will make users want to buy it, and that's it. But when you're delivering games as a service, you also have to worry about what will motivate them to keep playing.”
Navigating product management at Zynga
It’s these same instincts and motivations that Neves spends her time trying to figure out in her current role at Zynga in Canada. This involves working with data analysts to understand how and why players are responding to new features and updates in a certain way. Their insights help game designers make alterations to improve the user experience.
Behavioural economics is huge in gaming, and in mobile free-to-play, it’s on another level.Paula Neves
Neves said: “The data shows you what is happening, but it doesn't always show you why. Sometimes you need to do additional tests, like user tests, to show you exactly why the data is going that way. For me, making sense of everything going on in the game is the best part, especially when you have clear hypotheses as a result of testing. We're doing that right now with the features we're testing, and it's pretty fun.”
As in her previous product roles, Neves always has an eye on user acquisition. But her new job comes with the challenge of helping to grow Merge Dragons, one of Zynga’s biggest titles.
Merge Dragon’s large development team is global—thankfully, as someone who already speaks five different languages, Neves enjoys working closely with people across the globe.
“My team focuses on features that'll bring huge uplift. They're usually game-wide features that have to be coordinated with everyone across the team because they impact all the other parts. Each part has its owner. So, much of my time is dedicated to ensuring communications are coming through.
“I think the most rewarding part is when we're in alpha or beta testing for a feature that we’ve been working on, and the team is super proud of just seeing that feature finally come to life. They’re excited to be able to collect feedback from users. And you know, if it's good feedback, it's even better.”
Women in gaming: overcoming challenges and biases
While Neves has been based in Montreal for the past three-plus years, she spent her childhood and early career in Brazil.
In Brazil and many other countries, gaming is stereotypically seen as a ‘male’ industry, and Neves often found herself as the only woman in the room. This was the exact opposite of what she experienced during her training in psychology. Her interest in football and punk rock also exposed her to gender disparities in different communities.
Neves said: “Growing up in Brazil, people had a very specific understanding of what a woman should look like and behave, and I was never that woman. There were a lot of biases and a lot of stuff that I had to fight for. Since I moved to Montreal, for the first time in my life, I haven’t felt biases or anything like that; it has just been welcoming. Nobody has made a big deal out of anything. Whether that’s my gender, my sexual orientation, or whatever—it's very different.”
Neves’ experiences in Brazil informed her move from psychology to gaming, especially considering that her father is a renowned developer in Brazil who has written several books on scripting languages and programming.
“I never thought about being a programmer or developer myself, ever. I think a big reason was that, despite having an example of one in my dad, I didn't see any girls doing it. It's not something you think about consciously, but when you see other women doing something, you're like, ‘Okay, I can do that. It's possible for me.’”
For this reason, Neves encourages other women and girls who are at the beginning of their careers - ones she meets when doing educational talks, as well as her young daughter. She encourages them to seek out inspirational role models and mentors to avoid the feeling of being ‘put in a box.’
Navigating the 'toxicity' of online gaming
Neves believes there are two sides to the discussion regarding the next generation of women in games and the challenges they will face. When it comes to playing online, Neves has always stuck to couch co-op and single-player adventures as it has been simply too toxic to do otherwise.
She’s likely not the only one - last year’s Anti-Defamation League report found that 67 percent of young people aged 10-17 experienced harassment in online multiplayer games. There may be hope ahead, though, as prominent organisations and streamers are actively campaigning against the discrimination women face when playing online. Regarding the treatment of women in the workplace, Neves feels that the industry has evolved significantly over time.
“Professionally, I feel things are getting a lot better. The jump from Brazil to Montreal alone was huge for me. Here, there are no questions asked. I think things are evolving in other countries now, too, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”