Allison Holt is a Webby Award-winning software developer with a 23-year-career that includes a decade of experience in the video game industry. She has built websites and backend systems for Turbine, developers of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online; Harmonix, creators of Rock Band and Guitar Hero; and Curt Schilling’s ill-fated 38 Studios. She is also an accomplished artist, with her commissions appearing in friends’ homes and on the cover of the Transporter Lock podcast.
In this podcast, Allison and I talk about the divide between web developers and game developers; the work that earned the Beatles Rock Band website its own Webby; the ephemeral nature of a digital portfolio; the unrealized potential of 38 Studios’ Project Copernicus; why she left the games industry; and her experience accepting her identity as a transgender woman, and the difference it made in her life.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Allison Holt
- The Webby Awards
- Turbine (now WB Games Boston)
- The Beatles Rock Band (via the Wayback Machine)
- 38 Studios (via the Wayback Machine)
- Itchy sweaters: An ally’s guide to understanding late-in-life pronoun and gender changes
- Related Polygamer guests
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to the Polygamer podcast, episode number 122, for Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022. I’m your host, Ken Gage. On this podcast, we’ve interviewed a variety of well-known faces, voices and talents in the video game industry. People whose work you’ve seen on YouTube or whose games you’ve played, but there is so much more that goes into the games industry that is almost hidden from view, stuff that goes on behind the scenes and under the hood. Today’s episode, we are lifting the hood and looking behind the scenes, pulling back the curtain and taking a look at someone who has been working in and out of the games industry for over a decade at some very well-known publishers and developers. Please join me in welcoming Webby award-winning software engineer, Allison Holt. Hello, Allison!
Allison Holt: Hi, Ken! how are you doing?
Ken: I am great! How are you today?
Allison: I’m doing just fine. Thank you for having me on your wonderful podcast. I appreciate it.
Ken: Thank you so much for coming on the show. We are friends. We’ve been known each other online for about four or five years. We’ve met offline only once. I don’t know how it hasn’t been more than that.
Allison: Yeah, well, he went gallivanting across the country that made it a little more difficult.
Ken: It’s true. The life of a digital nomad! But for full disclosure, you are the artist responsible for the art behind my other podcast: Transporter Lock. You did such a wonderful job with that. I’m going to talk to you more about that later, but I just want to start off the show by saying, thank you so much. That was really great what you did for us.
Allison: You’re very welcome. I was happy to do it, and I’ve appreciated that you seems to appreciate it so much.
Ken: Well, believe me, I would not be polite about that. It is all true.
Ken: However, that’s the Star Trek podcast. This is the video game podcast, and the reason you are on this show is because you have worked at, let me name some of the places, Turbine, which is the creator of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, now known as WB Games; Harmonix, creators of Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Dance Central, which you may have heard about, listeners, on last month’s podcast when I interviewed Arthur Inasi. And also, you’ve worked at 38 Studios, which we’ll get well into detail about later on this show. But I want to ask you first, was it your goal to work in video games, to make that your career? Did you grow up like so many of us playing video games and saying, “I want to do that for a living,” and you made it happen?
Allison: That was absolutely not my intention. I totally fell into it by accident. I mean, I grew up loving video games. I would guess everyone listening to your podcast probably did that, but it was never really my intention. Funnily enough, I fell into working video games because of a video game. I was working at a tiny little marketing company in Tampa, back in 2002, and all of us got together after work. We would play Unreal Tournaments every day after work for at least an hour. And that was the thing that we did. We had a clan, that what’s we called them back then, with a bunch of people from all over the country. One of the people who was in our clan worked for Turbine and poached my best friend, who I was working with, and dragged him from Tampa to Norwood, Massachusetts, and I’m like, “Well, I’m never going to work with him again.” And then three months later, they needed more web developers, and so I followed him to Turbine and it started my career from there. It wasn’t my intention, but the opportunity presented itself and I wasn’t going to turn it down.
Ken: We’ve had two other alumni from Turbine on this podcast: Lorien Green and Athena Peters. Did you cross paths with either of them there?
Allison: I know that I was there at the same time Lorien was, at least for part of it. I remember her. I don’t think that I did with Athena, though. It’s possible I did, but I don’t remember.
Ken: Because, of course, you and I have gushed with our love for The Adventure Pub in Arlington, Massachusetts, which Athena founded, and unfortunately, which the pandemic closed.
Allison: Yeah. That was very sad for my neighborhood. Probably, for the entire area, but that was a football’s throw from my house.
Ken: Yeah. And when I became a nomad, they inherited a large portion of my board game collection.
Allison: Oh, excellent.
Ken: So who knows where that is now? But anyway, more about you. So, you landed at Turbine, and what sort of work were you doing there?
Allison: I was one of the three engineers who was working on all of their tie-in websites for the games that they were working on. When I started there, it was before either DDO or LOTRO was published, but they were very much… it was a known thing that we were working on those. And so, we did a lot of… we built the sites to publicize, especially Lord of the Rings Online, since that was, if I’m not mistaken, the first time that we were really getting an actual officially licensed Lord of the Rings video game, especially, in MMO. So that was what I did. We built a custom content manager because this was pre-WordPress, and we did all of the updates to the site and I was in charge of all the backend coding and all the writing all of the CSS, and putting those together from what our very talented designer was doing, and did that for about three years.
Ken: So, building a website is not something you just pushed the publish button on and done. Especially in the games industry, it’s an interactive, evolving beast.
Allison: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s true.
Ken: Tell us a little bit more about that. What sort of ongoing work is needed after you launch a website?
Allison: Oh! So for the sites that we did there, and again, if I had been doing these sites now, it would be far easier, that kind of actually is what you’re saying, that it’s easier just to push some buttons and away you go. But back then, we would routinely get content from those people who would write the content. We had some very talented writers at the company who worked both on the… actually for writing for the games and would give us content for website. And so, we actually built a custom content manager just to be able to get that done on a regular basis and to try to make sure the site was as performant as possible for this being a decently large custom application, and to make sure that everything worked cross-browser. It’s the sorts of things that you do for most, any regularly updated website. The cool thing was that we actually were able to get assets from the actual games that are being created and to use those on the site.
Ken: Was this a role that was very collaborative with the marketing department, the video game developers, et cetera, or were you just off in your own corner doing your own things, isolated and siloed from the game development?
Allison: We were pretty siloed and honestly, that’s been true to some degree at all of the game companies that I’ve worked on. The teams who are working on the games themselves tend to be obviously heads down working on all the work that they have to do to get the games going. And we would be off to the side, trying to do the best we could without having to bug any of them more than just strictly necessary.
Ken: We just talked about the communication between the two departments. What about the mobility of staff between the two departments? Would you say that web development skills are transferable in any way to game development?
Allison: That has been a question that I and many others have wrestled with a lot. So, certainly there, it did not really work out that way well. They did draft the web dev team into working on some other game-related bits, not all the game itself, but they were shorthanded and so said, “Okay, you guys can all learn C++ real quick,” and we tried. I don’t think that anyone who has ever worked in PHP, which is what we built the websites in at the time, and still one of the major framework languages for building websites. I don’t think anyone who has worked with PHP and C++ would argue that C++ isn’t considerably more difficult, but to some degree, programming language is a programming language that most… there’s concepts that transfer across in terms of the language itself, learning how to write code, to solve the problems that you’re trying to write.
Allison: It’s a different scale of things, especially when you have a team working on writing a game engine or a game client, that is a far larger thing than we tend to do on the web side of things. But I think there is, or could be, or should be a path to go from web development into game engine development, and we’ll get into that a little more later, as we’re talking about some of the later jobs I had. It didn’t happen really at Turbine. So, they tried to draft us into doing some C++, but then they said, “Okay, that’s it. We don’t need you to do that anymore.”
Ken: It was an experiment they tried.
Allison: It was experiment. Some of us took to it better than others. It’s fine.
Ken: Now you said that you got recruited to Turbine through somebody in your clan.
Ken: So, does everybody at Turbine just love Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings? Is that a prerequisite?
Allison: I don’t know that it’s a prerequisite. I think it certainly helped. I mean, I personally have never been a huge fan of either D&D or a Lord of the Rings. My wife, on the other hand, is a tremendous Lord of the Rings fan, and was thrilled that I got to go take that job and be Lord of the Rings adjacent. She was also thrilled because that moved us from Tampa to the Boston area, which is where she was from, so that worked out well for her. There were certainly, from my recollection, a pretty large percentage of people that I knew of that worked there, who were very much into Lord of the Rings. Especially, when I worked there, that was 2003, 2004, so it was right after the movies had just finished coming out, so it was still very much in the zeitgeist.
Ken: Yeah. I can imagine that the shows, and the movies, and the books were all very popular back then. What about web development in general? I mean, my memory’s a little fuzzy. I was graduating from college a little bit before the time you started working at Turbine, and I don’t remember web development really being a big thing yet. Certainly, we were all on the web by that point, but I don’t remember a lot of people going and making careers out of it yet.
Allison: Yeah, it wasn’t… By that point, I would say it was probably starting take off. I had already been doing it for several years at that point. I’ve been a professional web developer since early 1999, so I’ve been doing this for a while.
Allison: Yeah, the thing about doing web development at that point, when I was at Turbine, like I said, that was pre-WordPress or at the very least, before WordPress was what it is now. One of the big differences between then and now is that we have very mature ecosystems for all the stuff, and very mature frameworks, and well established tools, and best practices, and just a plethora of options for building websites now. That was less true in 2003. We were using PHP for everything because there weren’t a whole lot of choices at that point. And that was the thing that was free and we could put on Linux servers and put out in the world, that was fine. The tools weren’t there, the techniques were still being developed, everything was much harder in many ways.
Ken: Yeah. I can imagine. PHP first appeared in 1995, WordPress in 2003, but that was 20 years ago and it’s evolved a lot.
Allison: A little bit.
Ken: I imagine one of the reasons you’re probably using WordPress instead of, saying, Drupal, or Sitecore, or Joomla is because… I use WordPress. I work with WordPress every day. And so, I’ve seen its evolution. I first launched my first WordPress website in 2006. And it’s changed a lot in those 15 years.
Allison: Yes, it has. I think I first may installed my first WordPress blog in… oh my gosh. 2005, I think. My one real foray into blogging, I did that for a couple years, and that was all WordPress back then. And yeah, it has advanced just a little bit over the last couple decades.
Ken: Just a little bit?
Allison: Just a little bit.
Ken: Did your career, after you left Turbine, you eventually found yourself at Harmonix, right, also, in the Boston area?
Allison: Yep. When I left Turbine, my family moved to North Carolina because we thought that that was going to be a good choice for us because it was going to be… You cross the border in North Carolina and they just give you 2500 sq. ft. houses on acres of land and say, “Here, have it,” and that was so much more affordable and there’s no oil bills. It’s like, “We’re going to move to North Carolina. That’s going to make a lot more sense.” That was absolutely horrible. I don’t know why we did that. We should not have done that. And then, my same friend who had taken the job at Turbine, got me in touch with someone else. We had worked for the Turbine who needed stuff at Harmonix. And as soon as I had the chance to escape to the Northeast again, I jumped on that and was thrilled to get the job at Harmonix.
Ken: I want to go on a brief tangent here because as a nomad, I’m always looking for places to live. What was so bad about North Carolina?
Allison: North Carolina’s actually fine and great in many ways. We moved to an area where we didn’t really know anyone. And I think had we moved, say, to the Raleigh area, I think that would’ve been fine because I think there’s a lot more people who are kinds of people, no crimes, very conservative state overall. There weren’t so many of our kind of people in the area where we lived. And there were also, I had a lot of trouble finding jobs, which is not a thing that I’ve ever really had a lot of trouble doing. There were just no jobs to be had where I was, so we quite happily picked up to go back up here. And this is not a dis against North Carolina in its entirety. Like I said, I knew some people who lived in the Raleigh area that we met while we were there, and I think that would’ve been a good place to go. So, if you ever have chance to go down there and hang out at the… Epic Games is in Raleigh or nearby there.
Ken: I did spend a little bit of time in Raleigh, Durham, Cary.
Ken: Loved it, but also a former guest of this show, Susan Arendt has lived in North Carolina. She no longer does, but I saw the ways in which, how should I put this, people from New England might not fit in.
Allison: That’s exactly correct. Yes.
Ken: Yeah. Even though she wasn’t from New England, I could empathize with her.
Allison: Yeah. I don’t mean sound judgemental, or that people weren’t kind or friendly, or anything in the sort, because they were, but we were very much outsiders everywhere that we went.
Ken: So, fortunately, you got to escape back to New England. You landed at Harmonix and I introduced you to this podcast as a Webby award-winning software developer, and this is where you earned that accolade. Tell us about that.
Allison: So, that particular accolade, so a little bit of background on what I did at Harmonix. I was, again, working for on the web development teams there. The web development team that we had there, who we have actually referred to ourselves as web-towns, so we had a little area in offices that was kind of our area in those web-town, that we were web-townie, was probably the single most talented batch of people that I’ve ever worked with. I still miss them all the time. The Webby came from the fact that they split a small team of us off and said, “Hey, we need a website for thebeatlesrockband.com,” because our The Beatles: Rock Band game was coming out in September 2009. We had to have a marketing site to go with it, and they said, “Go to town, make us a website.”
Allison: And we did. It was myself, I wrote all of the code for the site, every last stitch of it. Two very talented designers and one of our producers who wrote a bunch of texts for it. And yeah, I’m more proud of that than anything else that I’ve done professionally in my 22 years of doing this. And then, it won a Webby for best games related site of the year in 2010. It was a ton of work, and it was a ton of work that happened as my wife was eight months pregnant with my third child. And it was incredibly gratifying to produce something that was of such high quality and then have it recognized for being such high quality was definitely my proudest moment in my career.
Ken: What is it about The Rock Band website that you’re so proud of? I know a lot of websites. I’ve worked in web hosting for a few years now. There are a lot of different kinds of websites. Some are meant to be interactive, some are what we refer to as static, brochure websites. So, what kind of site did you build and what was so amazing about it?
Allison: So, thebeatlesrockband.com was entirely dedicated to The Beatles: Rock Band game. And it was able to use a lot of the amazingly gorgeous assets that our art teams produced for that game. I don’t know if it’s been awesome to looked at that, but it’s just a jaw-droopingly gorgeous game. And we really… our designers, our web designers put a lot, a lot of thought and effort into how they wanted to present all the information because The Beatles: Rock Band site had a bunch of historical information about The Beatles. We wanted to make it not just about the game itself, that was clearly the main focus was selling the game, but also for younger people who maybe didn’t know much about The Beatles, so it could be a nice introduction to them.
Allison: It was cool. We had an old-school radio dial that just went from year to year. And as you would scroll through this radio dial, all the photos of each of the four band members would fade in into the way they looked during that particular year of the game, and using all these assets from the game. And it felt, even as I worked on it, very innovative and I’m not quite being innovation myself. Our designers, Ramsey Taylor was the main visual designer on that one, and Abigail Borden. They did just such a phenomenal job on it and getting to make what they designed, to bring that to life, it was just an incredible thing to be working on. And to know that I was working on an official, licensed, encouraged product for The Beatles, that was pretty amazing as a lifelong Beatles fan.
Ken: For those who don’t know what is a Webby…
Allison: The Webby awards are, theoretically, they’re the internet equivalent of the Oscars, or the Emmys, or Grammy awards. Obviously, they’re nowhere near actually as prestigious as that, but they’ve been given out for probably since the late-1990s, if not earlier, to recognize the best websites, web applications that have been created over the previous years. They have a whole bunch of different categories, just like the Oscars and the Grammy’s do.
Allison: Yeah, it was pretty impressive. We had a little plaque that’s still sitting, as far as I know, sitting in the trophy case at the Harmonix offices. I assume it’s still there.
Ken: You spoke so highly just now of that website that of course I looked it up, and it now redirects to rockband4.com.
Allison: Yeah. I’m sure.
Ken: I mean, video games, especially nowadays in this digital age are becoming more and more ephemeral, but nonetheless, there is still some persistence, especially with physical cartridges, which are still a thing. So, how does it feel working on something that, almost by its nature, is ephemeral?
Allison: That is one of the frustrating parts about my job, because there are almost no websites anywhere that go up, and stay, and are useful for a long period of time. Everything changes. That is the nature of the web. Even successful sites entirely redo themselves every few years. Yeah, it’s frustrating to know that I put all this effort into, that we put all this effort into the site or into rockband.com itself, which we did a couple versions of it, which were, I thought very good. And these sites are just gone. I don’t have any of the code anymore. You’re really not supposed to take code with you when you leave the company. I can go find The Beatles site on the Wayback Machine, the Internet Archive, but it’s very slow and kind of broken. So, I can’t really see the site as it was intended to be seen in 2009 anymore. And it’s frustrating and it’s sad.
Allison: That’s true of most of the projects I’ve worked on for both for game companies and even going all the way back to when I got my start, building marketing websites for local law firms. It’s like all my work that I’ve done in my career is just, like you said, it’s ephemeral. It’s up for a little while, and then someone wants to do something else, or companies fold, or what have you, or games age out, and it’s just gone. It sucks, to be perfectly honest.
Ken: Do you think any of that code is ever reused, like are you building things that can be the foundation for other websites, or is this just a one and done?
Allison: It depends on the projects. And honestly, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you always like to think, “I’m going to build this thing for it to do exactly what you’re talking about. I’m going to build this thing, and if we need to build on top of it later, we can do that. Or if we want to build something else and go in a different direction, we can do that.” And it never ever happens. You always wind up building something from scratch, using newer tools, newer frameworks, you have better ideas for a way to do things, what you did before. You’re looking at someone else’s code and you don’t want to use their code, you want to start your own thing. It would be nice if you had these building blocks that continued to be built on, but I haven’t seen a lot of that happen in my career.
Ken: And yet, you keep building these websites. Every time a wave comes and blows away your sandcastle, you just build another one.
Allison: It is the nature of the beast. It is what it is. If you get overly attached to the things that you work on, this is probably not a career for you.
Ken: As a occasional freelance writer. I’m accustomed to the websites that I write for going down and going away, and now I can no longer link people to my work, but it’s very easy as a writer to just save the original word document or save PDF. So, when you are, for example, applying to jobs, what does your portfolio look like? A bunch of dead links?
Allison: I don’t really have a portfolio to speak up for exactly that reason. All the stuff I’ve done for games, none of it is up anymore. I can describe what I did, but I can’t show anyone. The stuff I’ve been doing for the last decade, for the most part, is all government work anyway, so I can’t show any of that regardless. I just have to convince people that I know what I’m talking about and that I have actually done the things that I’ve done. I can’t really show anything off.
Ken: I would love to be a fly on the wall during one of your interviews where you’re saying, “Imagine a website. There’s three columns. You scroll halfway down. You mouse over this. I built that.”
Allison: Yeah. I wish I could say you’re not wrong about that. It’s not quite that bad, but it’s close.
Ken: Oh, great. I thought I was joking. I’m sorry to hear that I’m not!
Allison: No. You are joking. It’s fine, Ken.
Ken: Great. One more question about Harmonix. When Arthur was on the show last month, he talked about all these wonderful opportunities that it presented to him to work with, and collaborate with, and meet with all these famous musicians. And as you said, you were a Beatles fan all your life. Did you get to work with The Beatles or any other musicians, or stars, or celebrities?
Allison: I never worked with any of them, but I was in the office when people were there from time to time. I know I was there when both Yoko Ono came through at one point and Danny Harrison, who’s George Harrison’s son, was in the office. God, there’s an… Famous people would come in for sometimes. Jonathan Coulton was there when we were having lunch one day because he, I think he had a bunch of songs that were in the Rock Band Network. The addition to Rock Band that we had that allowed community members to make their own songs and upload them to Rock Band. He had a bunch of songs that we had done for that, so he was in the office.
Allison: Yeah, I never got to work with him though. I will say the closest thing though, was that I got to work several times actually was in a Rock Band band. We would have a Rock Band’s bands. You’d get four or five employees together to do play testing. And Ben Carr of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, was who worked at Harmonix, was in my band. That’s probably the closest I got to being close to famous people. Anytime you see Ben up there on the Bosstones, he was the guy who danced with the Bosstones all the time. That was him. So, he was in my band.
Ken: That’s pretty cool actually.
Allison: He’s pretty cool. He was a good guy.
Ken: Wow. I think the closest I ever came to being related to somebody famous was… you know the band OK Go and their amazing music videos?
Ken: One of those four young men graduated from a high school that I taught at, but 10 years after he graduated.
Allison: It’s good enough. It’s close enough.
Ken: Well, I mean, we were both at the reunion, so I got a selfie with him-
Allison: Hey, there you go. Nice. That counts.
Ken: That’s it. So, speaking of celebrities, after Harmonix, at some point you went to work at 38 Studios.
Allison: Oh, God. Yes.
Ken: I don’t mean to speak for you, but being a fellow Bostonian, I would like to be the one to give the background on what 38 Studios is for the listeners who don’t know.
Allison: Please do.
Ken: This is former Red Sox pitcher, Curt Schilling, whose Red Sox number, his jersey shirt number was 38, as well as fantasy author, R.A. Salvatore, who’s best known for the dark elf character, Drizzt Do’Urden in a set in the Dungeons & Dragons’ world of the Forgotten Realms, as well as Todd MacFarlane, creator of Spawn, not to be confused with Seth MacFarlane, creator Family Guy. And the three of them decided to create a video game company. So, they launched it in Massachusetts, called it Green Monster Games, and then they got paid a lot of money to relocate to Rhode Island and bring all the jobs there. They got a lot of money from Rhode Island to do that, and they, unfortunately, then went bankrupt. They didn’t release the game they were working on, which was codenamed Project Copernicus. They did buy the rights to Kingdoms of Amalur and released that just to get some cash flow in the meantime. And that game has since been bought by another company. It’s still being released. But 38 Studios never actually succeeded at what they set out to do, despite an all-star cast. And you were there for a little under a year, is that correct?
Allison: I was there, yes. I was there. I wish I had any great insight into exactly what went wrong there. I’m happy to speculate and provide opinions. That was an interesting job, Ken.
Ken: I have so many questions. So, this was essentially like a startup that had not yet released a product.
Allison: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken: How did you end up working there? Were you excited? Were you trepidatious?
Allison: I went to work there after I got laid off from Harmonix in early-2011. 38 Studios had just been in news. They had just gotten the $75 million loan grant, whatever it was, I guess it’s a loan that never got paid back, from the state of Rhode Island. And I knew a couple people from Turbine actually that had gone to work for them, like, “Okay, this seems like a good job for me to get.” And I interviewed to get the job. I was pretty excited at first to go do that. You know, Ken, you have to imagine you’re living in Boston and you’re going to go work for a company where Curt Schilling is there all the time. It’s his company. I mean, that’s pretty fantastic. I’m also a long time comic book fan. I was very familiar with Todd MacFarlane. That was a cool thing.
Allison: So, I was excited. It was a difficult job for me personally, just because at the time, I lived in Arlington, and they moved to Providence. And so, three times a week, they let me work from home two days a week, but three times a week, I would have to go two and a half hours each direction to get from Arlington to Providence and back. And that was a lot.
Ken: Especially since you just said, when you were working at Harmonix, you had a third kid on the way, so you had a full house back home.
Allison: Yes, that is very true. And I would leave before my kids got up in the morning and get home after they went to bed on those days when I had to go into the office. And that was not much fun at all.
Ken: Were you at 38 Studios doing something similar to your other jobs where you were helping them build their website?
Allison: That’s exactly what I was doing. So, we were working on… We actually did get the website launched at the time. We launched amalur.com, which is supposed to be a hub for both of the two games. So, there was Kingdoms of Amalur, the console game that was produced in Maryland. And as you said, that actually came out. So, the website was really primarily focused on that game, but then we also were trying to tie it into the MMO that was being developed in Providence, which was supposed to be in the same world, with the same… basically the same maps, creatures and all that stuff, but at a different time. So, the intention was, through the websites, to be very, very interconnected because it’s going to deal with a lot of the same contents in different ways. So, that’s what I was doing with them.
Ken: See, I being a Bostonian, like you, was not interested in Curt Schilling. What interested me was R.A. Salvatore.
Allison: See, he’s the one I was the least familiar with.
Ken: Oh, see, not only did I grow up reading his books, but I also share the same hometown as him.
Allison: Oh, interesting. Which town is that?
Ken: Leominster. For example, I worked at Waldenbooks and we had a competition to see which Waldenbooks could sell the most copies of his book. We won and the prize was, he took us all out to dinner.
Allison: Oh, wow. That’s really cool.
Ken: Then I was a reporter for his hometown newspaper, and I interviewed him every time one of his new books came out. And then, I was a high school teacher and had his daughter in my class.
Allison: Oh my gosh. That’s really cool.
Ken: So, then I got to sit across the table from him at parent teacher meetings.
Allison: Sure. That wasn’t weird at all.
Ken: No, so I’m talking to R.A. Salvatore, New York Times best-selling author, about teaching his daughter how to write.
Allison: That’s really cool.
Ken: However, none of these three people, Curt Schilling, R.A. Salvatore, or Todd MacFarlane are names I normally associate with video games. So, although it sounds like an all-star cast, it’s also a little eyebrow raising.
Allison: See, I feel like I get what they were going for. I think that what they wanted to do was going to be really cool if they could have pulled it off. Todd supervised a lot of the artwork. I don’t know that he did a lot of actual design work for the games that were going on, but he did. He was in the office a couple times when I was working there. I was busy on something, I didn’t get to see him, I’m like, “Oh, I know that voice. That’s Todd MacFarlane’s voice.” And Ken, I got to tell you, the MMO that they were working on in Providence, I really wish that they had been able to finish and release that game because it was… I don’t know how it would’ve played eventually, but oh, my God, it was going to be just gorgeous.
Allison: Every time we’d have a… the end of the month, you’d have the sprint retrospective and they’d show off a whole bunch of assets that they’d been making and designs that they’d been doing. And it was going to be an absolutely gorgeous game, and I was always sad that it never got done. And some of the ideas that they’d had, that they were working on, that they said they wanted to do, again, I don’t know if they could have pulled them off because they would’ve been challenging, but it would have made for a really cool game.
Ken: And unlike Kingdoms of Amalur, which got purchased and then re-released as Kingdoms of Amalur Re-Reckoning, it sounds like Project Copernicus didn’t get bought and nobody finished it like Duke Nukem did.
Allison: Yeah, it was nowhere close to being done. When I left four months before the grand collapse happened, it was nowhere near done. I guess they conceivably could have sold the assets, but it was still a long ways off from what I had seen. Again, I wasn’t on the game team. Maybe those people might have a different idea about how close it was done, but it seemed far off.
Ken: You just mentioned that you left four months before they closed. You left January 2012, they closed their doors May 2012, a decade ago now. Did you leave because of the commute or because you saw the writing on the wall?
Allison: I wish I could say this because it was the writing on the wall that I had some great insight that my Spidey-Sense was going off and told me to leave. But no, it was really just because the commute was terrible and I couldn’t handle it anymore. And then, I decided to leave there and I got the job, working for Akamai Technologies in Cambridge, which was five subway stops from my house, so that was a little bit better.
Ken: Yeah. I used to work at MIT, just down the road from Akamai.
Allison: Right. Yeah.
Ken: It’s a great neighborhood to be working in because everything’s there.
Allison: Exactly. Kendall Square is a pretty great place to work. From what I remember, it’s been two years since I’ve actually worked there, so…
Ken: Well, with this pandemic, I think there’s a lot of things that have happened in the last two years.
Ken: So, if I understand correctly, you went from 38 Studios to Akamai, back to Harmonix, and then back to Akamai?
Allison: Yes, that is exactly what I did. Yes. Originally, I took job at Akamai and it was and is a good job. It’s a great company, it’s a stable company, which I really appreciate after all my years in the video gaming industry, which is inherently not stable, see 38 Studios, but I’ve been working for Akamai about three years, and then a friend of mine from Harmonix messaged me and said, “Hey, we just want to see if you want to come talk to us at Harmonix.” And I didn’t really know why, but I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll come and talk to you because I like you. We’ll just have lunch,” and turns out that they were starting to work on Rock Band 4 and were trying to staff up. And if they could get people who already had some experience with the company and the games, then all the better.
Allison: So, I went back to Harmonix and spent all of 2015 there. That’s why… my title’s networking engineer, but it really, that feels to me like I was doing something way different than what I was actually doing, because I was actually just, I was working on all the APIs and data munching that happens when you finish playing a game in Rock Band. And it sends the scores back to us so we can store it and do leaderboards and all the stuff that happens at that point. That’s what I was working on during my second spin at Harmonix.
Ken: What was it that lured you back to Harmonix? You had a stable job at Akamai-
Allison: I did.
Ken: The commute was great.
Ken: Was it that you wanted to get back into the video game industry, that you wanted to work with this crew that you were familiar with?
Allison: That was it. It wasn’t so much a desire to get back into video games per se. It was a desire to work at Harmonix again, because Harmonix is still, hands down, my favorite job that I’ve ever had. It was a fantastic company for me to work for. I loved all the people that I worked with. It’s just an incredibly talented group of people and an atmosphere that I really liked being around. And so, when I had the chance to go back and work there again, it was a really hard decision because, as you just mentioned, stable, solid job, easy commute, wasn’t really any different to Harmonix, but it was just the chance to go back and work with my friends at Harmonix and was too much to pass up. And so, I didn’t.
Ken: Did you expect that would be a long-term position?
Allison: That was my thinking when I took the job to go back there again. Didn’t work out that way clearly because after a year, my former boss in Akamai messaged me and said, “Hey, we would really like to have you back. We haven’t really adequately replaced you yet and could use you and your knowledge of what we’re doing.” And at that point, even as much as I loved Harmonix, there’s something inherently not super stable about working in video games. Even though I’ve known people who have had long-term jobs with some game companies, it’s not… it’s just a little… the ground underneath you doesn’t feel quite as solid. And when I had the opportunity to go back to Akamai and they dangled more money under my nose, said, “Okay, I want to go back there and then just not worry about my job anymore because it’s solid,” and that has been the case for the last 6+ years.
Ken: So between you mentioning that the video game industry is not very stable and the fact that you were laid off from Harmonix once before, I had just filled in the blanks and assumed you’d gotten laid off a second time.
Allison: I did not get laid off the second time. I left on my own the second time. I did get laid off once I had seen any number of layoffs across the three companies that I had worked for, three gaming companies. Harmonix, just the time that I worked for them, got sold three times. I think had I been younger and maybe didn’t have a family that I was supporting, I might have been willing to ride it out a little more, but I just really started craving what felt like a more solid pudding.
Ken: Is there anything you miss about the games industry? Not that they would lure you back, but do you ever look back and say, “Gee, I miss that.”
Allison: I do miss it because… well, there are things that I miss. Obviously, I think anyone who’s worked in the games industry a while would say they don’t miss things like crunch. I don’t miss that, but I really miss the atmosphere. I mentioned the team that I worked with at Harmonix, my first time through the web team there, the most talented group of people I’ve ever worked for. And the only time, really the only team I’ve worked for that felt like a family, I miss that, and obviously that’s an exaggeration to sundry, but it was the most tight-knit team that I’ve ever worked for. We all got along really well, and it was a joy to work with these incredibly talented people. Sadly, many of them had left by the time I went back the second time and I was doing something a little bit different anyway, but yeah, I miss that. There’s a camaraderie working in games because I think there is…
Allison: At all the game companies I worked for, even at 38 Studios, it’s the weirdness that went along with that. There’s a real… there’s a passion for what you’re doing that really comes through when you’re… which you would hope would come through, if you’re putting all this blood, and sweat, and tears into this massive creative project, and you can feel it in the game, at least the game companies I’ve worked for and especially Harmonix. I don’t have that in my job now. I like my job. I like the people that I work with. They’re also all smart, kind people. But I don’t think anyone that I work with is passionate about their job. It’s “This is the job that we have. It’s what we do. We try to do it the best of our abilities, but none of us is there because we love it.” Right?
Ken: I think the video game industry, in a way, takes advantage of people.
Allison: Oh, God. Yes.
Ken: Well, I could have just let that sentence lie there in that meeting, but they trade on people being passionate. Like, “We’ll give you the opportunity to work in video games and you fulfilling your lifelong dream is what you’ll get,” instead of money and stability.
Allison: Yep. That happens a lot, especially with QA teams. I know that’s a big thing and the good thing. They’re always the first ones to be let go when there’s layoffs coming. And that’s exactly what it is. The QA people I’ve worked with, all very sharp and talented, and they love the games that they’re working on. At least, again, in my experience, that’s probably not true for everybody all the time, but also, I mean, that was work. Tons of QA people worked on the Rock Band games, of course they love that. Come on!
Ken: This conversation is actually helping me reframe an experience I had where… I have interviewed in the video game industry a couple times and one time, I was one of the final candidates and I didn’t get the job. And the reason they said I didn’t get the job was because most people who applied to that company were all passion and no talent. And I was just the opposite.
Allison: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep.
Ken: I was like, “Oh, now I realize. That means that you didn’t see an aspect of me that you could exploit.”
Allison: Yeah, exactly.
Ken: I never thought of it that way. Well, I feel a lot better about that rejection 15 years later. Thank you.
Allison: Well, actually, glad I could help you.
Ken: So, I mentioned at the top of the show that you are a person of multiple talents, not just a Webby award-winning software engineer, but also an accomplished artist, which is how I got introduced to you by our mutual friend and Harmonix alumna, Christine Kayser.
Allison: One of my favorite people in the world, by the way, in case she’s listening to this.
Ken: Isn’t she fabulous?
Allison: Definitely one of my favorite people ever. She’s amazing. I love her so much.
Ken: So how did you get into drawing? Is this one you just do on the side, take an art class? What’s going on there?
Allison: I have been drawing my entire life, basically. I really started getting into it when I was 11 years old is when I first started drawing my own comic books. It has been an off and on passion for me forever. The problem is I’m terribly a DD and I will get really into drawing for between a couple weeks, maybe a couple months, so I’m really into it. And then I totally forget about it for months or years on end. So, I’ve been drawing forever, but it feels like I’ve only been a third, a half that time actually dedicated to doing anything with it, so I’m not as accomplished perhaps as I might like to be.
Ken: And for whom do you draw, besides obviously me?
Allison: Really, it’s just for me and the 110 or so people who followed me on Instagram at this point. I long ago gave up any pretension to really being a professional artist and said, “Okay, I have a day job that pays me more than I would make as an artist anywhere. Software engineering just pays better, so I’m just going to leave this as my hobby.” So, given that I gave up my professional ideas, like, “Well, then I can just draw whatever I want.” And so, I just draw for me and I draw for you. You’re my favorite client to draw things for.
Ken: Well, you haven’t gotten to see it yet, but I’ve sent you photos. As you know, your art adorns my iPhone case. I had a custom one made with your art and I love it…
Allison: Yeah. That is so cool.
Ken: … see it every day. And other people see it, of course, and they’re like, “What is that?” I’m like, “That is my friend, Allison’s work. She’s amazing.”
Allison: Well, excellent. I’m glad that you’re able to show it off to your friends. That’s fantastic.
Ken: So, does this mean that listeners of this podcast shouldn’t be reaching out to you about commissions?
Allison: I’m not saying they shouldn’t, it’s just it hasn’t been a thing that I have a… I don’t go out searching for commissions. I do things for if friends ask me or if I’m, like in our case where Christine connected you and me, that worked out really well, but I’m not beating down doors to try to get commissions.
Allison: Also, don’t turn them down if someone wants me to do something.
Ken: Well, we’ll include some links in the show notes at polygamer.net on how you can get your own personal Allison Holt commission.
Ken: So, we’ve talked about your career and your passion. There’s one more topic I want to talk to you about, and we’d chat about this a little bit offline, which is that you are open on your social media about the fact that you are a transgender woman.
Allison: That is true.
Ken: I’m curious to know how did this… And the reason I’m asking is because I think there is a lot more awareness and acceptance of these options nowadays, especially for the younger people.
Allison: Oh, my God. Yes.
Ken: One of my friends, Enfys, I don’t know if they came up with this analogy, but it can be like wearing the wrong sweater your whole life, and you just think you’re supposed to be scratching and uncomfortable. And then other people tell you that their sweaters are fine and you’re like, “Oh, maybe I’m wearing the wrong one.”
Allison: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s a pretty good analogy.
Ken: I’ll include a link in the show notes, but I think it’s great that more people are realizing that they don’t need to wear the sweater they were born with. And so, I’d love to hear more about your experience that other people can also realize that they have options available to them. How did being transgender manifest in your life prior to your transition?
Allison: Honestly, Ken, I knew that I was having gender issues from the time I was about five. I knew that there was something that was off about me. I couldn’t have told you what it was. So I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in the American South. That’s not really an atmosphere that’s really conducive to being different. This is the thing: You can’t consider and then accept or reject an idea, that doesn’t exist in the atmosphere where you are. When I was growing up in that time in that place, I could recognize that there was something different about me, but there was no concept of being transgender out there. I mean, there’s an occasional person on TV who transvestite or at time when you called it transsexual person on TV, very rarely, almost always as either the butts of jokes or villains.
Allison: They’re presented as evil. That’s certainly not something that resonated with me at all, but I continued to feel this way my entire life. Actually, it was when I was working at Harmonix the second time that I started to really feel that there… I was starting to recognize what it was, because by that point, I had started to know of trans people that were starting to be out, not just in the media, I mean, that was around the time that Caitlyn Jenner was starting to be a thing. I have to say this without naming names, Harmonix is almost, I would say, like an incubator for trans people. I don’t know what it is.
Allison: There are at least half a dozen people that I have known at Harmonix who either were at the time or have since realized that they are trans, which is wonderful to see. But that’s part of what you’re talking about. It’s more acceptable now. All of us are starting to realize this, not just realize that we have this difference in ourselves, but actually to put a name to it and to recognize what it is. And that started happening for me in about 2015. I said most all my life before that “it was there, but it wasn’t” until 2015 that I started to be able to put a finger on what it was. For a couple years, it was starting to come into focus, but I told myself several times like, “Well, I’m not transgender. That’s not me. I might have my gender stuff in my head, my weirdness, but I’m not trans. I mean, clearly I’m not trans.”
Allison: And then one night I was lying in bed and I had the thought in the head that says, “Well, I’m not trans.” And then this voice popped in the back of my head and said, “Are you sure about that?” And I was like, “Oh, shit.” And that was it. Once I opened myself up to the question, instead of brushing it aside and denying it, I had to face it. And that’s what started a whole lot of therapy and a lot of… not certain what I’m looking for, a lot of introspection and coming to grips with things about myself I’ve been denying my entire life. Not even denying it, also just not seeing.
Ken: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I can imagine the answer to this, but why did you deny it? Even once you had the cultural awareness that you didn’t grow up within the south, that transgender is a viable concept, why did you deny that it might be right for you?
Allison: It’s hard to say. Part of it was fear because even at that point in 2015, where us trans people were coming into focus, we weren’t. It wasn’t certainly as accepted and visible as it is now. So there’s some fear, there’s… like I said, I wasn’t really sure for a long time, there it was. When I finally got to that point where asked myself that question, I said, “Are you sure?” That was really the first time I could really say, “Okay, yes.” I could recognize that it was the thing I was, and to be able to really reject or deny it at that point. Before that, I had denied it so I wouldn’t even engage with the question. I was like, “Okay, there’s something weird with me. Yes, there are trans people. I’m clearly not that just because I can’t even open myself up to that possibility.” Then once I did open, actually finally hooked myself up to it. That was the opening of the floodgates, the hormonal floodgates as they were.
Ken: I can imagine a little bit. There have been times in my life where I suddenly had an epiphany about what I needed to be happy. And that epiphany, my immediate action was grief because I realized how difficult and how much work was just ahead of me.
Allison: Oh, God. Yeah, yeah.
Ken: I wanted to not have to do that work. I wanted to just be happy with the way I was. And I realized, “I can’t. I have to do this thing, even though it’s hard and I don’t want to.”
Allison: Yeah. That is exactly it, Ken. When I opened myself up to the possibility, I recognize it, I’m like, “I have to do this or I’m going to spend the rest of my life miserable.” And because I’ve now seen who I am and I cannot be that person anymore.
Ken: Before you came to that moment in the earlier years of your life, I know some people who, when they haven’t figured out what they need, sometimes, what’s troubling them manifests itself in other ways. If you’re willing to talk about that, were there challenges you experienced?
Allison: Let me think about that for a second. Not exactly in the sense of… I never had a drug addiction, or alcohol addiction, or that kind of thing. I’m not saying that those are the only outlets that people have, but for me, it was just… No, I don’t really think so. I don’t think I had anything quite like that. And for me, it was just an ongoing nagging feeling of something being wrong about me, about wrong with me, but it was too vague and diffused to be able to… it didn’t manifest itself in any other ways. It was just this unease all the time.
Ken: And once you did make that decision to move forward, and you mentioned therapy and other things you had to go through, what is your life like now compared to what it was like before? What has changed for you?
Allison: This is the funny thing, and this is where I have to admit to exactly how much privilege that I am soaking in. For me, my life didn’t really change. I changed some, but I still have my family. I still have my job. I still have my friends. I think because I was older and a little more established, a lot of the problems that so many, especially younger trans people can encounter, I kind of didn’t and I am fully aware of the axes of privileges that I’m sitting smack in the middle of to be able to say that. And it’s weird, too. I mentioned that and I say I’m different, but I don’t even really feel like I am that different. I feel like I’m just a clarified version of me.
Allison: Some people transition and they change wildly because they’ve been really suppressing and denying these parts themselves. And when they’re able to let that out, it manifests in huge change. For me, it’s almost like I was before transition. So I don’t really think of gender as a binary spectrum, but I’m going to use that for this description. It’s a really like a seventh dimensional blob. If you think of gender as a binary spectrum between male and female, and right in the middle, we’ve got the 50% mark. I was like, “I’m the nearing the middle points but from the male side before, and now I’m on the other side of the middle point, but I’m nowhere near all the way towards the other end of the spectrum.” So my shift wasn’t that dramatic, all things considered.
Ken: But it was worth it.
Allison: Oh, God. Yes. Most definitely. Like I said, if I had not done this thing that I did, that is the thing I would’ve regretted for the rest of my life. And very glad that I did it. I think I’m still human. I still have doubts about exactly where my identity might land on any given day. I still have fears that I’m doing all of this wrong and that people don’t actually accept me for who I am, my friends are just humoring me. I have these kind of doubts, but it was still exactly the right thing for me to do. I could not have not done it.
Ken: You mentioned how you still have a lot of the things you had from your life before. Speaking for other people is very different from speaking for yourself, so if this is too personal, let me know. But how did the other people in your life react, whether it’s your employer or your family, if I may ask?
Allison: It took my wife some time to really wrap her head around it and come around because I’m sure it felt to her like I had been lying to her all this time before about who I was, which wasn’t the case. I just didn’t know. And then when I knew, I told her. But that I can see why it might have felt that way. She had some problems with it at first, but she did her own work on that, and she is the most supportive and loving wife I could imagine having. She’s absolutely my rock in every conceivable way. My kids were totally fine with it because I think…
Allison: I mean, you said something about this a while ago. Kids these days, they don’t care. Gender is not anything to them like it was to generations before them. My middle kid, his name is Ryland and his gender is Ryland. He is his own person, his own thing. So my kids did not care at all. My employer was great. I went through the process coming out and got absolutely no pushback, no guff from anyone. I’m sure people had opinions and I’m grateful they did not share those with me, but it’s been almost five years now that I’ve been fully out as myself. And my job has always just been supportive and respectful. So again, aware of all the layers of privilege that I’m sitting in.
Ken: Is there a time at which you consider the transition complete or is it a lifelong process?
Allison: I am pretty sure it’s a lifelong process. Like I said, it’s been five years. I still don’t feel like I am done. I still feel like I’m learning and growing as a person. I’m still trying to find my style for expressing myself five years in. I can’t imagine… Maybe I’m wrong. We’ll see. I hope I have a long time to figure this out, but I don’t really see myself getting to a point and saying, “Okay, there, I’m done.”
Ken: For those listening to this podcast who may have questions about their own identity, do you have any advice for them?
Allison: I think everybody needs to accept themselves for who they are and be themselves, be the best version of themselves that they can be, even if it’s difficult. It’s, again, easier for me to say, older, middle-class, White lady. Who am I to say what younger people these days might be facing or not, but I think if you are recognizing that you have this part of yourself that you’ve been suppressing consciously or unconsciously, or ignoring and if you think it’s going to make you happy to express that part of yourself, you’re probably right, and it’s going to be worth it. I can’t say it’s going to be easy. Everyone’s got their own circumstances and I can’t say it’s a piece of cake for everybody, but it’s worth it.
Allison: One of the reasons I was happy to talk to you about this again is I have always felt, if by my being myself, if I can inspire a single other person to have the courage and confidence to be themselves, to be who they really are, to let others see them as they really are, if I can do that for a single other person, then this will all have been worth it. That’s worth it anyway. But I think that’s…
Ken: Oh, I love that. And I love that you were willing to talk to me about this. There have been other guests on the show who could have talked about it and we decided to talk about other things. And I really appreciate that you are one of the first people in the eight years I’ve been doing the show who is comfortable talking about that, because it’s a deeply and intensely personal topic. And I really appreciate you sharing that with our listeners and with me.
Allison: I’m happy to have done so, Ken, and I appreciate that you have been nothing but respectful and gentle in what we’ve been talking about, what we’re going to talk about, you’ve been nothing but awesome. And I appreciate that.
Ken: Well, thank you. My goal is for you to not regret talking to me.
Allison: I do not regret talking to you.
Ken: Oh, thanks. And for those who want to talk to you, where can they find you online?
Allison: Well, I am on Twitter occasionally. I’ve been trying to take a break from much social media to preserve my mental health because, as you might have noticed, everything is on fire. But I do. I’m @allizon_prime. That’s allizon_prime on Twitter. Is that true? Hold on. That’s my Instagram handle. I think on Twitter, it’s @allizonprime. The underscore is just on Instagram. And also, have my other Instagram, which is more where I put up my drawings, which is @allizon_arts.
Ken: Fantastic. There will be links to those in the show notes. And actually looking at your Twitter profile, I see your avatar is Steven Universe.
Allison: That is true.
Ken: This is the show that I’m currently working my way through. I’m right now in season three.
Allison: Oh, you’re only in season three. Oh, Ken, Ken, Ken, you have so much to look forward to. It is so good, so, so, so good, so deeply, unabashedly queer, I adore it so much.
Ken: Well, being unabashedly queer is also what I loved about the new She-Ra series.
Allison: There you go. I think you will not regret having worked your way through Steven Universe.
Ken: Fantastic. Well, I look forward to it and I also look forward to the next time our paths cross.
Allison: Me too.
Ken: Alison, thank you so much for your time.
Allison: Thank you very much, Ken. I appreciate it.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.