The Women Behind Nix Hydra Are Taking on Aggressive Male Video Gaming
Lina Chen and Naomi Ladizinsky, founders of Nix Hydra, are close to launching Egg!, their new mobile pet game for girls and women.
Four years ago, Lina Chen and Naomi Ladizinsky's plan to shake up the gaming world on behalf of girls seemed exceedingly improbable, even to them. Chen had a psychology liberal arts degree and Ladizinsky a film studies degree, both from Yale, where they'd met. They were out to disrupt one of the world's most elite, tech-driven men's clubs from a tiny office in Hollywood, yet, as Chen recalls with a ripple of laughter, "We didn't have experience or money. We'd never worked as executives, and we had no connections in tech, startup or the gaming industry. And we didn't have a product!"
Neither of these two L.A. transplants knew how to code, so they taught themselves online. That all seems like a lifetime ago, given what has happened since. Early this year, their Los Angeles company, Nix Hydra, a rare gaming firm founded by women to create games for girls and women, will launch Egg!, a more complex successor to their wildly popular 2013 mobile pet game, Egg Baby.
The long-haired, soft-spoken co-founders of Nix Hydra are now in an enviable position, with just over $5.6 million from investors including venture capital firm Foundry Group, a built-in audience awaiting Egg!'s release, and few like-minded competitors in a male-dominated industry where stories are driven by violence, aggression or machismo.
Nix Hydra still has not spent one dollar marketing Egg Baby. It doesn't need to. The game — in which a player cares for, tickles, clothes, cleans and feeds an Egg Baby until it hatches into a surprise creature based on its human parenting — has been downloaded 14 million times.
Chen and Ladizinsky now employ 34 people, 60 percent of them women, in a vast, airy, repurposed office building in Westlake, looking out over downtown L.A. Their offices are sprinkled with the expected Macs and mod furnishings of a creative/tech startup, as well as a crew of free-ranging dogs: Tootles, a chih-weenie; Zelda, a dachshund-poodle and the official company watchdog; Moe, a tiny mutt with a mohawk; Rhea, a shepherd/cattle dog mix; and Volta, a one-eyed, long-haired Chihuahua, who sometimes sports a dashing eye patch.
Though Egg Baby is a major hit, Ladizinsky and Chen are nervous about the fast-approaching launch of Egg!. They erupt in laughter or roll their eyes as they try to imagine how Girldom will react.
Games created by women are still the exception, but several stand out in the industry, including Chelsea Howe, who is known for games that aim to improve people and communities; Amy Jo Kim, a USC-affiliated designer who worked on Rock Band, The Sims and Ultima Online; and Siobhan Reddy, studio director of the U.K.'s Media Molecule, developer of best-selling games including LittleBigPlanet, whose studio is focused on encouraging players to create their own games and share their experiences.
Katie Lucas isn't worried about Egg!, having tested it and played it every day for many weeks. Lucas, who holds an animation degree from Loyola Marymount University, won a global contest put on by Nix Hydra by creating what she calls "a cooperative, multiplayer game very dependent upon friendship and sharing resources." She told the two founders it was her dream job to work at Nix Hydra, and she was soon on the staff.
"Other virtual-pet games have been inspired by Egg Baby," says Lucas, an avid gamer who had never seen one on the market before she found Egg Baby. "But Egg Baby is the best. And Egg! will really shine."
Of course, the young co-founders are a bit like parents — and parents fret over all that can go wrong, like the crazy two years Chen spent convincing the feds to let her back into the country for good, and the complex game about Manhattan that Ladizinsky poured her heart into but had to shelve. If they're going to shake up the gaming world, they're keeping their fingers crossed for a seamless launch of Egg!
Back in March 2013, Ladizinsky and Chen were far from ready when they launched Egg Baby. Their savings and hard-won angel investor funds were drying up, they had just one employee — industry veteran Kenny Ilko, whom Chen jokingly calls "an actual adult" — and they were insecure and inexperienced coders. When they quietly put Egg Baby online that March three years ago, Ladizinsky explains, it wasn't even meant as a debut. They were simply conducting a user-experience test to obtain from players data that could help them complete the unfinished game.
A Nix Hydra artist creates an Egg version of Derek Zoolander from Zoolander.
"We thought only a few people would use it," Ladizinsky says. "We had questions we needed answers to, like 'How many coins should we give the players?'" — who are rewarded with gleaming, digital gold coins for feeding, cleaning and otherwise making Egg Baby healthier and happier.
Egg Baby initially attracted about 200 players worldwide daily, and the founders pored over their helpful input. Then, "Every day it would just increase exponentially among teenage girls, so we were suddenly in a catch-up game," Chen says. "The players suddenly wanted more things from us — they wanted more content and wardrobe and mini games that you could play with your egg."
Thousands of girls in mostly English-speaking countries began demanding features that Chen, Ladizinsky and Ilko hadn't completed. "The first week that it stayed huge, we didn't even celebrate," Chen remembers, flipping her shiny black hair and grinning. "We were very conservative, meaning we just worked and worked — it was about 'let's finish this product, first.'"
For the next year, the small team tweaked the game's features, and Chen then turned more of her time to getting out word to investors about their hit game.
Mega-investor Seth Levine of Foundry Group in Colorado recalls, "I'd been searching for a female-founded business doing something focused on the female demographic — I had gaming in mind but not exclusively — and I was thinking about the blind spots in the investment communities. It occurred to me that most investors, including me, are middle-aged white guys who tend to invest in the things that resonate with them."
Foundry Group was involved with the National Center for Women & Information Technology, having one of its partners on the board, but "we are a firm of four guys, and I can't change that fact; but I can be aware," Levine says.
He put out word that he was "looking for female entrepreneurs working on problems that focus on young women." One night, having drinks with Matt Britton, creator of the youth marketing agency Mr. Youth, Britton told him about Nix Hydra. "Matt said, 'Hey, have you heard of this company Nix Hydra? They make Egg Baby, and it might be what you're looking for.'"
Almost immediately after meeting Chen and Ladizinsky, Foundry Group agreed to provide the millions of dollars that gave the two women the freedom to start hiring a full staff. They began with just a handful of people working to perfect Egg Baby, and to focus on their next big project but gradually outgrew their Hollywood offices.
One year after Egg Baby's launch, Nix Hydra hit 8 million downloads. "We bought a cake that said, 'Let's shell-abrate,'" Chen recalls, "and it had an Egg Baby on it."
Life is so good that the Nix Hydra staff works only a four-day week, with Saturday through Monday off. The owners mandated three-day weekends to spur their employees' creative health and happiness — Ilko's idea, in recognition of the long work hours everyone puts in.
The Nix Hydra staff dresses down each month on Onesie Wednesday.
The first Wednesday of each month is Onesie Wednesday, when everyone dons onesies to instill esprit de corps, which is plentiful.
Hannah Filipski, hired last year to find new talent for the firm, says, "When the weekend is over you actually look forward to Tuesday coming, because it's so great to be here. If somebody makes their own game, we all play it, like [Nix Hydra game designer] Jasmine [Aguilar's] card game about bonding, where we wore blindfolds. It was intense but really cool. And I'm really into brunch, so I'm going to bring in, and make, waffles."
Egg!, which has quietly been tested in a few unidentified locales outside the United States, will, according to Chen, be the "most advanced mobile pet game in existence" and the only one in which human friends can cooperatively share and raise a virtual pet.
Much like Egg Baby, the big-eyed cartoon egg will eventually "hatch" into a specific creature based on how it was cared for and played with by a human, but this time two potential caretakers will shape Egg! by mutual consent.
Aguilar, two years out of USC, typifies the audience they're after. The striking 21-year-old, who wears a glittery ring in her nose and deep red lipstick, explains, "I'm hoping we inspire more feminine games — and by that I mean games for young women — and that these games and Egg! are taken seriously."
For all the influence Egg Baby has enjoyed among girls, Nix Hydra and its two founders have been largely ignored by the media. The game has been reviewed by many pros and users, earning a 4.5-star (out of 5) rating on both iTunes and Google Play, and reviews have flowed in from 430,435 users at the three biggest app stores. But only Forbes and tech sites VentureBeat and Gamasutra have written deeper pieces acknowledging the rise of this relatively rare game firm created by women — and, in this case, women who think there's something wrong with their testosterone-driven industry.
Then, last week, Forbes named Ladizinsky one of its "30 Under 30" people of 2016 in the gaming world.
Chen and Ladizinsky both talk excitedly about the nod from Forbes. "We had no idea it was coming," Chen says — Forbes had called in December, but Chen missed their age cutoff by five days. Ladizinsky was alerted by her mom, who spotted the news. They know, now, that they're finally attracting attention to their cause.
Inside their sunny offices one recent day, Chen stared at her colorful designer shoes a moment, then looked up, saying, "Naomi has a serious theory about why there are almost no games truly for girls. I think she should tell it."
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Ladizinsky, who is formally the company's chief creative officer, grew up in Portland, Oregon. Her mom holds a Ph.D. in biology, and her dad is a surgeon. Her parents, particularly her mother, raised her with the conviction that negative behaviors such as aggression are socialized into people, and that they can be undone.
"When I was growing up, my sister and I created a whole world with our dolls, and that was, essentially, a game. And when girls play what are seen by society as more feminine games, they are really trying to find out how to deal with social issues and society. And I think girls are more interested in how to deal with the systems around them, because girls are more oppressed than boys. They need to understand how to negotiate the world — I've thought a lot about that."
Chen and Ladizinsky had talked over the gender imbalances in society and in gaming at Yale, but their shared interest in doing something for girls took on greater fervor after they moved to Los Angeles.
In 2008 and 2009, Chen was working a grueling job as an agent's assistant at William Morris and Ladizinsky had secured an eye-opening gig at Machinima, directing, producing and editing digital content for the gaming channel. She made "virtual puppetry," in which you create animation by using existing game characters.
"I was dealing with a lot of different games, and all were versions of a shooter — a 'first-person shooter' or other kinds of armed shooters!" Ladizinsky recalls, pursing her lips. "It became immediately clear to me that nobody in the game industry cared about games other than highly competitive ones."
They had both been avid gamers throughout school and young adulthood, which is hardly unusual — 59 percent of teenage girls in America play games, compared with 84 percent of boys, according to a recent study by Pew Research Center; the findings are helping dispel a widespread bias that girls don't play. But Chen says they were both fed up. "These games bore us!" she blurts out, awaking the snoozing Volta, who jumps out of Ladizinsky's lap to the floor. "These millions of games out there bore us!"
Nix Hydra is named after two moons of underappreciated Pluto, and both come from Greek mythology. Nix is the goddess of the night, and Hydra is a many-headed monster that regrows two heads if you cut off one. The two friends acknowledge that the moons represent aspects of their own personalities — but they laughingly refuse to say which woman is which mythical being.
When they founded Nix Hydra in 2012, their mission was to create mobile games that girls and young women would love to play. Theirs would be collaborative, non-aggressive and touched with feminine flourishes. They would not, Ladizinsky says with a glint in her eye, be "violent or aggressive games but done in pink."
Sarah Miller, marketing strategist for Nix Hydra, gets some help from office dog Tootles.
Dyala Kattan-Wright, leader of the Egg! design team, has made contributions throughout the game, from making it easier to play with friends to such details as how Egg! should react to tickling. "Naomi and Lina are, like, very passionate about their vision — uncompromising on their vision," she says. "And no, that is not normal in gaming. It is really unbelievable that this whole thing is even happening."
"We had no idea what we were doing," Chen explains. The pair had different talents, so early on they agreed to split their corporate duties, although they help one another with their respective responsibilities.
Chen handled the business and money-raising side, where she proved to have a knack for tracking down, talking to and befriending potential investors. "Well," says the Yale psych major, "it's psychology, right?"
Ladizinsky was responsible for coming up with and creating the content — good characters and beautiful imagery that fit their girlish and cooperative gaming vision. "If we were a band, I'm the one with the acoustic guitar, and she's the manager," Ladizinsky says.
The "band manager" initially had an almost impossible job. A citizen of South Africa, where her Chinese parents had immigrated before she was born, Chen was threatened with denial of re-entry to the United States starting in 2011, as she was returning home from South Africa. Customs officials in San Francisco "put me on a watch list — or what I call, the list of 'never let this person through without pulling them into a small room to question them.'"
Chen was stunned when, after applying for her work visa to live in the United States free of timing restrictions that had been placed on her, she got a letter informing her that federal officials didn't think her psychology major at Yale "qualified" her to launch a gaming business. It took her two years, until 2013, to get her work visa (she returned to the States in time to launch Egg Baby). Stuck in South Africa in the retirement town where her parents live, she decided to "go where the money and the games are" — and since she speaks Mandarin, she chose China.
There, she made friends with key men in the video and mobile gaming world. "I found one of our angel investors, Tuolin Chen [no relation to Lina], who runs a huge gaming company completely unknown in the United States but with something like 500 employees, a company few Americans will recognize, G-Bits."
Before Chen returned to L.A., she had focused on the vibrant game investing scene for funding, but Ladizinsky says with disdain, "Lina met absolute resistance" after explaining Nix Hydra's girl-oriented goals to doubtful investors. Their first big break came when the event-hopping and affable Chen called from China to one of her mentors, Brandon "Ryze" Beck, co-founder of wildly successful Riot Games in West Los Angeles.
As Beck explains, "As an industry we aren't building awesome products for young women; there's a lot to be desired. It's not a focus for most companies and, frankly, folks like me wouldn't know how — it's not our creative center."
His personal conviction is that "the industry desperately needs young, talented female developers like Lina and Naomi, who want to focus on an audience they deeply relate to, and [who] have strong product vision and the grit to learn how to bring it to life. ... They were committed to tackling the 'problem space' head-on, full of really colorful ideas that oozed with their awesome sense of humor."
Chen calls her serendipitous talks with Beck the result of "four degrees of intros, in which someone who knew someone who knew someone" led to Beck. "I wasn't actively trying to meet Brandon, or to get to him. I was just finding knowledgeable and cool people to talk to about who might invest."
Beck's angel investment came through the same week funds arrived from Tuolin Chen. After that, three other investors jumped in, giving them a total of about $350,000 from angel investors.
The two women planned to finish the demo they had created together — an unfinished MMO, or "massively multiplayer online" game, in which many players engage simultaneously. But soon, the inexperienced Ladizinsky and Chen realized that their nonviolent adventure storyline, which involved taking a personality test to get into a secret society in Manhattan, "was far too complex for the money we had," Ladizinsky says.
They scaled back and instead created a "really, really silly and fun" app called Hot Guy Alarm Clock — a smartphone alarm in which a cute cartoon guy wakes you up, designed to poke a bit of fun at the user while also making her laugh. "It wasn't a big hit, but everyone who played it found it hilarious," Ladizinsky says.
Back in Portland visiting her parents, she sat in her backyard and worked up a list of every type of girl-oriented game she felt was underrepresented in the industry — and was smaller and more affordable than her too-expensive Manhattan adventure idea. That's when she remembered her girlhood school project in which children watch over a fragile egg without breaking it. "Egg Baby just felt like this super obvious thing that needed to exist," she says. "I just couldn't believe it wasn't out there already. I knew then, it was going to be really fun."
Foundry Group investor Levine says it's proved to be far more than fun. "Yes, it's bling-y and fluffy and feminine. But Naomi and Lina are badasses. They have a laser focus, and they know exactly what they are doing. It's not about creating a gaming company — it is to create a movement. They are on a mission on behalf of young women, and it's a passion project."
On YouTube, it's easy to find close-up videos showing girls' hands playing Egg Baby. Sometimes the fingers swiping across the tablet or smartphone are long and thinner, and the voice of the unseen narrator/game player is that of a teenage girl or young woman. Sometimes the hands are chubby and the fingers short, and a savvy grade-schooler is likely at the helm.
"This won't be a good job because I just want to show you how to make it work," one girl apologizes as she demonstrates how to grab a piece of food from the left side of the Egg Baby screen, swirl it around Egg Baby until its mouth opens, then pop it inside the baby's mouth. Egg Baby, who was hungry, responds with a darling smile and rewards the player with coins that can be used to buy outfits and other items — for Egg Baby.
But this was no little girl merely performing to the void, or to four of her best friends. More than 4,000 people viewed her somewhat unsteady but straightforward training video for Egg Baby.
As reviewer Inna Treyger at Coronalabs.com described it when she gave Egg Baby the "App of the Week" award in mid-2013: "As the Egg Mama, your job is to care for a bundle of eggs that are getting ready to hatch. Depending on how you raise each one, the eggs will hatch into one of six different creatures. To prepare you for the task at hand, you're given a lovely mushroom home, a backyard in which to raise your eggs, and a host of responsibilities (no one said digital parenting was easy!)"
Among the extensive body of customer reviews of Egg Baby, many kindly help one another understand the game, in stark contrast to the dramatics and trash talk between some boys and men in gaming.
In one exchange beneath a YouTube demonstration of Egg Baby, a player who uses the handle Twilight Nyans, and whose avatar is a cat-eared girl in a black mask, asks, "I wonder if it's a glitch or not, but I keep shaking my device (Gophone) and no matter how long I shake it, the egg STILL won't wake up. Please help? >n< ."
In reply, Cocounutcream 75, who chose the Super Mario caricature for her or his avatar, helpfully explains, "Gophone has no gyro sensor, so it will not work," and then signs off with a :(
Pew Research Center's recent study revealed a curious and unexpected difference between the way girls and boys play video games. Nearly 60 percent of all girls between 13 and 17 are gamers. Most play across all platforms: cellphones, computers and consoles. But in sharp contrast with boys, girls rarely play online; most girls play while alone, and few girls turn on their voice chat to make comments or trash-talk other players.
The influential video game–player site Kotaku then asked Pew to drill down into that data. It turns out that a minuscule 9 percent of girls who play video games turn on their voice chat — a must-have for boys, who might get aggressive or insult one another, as well as laugh and build friendships.
In the Kotaku article headlined "Teenage Girls Are Playing Video Games. You Just Might Not Hear Them," the male writer saw some of the data on girls' voiceless and solitary playing as troubling, writing: "That's how you go from a world where 59 percent of all girls between 13 and 17 play video games to a world where teenage girls are assumed not to exist in public video game spaces."
But then the girls and women weighed in.
Commenters such as NewViperWorld, a married young woman, explained that she wanted no contact with the vast population of boys and men on chat. "I have to be the 'property' so to speak of another male presence in the chat for people to treat me like an actual person rather than a source of mockery or sex," she wrote. "It's pathetic and annoying, and just not worth using a mic unless I have to because I need to coordinate with the rest of the team."
And cassiebearRAWR explained, "Most guys think the problem we have is the verbal harassment/'trash talk,' like 'get back in the kitchen,' or whatever. But for me personally, it's actually more the 'positive' attention, because it tends to be creepy and weird. Random friend requests, stalking behavior and so on."
Egg! approaches sharing in a profoundly different way from chat or trash talking. The game will be free to download and play, just like Egg Baby, but the gaming action doesn't get really engrossing until you buy Egg! special items like a funny outfit with a hat, a tempting morsel of dessert or a themed house in which to raise your egg.
Nix Hydra art director Joice Ozaki, who had a hand in everything from the leaf that can sprout from an Egg!'s head to "hidden systems" (she refused to describe them), which make the game unique, says she wants players to feel "the same joy that I felt when I picked up my favorite games when I was little. It's kind of seeing something for the first time — that's the emotional connection I want when they put the game down, only to pick it up and love it again the next day."
Foundry Group's Levine, thinking back on the game idea that so charmed him, says that under all the lovableness of Egg! and Egg Baby, "Lina and Naomi are trying to correct a wrong. They think it's wrong that these games don't exist, and it's wrong what younger women are being spoon-fed by media. And they said 'No, things should be different.'"
Desktop must-haves at Nix Hydra.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately credited Chelsea Howe with creating FarmVille. In fact, she was on a large team that contributed to its design.
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