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Friday, February 23, 2024
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Artist Cassie Simpson on navigating Life, three University Majors and Work 

My first encounter with Cassie Simpson was during the inaugural Xbox Game Studios Game Camp Africa in 2023. What caught my attention wasn’t just her confidence on the panel but the fact that she was not only a student pursuing three majors at Wits University she was also the Lead Concept artist at Chroma Pixel Games, a game studio based in Zambia. Cassie’s influence extends beyond borders. She earned her place and represented South Africa at prestigious programs like the Epic Games Women Creator Program and the Women in Games International (WIGI) Mentorship Program. 

In December 2023, she exhibited some of Chroma Pixel Games’ studio work at Africa Games Week and attended Playtopia Festival. She is currently transitioning into a new role as a social media and community lead at the American-based 3D Art Academy, Art Heroes. In our conversation, she shared highlights from both events. Join me as we dive into Cassie’s extraordinary journey and discover why she’s unquestionably one to watch in the African video games industry. 

Drawing as a career

As a child, Simpson enjoyed Polly Pocket and Barbie games. “I played games, but not the typical gamer-type ones.” Two years ago, her perspective was transformed through the WIGI mentorship program, making her realise gaming could be a career. When she engaged with women in games, she discovered story-centric games like Horizon which she found more appealing than competitive and high-stress games. “When I started playing those games, I realised maybe I am a gamer but I like to chill when I am playing games.” 

Concept art by Cassie Simpson

Simpson loved to draw but never considered it as a potential career. When she was in nursery school she recalls, “I was the coolest kid in the class because my mum could draw. She used to draw us little mermaids and we’d colour them. In grade 10 I took art as a subject. My art teacher was a huge inspiration to me. She was a very honest person. I remember at one parent-teacher conference she said, I thought you were terrible in the beginning but by the end of the year, you were the best in the class. I ended up winning an award for my art practical. Even though she was brutally honest, I love her so much.” 

Analog Games

After high school, Simpson initially applied for a fine art course at Wits University, but quickly switched to digital arts. “I wanted to learn techniques that not everyone knows like coding and animations. Hard skills that I could make a living with. In her first year, Simpson took a course in analog games and instantly loved it. “It was all about puzzle design, analytical thinking, and understanding player agency and mechanics”, she says. These were things I had never considered while playing games, and now they’re all I think about.”

Animation, writing and marketing are the three majors Simpson decided to take. She explains, “It is really time-consuming. I don’t see my friends as much as I’d like to but I love all the majors I am taking. Animation was my first choice because I wanted to do cinematic animation. My course covers writing and animating for games, which I enjoy. I added marketing as a backup plan after seeing job challenges in fine arts. Now, I see it as a way to understand the business aspects of games. While it did start off being a plan B, it has helped me so much in navigating because in Africa I feel like you need to be knowledgeable about every area of the games industry. It has been a great way to get general education in everything I am interested in.”

Xbox Game Camp

At Chroma Pixel Games, Simpson was working on a game called Impanga. “My experience was good, although a bit on and off as the team juggled other games and business aspects. The people are amazing, and the story they are telling is incredible.” She represented the studio on a panel at the Xbox Game Studios Game Camp in 2023. It was her first public speaking experience. “It was daunting, but I did it. Before university, I was shy and not a great speaker. Now, I’ve learned you have to share your career journey, and stories as you seek advice. Hopefully, fellow students in my position can see that it’s not so hard to do this. I’ve learned that you just have to put yourself out there, even if people judge you.”

Along with her former colleagues Edwin Kapesa and Isdine Ibrahima, Simpson represented Chroma Pixel Games at Africa Games Week, showcasing Impanga and other games. They also attended the Playtopia Festival. Simpson shared, “Meeting people I’ve talked to online all year in person was interesting. It showed me how small the African games industry is, but everyone was passionate and motivated, assuring me that we’re in good hands. AGW was intimidating to me as a creative in a business-oriented space, but it helped me understand funding models and studio blueprints. Playtopia was fun, especially playing the games. The growing standard of games in Africa gives me hope for future releases from the continent.” 

Opportunity on Upwork

Before joining Chroma Pixel Games, Simpson did freelance work, designing album covers and promos for local restaurants. She added, “I worked on a series of illustrations for Vol Up 2 Magazine, the first plus-size fashion magazine to be established in Paris. It was cool, and a great way to gain experience before becoming an employee.” Simpson found the Vol Up 2 opportunity on Upwork, an American freelancing platform, and gained other projects through referrals and Instagram views. She now showcases her portfolio on ArtStation. Her favourite part of her work is seeing the finished result. “I draw concepts, and the 3D Modelers bring them to life. It’s amazing to see different forms and work with different people while turning their stories into something tangible and visual.”

Chroma Pixel Games team

Simpson’s main challenge has been putting herself out there. She shared, “LinkedIn is a big part of the games industry, and I was scared to make things public. Thankfully, I did it, and there was nothing to be scared of. Another obstacle was being a woman in games, although people are more welcoming now. Some people assume my success is solely because I’m a woman, not based on my work. It’s frustrating, but it doesn’t stop me. Women-inclusive spaces are important otherwise, where would we go?”

Strong support system

Family has been a strong support system for Simpson. She said, “My mum is my strongest support, my two aunts are like second mums and my two sisters are like my best friends. They’ve been nothing but supportive. My uncle cheers me on and helps with business advice. Even if he’s not familiar with my experiences, he’s a pro at navigating the professional world. All my cousins have been supportive too, I’m lucky to have such a large support system.” If Simpson could talk to her younger self before entering the video games industry, she would say, “Don’t be scared to fail and make mistakes publicly. Put yourself out there. If you speak about what you’re doing, someone is likely to be there to help. People are willing to help. If you fail, at least you tried, and the people judging you aren’t the ones you want supporting you anyway.”

Wendi Ndaki
Wendi Ndaki
Wendi Ndaki is a versatile visual artist, writer, and passionate technology enthusiast with a keen interest in the intersection of art and technology. With a Bachelor's degree in Information Systems Technology, Wendi has accumulated 5+ years of experience as a writer in the gaming industry. She is deeply committed to merging her two passions: art and IT (technology), finding the perfect harmony where they converge. The video games industry, with its seamless fusion of art and tech, has become her chosen home. Through her writing and animated videos, Wendi aims to bridge the information gap, empowering creative tech businesses to thrive and flourish in their endeavours.
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