When Abbie Heppe was first hired by Respawn, it was to be their company’s Community Manager. But as so often happens in game design, one thing led to another, and now Heppe is also the voice of the Militia commander Sarah in Respawn’s new sci-fi shooter Titanfall, as well as the face model for pilots on both sides of the conflict in the game. Which means she’ll probably be running the place inside of six months. Though in talking to Heppe about her career path, it’s clear this isn’t all part of some carefully crafted master plan devised by a career-minded genius. Or so she says…
How did you get the job at Respawn and what made you want to take it?
I started at Respawn in January 2011. I’d actually met a few of the crew before at a Modern Warfare 2 event. I was a pretty hardcore Call Of Duty player, so we got to talking, and I exchanged gamertags with one of the engineers. After the whole Infinity Ward break-up, I ran into some of the guys at GDC, and then months and months down the road I got a message on XboxLive asking if I wanted to interview for the Community Manager position. I then did some interviews at the studio with the whole team.
Then there’s this other part where I got hit by a van on my bike the day after my last interview, and Respawn sent me my offer in a “Get Well Soon” card with flowers. How can you turn that down? It was a dream come true to get the offer since I was a huge fan of the team.
For those who don’t know, what exactly is the role of a Community Manager?
A Community Manager can mean a lot of different things. It’s not the same at every company. For me, it means interacting with fans, representing the team in interviews and at events, and being a point of communication between them and our partners so that everything public facing that we do feels like Titanfall and reflects what the team wants. It’s like a mix of customer service, PR, communications…basically I handle whatever falls into my realm and I can take on. Our internal structure is great for getting involved, learning, and taking on new challenges.
When you were hired, what state was Titanfall in? And did this have any influence on your decision to work there?
When I started, Titanfall wasn’t really in a state. I was an early hire, and everything was in very rough stages. I had no idea about it when I accepted the job, since no one would tell me about the project in advance. It wasn’t Titanfall then, it was a lot of prototypes of mechanics and ideas and art. Titanfall came along later, and it was so cool, especially coming from the press side, to see it develop into a game. It’s definitely weird to sign on to a project blindly, but I had a lot of respect for and trust in the developers.
So how long after you started did they ask you to be in the game, and what was the first thing they wanted you to be in it, the voice or the characters?
We scanned a bunch of people at the studio and friends of the studio early on, but it wasn’t clear where those characters would end up or who they would be at that point. It was really exciting though, knowing they’d be somewhere in game. I would’ve been happy just be Random Grunt #103.
Voice wise, that was very organic. Before final dialogue was in and being recorded, lots of people from the studio filled in for game characters. There were varied skill levels and the results were really funny. It never got old hearing my coworkers deliver V.O., though I’m sure some of them are sick of hearing me by now. Doing scratch V.O. was one of the many ways I passed the time when I had far less community responsibilities. My voice just stuck and they decided to keep it. That’s freakin’ awesome.
Was there any hesitation on your part?
I didn’t hesitate for a second. At that point I had spent so many hours with Sarah that I felt really attached. I did some of her mocap as well, so like…I would have been really sad to let her go.
Was there ever any talk of having a celebrity or professional voice actor do her voice? I need to know in case you and I are ever at an Assassin’s Creed party and they come in, so I know when to duck when they throw water at us after you yell, “I STOLE YOUR JOB, BITCH!”
It was my voice for her that became the voice, so I was Sarah kind of from the beginning. I jokingly equate it to the voice I use when I coach the company softball team. I guess we’ll never be able to live out your celebrity party dream now.
Dang it. When you went in to do the real voice recording for Sarah, did you ever experiment with voices other than your softball team coaching voice?
I did so many funny voices. If I botch a line sometimes, I’ll just jokingly deliver the rest of it. There was one line that lived on in infamy. Early on I had to record “Mmmhmm.” That was it. And it came out so sassy that, for a while, you couldn’t walk through the studio without hearing someone’s rendition of it. I can barely remember the original delivery of it since everyone had their own take. I still hear it around the office sometimes and it cracks me up.
Before Repsawn, you were a game journalist, and worked at G4, where you regularly appeared on their podcast. But this isn’t the same, is it?
It’s not the same. It’s acting as opposed to hosting. I have a background in theater from an early age, but nothing makes me more nervous than playing a character in front of my coworkers. They were so easy to work with but I felt like an imposter at times since this was my first real V.O. work.
Has doing her voice given you any thoughts of pursuing voice acting as a career?
I have a job. I don’t know how those two things would work together. I’m constantly busy here and I love it. The V.O. work is just a cool side bonus.
Let’s talk about the characters who look like you. As you’re well aware, video game designers typically make female characters who have unnaturally huge boobs and a big ol’ butt. When they were designing the characters that look like you, were you at all worried that they were going to give them huge boobs and a big ol’ butts?
I trusted our artists to not make a cringe-worthy female character. They put so much attention into getting realistic armor and gear in the game that doing ridiculous female bodies would be a weird fit. The art team did an amazing job representing us ladies.
The ladies of Respawn were also vocal about wanting female characters with reasonable proportions and sports bras. Please won’t someone think of the back pain?
How about the characters’ facial features, did they scan in your head or did they take a bunch of pictures of you?
Head scan! Man…it’s a weird experience whenever you have to do stuff like head scans or V.O. or mocap in front of your co-workers. I feel way more awkward than I do giving an interview. I don’t exactly know why it feels so different.
What do you think about the way the characters look, do you think they look like you?
I think so…. I got recognized at PAX. Someone ran up and said “Are you the CQB model?” and I totally blanked for a second because I kinda heard “model” and I was like “Uh…definitely not a model” and then realized he meant in-game model. I’m an idiot.
Wait, if your face is used to characters on both the Militia and IMC sides, does that mean those characters are sisters? Twins?
Oh…they don’t look exactly the same. We joked about patching the game for when I change my hair color.
Aside from the voice and character model stuff, did you have any other influence on the game? Because it seems like that the people at Respawn are pretty open about getting ideas from anyone on their staff.
I’m not a designer. I did some random non-community tasks and gave feedback in our internal playtests when I could. This has been my first experience working on a game, so I feel like I’ve just constantly been absorbing what I can about game development. It’s been fascinating. I’m so glad I ended up doing the voice work, it feels like my tangible contribution to the game.
Along with the game, some Titanfall action figures have already been announced, though just of the Titans. Are there any plans to make toys for any of your characters? Or maybe a comic book that explores their back-story? And would you even want to have an action figure of yourself?
We have some more licensed things in the works, but I don’t know if the characters I play are among them. I’d definitely want an action figure of myself, though it all still feels so surreal to me. Maybe it will feel more real when the game is out.
Oh man, if I ever see someone cosplaying me I’ll probably freak out. In a good way.
You mentioned at the beginning of the interview how you first met some of the people who went on to hire you at Respawn when you were at a Modern Warfare 2 event. Having been at those events with you, I know what a competitive pain-in-the-butt you can be. When you play Titanfall with your coworkers, is there anyone who kicks your ass at it?
Yeah, QA kicks all our asses. It’s a very competitive office when we do playtests…. I mean, you can only imagine how many hours all of us have spent playing. I can hold my own, though.
How about when you played during the beta, did anyone there hand you your ass on a silver platter?
I got to play two matches during the beta, I spent the rest of the time working. I was top of the leaderboards for those two though. But it was impressive to see how quickly people were becoming skilled at the game.
Finally, as I mentioned, prior to your gig at Respawn, you were a games journalist. Ever miss it?
I miss it sometimes, partially because I feel like I’ve learned so much and this experience would be so useful, but I’m not interested in going back. I have a high level of investment here in the company and the game, and it’s really satisfying on a personal and professional level. Definitely the stress of doing live E3 shows prepares you for some of the craziness of dev life. There’s always a new challenge.