Ally McLean was one of the world's most popular cosplayers -- until she quit to make video games. Now she's helping other women follow in her footsteps.
This isn't the first time Ally McLean has been profiled.
I know because she sent me the link. To a story written in 2014 that feels decades older. A cultural chasm exists between that story and 2018. It's difficult to read. It asks questions like, "What the hell is this hot girl doing among the nerds?"
People used to write like this.
The girl among the nerds is Eve Beauregard. At least, she was back then. In another lifetime, "Eve Beauregard" was Ally McLean's cosplay alias. With over 300,000 social media followers, she was one of the most popular cosplayers in the world.
Cosplay is the art of dressing up. As video game protagonists, anime villains, Marvel superheroes. Anything goes, and costume quality ranges from a chucked-on wig to homemade, fully functional robotic outfits with transistors and flashing LED lights. It's all cosplay.
A number of photoshoots that went viral transformed Eve from hobbyist to star performer, flown internationally from comic convention to comic convention. If you've been on the internet, you've seen a photo of Eve Beauregard. Eve Beauregard as Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite, Eve Beauregard as Yennefer of Vengerberg from The Witcher 3. Eve Beauregard as "Sexy Velma." Yep, as in Velma from "Scooby Doo."
But one day, Eve Beauregard woke up. She went to her latest cosplay gig and took a look around. People were having the time of their lives.
"They were doing the things that I used to love to do before cosplay became my actual job," McLean remembers. "Trying and failing to connect with that community made me realize I didn't love those things anymore."
So she quit.
Now, four years later, Ally McLean runs a small studio and makes video games . But in an industry where only 19 percent of employees are women, she's in the minority.
"I've never worked in an industry with such an obvious gender imbalance," she says. "It sucks that it's just such a common problem."
Ally McLean wants to solve that problem.
She wants to make sure the next generation of women entering the Australian games industry are not alone.
It's March 2018 at a small theater in the heart of Sydney. They call it the Giant Dwarf. It's dark. Perennially dark. Grungy isn't the word. Let's just say it caters to a specific crowd: Aspiring actors, experimental comedians, theater people.
Ally McLean is seated and serious. Ally McLean is sharp, she's articulate. She doesn't mumble or trip over words. She talks like someone wrote her dialogue. You try to keep up.
But tonight she's nervous.
There are roughly 100 people seated in the theater. They're here for "Story Club," a regular Giant Dwarf show in which people share stories with a paying audience.
The overarching theme is "The Last Days Of Rome," and Ally is here to tell her story. The story of why she quit cosplay.
It's a story about flight delays, combative airport security, disgusting motels that charge by the hour and an explosive, gastro-inspired shit taken 35,000 feet above sea level.
"The first thing you need to know," she tells the audience, "is that if at any while I'm telling this story you feel bad for me, you should know that all of these problems are entirely a hell of my own making."
A good story, then.
I ask McLean's best friend: Why's she so nervous? "A different scene," she replies. These people don't know Ally McLean and they don't know Eve Beauregard. There will be no free pass.
But Ally McLean has been here before. She's dealt with imposter syndrome. The question ringing in her head: "Can I do this?" Yes, she can do this. McLean has been in rooms and positions where her reputation meant nothing. She's started from ground zero and scrambled back up. This is no different.
She approaches the stage. The nerves evaporate.
"Hello, my name is Ally McLean."
For the past three years, McLean has been making video games.
A cosplay job at CD Projekt Red, creator of The Witcher 3, sparked her interest. "They pushed me to think of myself as someone who could work in games," she says.
McLean started at Plastic Wax, helping out with marketing and social.
You may not have heard of Plastic Wax, but you've seen its work -- glorious CG cinematics in some of the most popular video games of the last decade.
"When I first started I remember digging through the archives," McLean says. "Fallout, BioShock, Gears of War. So insane."
We're at the Plastic Wax office in Rhodes, a scenic suburb in the inner west of Sydney. The office is lit solely by monitors. Everyone is wearing headphones, battering keyboards and scribbling on art tablets.
Plastic Wax shares an office (and often collaborates) with Hammerfall Publishing, a studio that works on video games you can play. That's where McLean would work for the first time as a producer in the games industry.
Hammerfall works mostly on licensed projects, on brands such as Warhammer, but has aspirations to create its own intellectual property. McLean and other members of the Hammerfall team saw an opportunity. Together they pitched a smaller studio, working on independent, story-driven games.
They called it Robot House. Its first full-length PC game was Rumu, a video game about a vacuum cleaner gone rogue.
Rumu was released in December 2017. Part Wall-E, part Portal, Rumu is charming, compelling and funny. You should probably play Rumu.
By every possible metric, Rumu was a success. It reviewed well, sold well ("it exceeded our projections," says McLean). In a saturated PC games marketplace, Rumu cut through a sea of trash.
But that was then and this is now.
Ally McLean wants to know what's next.
McLean has a tattoo on her left arm, just above the wrist.
"It's been very reflective of my life so far," she says.
The tattoo says: "what's next?" It's a "West Wing" reference. In Aaron Sorkin's political drama about a fictional White House administration, it's President Jed Bartlet's catchphrase.
"When I ask 'what's next'," Bartlet says in a key scene, "it means I am ready to move on to other things, so… what's next?"
Next is McLean helping other women get to where she is.
"When I was in cosplay, there were all these incredible, accomplished powerful women," she explains. "But when I transitioned into games I was the only woman in the room".
McLean is used to working with women. The world of cosplay is mostly consumed by men who attend conventions and buy signed prints, but a significant majority of McLean's peers were women.
The video games industry doesn't traditionally employ a lot of women.
"Coming into a space that's male dominated," continues McLean, "I'm pitching stories that represent my experiences. It often becomes apparent that I don't have many shared experiences with the people I work with.
"That can be challenging."
So what's the solution? More women in the room? Obviously. But how?
She has an idea.
When McLean thought about the reason she was able to transition so seamlessly from one career path to another, the answer was crystal clear: Without the advice, support and mentoring of other women, she'd have been lost. She would have lacked the self belief to push forward in moments of difficulty.
There was one mentor in particular, an older cosplayer now working in media.
"She was so humble and generous with her time and didn't give me the feeling of being unworthy in anyway because I hadn't figured it all out," says McLean.
"She had faith in me."
For McLean, having someone trust and believe in her, someone who had lived what she was currently going through, was life-changing. McLean wondered if there was a way to replicate that experience, formalize it almost, so it could be shared with other women trying to break into the games industry.
She called it "Working Lunch."
The Australian games industry generates almost $120 million per year. It employs 928 people, and women are dramatically underrepresented. According to recent reports, women make up 46 percent Australia's gamers, but less than 19 percent of game developers. The numbers don't add up.
Working Lunch aims to change that. It's an initiative to pair women who are already established in the games industry with younger women trying to catch a break. For mentoring, for advice, to help with contacts, networking and everything required to get your foot in the door of a hypercompetitive industry.
"Our goal is to eradicate the experience of being the only woman in the room," says McLean. "How wonderful it would be if there were entry-level women coming into games that didn't consider that a normal thing?"
There are 10 mentors in the Working Lunch team, and the spectrum is broad, covering PR, coding, production, media, marketing and C-suite. There's Brid Gasparotto, a finance director at Ubisoft; Clara Reeves, the president of Hipster Whale; Alison Gibb, a senior development director at EA ; Natasha Brack, a senior communications manager at Microsoft .
That team is partly the result of McLean's extensive contact list, but it's bolstered by a partnership with the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (IGEA). McLean pitched the idea to CEO Ron Curry, who loved the idea.
"This needs to happen," he told her, "but it needs to be run by women."
"I just need to give you what you need and get out of the way."
He was true to his word. Raelene Knowles, IGEA's communications manager, has been the association's representative. Knowles has become a crucial part of the team ever since and, according to McLean, Working Lunch wouldn't exist without her.
"Raelene somehow manages to co-ordinate the calendars of the busiest people in the games industry," laughs McLean.
Knowles knows Working Lunch is sorely needed, but has a personal reason for being so invested in its success. "I have been in the industry for almost 20 years," she says, "and would have loved something like this way back when I started."
Working Lunch is ready to go. After creating a suite of world-class mentors, McLean and Knowles put out the call for potential mentees. The list has been finalized, the mentees have been selected. Now all that's left are the lunches, six of them to be precise, and workshops for the mentees, designed by experts in their fields.
The first meetings take place in April.
McLean has already met her mentee.
It was October 2017, a few months before the release of Rumu. McLean was at PAX Aus, Australia's biggest gaming convention.
PAX was absolute chaos, drawing roughly 60,000 attendees per day. McLean was exhausted. She'd spent two days demoing a preview version of Rumu on loop; delivering the same message to hundreds of people in a personal hell that's less Groundhog Day and more Groundhog Minute.
Demoing your product can be one of the most draining jobs in game development.
She remembers one interview: A young woman in her early twenties. "She was professional," remembers McLean. "I could tell she was trying to make a really good impression. She was thorough and asked a lot of good questions."
McLean recognized her immediately. She'd read her resume when going through mentee applications.
Her name was Stephanie Panecasio, currently working as a freelance journalist with aspirations to work in game production. According to McLean, her Working Lunch application was "incredible".
"She was so passionate about wanting to write and tell stories, to be a creator," McLean says.
"I saw a lot of myself in her."
McLean knew right away that Panecasio was the woman she wanted to mentor.
On the day emails were sent to successful Working Lunch applicants, McLean sent a Twitter DM to Panecasio: "check your emails." What followed was a series of all-caps messages back and forth. McLean was excited to see Working Lunch become a reality, while Panecasio was excited to be mentored by someone she'd watched from afar for years.
"Every time her cosplay would come up online," laughs Panecasio. "I'd be like, 'I almost know her!'"
Both women grew up 10 minutes apart in the south coast of Sydney. That's one of the reasons Panecasio's applications resonated so strongly. Living in Illawara, two hours from Sydney's CBD, it's easy to feel isolated. Easy to feel like dream jobs are out of reach.
"When people find out that I play games and that's something I can see in my future, either they don't expect it or they don't believe you," Panecasio says. "That's the boys' club. Ally's done so well to remain positive about it and be so determined."
Watching someone like McLean succeed in a male-dominated industry makes Panecasio feel like anything is possible.
Ally McLean is 24.
That bewilders everyone. "I honestly can't believe how much she has achieved," says Knowles.
Kelsey Gamble, McLean's friend and fellow Working Lunch mentor, calls it "witchcraft."
"I am determined to find out her secret," jokes Gamble, but she suspects she already knows. "Ally works harder than anyone I've ever met."
Back to Story Club. Back to "The Last Days Of Rome" and the nerves and the crowd that didn't know her name. McLean is finishing her performance.
She has a writer's eye for detail, a good sense for structure and timing. "Whatever makes you happy right now," she concludes. "I hope you have the courage or the ignorance or the lack of foresight to lean into it."
The Giant Dwarf theater applauds. Success.
Off-stage, she's unsure. Did it really go well? Really? Yes, everyone assures her. It did. And they're right.
"On to the next thing."
Next is Panecasio and Working Lunch. Next are the meetings and the workshops. Next is graduating 10 mentees from the Working Lunch program and setting them up for a long and fruitful career in a competitive industry.
Next after that is to do it all over again.
"I want this program to last as long as possible," McLean says.
She remembers the women who helped her get this far.
"My hope," she says, "is to become that voice in someone else's head."
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