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Never Alone to have company in "world games" genre

E-Line Media and Cook Tribal Inlet Council showed a game based on Iñupiaq culture can make money, but what will they do for an encore?

Eurogamer doesn't dole out numerical review scores any more, but one of the last games to receive a perfect 10 out of 10 from the site was last November's Never Alone. The puzzle platformer tells the story of an Iñupiaq girl and her fox companion that entertains as it informs players about Alaska Native culture. It is the product of a cross-cultural collaboration between the non-profit Cook Inlet Tribal Council and publisher E-Line Media, one they hope will pave the way for a new genre of "World Games," both from themselves and others. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz last month, Cook Inlet Tribal Council president and CEO Gloria O'Neill and E-Line Media president Alan Gershenfeld laid out their ambitions, saying new kinds of games should attract new kinds of gamers.

"I don't know if we're trying to change an audience but we're trying to expand the comfort boundaries of the game industry."

Gloria O'Neill

"I don't know if we're trying to change an audience but we're trying to expand the comfort boundaries of the game industry," O'Neill said. "And we've talked a lot about how not only to focus on the core gaming industry, but really allow Never Alone to seep into the consciousness of our general population."

Gershenfeld added, "We want to offer new options, new perspectives, new types of games. Sometimes you just want to be entertained, but sometimes you want to explore new worlds and have your horizons opened. It's not that one is better than the other; it's that one is very underrepresented in the industry right now. And we feel that it's a great opportunity to bring more games like that out there."

One reason games like Never Alone are so underrepresented in the industry is that people from these cultures are similarly underrepresented at developers. Cook Inlet Tribal Council established Seattle-based studio Upper One Games specifically to work on Never Alone, but Gershenfeld acknowledged the studio--helmed by former Crystal Dynamics GM Sean Vesce--probably looks like a typical studio because it was staffed primarily by industry veterans (with dozens of Alaska Native storytellers and community members contributing to or consulting on the project).

While some developers might have reservations about making a game about a culture they don't belong to themselves, Gershenfeld said Upper One's developers signed on because of that criteria, not in spite of it. It's a leap he'd like to see more developers willing to make.

"If you're open to going on a journey together and really seeing the world through each other's eyes, spending time in each other's communities, building trust and respect, I think you can overcome that fear if you have the right partners and the right approach," Gershenfeld said. "But you have to be pretty passionate about it. It has to be something you really want to do, because everyone's getting out of their comfort zone."

"I keep going back to the word trust, and it's so true that there's been such a history of exploiting various cultures around the world."

Gloria O'Neill

For a project like Never Alone, O'Neill stressed the importance of establishing bonds between the collaborators.

"I keep going back to the word trust, and it's so true that there's been such a history of exploiting various cultures around the world," O'Neill said. "We want to make sure that we do this right, that we truly engage the community, and that we have partners who can help us work through and develop a game that could be very fun, that can connect with a global audience, and that could give a great experience to players."

Never Alone had sold hundreds of thousands of copies as of last month, and O'Neill and Gershenfeld said it was very likely going to turn a profit. The pair are convinced there's a viable business here, so much so that E-Line Media recently merged with Upper One Games in a deal that saw the Cook Inlet Tribal Council's for-profit subsidiary became the largest equity owner of E-Line, which now wholly owns Upper One.

Gershenfeld says there's no reason why AAA publishers couldn't bring their weight to bear on the emerging market of world games, but he doesn't see it happening soon. It's still a risky field, and the amount of cultural collaboration required makes for longer development cycles.

"We have supporters within those companies, so I wouldn't rule out that we may not do partnerships with them down the road if it's organic and their interest is very real," Gershenfeld said. "I don't think it's the type of thing where it's such a runaway success they all feel they have to jump in and do a world game--which I don't think would be a good idea--but five or six years from now, I would not be at all surprised if we saw some of the big AAA publishers playing in this space."

That gives Upper One Games a window of opportunity to further establish itself in the field, and it sounds like they have plans to further explore Native Alaska culture.

"[W]ith games you develop platform and genre expertise. And we had to build tools and a studio from scratch. But in this case, we've also developed culture expertise..."

Alan Gershenfeld

"We're working through the road map right now," Gershenfeld said. "Unlike movies, with games you develop platform and genre expertise. And we had to build tools and a studio from scratch. But in this case, we've also developed culture expertise, years of getting to know each other and the culture. So we do believe there's a great opportunity. There are so many stories to be told, so many ways you can approach the material.

"We do see building not just with more Alaska Native stories and experiences, but there's a whole world of cultures out there to explore. We want to be smart about it. Every game can't be a completely original one-off on completely new technology in a completely new genre. It's just too much risk. We want to do that, but we have to find that balance."

In the interest of maintaining the trust that was so crucial to Never Alone's success, O'Neill said they will be making their decisions in step with the community.

"What we need to do as the next step is to go back to the community and ask if they want to continue to be with us on this journey," O'Neill said. "So I can safely say that, and also safely say that we are talking very specifically to other cultures who we have had long relationships with."

If E-Line were to continue working on one game at a time, then it could fund the operation from working capital, Gershenfeld said, but at the cost of having to choose whether to return to familiar territory or branch out into new cultural waters. However, he also suggested the possibility of raising more money to fund a slate of titles, saying that developing a reputation as "a reliable source for this type of game" would help establish the company with gamers and platform holders alike, who are across-the-board interested in games that may grow their audience.

"We believe that the money is out there," O'Neill said. "The desire is out there, the communities are out there. It's really [a question of] what is that next right partnership for us?"

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