From character to creator: Why actor Abubakar Salim is trying his hand at development
We speak to the Assassin's Creed actor and former BAFTA manager Melissa Phillips about the vision for their new studio
Abubakar Salim is not your typical founder for a new independent games studio. For a start, he's not a developer. He's an actor.
He had recurring roles in Sky One historical drama Jamestown and Sky Atlantic thriller Fortitude, as well as appearances in shows such as Black Mirror and 24. But he's perhaps best known to the gaming world as the voice of Bayek, the protagonist of Ubisoft's 2017 blockbuster Assassin's Creed Origins.
Having since also taken voice roles in World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth and Bossa Studio's The Bradwell Conspiracy, he is now turning his hand to development as founder of a new studio: Silver Rain Games.
When asked about embarking in such a different direction, he tells GamesIndustry.biz he's keen to "tell stories that will empower players" like the games he enjoyed when he was younger -- such as Kingdom Hearts, World of Warcraft and, yes, even Assassin's Creed.
"These games communicated to me and inspired me, and I'm just wanting to give back," he says. "I've played so many games, I've been in games, I got into storytelling through games. So it just felt natural to start a games studio and create awesome content."
While he may not have direct experience with development, he gained insight into the process thanks to his experience with Ubisoft. Working with Assassin's Creed's developers -- not just on the performance capture, but also getting to see behind the scenes on the rest of the game -- rekindled a childhood fascination with games and demystified the creation process.
"I've played that series from the beginning, so to then talk to the programmers, designers, writers, artists, even the testers, and getting to test it myself and to understand what it takes to make a game... it made me realise that there's a lot of different factors involved," he says. "You need to build a team, you need a lot of people who are specialised in a specific area, but also who feel the passion to make a game.
"That's what I'm doing at the moment. I'm opening a studio where I want to make games that tell cool stories and have innovative gameplay, but I know I can't do that by myself. I need a team of people who know what they're doing, and who are as passionate as I am about making games.
"Having a wealth of different backgrounds can really make a difference when it comes to building worlds"Melissa Phillips, Silver Rain Games
"It's the same with film and TV. I can turn around as an actor and be like, 'Well, I'm going to make a short film', but you need the camera operator, you need a director, you need a producer. Just as the director can't act -- you need an actor for that -- I can't direct. You've got to build a team with the drive and intention of wanting to do something."
To help him in this endeavour, Salim has called on his friend Melissa Phillips, formerly games programme manager for BAFTA. Phillips will use her experience nurturing and encouraging aspiring developers through initiatives like Young Game Designers to build a studio that can produce high-quality games of its own. In fact, the hope is to focus on giving new voices a chance to establish themselves.
"Abu and I both share a passion for new talent and giving back to the industry," Phillips explains. "Abu does because he's been new talent, he's been through that process, and I've worked with it through seven years with BAFTA and seen the rise of some of the next generation of young designers. I've also seen the incredible range of talent that's available -- working with BAFTA gave me a taste of the level of expertise that is out there. It makes total sense to employ them to make games.
"We were talking the other day about creativity needing [a] safe space in order to flourish, that people need to feel secure and supported in order to explore ideas that perhaps they wouldn't usually go with, or to work better as a team. We're really keen to see what we can do in building that environment."
For now, that safe space will be wherever members of staff are based. Silver Rain's team of five will work remotely -- in part to open up the business to a broader range of talent, but also for flexibility. While Salim is committed to the project, he still continues his work as an actor, having just filmed his role in Ridley Scott's upcoming series Raised By Wolves.
Moreover, Phillips emphasises that everybody works at different paces, or finds they can be at their most creative during different times of day. The hope is to accommodate this in a way that will benefit both the studio and its games.
"I'm particularly hoping to hear from all sorts of voices," she says. "There's a lot of talk in the industry about having a diverse team, and that doesn't necessarily mean diversity as people perhaps consider it. Having a wealth of different backgrounds can really make a difference when it comes to building worlds."
Phillips will serve as studio head, although she also takes on the roles of producer and team builder in this early stage of the company -- a challenge she has embraced.
"Building a team is much harder than I thought it was," she admits. "I'm used to dealing with teams of a couple of 100 people and we're much smaller. I'm having to learn to use my skills on a smaller scale."
Salim, after joking that he's "basically going to voice every single character in the game," describes his role as something akin to creative director.
"I've built this universe and story world that I'm now applying within Silver Rain Games, and trying to explore that world within the game -- designing game mechanics and characters, even looking at art direction. I've got the vision of it, and I'm looking at specific people... to bring it all together. I'm also designing the feel and the experience of what I want the game to encapsulate and then translate that, hoping someone understands what I say."
"I've played so many games, I've been in them, got into storytelling through them. So it just felt natural to start a games studio"Abubakar Salim, Silver Rain Games
Phillips adds: "My job is to translate what Abu says into a game we can make."
The focus is predominantly on storytelling, although at this early prototyping stage neither Salim nor Phillips is able to tell us much about the story he has planned. But the actor does point to his inspirations from larger games, particularly the one which helped him make his name.
"With Assassin's Creed, one of the strongest cores of the whole process [of making the game] was the story and the world," he says. "That was what influenced and supported the actual creation of the game, from the mechanics to the art and the sound. It all came from the story, and that core feeling of seeing the pitch of what they were trying to do with Origins."
Salim has been talking to various game designers and narrative designers to gain a better understanding of what it means to translate a story into an interactive medium, but also to make it an active experience. Unlike film and television, he's aware that players live the story through the characters, rather than sitting back and going along for the ride.
There's no firm decision on which platforms Silver Rain will be developing for, although the hope is to release titles for multiple devices in order to reach as broad an audience as possible. And Salim reveals his vision for this fictional universe he has created extends beyond just video games.
"I've also got two other production companies that are launching as well, that are sister companies and will work together with the video game studio," he says. "The idea is we'll be able to explore this world within TV and animated film as well, possibly even comic books, too. I want to make sure that universe sings with everyone -- that's my job, as well as writing the story of it all."
We're currently speaking to both Salim and Phillips about their new venture right now as part of our ongoing Rezzed Digital event. You can watch the livestream below.