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After launching Never Alone about an Alaska Native folk tale in December, E-Line Media and the native group that sponsored Never Alone believe they have a big opportunity to create a new genre of “world games,” or tales that record the stories of indigenous cultures around the globe.
These “world games” could chronicle the history of native cultures — and make a lot of money because they appeal to a broader demographic of people who wouldn’t ordinarily play video games, said Gloria O’Neill, the president and chief executive of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. She gave a talk along with E-Line’s Alan Gershenfeld at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas.
O’Neill and Gershenfeld had to learn mutual respect to bridge the culture of the tribe and the way that video games are made. After several years of work, they managed to launch Never Alone as a downloadable game on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam on the PC. The title is expected to be profitable, and it is part of an increasing number of games with “meaningful play” that are becoming commercial successes as well. The Never Alone crew hope that they’ve inspired something more than just a single game.
I caught up with O’Neill, E-Line Media CEO Michael Angst, and Cook Inlet Tribal Council member Pat Marrs. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
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GamesBeat: Can you talk about the speech you plan to deliver?
Gloria O’Neill: We’re going to share our story of our partnership, how we came together, and how it’s inspired our long-term investment, the stake that we’re taking with our partners in E-Line Media. It’s inspired this whole new thesis of World Games and a new way of helping build our company to its full potential.
Michael Angst: Doing this first game as an attempt to explore a culture, I think we feel validated, both by the player interest and the potential for a financial return. We’ll be doing a series of games that explore and extend culture under our World Games brand.
GamesBeat: Is the whole series going to be focused on the Inupiat?
Angst: Our intention is to do both breadth and depth. From a breadth perspective, we’re in conversations with a number of cultural groups and native peoples, to explore other stories and other cultures. We’re also looking at ways to delve a little deeper into the Alaskan native culture and look at other genres of gameplay that we think are organic to the work we’ve done so far.
GamesBeat: It seems like it was one of the biggest efforts in this sort of “meaningful play” category. It’s a rich area to explore.
O’Neill: That’s what we’ve heard throughout the process, especially as we worked up to launch this past November, and post-launch as well. This is connecting with people across the world. The whole idea of using video games to share and extend culture—It allows people to not only immerse themselves and have a fun experience in gameplay and learn about another culture, but they’re starting to talk about their own stories and where they come from. We’ve talked to many people, many different members of the press. There’s a real power in this exchange.
Angst: Besides our own effort in the last two years, there have been other companies that have tried to do challenging themes or explore something diverse from a cultural perspective. This year you have This War of Mine. You have Valiant Hearts. That’s one from a triple-A publisher and one from a relatively new entrant from Poland. Last year you had Gone Home and Papers Please. Those not only established a nice voice, but also – at least from what we were able to understand – were able to succeed financially. We think it’s a relatively new space, but there’s an opportunity to do themes that are much more diverse.
GamesBeat: How well have you guys done? Have you found that it’s paying off?
O’Neill: I recently asked a veteran of the industry – “Does it always feel this way when you go to launch, and then you hit post-launch, and you get the kind of reviews we’ve had?” We’ve had hundreds of reviews. What we’re finding is that it’s not only seeping into the consciousness of serious video game players, but it’s also crossing the boundary into the mass media and the population at large. So yes, it’s paid off. It’ll continue to pay off. It’ll have a long tail. We’re very happy with the success we’ve seen. We’ve learned a lot. If you launch a game, it’s an emotional roller coaster, but this veteran told me that’s just the way it is.
Angst: We’ll see a return on our capital. Probably a multiple of our budget back. The pleasant surprise is that we went off of a three platform launch. We did the two new consoles and we did PC. But it looks like we’ll be able to get on some other platforms, both the old generation of consoles—We haven’t announced exact dates, but we think we’ll end up on seven or eight different platforms. Some of that is risk-taking on our side, but we’ve also had folks step forward who are pretty optimistic about its performance on other platforms. They might be able to help us accelerate that. That was a nice outcome. It helps us widen the risk we can take when we look at more games, knowing we might be able to get to that many platforms.
O’Neill: We’re pleased with the potential as it relates to the financial return. We’re very pleased with the feedback we’re getting from the community. But as it relates to cultural impact, there’s no way to even try to look at what kind of impact we’ve made. It’s been unbelievable. I know that our community in Alaska is very proud of the product and how well it’s doing in the market. Especially for the Inupiat people, the people of the Arctic northwest, we can’t even put a number on what we’ve been able to do through the launch of Never Alone.
When we first looked at what investment to make, before we settled on making an investment in the video game industry – which, as you know, is pretty risky, especially since we knew nothing about the video game industry back then – and looked for the right partners, our number one priority was to make money for the CITC mission. It provides critical services to our people, so that they can connect to their lifelong potential. But number two was to make an investment that made a social impact in addition to making money. It’s amazing what we’ve been able to do through this investment.
GamesBeat: Is mobile a possibility?
Angst: From an audience perspective, we think there’s very diverse audience taste on mobile. For us, as an atmospheric platform, we have to look at the control scheme and make sure we can find a way to either port the game or re-imagine the game a little bit, so that it’s a solid experience on a tablet. The other thing we debate is that we get a very solid response to the local co-op aspect of the game, which would obviously be challenging to do on a tablet. But we’re looking hard at it. We’ll certainly do the work to play it on a tablet and see how we think it feels before we commit to announcing it.
GamesBeat: Are you past the point of worrying about your investment?
O’Neill: I’m past it, at least.
Pat Marrs: I don’t think any of us expected to end up starting a whole different genre. We took our stories and put them out in front of the public. It’s been amazing to see the reception. I was confident in the team all along, but—
O’Neill: Oh, we worried about it.
Marrs: Well, in the beginning it’s a risk, but we knew we could take it.
O’Neill. I know our value base has always been around partnership. We know we don’t work in isolation. It’s so important. It was really critical for us to find the right partners that align with our values. We found that. We think we got really lucky. As a result of making Never Alone together and having that inclusive development process that we established, marrying a team of game experts with Alaskan native people, we feel that we’ve done something incredible.
As a result, the board said we’re going to take our initial investment and turn that into a long-term investment. We’ve merged our assets. Now we’re one management team. We own a large share of E-Line. I’m their executive chair and our CFO is their CFO. It’s been a great process of getting to learn about the industry and then taking a major stake in the industry.
GamesBeat: I wondered what kind of success it would have, given that it was happening around the same time as we’re seeing the culture wars touch the video game industry through things like Gamergate. You tend to get the feeling that the hardest core of gamers don’t care about diversity and don’t want it anywhere near their games. That’s one message or trend that could have hurt you, but it seems as if there are other people who care more about things like this.
Angst: We were pleasantly surprised by the level of support the project received going into launch. We had very strong coverage. We had very hopeful coverage from a diverse range of game industry publications and popular media.
Like any game, we had a range of reviews. We had raves and nines and tens. We had a few rants from folks. But the rants were largely about feeling like, “I would have liked to see something more challenging from a gameplay perspective.” We felt like it was very much evaluated on its merits as a game. The special sauce that was there culturally—Obviously, for people who gave it positive reviews, that was important to them. But we were excited that we were treated with a significant critical eye in a very crowded and strong game space.
O’Neill: There’s a magic in Never Alone, a spirit in it. When people play the game, especially if they engage with two players, that’s what they come away feeling. We joke a bit saying it’s a great date-night game, because you get to overcome challenges and solve puzzles with your partner. What we’ve heard time and again is that it starts a conversation that’s meaningful and that people are able to personalize.
GamesBeat: The diversity message seems to be prevailing. We’ve seen things like Intel announcing their fund for diversity projects.
Marrs: It’s the opportunity for people to at least hear a new language spoken. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. You have subtitles in whatever your language it is. It’s universal from that standpoint, a universal story of survival.
Angst: In time with the theme of this conference, we had surprisingly strong international coverage, especially in emerging markets. What folks found strongest about it differed substantially, if you looked at how it was covered in Russia as opposed to, say, Australia.
One thing that surprised us is that we expected people to say, “Wow, this is cool. I got to learn something about Alaskan native culture.” But much of the conversation was about their own culture and their own heritage. Something about the game got at some universal themes and caused folks to talk about how elders are important in their community, how intergenerational wisdom is passed down in their lives, or whether they had or did not have a strong heritage in their upbringing. That’s awesome, because it’s what we hoped would occur as far as it having more global appeal.
GamesBeat: What are you finding out about who’s buying the game? What’s the audience for this kind of game like?
Angst: It’s pretty diverse. There are certainly folks that like the genre. They like moody, atmospheric things in the platformer genre. Some folks really enjoy local co-op. Some other segments are people looking to play a game with their family. We often hear, “I’m a gamer and a parent. I’m always looking for things that will be engaging and challenging for my 12-year-old.” We have the family co-play happening. A surprising number of Twitch sessions, date-night Twitch sessions. That’s fun.
I’d say the largest segment is people who regard themselves as culturally creative. They want to have fun, but also want to explore something else in the world. That’s the most common theme, when you look at a Let’s Play video or something on Twitch.
O’Neill: Beyond the gamer market, what we’re being asked to participate in is conversations with the Smithsonian. They look at this as something of cultural significance. People are able to tell their stories in their own voice. People who have been underrepresented in an industry come into that industry through the investment mechanism and have a real voice. The product and the stories are genuine. The process that we use to engage in developed a product where people were heard and seen, the people of that community. I think this is the initial game that will be remembered as having some cultural significance, that will cross many boundaries and different segments of the market.
O’Neill: That’s what we’re finding out. We are having commercial success, and at the same time, we’re making an impact. That’s very important for our company, for the values of our company.
Marrs: Money is the key to the services we provide as a non-profit.
Angst: We wanted to try to compete in the entertainment segment. We wanted to compete head-on in the mainstream game space. That they would do a project on the new generation of consoles, as opposed to trying to do something less expensive and long-tail-ish on a mobile platform, was really exciting. We were able to put together a team full of talented industry professionals because they wanted to compete with really strong production values and give our team an opportunity to display a level of craft that you don’t typically get to see in games that try to take on some meaningful theme.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to me that the game’s actual target market is probably the tiniest part of Alaska. Yet the people who are playing the game are possibly the broadest possible market.
O’Neill: That was intended from the beginning. We wanted to make a game that a global audience would engage with. That was one of our first priorities.
Marrs: There’s not enough population in just Alaska to support us.
O’Neill: We planned to sell well over a million units, and there are only 700,000 people in Alaska.
GamesBeat: Do you know what you might take on next, what other cultures you might explore?
Angst: We’re hoping to get some parallelism in this part of our business. We’re in active discussions with other indigenous cultures to see what could bring some breadth to the portfolio. The team is also working on some creative concepts to delve a little deeper in Alaskan native culture, which we expect we will do. We’re just trying to figure out, from a timing perspective, whether to do two teams working in parallel or to try to sequence them.
O’Neill: You have a big clue as to what the next culture might be, just by looking at my tan here. Seriously. We spent last week in Hawaii.
Angst: The creative folks made dozens of trips to Alaska, several trips to Barrow. They got to bundle up in -30 weather several times. We’re looking for something with a slightly more tropical feel now.
O’Neill: On the CITC side, we’ve been working with the native Hawaiian people for many years. We’ve had joint projects. Our histories actually align with one another. Because of the deep relationships that we already hold and the trust that’s there, that’s what’s allowed us to go in and have these conversations.
Again, what was so magical about what we did is that we did it together. We want to replicate that process, but also localize it for the community and the culture. Partnerships will be key in ensuring that we make another game with the same level of diligence and thought and magic as went into this game.
Angst: The production period was significantly longer than you would typically take for this size of game in this genre. We built a lot of opportunity into the schedule for iteration. We did more iteration, a lot more stuff than we would normally do in a game, because we really wanted to work collaboratively and give folks an opportunity to make creative decisions.
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