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LAS VEGAS — After launching Never Alone about an Alaska Native folk tale, E-Line Media and the native group are embracing a big opportunity to create a new genre of “world games,” or tales that involve the stories of indigenous cultures around the globe.
Never Alone 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.
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, in a talk today at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas.
“My No. 1 job is to make money,” O’Neill said. “My No. 2 goal is to make impact.”
O’Neill said she was tasked six years ago by the tribal council to find ways to make money and connect with the younger generation, given high drug use and dropout rates in Alaska Native populations. She explored the idea of telling oral stories passed on from one generation of the Inupiat tribe to the next, and she came upon the possibility of creating a video game.
That brought her to E-Line Media. Alan Gershenfeld, its president and cofounder, said that the council gave his company a whole series of transcripts of the tribal stories. The stories riveted E-Line creative director Sean Vesce. The game-industry veteran recruited a team and created a new studio in Seattle. They flew up to visit the tribal council in Alaska three years ago, in January in the middle of a blizzard.
The two groups couldn’t be more different, but they shared a vision to create a fun game that would engage the younger generation and preserve the oral history of Inupiat tales. It was a game, they said, that was thousands of years in the making, and E-Line was respectful of the culture.
For three months, they studied the landscape of stories and opportunities. They saw that media was full of stereotypes and caricatures of native cultures, but some tales delved deep, like the film Whale Rider. And Gershenfeld drew encouragement from the popularity of alternative games produced by indie game developers, such as Braid and Limbo.
“We believed there was an intersection of native culture and indie game development,” Gershenfeld said.
The council and E-Line formed a partnership called Upper One Games.
The council assembled a group of dozens of advisers from the elders among the Alaska Native community. O’Neill said she loved the chance to participate in the video game because the council could be a co-developer in the process — and because no Native American group had ever played such a role in the history of the video game industry.
After three years of work, the result was Never Alone. Also known as Kisima Ingitchuna in Iñupiaq, a language of the Alaska Native people who live north of the Arctic circle, it’s about the journey of a young girl, Nuna, and her companion Arctic fox who journey into the world to find the source of a menacing blizzard. It’s a two-dimensional puzzle platformer that combines traditional folklore, stories, settings, and characters handed down over many generations by the Alaska Native people, whose heritages dates back millennia.
Never Alone launched last fall as a $15 downloadable game on Steam for the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It got more than 700 reviews in a wide array of publications (including GamesBeat), and it has been discussed around the world. It was on more than 50 “best of 2014” awards. YouTube and Twitch player videos have drawn millions of views.
“We’ve sold hundreds of thousands of units, and we are totally confident it is going to be profitable,” Gershenfeld said.
In fact, he said he believes it will generate a return that’s multiple times the original investment. On top of that, the team believes it met its goal of preserving culture and educating people. The platform-style game has videos of tribal elders in the form of 26 unlockable “cultural insights.”
O’Neill said the creative and development teams have merged, combining the management portions. The Cook Inlet Tribal Council now owns 36 percent of E-Line Media, and O’Neil serves as executive chair. They intend to continue their partnership in making more world games together.
“What we’ve been able to do in the industry is inspire a whole new genre of video games,” O’Neill said. “The most significant lesson I learned is that anything is possible in the world, and anything is possible in video games. We brought our story to the world, and the audience is responding.”
“It’s been exhilarating,” Gershenfeld said. “It’s great to get up and go to work in the morning. We’ve been approached by groups all over the world asking if we will do a video game on them. We’ve also been approached by video game teams. We are committed. Much like World Music is a genre, we believe World Games can be a genre.”
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