Critics fell for Gravity Ghost, the physics-based puzzler from developer Ivy Games, with one reporter calling it a “game that heals.” In her Summit 2015 talk, Gravity Ghost designer Erin Robinson Swink sets her sights on a new subject to heal: our planet. How can game developers help rescue our ailing world? Find out at the Summit.
Xav de Matos: Your background in games is rather unconventional, considering your educational background. How did you get started in this business?
Erin Robinson Swink: I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, up in Canada. My family immigrated to the States when I was a kid, but I returned to Canada to attend Queen’s University. I studied psychology, specifically behavioral neuroscience, but I started making games as a hobby when I was in my first year there.
By the time I graduated, I had been offered my first publishing deal, and that was where I got my start in the industry. I’ve been making indie games for 10 years now, 7 professionally.
There’s such an ebb and flow to success in independent development. Some gauge that success on sales numbers, others solely on impact. What have been your biggest successes and missteps?
My biggest success is the critical reception of Gravity Ghost, which was very much a labor of love. It’s such an odd game, and there was no guarantee that it would connect with people. But the reception has been so heartwarming. People tell me the game helped them deal with loss, or it helped them get their family members into video games. One reporter even called it “a game that heals.” Our reviews on Steam are 98% positive, which is better than my wildest imaginings.
It’s hard to say what my biggest “failure” would be, since I still learn so much when things don’t work out the way I expect. Puzzle Bots, my first commercial game, never made a huge amount of money, but I don’t regret the time I spent on it. I knew that making an adventure game would always mean selling to a smaller “niche.” But definitely there was a wake-up call that making something more accessible would give me a larger audience. I decided to pivot and start making games in other genres, which is how Gravity Ghost ended up as a physics game. I also learned that even if a game isn’t a huge commercial success, it can open a lot of doors. Critical reception of Puzzle Bots was good, we were in the PAX 10, it was my first game on Steam, and it helped me land my first consulting gig. So really, even when things don’t turn out like I hope, as long as I’m still working in the industry, I feel like I’m making progress.
As someone uniquely tuned to behavior, have you made any observations about how content helps shape society or how societal issues help to shape content? What role do games play in popular culture today, in your opinion?
One interesting thing about the present is that basically all media is interactive media: Think of the Twitter responses that happen when a popular show is airing a new episode, or the mass excitement when people discover a clever piece of foreshadowing that happened in a movie. I don’t think entertainment has ever been so important to so many people. But even within this new system, the interactivity of video games makes them special.
When I think about YouTube, I think about how people can’t really post reaction videos to a popular novel in real time. Games are the perfect fit for this new, widespread conversation that happens between creators and audience members. And ideas can spread very quickly in this system, which gives games a lot of power. And to the extent that games are a mirror of the people who make them, it’s really our views of the world that get propagated. As developers, it’s worthwhile for us to interrogate our own values from time to time, and think about the messages we want to spread to the world.
You’ve been really excited about speaking at the 2015 Gaming Insiders Summit; what compels you to talk to other developers? Why is sharing that knowledge and experience so important to you?
I think it’s important to leave our respective bubbles and share ideas with other developers. Because games take so long to make, it’s always tempting to put your head down and try to work on something until it’s done. But changes to the industry happen all the time, often very rapidly. I believe it’s better for everyone if we can share what we’ve learned, and probably better for games, too. We can help each other adapt.
Your session at the 2015 Gaming Insiders Summit is titled: “How Game Developers Can Help Rescue the Planet”; what do you hope attendees learn from the talk?
My hope is that game developers will embrace the growing environmental movement. We have enormous challenges ahead of us: charting a course away from fossil fuels, dealing with droughts and forest fires – it’s a list that unfortunately goes on.
I believe that we’re in a unique position to help, because breaking down complex systems and making them accessible is what we do. By exploring these systems, we can help define what is possible, much like how science fiction has influenced the technology we all enjoy today. Mostly I hope that people will see that we have a real opportunity to remake our world for the better, but we need to act now.
Xav de Matos is the Editorial Director of Gaming Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @xav.