'We wanted to partner with the right people and the right organisations' ~ Maria Sayans

Maria Sayans and Jane Campbell reflect on connecting with OKRE, the matchmaking service and the importance of collaboration between researchers and game studios. (Initial release date: 11 Sept 2020)

Maria Sayans, Chief Executive Officer at Ustwo Games connected with OKRE early in the research process Alba: A Wildlife Adventure.

A singleplayer, open world adventure game that focuses on exploring and conserving wildlife, Alba’s initial release came at the height of the pandemic, quickly gaining attention and has  been nominated for a BAFTA Games Award for Game Beyond Entertainment (2022) and the BAFTA Award for Game for Best Family and Social Game (2022).   

It was in the process of figuring out how to work with experts and NGOs in the environmental space, to ensure that the science and the world of the game was accurate as possible, that Ustwo connected with OKRE, who in turn connected them to UN Live via the OKRE matchmaking service.

According to Jane Campbell, Commercial Officer at Ustwo, this match created the opportunity for much of the learning and consequent networking opportunities that helped drive the sustainability by diversity message that they wanted to make feel as realistic and authentic to the game as possible. The goal, she said, was to ensure that Alba was well researched and that it represented the genuine real-world issues that inspired Alba's world building.

Extending the network

Process of Collaboration

With OKRE’s matchmaking, connecting to UN Live opened the doors for them to access a greater network, leading to connections with other partners outside of their immediate network. This process expanded their access to research   – and it is still ongoing:  

“We had an extended period of back and forth and brainstorming with was a lot of discussions that ranged from ‘let me connect you to this person’, to ‘let me have a think of how we can support you’. A lot of those connections are still happening today, for instance, Playing for the Planet Alliance. We knew about them and were aware of what they did but we were able to connect to them and we are still a part of and connected to them today,” Jane said.  

“We wanted to partner with the right people and the right organisations."

Maria Sayans

The Real World Effect

One Year and One Million Trees

Alba has also continued to inspire Ustwo games as they continue to see how positively their sustainability programmes with Alba are received in the public and in the industry.  

“There has been a lot of recognition for taking what feels like such big steps for a games company to take. To drive home that sustainability message and act on it and, to pass some of that action on to the players. I think it made us even more ambitious” Jane noted.   

Alba has been used as a case study for green gaming and as inspiration for other companies to use their platforms in similar ways. Ustwo has recently gone through a B-corp application and are now a certified B-corp studio. Speaking on this and the changes it has brought into their team and their studio, Jane said:  
“There is this constant shared ambition to always be using our games, using our platforms as a way to do better in the world for people, planet and profit. Alba has really inspired us just through seeing the success of that programme to do more and have different ambitions with our next games. Part of the core narrative of our next game really focuses on mental health.”

Jane Campbell

You Try Multiple Things and Some Things May Not Work

Maria frankly notes that although Alba has far exceeded their expectations as a team, some things that they tried did not work or engage their players in tangible ways. 

“We had a number of activations around Alba, one of them was the participation on this social platform to drive people to do climate positive actions. Our fans just didn’t participate, and I think we found it was too complicated – although still ongoing – it didn’t work for Alba.” 

Yet this has not deterred Ustwo. The success of Alba: A Wildlife Adventure and the impact it has had has become an integral part of the thought-process for this studio as they now make their games - asking questions like: what is this game about? What issues in the world is this game toughing on? And how do we make sure that we have a real impact on these issues not just make a game about it and leave it there?
“It has elevated our ambition for what we should be expecting of ourselves in the future in terms of how we use our games for social impact. We’ve set this informal slash semi-formal goal that we want to make sure that with every game going forward, we operate this way.”

Maria Sayans, CEO, Ustwo

This mode of thinking has become foundational when exploring what games to make and how Ustwo goes to market with these games.

More Than Anything, It's Personal

When considering the answers to these questions, Maria emphasises that as a team, they do not set out with the mindset of ‘tackling’ a hot-button topic. Instead, much of the inspiration within the team is deeply personal:  

“We start always from a very personal place of ‘I want to make a game about this’, and then you ask yourself ‘why?’ and ‘what’s this game really about?’ And when a game comes from a personal place, and you scratch once or twice or three times, you almost always land on something that’s universal. Something that is a concern that the team has.”  

Alba, for instance, first began as a game about animal photography and being in nature; and was inspired by a parent who wanted to share their experience of being in nature with their child. The parents and the team, worried that that this access to wildlife and nature would not be there when their child grew up, expanded the conversation around this topic which naturally led to conservation and action. For every download, Ustwo Games committed to planting one tree. So far, Alba’s Forest has restored three habitats and planted a million trees… and counting.
“We don’t tackle these big themes, we tackle something really personal, but we’re all affected by these things. Looking at the themes, we say, how can this game be a positive force in the world”

Maria Sayans

'We Hide The Broccoli in the Kid's Pasta.'

Maintaining The Balance

Ustwo often talks about their games as fables. On the surface, they are fun – you don’t have to care about deep topics to enjoy these games but underneath it there is something significant that the player is left with.   

“We’re always quite clear that our games need to be, first and foremost, entertainment – they need to be fun and something that our players enjoy.” Maria said.

Yet when they were doing the content review of Alba with the Natural History Museum, one of their key concerns was to check how much of the environmental content in the game was supported by science. 

“I think what they said was that it was 80% accurate and correct – and in their experience, this was a good ratio to strike with an entertainment product,” Maria said.

Jane was quick to also note that although they would have loved to include insects and crabs and scorpions and those kinds of creatures, “time was not always on our side. More biodiversity representation would have maybe improved that from a scientific perspective. But the touchpoint on the messaging is present in Alba and it offers resources for those who are inclined to discover more on their own.”

Key Takeaways

Find Community

"Whatever topic you want to work in, on or whatever you want to contribute to, there is a massive community of people out there who are going to welcome you with open arms because people – whether it is charities or experts – want to work with games companies. The problem is finding your way in and finding the angle, and I think this is where OKRE plays a huge role in helping be that connector as it definitely made a big difference for us."

Overcome that Fear

"At the beginning of working on Alba on the environmental topics, we had huge imposter syndrome – we were asking: what are we doing here? Do we have the right to talk about this? Are we exploiting this theme that perhaps is fashionable? Are we guilty of greenwashing? There was a lot of self-doubt. My other learning was to just go there. Some people might accuse you of green washing or exploiting but just try not to. Just trying to do the right thing and trying to figure out what that right thing is, is a right path."

Take the Jump

"You don’t have to know the ins and outs. The encouragement here is that building those relationships, those connections, that network with partners that do work in these fields every day…you will learn so much, and you get to have a better sense of which direction you would like to go in. You will become better informed through the process, so trust it and take the jump."

Allow Space for The Learning to Take Place

"You have to allow yourself to have conversations even though you don’t know where they will lead. Very often in business we have this mental model of ‘we have to have a strategy and it has to be really clear,’ or if you can’t picture what exactly you will get out of a conversation, you wonder ‘is it worth my time, is it worth their time?’ But this whole area of does not work like that, you have to allow it to be more learning and meandering."

Simplicity is Key

"Try lots of different things and work out what is the most impactful thing for your studio or product or whatever. With that hindsight, with trying different things, we did end up landing on the tree planting as our main avenue of impact with Alba and the reason for that was because it was super simple: One copy of the game = one tree planted. The simplicity was key. Go through that process and learn what works…but also, keep it simple."