Inclusivity: from studio to game design

A conversation with Sally Sheppard of Wyrdren Games

If you have been to any UK video game events since September 2021, you have probably seen purple haired Sally Sheppard, founder and creative director of Wyrdren Games, and her colourful menagerie of characters from the upcoming game Spellbound: The Magic Within. A visual novel filled with magic, multiple endings, and a huge amount of character customisation which goes beyond the usual hair and skin colour by including (among other options): non-romantic story options, pronouns, and hair textures.

As a solo developer Sheppard started Wyrdren as a thoughtful, inclusivity-led studio from the start; the concept of inclusivity running deeper than just the game design. I was interested in finding out how inclusivity can be implemented both in the studio itself and in the game's design - considering the challenges, concerns, and triumphs. This is the chat I had with Sheppard.

What stage do you think you started thinking about inclusivity?

Day one. It's such a weird thing, when I was looking around at who was making games, I obviously follow people that I really love on Twitter and on their blogs. I was seeing lots of women in the industry, but I wasn't seeing a huge amount at the CEO or the founder level. I was watching people from my university, go out into the industry and get these amazing jobs in triple-A… but they were working on IPs that maybe didn't represent [their diversity]. I then thought: 'why don't I make that opportunity for me and others?'

Let’s unpick inclusivity, what does inclusivity look like to you?

Inclusivity. I think what it looks like is understanding, respect and empathy, which isn't always visible, if that makes sense. It's making sure that everybody you're working with is seen as a human being. I think it's funny that people are always talking about making allowances. It's not making allowances; it's just making sure people have the space and the environment to work to the best of their ability.

Can you explain how you've implemented inclusivity within SpellBound through the game design?

It's such a such a basic problem, but I have a brightly coloured purple hair, it's not hugely diverse, or out of this world to have coloured hair these days. But I played a load of games where I could never have any of the features that I wanted. I then started thinking about everybody else in the world, who has features those games don't represent. So, I wanted to make sure that Spellbound had a character creator and I tried to include as many things as I could think of off the top of my head. We tried textured, coiled curly, a range of skin tones, nose shapes, lips, shapes, eye shapes, eye colours, hair colours - the very basic, standard stuff.

Sally Sheppard, founder and creative director at Wyrdren Games

Then I started to reach out to the community, and I asked what they wanted to see. They came up with some great suggestions. This is what I mean by making sure you're talking to people who have other opinions to you or have other life experiences. Somebody suggested there should be an option for hearing aids. And I was like, absolutely, there should be an option for hearing aids, it was just something I hadn't thought of designing for the character creator until somebody mentioned it. The hope is that there's some characters in there that the player can go, oh, yeah, I get that I know that person, that person lives down the road from me, or that's my family.

Sometimes people say inclusivity feels like a checklist, how do you feel about that perspective?

It is interesting there's this pushback on inclusivity. Because by its very definition you're not excluding people by adding features. Nobody is being left out or getting fewer slices of the pie. It's interesting because accessibility is also part of inclusivity. When we add text to speech to the game or dyslexic friendly fonts - nobody's missing out on that just because you don't have dyslexia. I know some people see diversity as a checkbox. But that's the same with having diverse characters, it doesn't take away from what might be the stereotypical character or the character we see all the time in games. It just adds more characters, it adds more representation. And I don't know why there's a pushback, I guess I just can't wrap my head around why there would be a push back against diversity and inclusion, when it allows more people to enjoy the thing you enjoy.

As a developer, do you sometimes worry you're missing someone or something out? How do you manage that potential internal pressure on yourself?

Yeah, I'm always worried that I've left something out. And the other big worry is that when including diverse characters, or inclusive characters. I won't give too much away; we have characters who are non-binary and I identify as she/her. So, trying to tell stories from that point of view, I'm always worried that I'm going to tell them incorrectly. One of the things I do to reassure myself, and hopefully reassure any of our players, is I always tackle things with the utmost sensitivity that I can. And I talk to those communities. I talk to my friends who are non-binary, I make sure that I am addressing any issues they might have, I make sure that I'm talking to the communities that these stories include. Getting somebody to sanity check and make sure that I'm not coming at this from the wrong angle.

What I would love to do with our future games is bring people in if we are telling those stories. I would love to tell a story with a trans main character. But having not lived that experience, I don't think that's my story to tell. If we have the resources, I would love to hire a writer, somebody who's a narrative designer who has that background, to help us tell that story correctly and sensitively. People who have different backgrounds will have experienced different prejudices. I want to make sure that we're also maybe addressing those things, it is my place and in my power to facilitate the opportunity for other people to tell those storylines through Wyrdren.

Spellbound: The Magic Within aims to tell stories from plenty of points of view

What advice would you give someone who might be starting up a studio off or starting a new title?

It can be really overwhelming when you feel like you must cater to everybody. And I feel like sometimes that [responsibility] puts people off. It can be scary to think that you're going to mess it up. Lots of us [game developers], I think, shy away from things that we're not instantly good at. I think my advice would be tackle the bits, you know, you can first. If you've had an experience, maybe you're a woman in games, and you know that there's misogynistic discourse out there. Maybe that's the first thing you do put it into your values for your company. I wrote myself a handbook, even when there was only one of me. And I just put the pillars of the things that I wanted to keep strong in my company, even when we grew, I wrote down my values. I wrote down the things that I prize above all other things, and I think making yourself a little handbook, even to look back now about a year and a half on, I look back at that handbook, and I go, yeah, that's why I set my company up.

When you think about it, why do we make games. And I think the first reason is always because we want to make something that we wish we had. And that's whether you're making a car racing game, or you're telling an incredibly deep and moving story about a personal experience. You make the games you want to see that's, that's always the thing that you We're very selfish in the game industry, for good reason. We want to make fun games. We want to make experiences. Even if your game is not specifically focusing on diversity and inclusion, all that stuff starts at home, it starts from day one. Just think about the people you want to hang out with and the people you want to hire and want to work with. Are you reaching out to them correctly? Are we making sure that when people join the company, they know our values? Because not everybody shares those values. And not everybody wants to work for a company they see as woke or as ticking boxes. And that's fine. But then we're not the company for them. We need to make sure that we know that and that we're working with the people who are as passionate and as excited as us about these things. Surround yourself with good people, basically.

Spellbound: The Magic Within is due to be released on Steam Summer 2022

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Helen Johnson
Helen is a recent PhD graduate and independent researcher who primarily focuses on social and cultural elements of game development workers. Fuelled by bubble tea and salt and pepper tofu.

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