In These Video Games, You Care for Badger Babies and Wolf Pups
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not all heroes have capes. Or glocks.
By Fiona Zublin
Part of an occasional series that looks at companies on the rise.
“Badgers, you’ve got to stay with me. There’s something in the darkness. I don’t like it, I don’t know what it is,” mutters Hannah Rutherford, live-narrating a video game to her some 1.3 million subscribers. She and four badger babies are fleeing whatever has just eaten the fifth cub, searching for safety and food. In this game, there are no guns, aliens or stolen cars. Just a mother badger — that’s you — and a passel of badger babies in need of protection.
The $101 billion video game industry is famously focused on machine-made carnage, sports and cheap rewards; we think of first-person shooting, NFL Madden or Mario Bros. Shelter is none of those. Violence and loss abound, sure, but your main goal: Feed your cubs and explore the Nordic wilderness. It recalls the age of Tamagotchi, The Sims, Neopets or even Oregon Trail, simpler times with games centered around building homes and engaging with others. Such gaming values haven’t been completely erased in the modern era: Shelter, along with its sequel and another follow-up called Paws, are the handiwork of Might and Delight, a tiny Swedish studio founded in 2010. The games, which have sold nearly half a million units, are about nurturing.
Some scholars have proposed that video games offer teenage boys and those who began gaming in adolescence — who comprise the bulk of the market — an outlet for expressing emotions. But that may not be the case. The Pew Reseach Center found that 99 percent of adolescent boys play video games, but so do 94 percent of adolescent girls. And those boys may not crave violence — the action included in Might and Delight’s games could be enough.
The country’s video game industry brings in $346 million a year, but that’s dominated by huge players like Dice and EA — meaning small studios have to protect each other. “We don’t want to grow to be a big company,” says art director and studio cofounder Jakob Tuchten. “We just want time to do our projects.” To facilitate that, the company’s part of a small network of independent studios and, in addition to creating original games, offers a platform to publish others’ creations. When I visit the immaculately hipster office, a young developer named Emil Berner is working on his own game, supported by the studio’s name, connections and office space. When CEO Anders Westin and Tuchten first started, they had difficulty finding collaborators and connections. Tuchten was an illustrator; Westin began as an animator but decided the film business was too instable, so veered toward games. Both emphasize that they’re creatives, not nerds — Westin’s proof: “I hate Lord of the Rings!”
Office culture at Might and Delight is much like its products: familial and nurturing. Westin and a few colleagues are new parents, meaning no burning out or sleeping under your desk. That’s a rarity in this industry: An International Game Developer’s Association survey in 2014 found that 15 percent of gamers reported having left a job due to burnout. Instead, Might and Delight closes for two weeks every summer and encourages time off. Nobody worked any overtime when they were making Shelter –- not after the company lost half their staff to overwork on their first game, Pid. The disconnect from gaming culture is intentional: “We don’t play games,” says Westin. “We just make them.” Well, OK. He does admit to playing games on his phone … but “just to kill time.”
“They’re definitely beloved,” Jakob Berglund Rogert, who works in the Department of Game Design at Uppsala University, says of Might and Delight. He chalks it up to the instinct they tap into: the responsibility of caring for something helpless and the deep need to keep those charges safe.
Might and Delight hasn’t succeeded all the time. The company tried a game called Child of Cooper, a mystery involving the sinking of the Titanic — but late last year decided to cancel it after public response to a released trailer was lukewarm. Seven months down the drain. Now, the team has to expand beyond Shelter — or risk being caught in an endless loop of character reiteration. “Shelter was an experiment to begin with,” Tuchten says. “But now it’s a brand that feeds us.” This itself is a question of survival — Nintendo famously almost killed its fabulously successful Mario brand in the ’90s by producing too many Mario games. (Nintendo didn’t reply to a request for comment.) There are benefits to a series — see a trillion James Bond films, and more and more corners of Harry Potter’s wizarding world — but David Wesley of Northeastern University explains that when stories don’t offer players new challenges, they lose the audience. Studios can avoid this by constantly offering new stories or by taking advantage of new tech, the way Pokémon did.
Keep evolving or die. Not surprisingly, Might and Delight chooses evolving: It’s producing “living books,” short stories like The Lonesome Fog that tie into the worlds created for Shelter and Paws. The books appeal to kids and non-gaming audiences and offer another testing field for the company’s products. August 25 saw the launch of a new Might and Delight game — one that has nothing to do with critters or nurturing or protecting babies from eagles. In Pan-Pan, produced in collaboration with Berner, the gamer plays as Ada, a female explorer trailing through puzzles in a colorful world that looks like a conceptual artist’s rendering of an old-school arcade game.
This doesn’t mean the company’s dumped the Shelter franchise, of course. Puzzles are classics, but if Pokémon Go has taught us anything, it’s that fuzzy animals fighting for survival are the way to the public’s heart.