Going on an adventure with ustwo's CEO Maria Sayans. How Alba: A Wildlife Adventure led the studio further down the path of social impact games.
Do you remember the anticipation you used to feel at the thought of the summer holidays when you were a kid? No homework, schedules or responsibilities, just a long stretch of freedom and a sense of adventure.
That child-like nostalgia is one of the charms of ustwo’s latest game.
“We set out to make Alba for everyone, for 'the 10 year old in all of us,'" says ustwo CEO Maria Sayans. "We are finding that players of all ages and backgrounds are resonating with the world, the story, the characters and the themes.”
You probably know ustwo as the makers of the beautiful and iconic smash hit Monument Valley, and its follow up Monument Valley 2. Other titles include Assemble with Care and Land's End.
“We aspire to be ‘the first game’ that someone completed in a full sitting, or the first time someone might have considered themselves a gamer after playing one of our games,” says Sayans.
In their latest title, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, you play as 11-year-old Alba, who goes to visit her grandparents on a Mediterranean island.
“One thing that is unique is that we want all of our games to come from personal inspiration in our team.”
ustwo CEO Maria Sayans
The concept of Alba was the brainchild of ustwo studio art director David Fernandez Huerta and programmer/designer Kirsty Keatch, who both grew up in Spain and drew upon their own childhood memories of the Mediterranean for inspiration.
“We were a bit worried that the Spanish setting might not be as universally appealing as other settings that are more usual in video games, such as fantasy settings or historical ones. But we are finding that people love the sense of place that the game evokes and it has transported them to a virtual summer holiday in a year when many people have not been able to get away or leave their house for a very long time.”
On the surface it’s a beautiful island filled with wildlife to discover and friendly locals to talk to. It’s through these conversations that you uncover deeper problems of disrepair on the island, which put its future in jeopardy.
“People can expect a game that is visually very beautiful, carefree and nostalgic for childhood summer holidays,” says Sayans, “but with a deeper message underpinning the experience.”
As you progress, you’re able to support the island community and create a positive impact for the local wildlife and habitats through selfless actions, and better understanding the relationship between humans and nature.
“As a studio we are incredibly passionate about social responsibility, sustainability, and helping to reverse the impact of climate change.”
The Balancing Act
Ustwo is part of a larger group, the ustwo group, which is a certified B-Corp. B-Corps are companies that hold themselves accountable to the highest standards of social responsibility.
“As a B-Corp we are committed to holding the planet, our employees, our communities, our customers, in as high a consideration as we do our shareholders when running the business. This means that at the heart of ustwo games there is also a constant question of how we can play a positive role in the world, and use our business for good.”
The studio committed to going carbon neutral and joined UNEP’s Playing for the Planet Alliance in 2020.
Themes of sustainability were also present in their previous game, Assemble with Care, which encourages users to repair and reuse objects.
“Many of these themes naturally became a part of our story about Alba and protecting the wildlife on the Island. But it was really important for us that we could tell the story of Alba authentically, in an optimistic and empowering way - inspiring our players to act and leaving them with the lasting message that even the smallest person can make a big difference.”
Ustwo have gone a step further and translated the empowerment their players feel within the game into real-world action. For every game that is bought or downloaded, ustwo plants a tree. Since the game’s release in December of 2020, more than half a million trees have already been planted in Alba’s Forest.
Players not only take a virtual trip to the mediterranean, they can also see the contribution they made growing on a digital map.
“We are over the moon with the progress of Alba’s Forest so far! We are actually exceeding our expectations, and closer to reaching our goal of 1 million trees sooner than we expected! Players are really resonating with this initiative, and it's been a surprise that some individuals have even felt compelled to donate more trees to the cause.”
Ustwo partnered with environmental organisation Ecologi, which allows individuals and companies to offset their carbon footprint via tree planting and funding carbon reduction projects. Ustwo receives periodic photos and videos of the reforestation projects in action and the sites can also be seen on Google Maps, which makes their efforts feel more real and tangible, says Sayans. The studio is also using Ecologi to offset the footprint of their workforce.
When developing Alba, the team had to find a harmony between entertainment and education.
“The challenge was understanding the balance between what is fun and engaging for a player - versus what might feel preachy and off-putting. We were always mindful that we did not want to be perceived as an educational game.”
The lighthearted tone of the narrative helped convey the charm of Alba and the island, while still compelling the player to want to make amends and feel passionately about wanting to help.
Sayans says getting that balance right can be a barrier for other studios exploring social impact games.
“It’s the idea of bringing a theme of social impact to a game, but doing so in a way that has the right tone or feel, and to not put prospective players off. I think that the challenge is finding a way for the theme to tie seamlessly into the story and narrative of the game - so that it really goes hand in hand with the experience of playing.”
She says that despite the concern of alienating players, there’s a real business case to be made for incorporating social impact themes in your games.
“We have seen players describe in their feedback that they were left feeling inspired by the messaging in Alba, are happy that their kids are able to play a game that tackles some of these themes, and of course - are really excited by the prospect that every copy of the game sold is meaning that a new tree is being planted in the world.”
The story of Alba’s Forest has also earned the studio positive press, which has helped them reach new audiences.
“We are learning that more and more gamers want to play wholesome games that make them feel good, optimistic, generous.”
Incorporating social good into their games and business has not just had a positive impact on their players, but the studio as a whole.
“In 2020 employee engagement levels have dropped across the board and with remote working being more of the norm going forward, bringing that engagement up is going to be harder. Our team is super proud of the work they do and proud to see the real world impact of the game.”
The Right Kind of Impact
While there are clear advantages to incorporating social impact themes within games, creating the right kind of impact can also be a challenge says Sayans.
“It was wondering if what we were putting in the hands of players was widely agreed as accurate, or acceptable for public consumption! We are not experts and were worried that we could be sending the wrong message.”
Not feeling like an expert in environmental or social action can make wading into the space fairly daunting.
“Is what you are saying through the medium of your game right, or scientifically accurate? You may have a fantastic idea, but not know if you are representing it in the right way."
Leaning on partners outside the industry with specific expertise can help build confidence in that message. Through introductions from British charity OKRE, ustwo collaborated with science educators at the Natural History Museum who played an early version of the game, gave them feedback and confidence that what they were doing was valuable. They were also introduced to UN Live who in turn led them to the Playing for the Planet Alliance and Count Us In, for which they’re a founding member.
“In general we have found that there is an entire community of NGOs, charities and experts who are willing to give their time and expertise to support companies like ours taking our first steps in a space that can be intimidating from the outside. UN Live, Playing for the Planet, Count Us In and Ecologi have been great partners for us - helping us figure out many things that we were not experts in.”
Playing for the Planet helped them distill - and provide a framework for - how to bring their actions as a company in line with the values they are supporting in the game. Count Us In provided a science-backed platform they could use to activate their players around.
“The cool thing is that, with the right partners, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. There is a lot of expertise out there to help us reach further and make the most of the platform that we have as game makers.”
Alba is already out on Apple Arcade and PC, and will be ustwo’s first game to be released on console in early Q2.
“That’s super exciting for us and might prove that the kind of games we make also have a home in consoles. We are excited to bring Alba to new audiences this Spring.”
The team also has a new title in development. Sayans says they are very deliberate about their games carrying positive messages, but remain open about what those might be.
“The heart of ustwo games lies in bringing what’s meaningful about games to everyone. We love to tell stories, and surprise and delight our players. We like to challenge and delight, and pack an emotional punch.”