Runaway creative director Emma Johansson on the many benefits of diversity in gaming, the secret to making chilled-out but highly addictive mobile games, and why Animal Crossing rules.
When Dunedin mobile game company Runaway went looking for an artist to join their newly-founded studio in 2010, they struggled to find anyone in New Zealand suitable for the job. The best candidate they found lived in Auckland, and they didn’t want to move to Dunedin. Instead, the company got a game design graduate to move all the way from Sweden.
Emma Johansson arrived to undertake a three-month contract – her job was to design the original artwork for the Facebook version of Flutter, a virtual butterfly sanctuary which, now on mobile, remains Runaway’s most popular game. Eight years later, she has just replaced the guy who hired her as the company’s new creative director. (The old creative director and Runaway founder Tim Nixon is now working at thatgamecompany in Los Angeles.)
That makes Runaway something of an anomaly in the gaming industry: both its leadership roles are held by women. It’s a point of difference both Johansson and managing director Zoe Hobson wish didn’t exist. With a recent industry survey showing women make up just 22% of game-makers, they hope their visibility and the company’s mentorship programmes can help inspire more girls into gaming.
Their three games – alongside Flutter there is also the virtual ocean sanctuary game Splash and Flutter: Starlight, which was made following requests from moth-obsessed Flutter players – are currently enjoyed by over 250,000 players worldwide each month.
Johansson says 80% of those players are female, and around 50% of those who play one game also play one or more of the others. This kind of loyalty is no accident – a lot of time and energy is spent maintaining the games’ beautiful, relaxing and quietly addictive in-game mechanics, as well as nurturing active, friendly player communities on social media.
At every stage of development, user experience is paramount. There is even a full-time researcher to ensure the games’ artwork is as accurate as possible: “He’s always coming over and saying ‘no, no, this species has an extra fin here, you have to change it’,” Johansson, until recently the art director, laughs.
The company, which was founded as the gaming division of nature-focused film production company NHNZ, now numbers almost 30 staff with close to gender parity. That number set to grow further as they prepare to launch new titles, including a VR game, in the next six months. Already, they have outgrown their quiet, butterfly-adorned corner of the NHNZ building, and are moving into their own studio in Dunedin’s revitalised Vogel Street precinct at the end of the year.
Emma Johansson can’t wait to make more of the kind of games there’s nowhere near enough of: games made “for women, by women.”
Why is it important that more women join the gaming industry, particularly in leadership roles?
There’s so many reasons why it’s important. For a start, it results in more diverse games being made. You need different types of people leading game projects – it’s proven that if you combine different types of people you will create more interesting new products. So for the future of the game industry, it’s necessary to have different types of people in charge. I also think it’s important to show young girls that there are females leading companies – game companies specifically – because then they know that that can happen. It’s important to show that there is that range of people who can do this job.
What was your own pathway into the industry?
I studied game design and science [in Sweden], so I have a bachelor’s degree in game design and science with a major in art. I was always a gamer growing up, kind of all I did was draw doodles and play World of Warcraft. So my friend was like: ‘why don’t you apply for this university degree, you can combine both your passions!’ That was a really cool three years and it introduced me to how to make games. It was really project-based, each year we did several projects and the programme was set up so it was mixed between artists and programmers. I was pursuing the art side and the programmers did coding and stuff, but then we all had design courses together.
How did you end up working at a game company in New Zealand?
So during university we built a lot of games together as part of the course, and with one of those games, my teammate and I won a competition which meant we got to go to a big European gaming conference. It was there that I met a guy who knew Tim [Nixon, Runaway’s founding creative director], and he introduced us. So I got offered a job at Runaway after I graduated [in 2010] – a three month project working on Flutter for Facebook.
Those three months must have gone quite well…
We were only four people when I started, and the studio at the time was really game design driven, so everybody shared design ideas, it was a group effort. So that was really fun for me, coming from a work environment in school where everybody helped out and did a lot of design too. Because I was the only artist, I got to do all the concepting and all the assets and all the animations and everything. In school they were always like: ‘Emma, you need to focus on exactly what part of game development you want to do. Do you want to be a designer or do you want to be an animator?’ and I was always like ‘I wanna do everything!’ So it was like, ‘yeah… I’ve got the best job ever.’ It was only going to be for three months, but then my contract got extended and the studio got other work for hire so I just kept staying here.
Can you explain just what it is about Flutter and your other titles that makes them so addictive and inspires such a dedicated following?
We designed the game so that it would feel good – you’re supposed to feel a little bit happy and productive when you log into the game. Even if you do just the tiniest thing, you can log in and just click on your butterflies to collect a few coins, that still gives you some progression in the game. What I hope is that it can give you kind of a warm feeling and calmness while you are doing it. Also, things in the game progress over time, while you’re away, so you always want to check in to see what’s going on. ‘Has my chrysalis turned into a butterfly yet?’, that kind of thing.
Oh yeah – I just got the bird in my garden who sends the butterflies away on missions, so I have to check in on that…
The bird can be a bit cheeky sometimes. We actually had a bug in early Flutter where the butterflies disappeared on missions. They weren’t supposed to, but the bird was just sending them on suicide missions, because they never came back. But we fixed that bug.
Is it difficult to balance the games’ calming, relaxing vibe with the need for it to make money through things like in-app purchases?
From the get-go, when we set out to do free-to-play, we had so many discussions on how to do it right. Because there’s a lot of sort of ‘gotcha’ systems that are designed to basically be like slot machines, to tilt people into spending money, and that’s definitely not what we wanted to do. Basically, you don’t want to build mechanics where players spend money because they’re frustrated in the game – you want to build mechanics where they spend money if they are enjoying the game. So that’s sort of the rule we’re trying to follow with free-to-play.
We always have so many discussions around what we can and can’t do, how things feel, because it’s important for us that the money spent seems fair. I think in the end it’s really worth being respectful of the player and not adding those super slot machine mechanics because it means players will stick around longer and not rage-quit out of frustration. And we can also have a better conscience about how we are designing our games.
What mobile games are you playing at the moment?
Right now I’m playing Pocket Camp, the new Animal Crossing game. I like it so far, but I’m a big Animal Crossing fan so I’ve been waiting for this game for like two years. I try to play the new releases on mobile, just to see what’s coming up and find out things like what mechanics other companies are using. I try to just focus on one at a time, otherwise it’s too time consuming. I have a few that I’ll never delete off my phone, though, because I love them. My favourite is called The Last Banacat, which is just a 3D runner where you’re a cat that eats bananas, I just love it because it feels so great. And then DragonVale is my favourite free-to-play nurture type game. I would never delete my Dragon Park.
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Outside of mobile, what are some titles that have changed the way you think about games and their possibilities?
My favourite game of all time is Animal Crossing: New Leaf – that’s the game that’s made me care about the world and the characters in it the most. I’ve felt, for real, that the animals in Animal Crossing were my friends. Once I didn’t log in for two weeks and one of my favourite villagers moved out and I was genuinely really sad. So that sort of showed me how powerful an emotional connection to an AI can be. They’ve done such a fantastic job to make the world feel alive, so a lot of inspiration has come from playing Animal Crossing.
Also last year we played Undertale for Game Design Club [like a book club, but with games]. You can play it in different ways, and it kind of plays on the fact that you have this preconceived idea of what a game is and how kind of fucked up that is. It’s an indie game, made by a really small team, and for me that had an impact in showing you can do something super wonderful with really small tools. That was really inspiring. There’s so many games that have this massive budget and the execution is impeccable but they still don’t get near how many emotions I felt playing that game.
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