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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

InternetMarch 23, 2022

Inside the Dunedin studio making a ‘nice’ video game

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Before We Leave is a ‘non-violent, slow and chill’ city-building game, and it’s a big hit. For IRL, Shanti Mathias chats to the team behind it to find out why. 

Sam Barham still seems slightly stunned by it all. The video game designer wears a blue sweater and sits in front of a poster depicting the landscape of Before We Leave, hexagonal tiles of otherworldly forest and ancient ruined technology. This office in Ōtepoti – complete with an army of monitors and colleagues laughing at him on the other side of the video screen – is very different to the small home study where Barham started working on the game five years ago. 

Before We Leave is a city-building game, an incredibly popular genre often made up of frenetic tradeoffs between water drainage and new skyscrapers. What makes it different? “It’s a largely non-violent, slow, [and] chill game,” says Barham; he describes the studio and the game’s players as “a nice community playing a nice game”. In the game, “your people are reemerging from bomb shelters where they’ve been hiding for centuries after some galactic disaster,” he explains, “[so] they need to rebuild and rediscover the world around them.”

Barham, affable and emotive, exudes the same positivity as the game. His eyes widen, emphasising his astonishment that he’s here at all: it’s “incredible” that the game has thousands of players around the world; it’s “amazing” that in the space of three years he went from being funded by the Kiwi Game Starter award to sponsoring it himself; it’s “awesome” to have the freedom to make creative decisions with his team; and it’s “really cool” playing the game itself and seeing the plans for a city rise up before your eyes. 

Perhaps the amazement is because of how long it’s taken him to get here. “Computer games have always been part of both our lives,” says Anna Barham, Sam’s wife and joint owner of the Balancing Monkey Games studio. When they were dating, she would go to Sam’s house and watch him play Tomb Raider, “eyes glued to the screen like a movie”. 

Fifteen years later, after she finished her masters thesis in psychology, the Barhams stuck to a promise they had made: it was now Sam’s turn to spend his evenings and weekends in the small study at the back of their house, experimenting with the concept that eventually became Before We Leave. “I’ve always been a conscientious sort of person,” Sam says; using friends and family as testers, he slowly developed a working prototype. 

The Balancing Monkey Games team at work. (Photo: supplied)

For a medium so widespread, accessible, and lucrative, the video game industry has received little attention in New Zealand, despite global hits. “New Zealand is one of the most expensive places in the world to make a video game,” says Leanne Ross, director of the New Zealand Game Developers Association (NZGDA). Although there are many success stories, New Zealand’s video game community lacks the financial policy incentives (the kind put around the film industry) to develop games, and, until recently, a lack of training for the industry at the tertiary level.

To foster new entrants to the gaming industry, NZGDA runs the Kiwi Game Starter, a competition where people submit their games with a business plan. The winners get $25,000 to develop their game into a commercial product. 

You don’t even need to win the competition to benefit from it. Though Barham’s game did not win the 2018 competition, his entry caught the eye of an investor, who gave him enough money to quit his software development job and work on the game full time for a year and bring in some artists, which led to him winning the competition in 2019. This early support meant the game could be marketed; it launched on the Epic Games store in 2020, and on Steam in 2021. They’ve now sold over 150,000 units of the game across different stores, as well as having thousands more players through Humble Choice and Xbox Game Pass.

“It’s possible to express really complex and interesting ideas through games,” says Anna Barham. “Sam had always wanted to make a game with a positive impact, or a positive story –playing computer games can have a big impact.” Gareth Schott, a professor in media psychology at the University of Waikato, says that as the video game medium expands, so does the “games for social change” movement which “recognises the power of games to educate and communicate about important issues” – everything from mental illness to the experience of refugees

As a layperson (read: somebody with a very lightweight laptop who browses Steam when I feel lonely) with considerable experience of city-building games (read: I’ve occasionally made inane comments about urban design while watching my boyfriend play Cities:Skyline), I enjoyed Before We Leave. This is not to say that I was good at it, but it didn’t matter. Even slightly clunkily rendered on my laptop, which is not built for anything more complex than Tetris, the game was interesting. 

The hexagon tiles reminded me of long childhood afternoons playing Settlers of Catan. I set up a wood mill next to a forest, so I could build huts for my people, but I had to think carefully about how much of the forest I used. The characters, called “peeps,” are vaguely humanoid; they trudged happily through their world, exploring what they’d left behind. I built them a library, so they could connect with the knowledge of their ancestors. I built them a ship, so they could voyage the ocean of their planet.

Gradually, the village became a city busy with vehicles, roads, and rocket projects. Some of the buildings produced pollution, so they got sad; I planted more trees. It was intensely satisfying, but never stressful. As an inveterate eavesdropper, my favourite part was the soundscape: against light string music and the sounds of industrious sawing, my people were talking to each other in indistinguishable language as they worked, in the land of their ancestors, exactly where they were meant to be. 

Before We Leave is a game set on a planet recovering from disaster.

In a film, you can’t control where the camera goes or what people say, and your opinions as a reader have little to do with what comes next in a book. But a game lets you make choices; choices thoroughly considered and determined by the developer. “You’re the one in charge, so you have agency – it’s more personal, specific to you,” says Emily Latta, Balancing Monkey’s community and media manager, who thinks about this a lot.

What kind of choices did Barham make as he designed Before We Leave? “Deliberately, there’s no other tribe; there’s no-one you’re fighting for territory,” he says. Environmental resources must be used thoughtfully. There’s also no money in the game, and no hierarchy: all the peeps are equal, and they’re not trying to accumulate cash. “It’s a utopia in a way,” he adds. 

Was it a political statement? “Sure, why not. Some people complain and say that games shouldn’t be political, but every choice is political, whether you want it to be or not.” 

Many video games have a reputation for violence, to the extent that games are sometimes used for recruitment and training by militaries. While there are some theories that playing violent video games encourages people to act more violently, Schott says that “the very mechanics of playing [games] occur within the bounds of an established set of rules. This is opposite to the way we understand aggression in the real world as an act that is out of kilter with how people normally behave.” He says that when simulating violence on a screen, players are very aware that they are acting as the game invites them to, engaging in play. The moral panic over violent video games is not a priority for many researchers. 

The game is Sam Barham’s fourth attempt at making a tile-based, world-building game.

Barham, too, says that “there’s a place for violence in games,” and plays many games with violent elements himself. But when it came to designing a game, Barham chose not to make elements of violence integral to the gameplay. Violence is a debated term: Before We Leave players pointed out that the use of laser cannons and planet-eating sky whales was not strictly non-violent, prompting Balancing Monkey to remove the “non-violent” descriptor from their game summary.

“We’re not making a statement against violence in games,” Barham says. Instead, he made Before We Leave because he was interested in the idea of tiled hexagons, in levitating whales – and in creating a game that could have strong morals and still be fun. 

Key to Balancing Monkey’s success has been community. It’s a sort of vague word, one every company wants to capitalise on – to create a culture of people dedicated to its product. For the company, the community around the game ensures that the players are invested, and it’s a rich source of feedback. As the team were preparing to launch Before We Leave, Barham was given some advice. “You used to have to sell a game via magazines, then the right game development press websites, then get it into the hands of the right streamers,” he says, “but these days, what matters is creating a community.”

The values of Before We Leave translate to Balancing Monkey’s working conditions, too. Latta says that the company is very different from the other studios where she’s worked. “There’s a lot of care and empathy and if you’re not feeling so crash-hot you’re supported.” She hopes people see Balancing Monkey as an example: “We don’t sexually harass people and we can still make a viable product.” The company also instituted a four-day work week last year in response to the pressure put on a remote employee living through the Auckland lockdown. 

How does the care for the product and community balance with the bottom line of running a business? “It can be challenging making those decisions and walking the line between financial success and integrity, producing in a timely fashion and maintaining staff wellbeing,” says Anna Barham. Ross, the NZGDA director, says companies with business practices like Balancing Monkey as important for the health of New Zealand’s gaming industry. 

Before We Leave isn’t a perfect game: Barham mentions several features he’d like to improve, aware that it was a first attempt. Balancing Monkey isn’t a perfect studio, either: the team is more than half women, but very white; finding game designers in Dunedin is difficult, but it’s an area where Barham says they want to improve.

So what comes next? They’ve just announced that last week’s Before We Leave update will be its last, bar any necessary bug fixes. “We’ve just started production on our next game,” says Barham, though he refuses to give me any details. “The path to a [new] finished game is winding – it’s just too early to say.”

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