A collaboration between a Tennessee dog shelter and a Dunedin game studio resulted in the year’s most wholesome game. Sam Brooks learns how it happened.
You open a box and put a party hat on Mack, a blind cocker spaniel who has recently come into your care at the sanctuary. For the past few minutes of gameplay, you’ve been setting up your sanctuary with furniture, and generally making Mack feel welcome. You’ve petted him (a few swipes across your phone screen), given him treats (much the same), and learned about what this lovely fluffy guy likes (more pets, more treats, obviously).
These are the opening minutes of Dunedin studio Runaway Play’s Old Friends Dog Game: A Game About Friendship, released on iOS and Android earlier this month. It’s warm, wholesome and makes you feel better than you did when you opened the app. On the surface, it might seem like another mobile app game that you pick up for a few days and then ignore the notifications as they pop up. But Old Friends is different. It’s more fun than that. Also? It’s really bloody nice.
If you’re active on dog Facebook, bless your soul, you might be familiar with the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary. The Tennessee shelter, founded in 2012, focuses on the rescue of elderly dogs from shelters where they are otherwise likely to be euthanised.
The shelter was founded by Zina and Michael Goodin, both mechanical engineers. The year prior, they’d started rescuing golden retrievers through Middle Tennessee Golden Retriever Rescue and had adopted a 15-year-old dog who had been returned to a shelter. The dog, Bandit, lived with the pair for a year before his death. This inspired them to adopt more elderly dogs, with the justification that these canines ended up being the last to be adopted, and tended to bounce around foster homes because of their specific needs.
Old Friends was founded out of the couple’s home, but in 2017, after adopting about 50 dogs, they opened a dedicated space for the rescued dogs. As of today, the shelter has adopted and housed more than 700 dogs, and continues to thrive. It’s also amassed a huge social media following, with more than one million followers around the world, and featured in a documentary about elderly dogs, Senior: A Dogumentary.
This real-life sanctuary is the basis for the one in Runaway Play’s new game. In fact, Mack, the first dog you adopt, is the official mascot of the real-life Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary. (All of the dogs are real, and you can check out their real profiles with just a few taps on the screen.)
So how did the collaboration between a shelter in Tennessee and a gaming studio in Dunedin come about?
“At Runaway, we’re really big on having everyone in the company pitch ideas for new games. We believe we have really talented staff, and so we really want new game ideas to come from everyone,” says Runaway Play’s CEO Zoe Hobson. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that a game like Old Friends would get green-lit by the company.
That’s because Runaway Play is not your average games company. The studio, founded in 2009, seems to be the polar opposite of more or less every games company you see reported on in industry presses. Despite flying fairly under the radar in its home country, the company boasts more than 10 million downloads, annually increasing revenue, an executive team led entirely by women, and an explicit “no crunch” culture – crunch being the much-criticised mandatory overtime imposed by companies on workers to get games to shelves.
The idea for the game came from creative director Emma Johansson and narrative designer Lisa Blakie. Blakie had been a massive fan of the shelter for years, and introduced Emma to its Facebook page.
After the game was green-lit, Runaway Play then reached out to the real sanctuary, saying they were massive fans and explaining the kinds of games they’d made in the past. “They might’ve just said no,” says Hobson. “They might have had no desire to have a game made about them.”
They needn’t have been worried: Old Friends was on board immediately.
Any kind of partnership takes work, though, and especially a partnership like this. Old Friends is neither sponcon nor advertorial; it’s a game that uses the sanctuary as a setting, and marries the values of that with the pre-existing values of Runaway. However, that partnership has been as dreamy and conflict-free as the game that has resulted.
For example, every month Runaway Play sponsors a new sanctuary dog resident with the profits from in-game purchases, which will cover the dog’s expenses for a full year. “They’ve been involved at every point, like when we needed to ask some things and ensure the game was going to represent the sanctuary accurately, but not so involved they’ve been hampering our ability to design and make a game,” says Hobson.
The sanctuary has not just been in constant communication, they’ve also been playing the game since it was an early stage of beta – a pre-release build of a game. This has continued right through to the launch. “They were really focused on how the game can bring more awareness towards senior dogs and towards the work that the sanctuary is doing – and they’re doing the same for us, telling everyone who comes to visit the sanctuary about the game.”
The core of that might be surprising, especially if you’ve been keeping up with the headlines swirling around game companies across the industry. Harassment lawsuits, union busting and crunch time are the words du jour. However, Hobson’s explanation of why this partnership has worked is simple: “We share the same values.”
“The first value is that we make games inspired by nature.” The company’s games, largely for mobile devices, include Flutter: Starlight (the player collects flowers and raises moths), Bird BnB (the player runs a bed and breakfast for birds, obviously) and Furistas Cat Cafe (adopting cats, raising cats, matching cats with cat lovers). These are games that don’t slap nature on like a bumper sticker, they’re genuinely engaged with the natural world. “We’re obviously in line with Old Friends there: they’re a dog sanctuary,” says Hobson.
“Secondly, we believe that games should be engines of happiness.” Even though there’s a growing movement towards “wholesome” games – where the gameplay doesn’t revolve around resolving conflict, violently or otherwise – Runaway Play’s games are going against the grain rather than going with it, and there’s demand for that. “It’s very similar to how the sanctuary’s brand is around wanting to promote what wonderful friends dog can be, and especially senior dogs. So we share that core goal of bringing happiness into other people’s lives. I mean, their motto is ‘where love never grows old’.”
That’s perhaps where the values of the sanctuary intersect with Runaway Play’s at an odd, but not unhelpful, angle. “We want players to be able to play our games for ever. We don’t want people to just come and play for three days, spend some money, and go. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about developing a portfolio of games that people can play for years.”
Having brand values is one thing but living them in a workplace is another entirely, which Hobson understands. “Runaway’s values have to impact how we work day to day and impact what kind of games we make. It has to impact how those games are designed. If we don’t have really clear ways that that is happening across all those labels, then we have a problem.
“When we say that we make games inspired by nature, we don’t just say, ‘OK, great. So we’ll just make games about animals.’ We’ll hire a nature researcher and they’ll be responsible for ensuring we’re representing those animals accurately. If it’s butterflies and wind patterns, that’s there. If it’s dogs and we’re talking about how to train them, we’re doing the research and checking and making sure that the information we convey in our stories is accurate and positive and ethical.”
These values exist outside of the game as well. The team, now made up of more than 30 people, participate in climate strikes and do beach cleans together. “We don’t do that in order to wave a flag and tell people we’re doing it, we do it because we genuinely care about it. We donate to charities that support nature because we believe in them and individuals in the company do those donations themselves, and the company donates as well,” says Hobson.
“I think one of the biggest impacts we can have on those values is ensuring that when we hire new people, they’re in line with those values. What helps us live the values are the people at Runaway. We don’t hire for culture fit, we hire for value fit.
“I trust my systems designer to do the systems design, I trust our art director to do the art direction. For me, it’s about making sure the game represents the values, because if we do that right then we’ve got a game that is uniquely Runaway: a game no one else can make.”
The launch of Old Friends Dog Game: A Game About Friendship, which has been out for just over a week, boggles Hobson’s brain. It has a five-star rating in the US App Store with several thousand ratings, and if you need to quantify that, look at your Uber rating and how frustratingly close or far away it might be from that perfect 5.0 rating. That’s how much people like Old Friends.
“The biggest thing we see, though, is just so many people saying, ‘This game is a light in my day. This is my happy place. This is where I go now when I need to feel good.’ And that’s what we set out to do.”
Old Friends is available for free on iOS and Android.