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How Mark Barlet created a movement with AbleGamers

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How Mark Barlet created a movement with AbleGamers

Elevate your enterprise data technology and strategy at Transform 2021.


Mark Barlet has 25 years of hands-on experience in the tech and assistive technology field. An injured veteran who left the Air Force in 1996, he became trained in assistive technology and supported hundreds of people with disabilities.

In 2004, his best friend, Stephanie Walker, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a condition that nearly took away her ability to play video games. To help her and others with similar problems, Barlet started AbleGamers, a nonprofit that provides disabled gamers with assistive technologies in the belief that gaming fosters inclusive communities, combats social isolation, and improves the quality of life for people with disabilities.

And today, he is being named the 2021 recipient of the Vanguard Award by Games for Change. Games for Change is a nonprofit that runs a game conference and festival promoting the power of games for social impact. It takes place online July 12 to July 14 this year.

“We can’t think of a more deserving recipient of the Vanguard Award,” said Susanna Pollack, the president of Games for Change, in an email to GamesBeat. “Mark’s work with AbleGamers advocating for the needs of gamers with disabilities has reached so many people, and his efforts to inform the industry through corporate training have a tremendous impact on how we think about accessibility and how to make games playable for all.”

To date, AbleGamers has helped 3,568 people with disabilities through peer counseling and assistance with hardware and software challenges. It has engineered 49 custom equipment solutions for people with disabilities through the work of its in-house engineering research team. It has trained 114 developers to make accessible games and distributed over 2,000 decks of APX Cards. And it has connected 328 players with disabilities to the industry since 2018, empowering them to lend their voice to creating a more accessible gaming world.

Barlet devoted himself to the cause, traveling around the world giving speeches about accessibility, assistive technology, and video game-adjacent disability topics for organizations such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and other Fortune 500 companies to spread his message of bringing fun and returning joy to those in need.

In the summer of 2016, Barlet and his AbleGamers partner, Steven Spohn, were invited to the White House to discuss accessibility and technology. Barlet has grown his passion into a global movement, changing the way multibillion-dollar companies operate to stop ignoring accessibility. He also worked with Microsoft to create the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which can be modified to enable people with disabilities to play games more easily.

Now he is working on AbleGamers’ effort create an adaptive esports tournament. I spoke with him about the award and his efforts.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Mark Barlet founded AbleGamers in 2004.

Image Credit: AbleGamers

GamesBeat: What does it mean to you to get the award?

Mark Barlet: To me it just means recognition from an organization that I’ve always respected and always loved. I meant it when I said that Games for Change has always been a highlight on my social calendar. I love coming up to the city. I’ve met some amazing people and gotten to reconnect with them.

Origins

GamesBeat: Can you tell me how you got started with Able Gamers, or what came before it?

Barlet: I’m a person with disabilities. I’m a service-disabled veteran. But my disability doesn’t really affect the way I play video games. I use video games to stay connected with my best friend from the sixth grade. She was a military wife. She moved across the country, and we used games as a way of being involved with each other, having those shared spaces, doing cool stuff.

In 2004 we were supposed to be playing a game. I put my headset on and I was waiting for her to dial in. She didn’t dial in at the prescribed time. I picked up the phone, and my friend, Albert, answered. I could hear Stephanie crying in the background. A couple of years previous, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Multiple sclerosis had decided that her mousing hand wasn’t going to work that day. She was watching a disability take away her ability to play games, something she loved to do, something she used to connect with people.

I took that as a calling. I was a technologist. I was running a little website, a fansite for EverQuest II. I thought this was something interesting. I never thought about my own disability that way, but I have a disability. That was the birth of AbleGamers. It was because I wanted to play games with my friends. We created a website. We thought if we created this safe space for people with disabilities, we could come and solve our own problems. That was a dumb idea. That didn’t work.

What we learned quickly was that in order to make change, to move the needle on combating social isolation through play, we needed to go and talk to the developers. We needed to talk to people that made games. I can craft a solution for a person with a physical disability. I can create a custom controller. I can solder things together. I can manipulate that. But I can’t add closed captioning to a game — I have to work with the people that make the game for that. I can’t add sound cues so I can help my visually impaired friends. I can’t make sure that subtitles are in there for my deaf or hard of hearing friends. It became clear that we needed to go to the developers to solve these problems.

There’s two ways you can do that. One, you can get quick change, and the other way is you can make systemic change. We went with the longer road, the systemic change, not the quick change. I could have told a sad story. I could have done what I call the Sarah McLachlan sad puppies route. I could have raised a fortune, but I probably wouldn’t have changed anything. Instead, I really went on a crusade. We at AbleGamers went on a crusade of educated game-makers on the buying power and the market that is people with disabilities. Talking about the population. Talking about the userbase. Treating people with disabilities as a market that was worth catering to.

With the advent of the iPhone and iPad and the rise of the indie developer, there was so much competition for eyeballs. Going into the 2007 through 2014 range, there was so much competition that people were starting to hear what we were talking about in the way of marketing. They were using accessibility as a market differentiator.

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Above: AbleGamers has helped many disabled people learn how to play video games.

Image Credit: AbleGamers

GamesBeat: Was there something, right after starting in 2004, where that became your best path? Something that got traction? Did you get a lot of awareness in some way?

Barlet: No, not at all. It was me going to GDC 2009 and going to where the developers were and just pounding the pavement. We also did a lot of work in the community spaces for a while. Leading up to where we are today, I think several things had to go in place. The advent of that indie developer and the rise of the story we’ve been telling, and then, because we’d been around so long, a lot of our community work, a lot of that going to the PAX [events] and talking to gamers and educating gamers on the plight of people with disabilities — we discovered that those high school kids and college kids we talked to a decade ago are now wandering the hall of some of those big game companies. Now we had advocates.

The world aligned to where we had been doing this work on educating developers around the fact that people with disabilities — there are 46 million of us in the United States alone. We have buying power. Rise to that with the indie developer and the competition for eyeball space, it helped resonate that marketing of accessibility and accessibility features. Do you want to sell more games? Then you need to think about accessibility. We’d educated developers that there’s this market. With those internal advocates who we had interacted with a decade ago, who were now in positions to be the squeaky wheel inside the studio — us yelling outside the walls, them saying, “Hey, those guys outside the walls have a lot of important stuff to talk about.”

Last of all, the rise of social media and the fact that players with disabilities could give that voice themselves, could praise developers that were doing it right and chastise developers that were doing it wrong. Developers knew what they were talking about, because we’d been doing that work for so long, pounding that pavement. To me, right now, I’m so busy because — I’m meeting with players, but this week alone I’ve met with Oculus, with Amazon Gaming, with Activision Blizzard. Now they’re coming to us and asking us for more work and more help and more guidance.

What I’ve said to my team, and what we’ve been doing in the organization — this has been a sea change for us. How I describe it is, we’ve had to evolve from an advocacy organization, which is what we were for so long, to an action organization. I no longer have to advocate on behalf of players with disabilities, because players with disabilities are advocating for themselves. Because we’ve done that work and laid that foundation, going all the way back to 2007 when we were talking to developers and trying to seed this idea, all the world has aligned and now I’m busier than ever creating rich, accessible experiences that are allowing a totally blind person to have an amazing experience in Last of Us II, a multimillion-dollar game that took accessibility so seriously. A person who identifies as being blind knew what was going on. My God. And we did that. The work of AbleGamers led to that experience taking place.

Overcoming objections

GamesBeat: What kinds of changes had to happen to get to that? I also wonder, early on, did you hear any particular objections? “We can’t do this”?

Barlet: Absolutely. That’s all we heard. “That sounds expensive.” “Why would we do that?” But look at the world we have now. Microsoft has a first-party accessibility controller that we helped them build. We built the precursor to it. Here it is. We hand-built it for the Xbox 360. We worked with Microsoft on the adaptive controller, a first-party controller for people with disabilities. That’s where we’ve gone.

So yeah, at the very beginning, it was, “That’s too expensive.” “How many players really need it?” Or in the very early days, which is why I told you that one of the successes in getting where we are was the rise of the indie developer — in the before times, because we were around before that, game companies had captive audiences. They didn’t care because they could put out a game and make a trillion dollars. Why spend $5 million more to make a trillion and one when I already made a trillion? I’m OK as I am. I think the stars aligned to where these things happened.

I will say, had we not been doing that work, had we not already been there, I don’t think we would be — I try to be very self-deprecating all the time, and I get told to stop it sometimes. But we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for all the work AbleGamers did when these things started happening. Had the indie developer come to be before we fully understood what needed to change, I don’t think that the indie developers would have used accessibility as a market differentiator. Had social media come about before we were already fighting the good fight, I don’t think those voices of players with disabilities would have had the amplification properties that they do now. Had we not been out there for the last 15 years in the spaces where gamers congregate, we would not have had the advocates inside the walls fighting the fight from inside.

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Above: Mark Barlet (center) has received the Vanguard Award from Games for Change.

Image Credit: AbleGamers

It’s funny. In the process of going through this advocacy to action evolution, I had a real mental health crisis a couple of years ago. Very rarely do you start — I started a charity to make sure that people could play video games. And guess what? People can play video games. Very rarely does a charity get to say, “I did the thing. I set out to cure cancer and I cured cancer.” And so when I talk about advocacy to action, it doesn’t change the fact that there are players with disabilities that need our help getting in the game. That’s a specialized solution, which is why I have a peer counseling team and an engineering research team. New games are being made, and we still need to educate developers. We don’t have to convince them anymore, but we need to educate them on what they need to do, which is why I have a user research team and a professional development team. We still have amazing communities that we want to be accessible as we bring people in, which is why I have a community and inclusion team.

But I had this real mental health crisis because I thought, “My God, we did it.” If you think about it, you don’t have my shoes, but it was one of those things like trying to contemplate infinity. If you’ve ever tried to do it, if you don’t feel like you’re falling for a second — if you can truly get into that space, that meditative space, and you don’t feel like you’re falling for a second, then you probably aren’t contemplating infinity. I kind of had that — it took a decade of tireless, thankless work.

Growing awareness

Mike Luckett plays with the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Above: Mike Luckett plays with the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: You had a Super Bowl ad. What are you going to do next?

Barlet: That’s it. What do you do next? You’re staring at a tree. You don’t realize you’re in a forest, because all you look at is this tree. For a brief moment you’re able to zoom out and see the big picture of what you were able to accomplish, and it’s overwhelming. I have a wonderful team. But it took me about six weeks of kind of being — I wouldn’t say I was a basket case. But having to recognize that you’ve done it and process it. It just took time to process it. You know what, you did that.

For me, being a person who founded the organization and did the first thing I set out to do, with my amazing leadership team and my amazing board, really going and saying, “What are we going to do next? How are we going to keep this going?” Our mission didn’t go away. It evolved into action. And what are we not going to do anymore?

We had a big retreat. My leadership team came in a couple of years ago and we said, “This is where we are. This is what we’re doing. What do we stop doing? What do we give to Twitter? What do we give to those other players with disabilities? We don’t need to be an advocate anymore. There’s an army of advocates. What are we giving up, and what’s next for us?”

We went on a one-year journey where we built our strategic plan. That’s when we released our new mission statement. Our mission is to enable play in order to combat social isolation. Fostering inclusive communities to improve the lives of people with disabilities. We came up with that mission statement as a group, and we came up with that mission statement as a team. We all looked at it and said, “That’s us. So how do we bring that mission statement to life?” We came up with our pillars, our peer counseling, our engineering research, our user research, our professional development, and in the middle our community and inclusion pillar.

My peer counselors and my engineering researchers are on the front lines helping people with disabilities every day. My user research team and my professional team are advocating and working with developers so that they can create those rich, accessible experiences through our training programs, through our services work. Our community manager is in the middle, because all of those sides roll into community. They’re working every day to make sure that Twitch is accessible, that players with disabilities have spaces on Twitch to share their unique stories and amplify. We sponsor other players with disabilities. We amplify them so that they can be the advocates for us. We came up with that, and once we understood what our future looked like, it’s been full steam ahead.

GamesBeat: Where are you based?

Barlet: I’m in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. We’re in Jefferson County. All this change comes from this little state that very rarely gets mentioned.

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Above: AbleGamers is based in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Image Credit: AbleGamers

GamesBeat: Who did you think of as the friends along the way that made this possible? Either inside organizations or among the companies you were dealing with. I’d like to drill down a little bit on Microsoft, but I wanted to ask more broadly first, who did you think of as the friends of the organization that made this possible?

Barlet: I will say, and I’m not just saying this because of who it is, but there are a lot of great organizations that gave us voice. Because of our unique situation, we were able to backdoor opportunities at GDC. I’ve had a long relationship, and I’ve been given an avenue, at Games for Change. I consider Games for Change one of those organizations that didn’t need to help us. I don’t necessarily think we were bringing value to their conference year over year. But they always lent us that platform and gave us the opportunity. I’m blessed to be a good speaker. Google gave us a voice and let me do a Google town hall where I was able to talk about AbleGamers. I’ve had some great friends at Google. PlayStation has always worked to help us from time to time. PlayStation does it really low key. Two years ago they gave us a six-figure donation and didn’t even put out a press release.

When we were very small, Microsoft gave us $10,000, back when $10,000 was more money than we’d ever seen. I went to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to talk about Microsoft Kinect. Very early on, Microsoft gave voice to that. They helped us with this controller here.

GamesBeat: What was that one called?

Barlet: It was the Adroit Switchblade. So Microsoft has always been a friend. They’ve always helped us.

Where I think that we’ve had real success, and where I feel privileged frankly, is that my mission is to combat social isolation. That seemed interesting until COVID. And because of COVID, because of the pandemic, there has been a large understanding by a vast swath of people on what social isolation really means. And when I say to someone — I mean this. This isn’t just a line. For so many profoundly disabled people, the pandemic has looked just like 2017, 2016, 2018. Nothing’s changed.

That resonates with people. We have a mental health crisis right now in this country because of the pandemic.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller

GamesBeat: If you look at the Xbox Adaptive Controller, that feels like one of the biggest mainstream breakthroughs for both attention on the subject and also getting a product out there. What are some of your observations about how that happened? What kind of change had to happen that you saw within Microsoft in order to bring that about?

Barlet: The changes that had to happen, I squarely put on — as I told you, it’s some of these key events, these key things that happened that led us here. The drive for that, what moved that needle, is those internal advocates. There is a good group, Brannon Zahand from Microsoft, Bryce Johnson, a group of people that, even when their job wasn’t accessibility, they wouldn’t stop talking about it and the importance of it. I know they used our work and the advocacy we were doing to say, “Look over there. We need to do something about this.”

Microsoft being Microsoft, they have the money to do these things. But knowing the players and knowing the work that I did with Microsoft to get to the XAC, the truth is, that was the advocacy. That was those people that we met along the way that found themselves in a position to do something about it.

GamesBeat: It seems like there was a way of thinking that had to change. Consoles had always been proprietary. A game company like Microsoft had to come around to the idea that this controller could be open to other solutions that other people made. It didn’t have to make this a closed system in the way that all consoles are.

Barlet: That’s always been a challenge, always been an obstacle. What’s funny is that the base of this product here is a controller that we hacked apart because we needed the chip in it to bridge that proprietary gap. The reality is, we’ve always tried to say, “If you’re a player with disabilities, please game on PC, because that’s a more open platform.” But we would find ways to get around those hurdles.

A funny story, I was on Microsoft’s campus with our partners that helped us create these controllers, Evil Controllers out of Arizona. Microsoft had invited us to talk about some stuff. Evil Controllers and I were at this meeting. One of the Microsoft lawyers said, “You know we can sue you for making that, right? You broke an end user license agreement when you made it.” I looked him dead in the eye and said, “You’re welcome to sue me, but you’re suing a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities, so I’ll still probably win.” He chuckled, because his demeanor wasn’t, “I’m gonna sue you.” It was, “You know we can sue you?” He said, “You’re right. In the court of public opinion we would be raked over the coals.” I said, “Yep, you would.”

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Above: It takes a lot of work to help people with disabilities play games.

Image Credit: AbleGamers

He asked us how many of those we made each year. I said, “12 or 14.” He said, “OK, no problem.” But there’s always been this — sometimes being a charity can be a superpower. I could look at a Microsoft lawyer and say, “Your move, Batman.”

GamesBeat: How do you align interests so that what you want becomes what they want or what other people in the industry want?

Barlet: My biggest conversation, going back to that advocacy and looking at people with disabilities in the market — when I would talk to developers, one of the first questions I would ask is, “Who makes games? Who wants to get paid making games? Who wants to make more money making games? Great, listen to my talk.” I told an economic story. It was always an economic story. I don’t know, because I don’t get into the console wars — I can’t not imagine that there wasn’t conversation — I’m not privy to this, but I know, if I know how these things work, someone said, “PlayStation isn’t doing this, so why don’t we do it, so we can be the first to bring a first-party controller to market?”

This isn’t the first of the first-party controllers. Nintendo made one back in the ’90s. But looking at the world we live in now, I’ll consider this one of the first first-party controllers specifically geared toward people with disabilities. I can’t imagine there wasn’t a conversation around, “Let’s beat PlayStation to this.” Or something like that.

Funded by gamers

GamesBeat: You’ve gotten to this point. What else have you set up as the goals to achieve to get further with this cause?

Barlet: Now we want to build capacity so we can help more players with disabilities get into the game. Being disabled is expensive. There’s not a lot of information out there. My next big move for the organization is that we’re growing. We’re eight full-time staff members and three part-time staff members. We’re growing as an organization so we can build more capacity to help more people so we can help more industry. The industry is now clamoring for help. As one of the by-products of helping more industry, we’re getting people with disabilities jobs in the gaming space. We’re creating a new role in the gaming space for people with disabilities in accessibility, helping align those things.

As I say, we’ve evolved. We have a complete vision of what AbleGamers will look like. It’s just a matter of that change management, growing in a strategic way that brings those impacts in a way where we can sustain it. Our biggest expense is payroll. When we bring a person on, we’re bringing professionals. Our next big hire is an occupational therapist with a Ph.D. Those don’t come cheap. Making sure we do that growth in a way that we can sustain with our donor base. My biggest heartbreak would be that we ramp up and we can’t raise the money to pay people and we have to start laying them off.

GamesBeat: Are streamers one of the best conduits for raising money?

Barlet: The streaming population is probably — up until the last 24 months, I’d say, this organization has been funded by gamers. By streamers, by people that watch streamers. Small-dollar donations made this organization what it is. I just added a $1 million thing, because we got Microsoft’s stuff. But I think until then — our average donation up until the Microsoft donation was $71. We’ve had big streamers and small streamers. This last week alone, streamers raised $27,000 for AbleGamers. This organization is funded primarily by gamers.

GamesBeat: Looking back on it, and seeing other people trying to do similar things, do you have any advice for them?

Barlet: I said this in the keynote that I did at Games for Change last year. Changing the world is hard. Grow a thick skin. But the most important lesson I’ve learned is not to wait for permission. Nobody will give you permission to change the world. If the world needs changing, that means you’re going to make enemies. It’s the way it is for a reason. Just keep going.

GamesBeat

GamesBeat’s creed when covering the game industry is “where passion meets business.” What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you — not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it.

How will you do that? Membership includes access to:

  • Newsletters, such as DeanBeat
  • The wonderful, educational, and fun speakers at our events
  • Networking opportunities
  • Special members-only interviews, chats, and “open office” events with GamesBeat staff
  • Chatting with community members, GamesBeat staff, and other guests in our Discord
  • And maybe even a fun prize or two
  • Introductions to like-minded parties

Become a member

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Sea of Thieves: A Pirate’s Life — 5 details you’ll want to know

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Sea of Thieves: A Pirate's Life -- 5 details you'll want to know

Elevate your enterprise data technology and strategy at Transform 2021.


Rare revealed A Pirate’s Life during E3 last week. This new adventure for Sea of Thieves will give players a chance to adventure with Pirates of Caribbean star Captain Jack Sparrow, and it’s coming to the Xbox and PC game as a free expansion on June 22.

Still, there is a lot about the experience that we don’t know. I was part of a recent virtual preview for A Pirate’s Life, and it gave me an opportunity to learn a lot more about Rare’s Disney crossover.

And so, much unlike a pirate, I’ve decided to share this treasure of knowledge with you all. I’ve picked out five of the most interesting nuggets that I learned from Rare.

You can play it by yourself

Are you a Pirates of the Caribbean fan who is worried about finding a crew of other players before starting A Pirate’s Life? Don’t be! Rare has created the story so that it can be enjoyed by one, two, three, or four players. The difficulty and gameplay will scale based on the size of your party.

Playing by yourself may still sound like a lonely experience for a game that prides itself on co-op multiplayer, but you will have Jack Sparrow along to help you. He’ll assist you during fights by manning the cannons, and if you’re exploring the open seas you can find him looking at your map and commenting on the names of the game’s many islands.

Above: Jack Sparrow isn’t the only familiar character you’ll encounter.

Image Credit: Rare

You can start the story with a new character

Maybe you want to try A Pirate’s Life, but you aren’t a Sea of Thieves player. You’ll be fine. Even new characters can start the campaign.

Granted, you do have to at least complete the game’s opening tutorial, so A Pirate’s Life can’t be the literal first thing that you do. Still, that shouldn’t take you too long.

You can’t play as Jack Sparrow

Sorry, you won’t be able to play as the captain himself. However, you will be able to buy Pirates of the Caribbean-themed cosmetics for your character, including Jack Sparrow’s famous pirate outfit.

Sea of Thieves is still a game about being your own pirate. It’s also still, well, Sea of Thieves. A Pirate’s Life doesn’t turn the experience into a full-on Pirates of the Caribbean game. Rather, it brings the Disney characters into Sea of Thieves’ world.

SoT Cine Shot Trident

Above: Jack acts as something of an AI crewmate during parts of the adventure.

Image Credit: Rare

No, that isn’t Johnny Depp

Jack Sparrow’s voice sounds convincing in the game, but it isn’t Johnny Depp you’re hearing. Rare hired Jared Butler for the role. The voice actor has voiced Jack before, including for 2019’s Kingdom Hearts III.

He also did the voice of the Mad Hatter in 2010’s Alice in Wonderland game (yes, they made a game based off of that movie), so he is an experienced Johnny Depp voice double.

It takes inspiration from the ride as well as the moves

I do like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (some of them more than others), but my heart truly belongs to the original ride. So I was happy to hear that Rare is taking just as much inspiration from the Disneyland masterpiece.

You may have already noticed a tribute to the ride’s famous dog-and-key scene in the reveal trailer, but the game also has homages to other moments from the ride, including the mayor interrogation scene and the pirate ship attack. You’ll also hear a version of the eerie narration from before the ride’s second drop.

Oh, and you can also learn how to play the famous Pirates of the Caribbean song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).” That is reason enough for me  to play Sea of Thieves’ new adventure.

GamesBeat

GamesBeat’s creed when covering the game industry is “where passion meets business.” What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you — not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it.

How will you do that? Membership includes access to:

  • Newsletters, such as DeanBeat
  • The wonderful, educational, and fun speakers at our events
  • Networking opportunities
  • Special members-only interviews, chats, and “open office” events with GamesBeat staff
  • Chatting with community members, GamesBeat staff, and other guests in our Discord
  • And maybe even a fun prize or two
  • Introductions to like-minded parties

Become a member

Continue Reading

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Candy Shop Slaughter is a video game concept creatd by AI

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Candy Shop Slaughter is a video game concept creatd by AI

Elevate your enterprise data technology and strategy at Transform 2021.


It is possible for artificial intelligence to create a video game. Contrary to popular opinion and hopes for humanity, an AI came up with the basic design for a video game called Candy Shop Slaughter.

The game has all of the elements needed for success in the competitive mobile game industry. OnlineRoulette.com commissioned the project, which was created by Fractl, a South Florida growth marketing agency.

Games are thriving despite the pandemic and video game jobs are growing in spite of the competition from automation. Video games are a creative art, and it’s hard to believe that a machine can come up with the kind of creativity needed to make such a work. But we shouldn’t be too complacent about human ingenuity against the continuous improvement of AI.

That was part of the point of the project, said Kristin Tynski, cofounder of Fractl, in an interview with GamesBeat. The art for the game was created by Fractl’s artists. GPT-3 generated the text. With other AI projects, like JetPlay’s Ludo, AI is used to generate everything from the game art to the game characters and gameplay. It’s no longer the case that only humans can create games.

Joe Mercurio, creative strategy lead at Fractl, said in an interview with GamesBeat that he developed the idea and development of the project, and Tynski worked on the AI outputs. Their company is an agency that works on growth campaigns for companies.

“A year or two ago, we received access to Open AI technology, GPT-2, and then we got access to GPT-3,” said Mercurio. “We started fooling around with that. Kristin actually developed a full website that had a bunch of blog content that was completely AI-generated. We were just inspired to set up a bunch of different ideas. And for Online Roulette, we decided to explore a video game.”

Fractl’s creative team has always been interested in generative AI, and it saw GPT-2 and GPT-3 as a big advancement, Tynski said.

The agency created the game to see if people were interested in characters and gameplay created by the OpenAI program known as GPT-3, a text generator. Fractl used GPT-3 to create a hero character, bosses to battle, and friends to meet along the way in both story and arcade modes in Candy Shop Slaughter.

With the characters and gameplay created by GPT-3, OnlineRoulette then surveyed 1,000 gamers to find out if they would be willing to play it, how original they found the various aspects of the game, and whether they’d be willing to pay for it.

AI-developed story and arcade modes

Above: Candy Shop Slaughter characters were generated by AI.

Image Credit: Fractl

Using the OpenAI text generator GTP-3, Fractl created a story, arcade, and multiplayer mode for the fictional video game.

In the synopsis, the AI created the main character Freddy Skittle and his best friend Ted. In story mode, the game utilizes a karma system where players can accumulate experience points for all of the good actions they make along the way and lose experience points when they make poor choices. The more they progress, players can unlock additional characters with different strengths that appear in the game’s universe who can aid in the boss battles players will encounter.

In arcade mode, Candy Shop Slaughter turns into a classic 3D fighting game, where blood and guts are transformed into candy and treats and players can experience plenty of food puns and jokes along the way. Players start by creating characters from a template and have the opportunity to unlock new costumes and weapons as they play.

AI-created video game  characters

Fractl's team

Above: Fractl’s team

Image Credit: Fractl

The AI also imagined 12 unique characters, bosses, and companions players could encounter in Candy Shop Slaughter.

The main protagonist Freddy Skittle throws knives and uses a retractable pocketknife in close combat. Bosses to fight in various levels include Pie Cake, who throws spiked pie slices in battle; Honey Bun, who evolves into a massive honey monster; and M&M’s Candy, the final boss who utilizes sweet soda bottles and candy worms in battle.

“GPT-3’s capabilities are pretty astounding. And it demonstrates a pretty fundamental shift and in what generative AI is capable of,” Tynski said. “We’ve had a ton of fun doing this project and testing out the creative abilities of GPT-3 within the context of a specific idea.”

Will game developers lose their jobs to AI? Probably not real soon.

“AI is going to take a lot of jobs. And I think it’s going to transform all the other jobs,” said Tynski. “I think you’re always going to have to have a human that’s part of the creative process because I think other humans care who created it. What’s super cool about these technologies is they’ve democratized creativity in an amazing way. I think as a creator you can find something mutually beneficial in this technology.”

She added, “There are and will be a lot more companies that are basically packaging GPT-3 outputs of specific game styles or types, or use cases, and then they use and using that to create some sort of service.”

Gamer impressions

candy shop pie charts

Above: Gamer reactions to Candy Shop Slaughter.

Image Credit: Fractl

Seventy-seven percent of gamers indicated they would play Candy Shop Slaughter, and 65% of gamers would be willing to pay for the game.

When asked about its uniqueness, just 10% of gamers found it unoriginal or very unoriginal, while 54% said Candy Shop Slaughter was original, and 20% of gamers deemed it very original.

The most impressive part of Candy Shop Slaughter was the characters, which 67% of gamers ranked as high quality. Following the characters, more than half of gamers considered the overall game (58%), the storyline (55%), and the game title (53%) to be high quality.

Fifty-seven percent of gamers indicated Candy Shop Slaughter sounded more like a mobile game, while 43% believed it would be a console game. With the descriptions of gameplay in mind, 73% also said the story mode of the game sounded more appealing, compared to just 28% who felt more intrigued by the arcade mode.

With the descriptions and details of 12 different characters, 48% of gamers felt Freddy Skittle (the main character) sounded the most fun to play, followed by Cookie Sandwich (33%), Pie Cake (30%), and Honey Bun (30%).

Respondents were not informed that the video game, storylines, and characters were AI-generated.

“It wasn’t like we cherry-picked the results here,” Tynski said. “There were lots of other ones that we generally ended up generating later that were similarly good. It pulls from well-known tropes. It is pretty difficult for humans to differentiate the text that was generated by AI.”

OnlineRoulette.com got responses from 1,000 players. The survey was designed with the intent of having them rate the storylines and characters presented to them.

“As an agency, we see AI becoming a much more integrated piece of content generation and part of the creative process,” Tynski said. “I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface. And this is also at the same time is advancing very, very rapidly. So we just want to continue to explore what’s possible and, and help our clients to create cool things by integrating these new technologies.”

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How Azur Games grew its hypercasual games to 1.5B downloads

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How Azur Games grew its hypercasual games to 1.5B downloads

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Azur Games is one of those companies that has quietly become one of the top ten game publishers in the world with more than 1.5 billion downloads. It did so by pivoting into the emerging hypercasual games on mobile devices.

Now the company has more than 300 employees in Cyprus and Eastern Europe, said Dmitry Yaminsky, CEO of Azur Games, in an interview with GamesBeat. And in the first quarter, Azur’s Stack Ball and Hit Master 3D games were among the top-20 most downloaded games worldwide, according to measurement firm Sensor Tower.

During this successful run, Yaminsky found that while many hypercasual games remain big hits for about a month, they quickly fall off after that. But the downloads don’t go to zero. Rather, they fall to maybe 10% or 20% of the early numbers. And then they stay at that level of perhaps 100,000 downloads a month for a long time, giving the games a longer life and a more predictable revenue stream. And with so many games in the library and upcoming pipeline, Azur Games has a pretty good business that can sustain the employee base, Yaminsky said. Stack Ball is the biggest hit, with more than 300 million downloads, while WormsZome.io has more than 200 million downloads.

But the competition isn’t easy. There are rivals like Voodoo Games, SayGames, Rollic, and others.

Origins

Above: Modern Strike was the first hit by Azur Games.

Image Credit: Azur Games

Yaminsky previously worked in the advertising industry, but decided to move into games after a downturn struck in 2014 and 2015.

Yaminsky formally started the game publisher in 2016 in Moscow to publish midcore games, or those with hardcore themes but can be played in short cycles on mobile devices. The company found a studio that was working on a title called Modern Strike Online, a mobile take on Counter-Strike. And they helped them with the launch with marketing at first.

That game became a huge hit with more than 70 million downloads, and Azur Games acquired half of the development studio.

“It was very successful. And with the launch of the game, I decided to work on other games. And so after the company started as a mobile publisher, and then we started our own development,” he said.

In 2017, hypercasual games — which take perhaps a minute to play — started taking off, thanks to new game companies like Voodoo Games. He moved the headquarters to Cyprus.

“We didn’t really know how to approach user acquisition for the new market at the time, so we decided to fund and conduct an experiment — two people from the team made a hypercasual game that became a hit,” Yaminsky said. “It turned out that two or three people can create a project with better metrics than a team of 60 in the midcore segment. That was our pivot.”

In the first experiment, one person worked on programming and another on art. It took about a month to finish the game. On its first day, the game generated $1,000 in advertising revenue. On the second day, it was $2,000.

“Then we started acquiring users,” he said. “Back then it was just so easy. There were so few competitors. A lot of people said it was impossible. I said it was my money. Let me waste it. In fact, the first game I launched was a real success.”

Growing the business

Azur Games' employees in Cyprus.

Above: Some of Azur Games’ employees in Cyprus.

Image Credit: Azur Games

Some companies started churning out games like factories. It was relatively easy to grow in hypercasual at that time since the market was small and the developers were very enthusiastic about presenting their games.

That’s when we knew we needed to stand out from the other publishers and tried to see the teams for their potential, refine the prototypes, and accumulate expertise within the company,” Yaminsky said. “This was a breath of fresh air for the industry, since most publishers at that time just looked at the first metrics — if they were good, then they took the project, if not, they sent it back to the developer.”

Azur Games started to build an ecosystem that would be comfortable for the developers and grow projects within it. It shared its experience and actively helped budding studios and solo developers to enter the market. As a result, the marketing budgets grew, the studios learned to trust Azur Games, and the company began attracting a lot of new developers.

While the headquarters is in Cyprus, the team is spread out, with back offices in Dubai and Moscow. Most of the people work remotely, which helps the company grow quickly. About 50 people work in marketing and analytics, while a team of 30 motion designers work on creative ads that help the games spread. About 200 people work on midcore projects, which can have higher margins.

azur 3

Above: Azur Games has lots of hypercasual titles.

Image Credit: Azur Games

“We’re trying to pave our own way,” Yaminsky said. “Many companies on the market are still waiting for finished projects with good metrics. But we at Azur Games believe in teams and improve the projects ourselves.”

While hypercasual games still provides most of the downloads, Azur Games has diversified into the casual game and midcore game segments. Those games will start coming out in the coming months and years.

The hypercasual department consists of several mini-teams, which include a producer, two or three product assistants, and two or three game designers. Each mini-team works with a limited number of studios.

“We prototype about 200 games a month, and after we test them, we launch about one or two games per month,” Yaminsky said. “In other words, to get a lot of downloads, you need to do a lot of work, which isn’t always visible from the outside.”

Staying ahead of competitors

Worm

Above: WormZome.io is one of Azur’s games.

Image Credit: Azur Games

Now that hypercasual is a big market, companies like Zynga have acquired hypercasual firms like Rollic, and the market is crowded.

“You can win as a company only if you share your expertise with developers more than the others, run tests faster, use your own analytics, and invest your skills and experience in development,” Yaminsky said. “We put the emphasis on communication and providing the necessary resources: for example, if the team doesn’t have motion designers, game designers or artists, we involve them as needed.”

In other words, the current strategy is to offer favorable conditions and development infrastructure within its ecosystem. This means that the company is willing to share anything that could help the developers make the right decision, trend-tracking data being one example. At the same time, the company never reworks the games for the studios and it only suggests the direction.

That means the company has to find the right teams to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships. It has invested more than $10 million in developers to date. Many of the developers are in Eastern Europe, where companies have learned to move quickly and efficiently without running up high costs, Yaminsky said. There are also a lot of educated programmers in the region.

“First and foremost, we always assess the potential. If it’s there, we’re ready to invest our own efforts and substantial amounts of money,” Yaminsky said. “For instance, if there’s a studio with annual revenue of up to $5 million, we’re ready to invest up to $10 million for a 20% to 30% stake, even more in some cases. Meanwhile, the studio stays in control of the project, and we only help to grow it in all directions, including marketing.”

azur 5

Above: Azur Games prototypes 200 games a month.

Image Credit: Azur Games

By 2019, the market got a lot more competitive, and now it is even more heated. In the month of May, the company spent more than $15 million in marketing. The company also tries to offer the developers more favorable terms than others do, like paying well for each prototype. This allows them to cover development costs, so they can feel comfortable and try more things than they would in a different setting, Yaminsky said.

“When it comes to the product strategy, we aim at increasing lifetime value of users and paying more attention to in-app monetization,” he said. “This means we’re planning to do deeper projects, but we always take the studio resources into account — if the developer doesn’t have a lot of experience, they work on simple mechanics.”

A hit game can get 300,000 to 500,000 downloads a day, but Yaminsky believes that the long-term matters a lot. In the long tail for a hit, a game can generate $100,000 to $400,000 a month. With 10 to 30 such hits, the long tail generates a consistent revenue that is in the millions of dollars a month.

Now the company is looking for more game studios to invest in to keep generating more hits.

“The number of competitors keeps growing, and we have to stay competitive,” Yaminsky said.

GamesBeat

GamesBeat’s creed when covering the game industry is “where passion meets business.” What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you — not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it.

How will you do that? Membership includes access to:

  • Newsletters, such as DeanBeat
  • The wonderful, educational, and fun speakers at our events
  • Networking opportunities
  • Special members-only interviews, chats, and “open office” events with GamesBeat staff
  • Chatting with community members, GamesBeat staff, and other guests in our Discord
  • And maybe even a fun prize or two
  • Introductions to like-minded parties

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