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Diversity, interactivity, accessibility: How three studios approach impactful game design
FERGUS BAIRD / UNITY TECHNOLOGIESSenior Content Marketing Manager
Aug 4, 2022|12:0 Min
Diversity, interactivity, accessibility: How three studios approach impactful game design

Soft Not Weak, Kitfox Games, and Tribe Games share how they create meaningful experiences that resonate with players.

People want to see themselves reflected in the games they play. But how do you design games that truly make an impact? A panel on impactful game design at GDC explored this issue. Hosted by Josh Boykin from Intelligame with Unity’s Kal O’Brien, this talk invited insights from Tanya X. Short of Kitfox Games, Réjon Taylor Foster and Alex Abou Karam of Soft Not Weak, and Charles McGregor from Tribe Games.

During the stream, these Unity creators discussed games that made them feel seen, shared what meaningful gameplay and storytelling looks like to them, and provided inspiration for future indie innovators.

Inviting players into your world

Soft Not Weak’s Spirit Swap: Lofi Beats to Match-3 To is an upcoming match-3 puzzler inspired by retro games like Tetris Attack and Panel de Pon. The game’s being hailed for its inclusive character designs, queer aesthetic, and unbridled positivity. It’s the result of Soft Not Weak setting out to create a game that truly represents who they are as individuals and as a studio.

“Since this was our debut game, I really wanted to do something that I had never seen,” says cofounder and creative director Alex Abou Karam. Spirit Swap’s setting is partially inspired by Lebanon’s architecture and climate, but Abou Karam wanted the game to represent the studio as a whole.

“I’m from Lebanon, and I really wanted to put that into the game in the most unassuming way,” they continue. “But because the game is a collaborative effort, it wouldn’t make sense to just make it my vision.”

To ensure everyone’s perspective shines through in the final game, Abou Karam asked each team member to design a character. Spirit Swap’s diverse cast of queer witches celebrates a range of body types and backgrounds, and quickly gained a loyal fan base – the game surpassed its initial Kickstarter goal in just 35 hours. “Spirit Swap is very indicative of what everyone on our team looks and feels like, wrapped up in one beautiful and very happy package,” says Abou Karam.

Spirit Swap stands out against other queer narratives because it’s focused purely on the positive. “Video games are such a nice escapist medium. A lot of people assume they need to be impactful in this deep, visceral way,” continues Abou Karam. “That’s true, but I also think escapism can be deep and visceral when you see yourself reflected.”

As a lo-fi, match-3 game, Spirit Swap appeals to nostalgia – another major draw for players. By incorporating the unique experiences of the team, Soft Not Weak creates a rich, memorable gameworld that already feels authentic in its representation. “We wanted to make a game that feels like home,” says Réjon Taylor-Foster, co-owner and lead UI/UX at Soft Not Weak. “What’s more nostalgic than the people that you grew up with, the people that you love? That’s the most important part for us.”

Josh Boykin comments that Spirit Swap: Lofi Beats to Match-3 To succeeds in creating its nostalgic vibe because it doesn’t try to cater to a mass audience. “You told a specific story, you tied into a specific feeling – that’s what made it resonate,” he says. “That pastiche of experiences that you’re all able to bring as team members to the game, that blended flavor, comes out really strongly.”

Updating the dating sim for today

Kitfox Games’ Boyfriend Dungeon gained recognition – including a Games for Impact nomination at the 2021 Game Awards – for its novel blend of dungeon crawling and dating sim mechanics. Players befriend and form relationships with weapons that assume a variety of attractive human forms; as the protagonist grows closer with each weapon, their power increases.

Like Spirit Swap, Boyfriend Dungeon is inspired by retro games – game designer and writer Tanya X. Short cites Konami’s Azure Dreams as a major influence – but it features unique approaches to gameplay and storytelling designed to be more engaging for and inclusive of today’s players.

“I was always interested in dating sims, but I had trouble getting into them when they were just visual novels,” says Short. “I loved Azure Dreams on PS1 because I could do a little bit of dating and a little bit of something else – fighting monsters, crafting, or something like that.”

As enjoyable as her time with Azure Dreams was, Short still felt like there was something missing from the experience. “Even though I had a silent protagonist who didn’t talk, I was still being alienated as myself because I was only allowed to date a certain kind of person,” she explains. With Boyfriend Dungeon, she and the team at Kitfox Games set out to create an experience where players can date any character – and however many of them – they choose.

Like Soft Not Weak, Kitfox Games is a diverse studio, and they wanted their game to reflect that. Each team member gave input on things like character design and storytelling, and the studio hired diversity consultants for groups that weren’t represented. “We started asking, ‘How can we make people feel more welcome, more included?’ and not make something that tells someone it’s not for them, that it’s for somebody else,” says Short.

The result is a thematically complex game that engages many different relationship topics, from consent to polyamory. The audience response has been positive overall, although some genre purists have claimed that the game “isn’t a true dating sim” because the end goal isn’t finding one singular person to fall in love with.

“We’ve seen two kinds of positive responses,” says Short. “One is people saying that they’re able to be themselves in a dating sim, which they’ve never been able to do before. They can be romantic but asexual, they can be polyamorous, or whatever it is that games traditionally lock away.”

The game has also provided some players with a space for self-reflection and experimentation. “The other response we’ve gotten that’s been really positive is that they’ve been able to explore more types of love than they normally would,” continues Short. “Even if they’re straight, they’re able to try out something different. That’s been really rewarding for some folks, and I’m glad that we can enable that.”

Making an impact with accessibility

HyperDot made waves when it was released in 2020. This “dodge everything” game is frequently touted as one of the most accessible ever made, and it received a perfect 10 for mobility accessibility from Can I Play That? However, contrary to popular belief, HyperDot wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind from the beginning.

“When I was making HyperDot, I had two design principles: minimalism and flexibility,” says Tribe Games’ Charles McGregor. “I wanted players to only have to deal with one thing, movement, and nothing else. No additional buttons.”

McGregor wanted to design something simple enough that players could know exactly what was going on from a single screenshot, and which could be played with any type of controller. HyperDot’s accessibility was built in from the beginning, but it wasn’t until McGregor watched a player with reduced vision try to engage with it that he decided to go all-in. “Seeing them physically struggle to play it at all, it was just crushing to me,” he says. “HyperDot is a hard game, but I didn’t want there to be a barrier stopping anyone from being able to play it.”

To make the game more accessible for players with reduced vision, McGregor added a high-contrast mode and heavily emphasized the indicators surrounding the levels to make them more apparent and bold.

Ordering the levels turned out to be another big opportunity. When McGregor started doing accessibility research with a community of disabled streamers, one low-vision player commented that they couldn’t progress past a certain point. One of the game modes plunges the game into darkness, with the dot the player controls serving as the only light. This section, which happened at a fixed point in the game’s progression, was simply impossible for legally blind players to get past.

To address this, McGregor made progression less rigid, allowing players to engage with different game modes in whatever order they wish. “This change ended up giving everyone more flexibility in how they played the game.”

By engaging with and consulting different communities, McGregor was able to make HyperDot an exemplar of accessible game design and reach more players as a result. “It’s definitely gratifying to see people being able to play who typically can’t play this style of game,” he says. “Go and talk to the people who really care about these things. Reach out to your community, find out best practices, learn what people don’t like, and ask for other perspectives.”

Get more insights from the stream

Watch the full Creator Spotlight below for more insights on how to maximize impact through thoughtful game design. You’ll learn what game design can learn from reality TV, why your game should pass “the Single Mom Test,” and how putting yourself into your projects can be one of the most impactful decisions you can make.

Visit our indie innovation hub for more stories featuring Unity creators who are making waves in the game industry.