Speaker Q and A: Tomas Rawlings, Design Director at Auroch Digital, discusses news games and working with brands as a smaller studio.

In the build up to Gamesforum London, we thought it’d be great to give you a taster of the kind of people who’ll be coming along to speak. That’s why we’re starting a question and answer session with each of our speakers and bringing the results directly to you on the blog.

First up is Tomas Rawlings. He’s the Design Director at Auroch Digital and the co-founder of the Bristol Games Hub. He’s speaking about news games on our Video Game Culture track on the 25th January.

So we caught up with him to discuss what goes into the making of political games, as well as finding out a bit more about the other games the team is working on.

Gamesforum: Auroch Digital is known for its news games project from a number of years ago. Why did the company work on games that could be considered political?

Rawlings: I’d always felt that, as a gamer and a game designer, games were my natural medium to express how I felt about events around me. I just took that idea and ran with it. I’d argue as a counter all games are political – the question is more around if you see the politics. Even games that try to be apolitical are in effect taking a political stance.

Take a basic question like coop or vs in multiplayer – they are rooted in different ideas of how its fun for humans to interact. Cooperation vs competition is a core political idea and the degree to which our societies should/do reflect those aspects is the subject of huge debate. That’s not to say one is better than the other, more we argue about the degree and nuance…

Gamesforum: What did you learn about games as a form from making games about current affairs?

Rawlings: People are much more accepting of games as a means of expression than I thought! That’s a huge positive. Major outlets like the magazine Foreign Policy, far from looking down their nose at our work, understood and applauded it. I’ve also learned a lot about how to draw sensitive topics into the creative process. So I don’t think there are subjects that can’t be talked about – its all about how you do it.

Gamesforum: How well suited are games for making political statements in close proximity to the events that shaped them? To what extent is the compelling nature of gaming offset by the difficulty of creating game themed content rapidly?

Rawlings: Much as other creative mediums. You do need to be sensitive to your subject matter. That’s even more important if the people (or their relatives) of events you are talking about are still alive. They are going to have views on what you’ve done. That does not mean simply censor your output, it means be a fellow human being and see things from their point of view too.

We’re seeing more and more newsgames popping up, though its still an underground thing and we’re seeing more and more games drawing from real life to inspire/inform them. We created a physical card game about the US elections – one of the cards has a joke about Trump causing a nuclear war. It’s less funny now than when we wrote it back in 2016.

This was a lot funnier a year ago

Gamesforum Auroch doesn’t just create news themed games. It also works on licensed games with the likes of the Games Workshop. How did you establish a partnership with the company?

Rawlings: By being a fan! Basically gamedev is a small world. I’d been chatting with the nice people at Rodeo (who’d made Hunters on iOS) and they were working on Warhammer Quest. I was excited about the game and also being a long time GW fan, ended up chatting to a producer there. That lead to Chainsaw Warrior and carried on so a few years later, here we are on our 3rd project, Dark Future: Blood Red States (which is looking and playing a-m-a-z-i-n-g so huge kudos to the team on that!) I should note we’ve used our ‘newsgaming’ approach on this project too, getting support from The Wellcome Trust to partner with scientists to explore the alternative world its it set in!

Gamesforum: What are the challenges you face in bringing a brand or IP to life that isn’t yours?

Rawlings: You have to find what its heart is – why people love it. If you can’t see why its a thing to covert, how are you going to make games those fans will want? Its also key to move the IP onwards – so with Dark Future we’re using that narrative setting but the gameplay is very different from the boardgame.

With Ogre, by contrast its a very faithful adaptation of the boardgame – however we’re using what digital can do to add features like multiplayer and Steam Workshop. Creatively I really enjoy IP work. It does impose some boundaries on you and it’s those that I find really interesting to spark off and funnel more creativity. Plus you’re contributing to a bigger legacy and that’s a cool feeling.

Gamesforum: And how do you balance the needs of the IP you’re working with and your own development expertise? It must be easy for a developer to allow a partner to become a back seat driver if they aren’t careful, right?

Rawlings: Possibly, but in our experience partners care about their IP and keep involved in what you’re doing. We’re keen to have them part of it as often they bring a wealth of knowledge about that IP which we want to tap into. Like all partnerships in a project, working together takes efforts from all sides. But get that balance right and the sum of your collective efforts of much more than the sum of the parts.

Gamesforum: Finally, you’re closely involved with the Bristol Games Hub and supporting developers in the local area. Why is it important for developers to support their local communities and how do you think studios can successfully support others?​

Rawlings: Games is a huge, huge global industry and locally there is always more to be gained by cooperation than competition. Say you want a publisher to come and see your game – most are not going to make the trip to see you unless you’re a major developer. They might not even take a meeting at all. But get a bunch of developers together and make it so that publisher can now see 10, 20 project – suddenly it’s now worth their time. There is strength in numbers! The hubs movement has been amazing and is still growing and we’d love to see more pop up!

Want to hear more from Tomas? Come and listen to his talk on our Video Game Culture track by purchasing your Gamesforum pass here.

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