Polly Polygon and Gender Parity

T2Tommy: Supreme Science Overlord

Here Comes A New Challenger!

While there are many topics I could be talking about when it comes to Sure Footing – perhaps most notably the procedural generation systems that influence level design – I wanted to talk about something a little different.  This week both on social media and indeed a blog post by pizza monkey James and genuine (read: real) artist Molly, we showed off the design for Polly Polygon: a new character we have introduced into our most recent build ahead of the GameCity festival in Nottingham.  In case you happened to miss this reveal (shame on you), here’s Polly in action in the image below.

Polly Polgyon leaps into action!

Polly Polgyon leaps into action!

Now I’ll admit, character design is not something I would typically talk about. But I am involved in the creation process. While I don’t make any of the character meshes, skins or animations (with full credit to Matt, Molly and Charlotte respectively), I am involved in defining who these characters are. So I wanted to talk about Polly for the simple reason that she exists and why, in my mind, that is tremendously important.

Creating Our World

There are a lot of considerations that emerge throughout game development that can impact the game you create.  Now typically, I am accustom to making small games for research purposes and I can say with confidence that Sure Footing is the largest project I have ever attempted (which is why I have an awesome team working with me).  It’s true that even the smallest of games take a lot of time, effort and money to become a reality: even an infinite runner such as ours.  Much of this is a new experience for me and it is one I find equally exhausting and exasperating as it is thrilling and intellectually stimulating.  But something happened about a year ago, when we prepared the first (read: awful) build of Sure Footing to showcase at GameCity: we started to build a world.

Sure Footing is set in the world of Computra: a realm that lives deep inside a computer.  Through this we have began to develop not only the ‘sectors’ of the world – such as Cacheville, where our heroes live – but also many other worlds that we will be gradually unveiling in future builds.  This all started when we had the original character design come through, which looked a bit like a cube or pixel (I know, I know: 2D/3D messed up there).  Hence the cute, alliterative albeit unimaginative title of Pixel Pete.

Now something really important happened around the time of that first concept: we called him Pete.  This had the knock-on effect of injecting gender into our characters.  It wasn’t something that seemed like an issue at the time: in truth my mind was worried about the levels and gameplay balancing than the characters.

It was only in time, that I realised the mistake I had made.  At this point I fail to recall who exactly came up with the name Pete (it was either me or Matt), but I do know that we agreed it was a good idea.  It was only when we let the game run at GameCity, that I began to consider this further.

The Value of Inclusivity

We showcased our game at the festival in Nottingham back in October of 2014 and I am pleased to say that despite how rough that first ever build was, people seemed to enjoy it.  In fact, we had a decent footfall, with lots of people swinging by to play the game.  One thing I had never ever considered at this point, until I saw it with my own eyes, was who would come along and give Sure Footing a go.

Now I imagine some approach that last statement with outright scepticism, but I had not really thought about this yet.  I was more focussed on making a game that could run and wasn’t crap.  I know I achieved one out of the two, the latter is open to conjecture for that build, but I digress… We saw kids come by and play our game.  Kids would come along, glue themselves to the seat and have to be pulled away by their parents.  We had kids make up new skins for our game (some of them are in the latest build to play as too).  Now we did have a lot of adults come by and play Sure Footing too, but I saw all of these children smiling, laughing, frustrated, driven; focussed on beating our game.  It certainly helped motivate the team, realising we had made something people were resonating with.  However, for me, I recall manning the stand and a mother brought along both a son and daughter to try it out.  Watching the little girl play the game made me realise what Pixel Pete represents.  A silly mistake that ultimately drove a question later that morning: “Do you have to play as the boy?”

We had inadvertently forced people to play as a male character, in a game that frankly does not necessitate it (though I struggle to think of a game that does).  In a time when we are seriously challenging gender roles and inclusivity in a variety of media – and especially in video games – we had made a really stupid mistake.  I felt partially we should remove the gender bias and try to remain neutral.  On the other hand, people really liked Pete: he was often described as funny or cute by attendees.  So the issue in my mind was resolved: we need to remove the gender bias.

Have we catered to everyone with the release of Polly?  No.  Is this a response to larger social issues?  Yes.  Are we doing this merely to escape criticism?  No.  All that matters in my mind is that a woman or young girl can come along and play our game without the need to conform with our male character.  It simply doesn’t make sense.  Do Polly and Pete play differently?  They do play a little differently from one another.  We’re trying to ensure they are nicely balanced, with each having their own strengths and weaknesses: which is something we’re also looking at for future characters.

We are working on new characters, as well as their skins, to cater to a wider audience (two characters are nearly finished, but not in this build).  Right now our costume sets are still somewhat restrictive, with Polly often saddled with the supposed ‘female attire’.  But Molly is working on addressing this now.  Sure Footing isn’t about making a political statement, but we shouldn’t be denying people a feeling of inclusiveness or representation in our game.  We still have a long way to launch, but I hope we can cater to all such that everyone feels welcome to try out our little game when the time comes.

P.S. If you're at GameCity this year, be sure to say hi and let us know what you think of the game so far!