Womenize! – Inspiring Stories is our weekly series featuring inspirational women from games and tech. For this edition we talked to Sally Sheppard, Creative Director at Wyrdren Games. She speaks about accessibility and inclusion in games, as well as mental health in the industry. Read more about Sally in this interview:
Hi Sally! In your opinion, what makes a good indie title?

What makes a good indie title is pretty similar to what makes a good game – it’s primarily personal preference; everybody has a different idea of what is fun or interesting. The difference with indie games that I find the most intriguing, and again this is my personal opinion, is I find they have the freedom to explore and carve out new spaces. The indie games that I love the most have either taken me on an emotional journey or have characters that are outside of the “stereotypical” protagonist archetype. I love seeing indie game developers using this opportunity of creative freedom to create games that have better representation, more inclusion and push boundaries.

Sometimes a great indie game will resonate with an audience because of factors outside of the developer’s control. Look at “Among Us” for example, it was the game we needed to connect with friends at the start of the pandemic even though it had been originally released in 2018. It was the perfect game in 2020 to help us stay social during a very hard period of isolation. Sometimes a great indie game just has the right mixture of features to scratch the player’s itch at that particular moment in time and sometimes a great indie game will move you emotionally or resonate with you personally. If there is a magic sauce to what makes a great game instantly I’d love to know the recipe, sometimes happy accidents happen and the audience latch on to something you never would have expected.

How do you approach diversity and inclusion in your games?

We have a few core values at Wyrdren that guide us. I find that laying these out at the very start of the formation of the company can help guide most of those big design decisions. Recently when we have added features to our upcoming game Spellbound: The Magic Within, I always ask who is this for? What does it add to the game? And does it make it easier or harder for any of our players to access the content of the game? Inclusion is something I think all game devs should spend time on when making their game, it may add a little time to the project but it’s always worth it to allow more people to enjoy the experience. 

Diversity is something I always approach with respect. I’ve seen so many games where tokenism was used in place of actual representation and I see the hurt this can cause players. I try to look at any character I am designing and think about all of the things that make them a fully-fledged person. From the smallest things like their star sign to how they feel about their hobbies all the way through to their background and upbringing and how that affected who they are and the decisions they might make. Gender, sexuality, religion and race are the big character foundations that can occasionally be glossed over by game companies when they worry they might get “in trouble” for the way they have represented these factors. At Wyrdren we like to approach these elements of the characters with empathy and respect, we do our research, we consult the community and we learn and listen. Hopefully, that comes across in the gameplay and the narrative.

Diversity and inclusion are sometimes seen as gimmicks which really saddens me because the more we can invite people in, represent them on screen and give them access to features and tools that make the game accessible to them, the more people can relax and enjoy the game’s intended journey. Accessibility and inclusion don’t take away from the game itself, it just allows more people to play. That should be a good thing and I encourage more devs to think about the people who might be being excluded when you work on adding features.

Could you tell us about the initiative Safe In Our World and what being a champion entails?

Safe In Our World is a brilliant charity dedicated to mental health awareness which is something in the gaming world we need to be very aware of. Both as developers and as players, games have helped a lot of us through some excruciatingly hard times, whether it’s playing with friends as a way to connect and socialise with others or by playing a game that allows you some brief respite from the current situation. Gaming can be an incredibly powerful tool. One of the things I do as a “champion” is point people toward some of the amazing resources that Safe In Our World provides and also talk about my own journey with mental health and try to lessen some of the stigmas that surround it.

I’m also looking at putting Wyrdren forward as a level-up partner soon which is such a great initiative that many games companies should take a look at. Annie Durwood, our Community Manager, just completed the Community Management Mental Health Training Programme through Safe In Our World. She really got a lot out of it, it helped her to bring back some tools that we can use here at Wyrdren to keep our community and our employees safe. I am always excited to see our team take part in any training that can help them look after themselves and upskill and gain the knowledge to interact with our players without burning them out or putting too much onto one person. 

It’s our job as Directors to support our employees who want to participate in training that will give them the resources and knowledge to flag things to management that they need backup on and to interact with the community in a safe and positive way. 

I highly recommend to developers and players that you check out the Safe In Our World website and socials to see what they are up to as there are bound to be resources that are helpful to you. They also have a great community on Discord that is filled with such welcoming people.

While we are talking about great initiatives in the industry, I would love to shout out some other amazing programmes and charities. I am a Women in Games Ambassador and they do great work on equality and are well worth checking out especially if you are female-identifying or non-binary and are looking to get a foot in the door to the industry (feel free to join their Discord!).

Wyrdren is a #Raisethegamepledge partner dedicated to inspiring meaningful, cultural and behavioural change in games companies. They have a monthly newsletter and are so helpful for companies looking to create a diverse workplace, and include more diversity and representation in the games we make. There are so many fabulous ways the games industry is becoming more inclusive and it’s honestly such an honour to be able to work in this industry and promote change.

Thanks for this interview, Sally!

Sally’s links: TwitterTikTokWyrdren GamesSafe in our WorldWomen in GamesRaise the Game

Womenize! – Inspiring Stories Feature by Sophie Brugmann