Whitethorn Games and the art of cultivating slow gaming

Since the release of Stardew Valley in 2016, a wave of life simulators and other self-proclaimed wholesome games has swept across the games industry.

The most insecure edge of the games community sees this as a threat to what they see as the only valid way to enjoy games. But some of us live our best lives under a cozy blanket with a cup of tea, finally spoiled for choice in our genre of predilection.

Whitethorn Games belongs to the latter group. Launched in 2017, the Pennsylvania-based publishing house is behind indie hits like Calico, Wytchwood, Lake and the recently released beekeeping sim Apico.

The company focuses on serving an audience that has been largely ignored until recently.

“We’re targeting a more casual audience – the word ‘casual’ has all this baggage in games that I try to stay away from, so they’re not ‘casual games’, but they’re games that should be played casually if that makes sense” , explains CEO and founder Matthew White. “We mainly focus on approachability and accessibility. Our audience consists of young children, or people who are a bit older and have children of their own. [For] our customers, games are not their primary hobby.

“As a result, we found very fast and happy friends in non-traditional [represented] makers, so women, people of color, queer people, who have stories to tell that don’t necessarily “run down that hallway and shoot people.” Our entire catalog is pretty much made up of these kinds of slow, approachable experiences.”

White says with a smile that he remembers using the term “pastoral millennial gay escapism” to describe Whitethorn’s catalog in the past. And he welcomes the countless titles that now exist in this category with open arms.

He acknowledges a trend-following factor to consider, but says the beneficial games boom is revolutionary because of its audience, not the titles it contains.

“What ties the healthy games together isn’t really the games and the genres, it’s that the audience is palpably different. Tower Defense-type things were super popular at the turn of the 2010s when MOBAs had a moment in the League of Legends heyday, so there’s always trends in games. But all these things are for the same audience. It’s shooters, MOBAs, straight white guys, straight white guys. And then you get a game where it’s a photographic journey about walking with my grandmother, and it’s like someone who isn’t white straight can finally be the audience for a title!

“Maybe with an infinite magic box that can create anything, the most interesting thing in the world isn’t a fucking M16”Matthew White

“I think the fact that this is a trend led by – and is for – people who are not what the game industry has historically looked like is more important than any conversation about healthy versus not healthy.

“If you think about movements in the art world, the idea has always been that a non-traditional group has brought in this big tidal wave of things that everyone is interested in, like pop art, and it’s revolutionized the art in a upward way I think what you’ll see here is a movement, slow but steady, of bigger AAA things now thinking people are a little tired just blowing their brains out maybe with an infinite magic box that can do anything the most interesting thing in the world isn’t a fucking M16. That’s really the power of that movement.”

For Whitethorn, promoting approachability in the titles it draws also means making these games accessible. The publisher has a set of basic accessibility standards that it encourages its studios to achieve before they are released, and it hired usability and accessibility specialist Britt Dye in 2021 to help with that goal.

“If something isn’t accessible, it can’t be used by many people,” Dye says. “I have a background in information accessibility and helping people get through all kinds of barriers to the information they need. I took that with me when I started here as a usability analyst, and I think those two just go hand in hand – hand in hand because I can make sure that barriers for both the general public and people with disabilities are removed.”

Whitethorn published Gamious’ Lake in September 2021

When working on titles aimed at an audience that hasn’t played games before, approachability is key, White adds, and a big part of approachability is accessibility.

“You can’t immediately approach a climbing wall if you’re physically disabled,” he says. “So what are the obstacles that we remove before we even get to usability? Accessibility is door number one. If you can’t even get in, you can’t do anything, and then usability is the next logical step. Those two are not the same job, but they are very related.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that the work accessibility people do is directly related to the usability of games for a general audience. These are pieces of the same puzzle.”

When Whitethorn signs a new game, the first step for Dye is to go through the title and find one of the barriers she can find even before taking a test, she explains.

Whitethorn’s usability and accessibility specialist Britt Dye

“Then I talk to the developers and we work out a plan that they can do logistically based on the number of people on the team and other constraints. We’re lucky to have developers who are interested in accessibility. Often they’re already at it.” [options]. Princess Farmer, for example, was already working on a single-handed mode for their game before I even got on board. Some things come out afterwards, through feedback [from players].”

Dye’s baseline options include a toggle for haptics, sans serif fonts, high-contrast options, and button mapping. The more in-depth features are determined on a case-by-case basis with the developers.

White says they do their best to “implement the things that are logistically easiest” to avoid straining the small indie teams they work with, as well as features that benefit the greatest number of people.

“We’re trying to prioritize because, unfortunately, the business reality is that while we want every accessibility option in every game, that’s not something we’re currently in a place that makes financial sense,” he explains.

“A lot of the accessibility work we do is a bit like ‘feminism benefits men, even if they don’t notice it’. A lot of the work we do targets audiences with physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, a visual or sensory impairment, but they have the spillover advantage of helping people with something more mundane, which is more common, such as color blindness, that [affects] many of us.

Matthew White, CEO and Founder of Whitethorn

“A lot of that is feedback for us. We want to know the issues, especially from an accessibility and usability perspective. We know [disabilities] generally speaking, but the uniqueness and the [spectrum] of them is different with each person’s body and each person’s mind. Here we work together with the Barber National Institute, a national research institute for autism, and Sight Center, an institute for the visually impaired. But we are looking for more organizations so that we can find representative individuals with a wide variety of physical, emotional, sensory and cognitive levels, [to] make these games more useful.”

He stresses that the financial value of usability and accessibility can be difficult to grasp, and the cold realities of running a business can be challenging.

“With something like usability, we don’t really see the value in a financial way until we see the critical reception of the game and everyone is really happy with it. But it’s a big risk to implement. One of the reasons you don’t does see this is happening across the board now as there is no strong pressure from the top [have] to implement these functions.”

He points out that despite financial constraints, the driving force behind advancing accessibility is primarily indie developers. Microsoft has, of course, been at the forefront of these efforts, and Sony is slowly but surely catching up, but India is the “point of the spear,” he says.

Alientrap’s Wytchwood released in December 2021, courtesy of Whitethorn

“If you look at the accessibility tags that Microsoft maintains in its store, usually the ones that have the accessibility tags are all indies. We’re looking for those unique ways to get familiar, we’re sometimes the dropper [who] tell the big boys to catch up.

“Microsoft has certainly invested heavily in accessibility and access to games for everyone and I think that’s great, and we’re getting those resources directly from them. You also need the big fish to commit. [We can] do the job, but ultimately we’re not pulling on a trillion dollar budget line like Microsoft or anything like that.”

“Just listen to guidelines, listen to the players, join all the online communities you can with disabled players and listen to them”Britt Dye

He continues: “Until we have big AAAs leading by example, it’s hard for us to even find the funds to do most of these things. We certainly try, but often we’re simply limited by the fact that we published 30 games. Sometimes it becomes a resource constraint in a way that I’m not really excited about. That’s the challenge.”

White also talks about the concern some indies may have about doing things perfectly when implementing usability or accessibility options.

“I think there’s reluctance among indies to throw something in and be seen as just trying to tag it for marketing purposes. But what I’ll say is do it anyway. I think the people out there who are legitimately disabled , you may not hear them on Twitter, but they are there and they will benefit. So just do it anyway. Even if you do it and it’s not perfect, grab the Unity dyslexic font from the asset store and you give an option for that… even if you didn’t do it perfectly, you helped someone. Just dive in and do it is important.”

Dye concludes, “The most important thing would be to try and learn from those things, and just listen to guidelines, listen to the players, join all the online communities you can with disabled players and listen to them.”

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