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Earth Day: Whitethorn Games on inclusivity, eco-friendliness, and bees

We spoke to Whitethorn Games’ CEO about sustainability, how they approach inclusiveness, and their plans for the future - including Nintendo Switch titles.

Earth Day is upon us once again and we’re feeling very connected to the planet we live on – and the nature surrounding us. It seems that Whitethorn Games also appreciate our flora and fauna, which is why for this Earth Day we’re speaking to Matthew White, CEO of Whitethorn Games, to talk about their ethos, upcoming projects, and plans for this year’s earthly celebrations.

Whitethorn Games publish many friend-filled and environmentally aware games such as Apico and Beasts of Maravilla Island. Anything with animals, plant-life, and a cute look is an easy win in our books and so Whitethorn is one of our favourite studios. Without further ado, let’s get chatting.

Matthew White: Thanks for reaching out! We’re big fans of the Earth, it’s the best planet we’ve ever been to! We also appreciate the phrase “friend-filled”, just love that.

Pocket Tactics: I also really like Earth now I think about it, though I’ve not been to any other plants just yet. To kick off – how are you celebrating Earth Day 2023? Are there any special plans for games, any activities going on, or even a personal tradition?

So, we make it a habit to celebrate Earth Day every day, both company-wide and on an individual level. We develop our games with eco-friendly, sustainable practices such as minimizing resource usage and travel, are working towards solar converting our offices, and have incentives for staff to travel to work via walking, biking, e-bikes, and electric vehicles, to name a few.

We also regularly participate in local initiatives such as state park cleanups and supporting local partners, including Presque Isle State Park, with their own initiatives. We have a number of titles that promote themes of climate and eco-protection and restoration, including APICO, Beasts of Maravilla Island, and The Forest Cathedral. In fact, very soon, we’re offering a special discount for some of those titles.

Whitethorn games apico's bee menu with plenty of information about the species

At Pocket Tactics, we’re always interested in what game creators do to improve the accessibility of their titles, and the inclusivity of characters – be they player-created or NPCs. With that in mind, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. You’re the “defenders of easy games” – what led to your ideal of easy gaming?

Our passion for easy gaming stems from a desire to make games more accessible to a broader audience, regardless of their gaming experience or background. We believe that games should be a source of relaxation and enjoyment for everyone.

Does the Nintendo Switch lend itself to that, or does it seem harder to consume games via the platform?

The Nintendo Switch has been a fantastic platform for our games, as it allows players to enjoy our titles in a portable and accessible manner and is built from the ground up with families and children in mind. The platform’s versatility and user-friendly design align well with our mission of providing easy-going, bite-sized gaming experiences. We’d love to see an accessibility controller or adapter someday!

Me too, honestly. Do you think the perception of “easy games” differs among different generations, or even types, of gamers?

The perception of easy games may vary among different generations or types of gamers, but we see a growing appreciation for relaxing and approachable gaming experiences across various demographics. Our focus is on creating games that cater to a wide range of players, from casual gamers to those looking for a break from more intense gaming sessions. We just try not to focus too hard on the comments section!

Whitethorn games wytchwood: a scene in a woodland with a witch collecting dirt

How do you approach accessibility in your games – do you design for accessibility first or consider it later and make amends?

We prioritize accessibility from the early stages of game development. Our design philosophy emphasizes user-friendly controls, customizable difficulty settings, and features that cater to players with varying needs and preferences. Our internal accessibility specialist Britt Dye works directly with every developer from the moment we sign their games until well after they’ve shipped.

Do you incorporate the intersectionality of race, class, and disability with climate justice in your games?

This is an extremely big question. Obviously, there are intersectional themes of social justice throughout our games – queer and LGBT themes in games like Lake, We Should Talk, Princess Farmer, Calico, and more. Bullying and body image in RE:CALL, climate and ecosystem restoration in APICO and The Forest Cathedral… it’s important for us to consider as gamers that the most vulnerable among us are those who suffer the brunt of environmental destruction – whether that’s redlining polluted areas and segregating disadvantaged groups or mining the very minerals that make the game consoles and mobile phones themselves. Above all, we try to be good corporate citizens across the board.

A lot of Whitethorn’s games pertain to the environment and being friendly towards its inhabitants (or, inhabee-tants if you’re playing APICO) – how do you ensure the games you publish are developed with the same eco-friendly nature as the messages they deliver?

We ensure our games are developed with eco-friendly practices by encouraging our developers to adopt sustainable working methods, minimizing resource usage and air travel, and promoting digital distribution to reduce environmental impact. We work with our local city to provide free city-wide blanket internet, we’re solar-converting our office, providing incentives for e-bikes and electric vehicles, and free EV charging and parking onsite.

We regularly participate in local initiatives at our State Parks to clean up and maintain our local environment. When we work with physical retailers, we prioritize those who have made business commitments to climate sustainability.

Whitethorn games beasts of maravilla island: a giant bird swooping through the sky

What are Whitethorn’s next steps for inclusivity and accessibility?

We’re continually working to improve accessibility and inclusivity in our games by collaborating with players and organizations to gather feedback, staying informed about the latest accessibility guidelines, and exploring innovative solutions to enhance the gaming experience for all. As a smaller company, we are often led by amazing initiatives like Microsoft’s Developer Assistance Program and the XAC or Playstation’s upcoming Accessibility Tags and Leonardo controller. Stay tuned!

Do you find accessibility is better or worse on the Switch?

There are certain device limitations on the Switch as its hardware starts to age, but it remains our strongest selling platform for many of our titles and where some of our most unique audiences – such as children – tend to play. With that in mind, we’re committed to making our games as accessible as possible on the platform by offering customizable controls, flexible difficulty settings, and other features that cater to players’ unique needs.

Button remapping and adaptive controllers are very rare for the Switch – how does this factor into designing your games for the platform when other release platforms may be better equipped for players’ access needs?

Sort of the same answer as above – we try with software wherever possible to make up for the lack of physical devices that allow remapping. For example, we attempt to offer scaling difficulties, remappable controls, alterable fonts, differing contrast and highlight levels, adjustable audio levels, and more – all of which are implemented at the software level.

Whitethorn games: a potting table and flower pot in Botany Manor

Now it’s time for the pop quiz! Just kidding, these are just some fun questions we thought of. What is your favourite bee (can be(e) from APICO or real ones)?

Our favourite bee is the honeybee, both in APICO and real life, though in APICO, I’d say that’s a “Common Bee”. I know it’s not fancy, but it’s the symbol of Napoleon for a reason. Honeybees are responsible for so much of our pollination, food, economy, and the overall stability of our climate that it’s hard to overstate. Additionally, they’re instantly recognizable at any age!

And what’s your personal favourite Whitethorn project or game? Picking a favourite is hard – I tried and I can’t choose an actual favourite – it’s a three-way tie between Apico, Wytchwood, and Lake, though my love for bees does put Apico a little ahead.

It’s tough to choose a favourite Whitethorn project, but we have a special place in our hearts for Wytchwood, as it combines our love for crafting, exploration, and storytelling. For me personally, so far, it’s APICO – I am a sucker for management and automation.

To finish up, is there any news on upcoming Nintendo Switch or mobile titles, or any news you’d like to share?

We’re excited to announce that Botany Manor will be launching on Nintendo Switch this year! Stay tuned for more updates on our website and social media channels.

Big thanks to Matthew White for taking the time to speak to us! We’re also big fans of Earth here at Pocket Tactics and did we mention we’re super excited for Botany Manor when it sprouts on Nintendo Switch? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got more bees to attend to…

If your enviro-senses are tingling, try these wildlife games or dip your feet into the best ocean games we’ve played. And for Earth Day, here are the best Earth Day games for 2023!