Indie studio, Subliminal Gaming, is Indigenous owned and made up primarily of marginalized groups, and they strive to create games that model their motto, “Cute, Compassionate and Diverse”. Sky Pets, an adorable 2D game, was released in 2015, and with “narrative-driven adventure about friendship and community” Button City coming out this month (along with the sweetest merch line), they have certainly stuck to their goal.
The studio teamed up with WINGS Interactive, a company that invests in indie games that feature women and marginalized genders in key development positions. They choose who to work with by a committee of women game developers, which seems like a perfect pair for a studio as invested in diversity as Subliminal Gaming.
Subliminal Gaming—in partnership with WINGS Interactive—is releasing Button City to PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch and Steam on August 10th, 2021. CGM got the chance to sit down with Shandiin Yazzie Woodward, Co-Founder and Art Director of Subliminal Gaming, to discuss the road to Button City, how COVID-19 affected the studio, and their pursuit of diversity in the games industry.
CGMagazine: First of all, tell me a bit about Button City.
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: Button City is a narrative adventure game about a group of kids who try to save their local arcade from the closure of a greedy capitalist cat who wants to build a Big Box Mart. AND all of this happens during the Gobabots tournament where a rival group of kids, called the Tuff Fluffs, are about to steal the championship. The game has a central narrative as well as a charming diorama town to explore. There are a lot of original characters, side quests, and mini-games.
CGMagazine: What was the inspiration behind the game?
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: In a sense Button City is a mix of childhood nostalgia as well as a love letter to video games! We want the game to be timeless, but also like being taken back to summer vacation as a kid. There are lots of fun visual references to kids’ toys from the 90s and the whole game revolves around kid culture. Even the narrative plays out like a live-action children’s movie on VHS, but with a modern twist.
“Button City was inspired by a lot of things, but our local video game communities played a notable role in inspiring the game.”
Button City was inspired by a lot of things, but our local video game communities played a notable role in inspiring the game. One in particular was a Splatoon 2 group where my husband and I would go to play tournaments and meet up with friends. We wanted to capture those experiences and create a story about the relationships people make while playing video games together. Both friendships and rivalries.
And of course the arcades inspired us! A Round 1 arcade opened near us early in development, and we have become regulars in rhythm and racing games. The player communities and our experiences there played a huge role in inspiring the game and the minigames we chose to add.
CGmagazine: The site for Button City is an experience in its own right, why did you decide to go this route, rather than just a landing page to learn more about the game?
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: We decided to start adding content when in-person events and exhibits were canceled during the pandemic, and we wanted to provide fans with a fun way to engage in the game at online events. Button City is a fun game and it’s something we wanted to reflect on the website. It’s kind of like a virtual arcade price counter. Our team was inspired by sites like Neopets and Nintendo, which we personally appreciate. I used to work as a web designer before I got into game development so it was an interesting side project for me as well.
CGmagazine: Sky animals came out in 2015, it’s a completely different style from Button City (though still adorable), what made you want to go in that direction this time around?
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: Sky animals was the first game we released and at the time we only had experience working on small 2D games. My husband and I had day jobs and game development was a side job, but we wanted to take it to the next level and fund a full-time studio. When we thought about our next game, we knew we wanted to develop our skills and work on a larger 3D project with narrative elements that we could publish.
The direction for Button City went very organically from there. I was learning to model in 3D and started making a small piece of diorama backdrop that had a little fox and a house with a pink roof. We fell in love with the concept and decided to take an artistic approach first, forming a game and storytelling around the character of the fox and the artistic style of the diorama.
CGMagazine: Being a small independent studio, has the Covid-19 affected your studio or Button City directly?
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: Our team was partially distant before the start of Covid-19, so we have made a fairly good transition to working full-time remotely. One of our teammates works in another state as well as our contractors, but we had to shut down the small office the rest of us were using. The biggest impact of Covid-19 has been event cancellations. We had planned to showcase and demo the game at exhibitions and festivals, which would have been a huge opportunity for a small independent studio like us.
CGMagazine: Subliminal Gaming has a front page slogan, “compassionate, cute and diverse”, what does that mean to you?
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: This slogan reflects the values of our studio and the types of games we make. We think it’s important to make room for compassion and diversity in games. It can take many forms! We do this through the narrative and messages of our game, the way we portray the characters, the way we treat our fans, and the way we treat each other in our studio. The cute part represents our style. We love to create cute, healthy and colorful worlds, both in visuals and tone. It’s something that draws us all to Subliminal.
CGMagazine: We know Subliminal is indigenous, how do you advocate for marginalized voices and diversity in games?
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: Our team is small, but the majority of our team members come from marginalized groups. We intend to continue to grow and support this diversity within our team through which we choose to hire and work with the growth of the studio.
We also champion the types of games we create by creating safe and inviting would that feature diverse characters with positive portrayal. For example, there is a character named Chives in our game who uses a wheelchair, our team took great care in how we described it by hiring a representation and accessibility consultant to advise us.
Our team members are also active members in their local game development communities; help support others, create safe speces and share opportunities. Personally, I volunteer and help manage the Albuquerque Game Developers Guild and make myself available to help and mentor other marginalized members.
CGMagazine: WINGS Interactive “invests in indie games by teams in which women and marginalized genre developers occupy key positions”, how did you come to work with them on City button?
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: We turned to WINGS when we were looking for additional funds to release the game. With their help we are able to launch Button City worldwide in 5 languages and on multiple platforms. It would not have been possible without the resources they provided. I truly respect the work that WINGS does to uplift marginalized women and gender people in the games industry.
CGMagazine: Do you have any plans for Subliminal and the afterlife? Button City?
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: After Button Citywe want to start production on another game! We haven’t figured out what we’re going to do next, but Button City taught us a lot about our values and skills as developers. Hopefully we can come up with something as charming as fans of Button City will benefit in the future.
CGMagazine: Finally, tell us your favorite aspect of the game, just for fun!
Shandiin Yazzie Woodward: My favorite aspect of the game is the quirky characters. The game is filled with silly side quests and fun dialogue. I hope players take the time to explore the world and meet them all!