Making representation in games more than just a profitability play

Black-owned indie game and animation studio JumpButton (JBS) is a force to be reckoned with in the industry. Their diverse and inclusive storytelling team is driving a range of startlingly original IPs that give center stage to those who are historically excluded or marginalized, while they spearhead the charge to more than double the amount of Black, brown and queer representation in the industry at large (which currently hovers at a pitiful 4%).

In a session sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the JumpButton Studio team took the stage at GamesBeat Next 2023 to talk about their mission, what “diversity” actually encompasses, why it’s more than just a profitability play (even though it’s profitable) — and why innovative representation is the future of the gaming industry.

Why perspective and inclusion means everything

“Because of our team and our focus and how inclusive we are, we’re able to bring a lens and a difference of thought to everything we build and everything we make, which becomes very valuable,” said Nicodemus Madehdou, CEO at JumpButton Studio.

In part, that’s because games flattened to a single perspective make for a significantly less compelling experience — and one that is essentially leaving money on the table, said Jay-Ann Lopez, CEO and founder at Black Girl Gamers and COO at JumpButton.

“I really think, at times, that the industry is so remiss and so comfortable in where they are that they forget that it’s a completely other market that they could be talking to,” she explained. “If we compare to TV and film, having the ‘Black Panther’ effect, how many movies started coming after that? How much profitability came out of that?”

JumpButton’s diverse development teams can make better products that hit a wider market, even when they’re working on partnered IPs, said Michael Berthaud, game designer and programmer at the studio.

“There’s a level of nuance that goes unnoticed in the game industry, on the developer side, but it’s very clear when a consumer touches that,” he explained. “A consumer can tell so easily, and they say, who made this game? The attention to detail and the kinds of things they’re hitting on, they don’t normally see in games. That’s because of our diverse teams.”

Building not-for-profit diversity

While there’s a lot of talk in the wider gaming world about how profitable Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives are, JumpButton Studios isn’t interested in diversity for the bottom line or its own sake.

“This is something that we’re building from the ground up, as opposed to other studios that have tacked that on as a marketing strategy, as a profitability strategy,” Lopez said. “ I can tell when something has been added as ‘diversity add.’ Not only does that read, but also, you have no intention of actually changing the infrastructure around the industry. You’re just doing it for the fact that it’s now required, as opposed to wanted.”

One of the game industry’s biggest issues is the conspicuous dearth of women, Lopez added — and a particularly glaring lack of Black women, especially in leadership roles. The inhospitable environment in many studios creates a retention issue as well.

“When Nic and I were talking about the role, understanding what he’s going to build and how I wanted to be a part of it, it was like, great, someone has realized that Black women are needed at a leadership level,” she said. But, she added, “Why is this not happening typically in gaming in general, when it comes to marginalized women of color? What is the crux of the matter? ”

Madehdou pointed to a project where the lead game designer was Godavari Hughes, one of the Black women in a leadership position at the company. The project brought in more than $750K in annual revenue — a substantial increase from the previous year’s $300K.

“Those are the things you miss when you don’t have inclusive hiring teams or people who are truly, authentically looking at how to empower and provide more opportunities to otherwise inaccessible spaces,” he said. “Imagine what that could look like at a much bigger company.”

Balancing business and creative freedom

While JumpButton Studio puts developers in the hot seat, it then builds teams around them to make sure that the creativity of that vision is supported, while still balancing the operational and commercial needs of the game or the brand. Regular check-ins are also key, in which they ensure they’re supporting the developer while also hitting business goals.

“In order to achieve the best product, we can’t just say, we need you to do this by this time because this is what we need to do to be profitable,” Lopez said. “As much as we have profitability in mind, we also want to allow that developer to have the creative space to be the best they can be.”

Transparency is key, Madehdou added, especially in the current games industry climate where transparency has been broken for a lot of developers.

“I’m not looking at a hierarchy when we’re having conversations,” he said. “It’s an open field. We’re having a dialogue. We’re trying to solve a problem with the intended goal of creating a fun game and a transparent and capable work environment that focuses on their mental health, their well-being and being able to produce games that they enjoy and love, that errs on the side of looking at new ways to drive new player experiences.”

And while indeed the overall goal of the game industry is to create games that are fun to play, Berthaud says, he sees JumpButton’s mission, making sure diverse stories are told, is changing the world in real time.

“We also get messages saying, ‘This game actually helped me. This game actually had a direct impact on my life. I feel that this game is representative of me,’” he said. “That’s when games begin to transcend. This is an art form. This is something that means more to me than just this dopamine machine that I get from Steam. It’s hard to get that when you don’t have a wide range of people all saying, how can we make sure everyone feels the same way, feels noticed in this product?”