Manveer Heir wants to be at the forefront of making video games with more diverse characters and developers at the forefront. The companies at the top of the billion-dollar industry are moving in this direction, he said, but at a “snail’s pace” – so he sought out to find others who wanted the same as him.
Last week the former BioWare designer announced the launch of Brass Lion Entertainment, an independent games-and-mixed-media studio, along with co-founders Bryna Dabby Smith and Rashad Redic.
Separately, they’ve worked on several high-profile games like Mass Effect: Andromeda, Def Jam Vendetta and Skyrim. Now they’re working on stories with black, brown and other marginalized voices at their forefront.
Their first project, Corner Wolves, is a collaboration with writer Evan Narcisse and hip-hop producer Just Blaze.
We talked about the genesis of Brass Lion, the state of race/gender/LGBT+ diversity in the games industry, how he plans to avoid crunch, and more.
That Shelf: What is Brass Lion Entertainment?
Manveer Heir: We are an entertainment company starting with video games, but also going to branch out into film, TV, comics, podcasts – any kind of form of media. And what we’re really trying to do is tell stories that aren’t traditionally told from the perspective of marginalized characters. so black and brown characters, LGBTQ, and other voices that are normally kind of centred in the video game world and the rest of the media.
Today, we are excited to officially announce Brass Lion Entertainment, a studio focused on making games, film, TV, and other media from a diverse, inclusive perspective. Our first universe, @CornerWolves, is featured in the Dec 2019 issue of Game Informer.https://t.co/1TxAcniR9M
— Brass Lion Entertainment (@brasslionent) November 5, 2019
You can kind of slowly see the world is starting to catch on to diversification in [how] our stories can help creativity because we’re telling kind of new stories from new angles. You see it with things like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians.
I’ve long been a diversity advocate both saying that the staff that make video games needs to be diverse to make better products … but also that video games [and] entertainment products as a whole need to expand out and tell these stories as authentically as well.
That Shelf: You’ve all worked at Triple-A studios; you’ve worked on large games in the past. Were you unable to work on the kinds of projects you wanted to while you were with those studios?
I think there’s a variety of factors happening. One is I think in the Triple-A industry, the budgets are so high that people are risk-averse. So you might hear, “Oh, there’s not marketing data to support an Afro-Latino lead character.” Or you know, that seems risky, or it might alienate a certain audience.
Two is, I would say that in North America, especially where Bryna, Rashad and myself worked, the video game industry is fairly homogenous. It’s mostly white and male, to be very frank about it. And I think there are subconscious biases that come when you have organizations where all the leadership kind of looks the same and comes from the same kind of background in general.
We all look at the world differently because of the way we grew up, because of our gender and of our economic status etc. And so I just don’t think that those big companies are built in a way to be agile enough to be able to pivot or capture a certain type of story.
I find a lot of the minority representation in games, honestly, to be ham-fisted, or very stereotypical, and kind of rooted in this backwards-facing look at how we depict characters of colour. And I want us to be able to kind of do this in a more forward-thinking, progressive way.
That Shelf: Do you think that will change, with an EA or a studio owned by EA in the future?
I mean, my hope is that we can help pave the way for that in the video game industry, and that we are able to show that there is such a large market share for this underserved market that the EAs and the Activisions and the Take Twos of the world have no choice but to try to compete with us.
I don’t think they’re going to do it anytime soon. But my hope Is, in the next 10 years, to really start seeing that noise. And I want to help accelerate that progress, instead of having to go at the snail’s pace it’s going currently.
That Shelf: Tell me about Corner Wolves.
Corner Wolves is a story about a young Afro-Latina, Jacinthe, and she is basically trying to find her father’s murderer. Her father is shot in front of the bodega that he runs in Harlem in the mid-1990s.
The game was really inspired by, I have been thinking a lot about systemic racism, about the way that we talk about people who are caught up in the drug game. If you think about you know shows like The Wire, one of my favourite shows of all time, that really kind of humanized the characters and showed how good, moral people get pulled into this world.
And so I kind of wanted to show that the failings of the inner city, of the hood, are failings of economic opportunity. And that the reason people fall into things like the drug game is not because of that people because that’s the only option that they have to kind of make it out, in many cases.
Our first universe, @CornerWolves, is set in 90's Harlem amidst the drug war and follows an Afro-Latina, Jacinte, as she tries to find her father's murderer. We are collaborating with hip-hop legend @JustBlaze on sound and @EvNarc on writing, to bring authenticity to the project.
— Rashad Redic (@SpiceBrotherOne) November 5, 2019
That Shelf: You’re certainly not the only people who’ve worked at a Triple-A studio to break off and form your own studio in the last few years.
No, I feel like that’s a pretty common thing right now. You know, Triple-A could be a very difficult space, and I’m very grateful for my time at BioWare and at Raven and Activision before that. I loved the time working at those studios.
But … it was very stressful, and when you have hundreds of people on your team, it’s hard to adjust really fast and on the fly.
I know Bryna and Rashad and myself, we all wanted to work on something where we were more agile. We’re a smaller team, and so we can just make changes faster without having to, you know, go up the corporate ladder, and make presentations, and get all the business people on board, and all the marketing people up for it, and seven months later, everyone’s signed off on it, and we’re like, “OK. Now we can finally pivot?”
I feel like I did my time in Triple-A. I learned the lessons I wanted to learn. I learned a lot of great things. But the kind of game that Bryna, Rashad and I wanted to make, I think they’re best served at a smaller budget setting because it allows us to be a little bit more ambitious with our storytelling and our experiences and the risks we take.
That Shelf: You’re talking about stress and challenges. How is your team going to approach workloads and work-life balance? We’ve been talking more about crunch and overworking in the industry lately.
It’s definitely something that I’m very cognizant of. I’ve burned out in this industry a couple of times from crunch and stress. Crunch is not a sustainable way to build a studio.
So there are a few things … you have to do. One, manage the scope of the game. So from day one when I created Corner Wolves, I broke down my grand vision and went, “I know 70 percent of this will never happen because I won’t get enough money, or it will just be too hard to do on the first game.”
Another is listening to your team feedback. One thing that I’ve seen happen a lot in Triple-A, frankly, is a team entirely knows everything just got messed up, and nobody in management is listening. Like, they just kind of go, “Yeah yeah yeah, we got it, we got it, we got it.” And then the team suffers.
So we really want to be personnel-focused, team-focused, listen to everybody, and let everybody have a voice and speak up. Even if that means someone comes to me and says, “You’re wrong on this, or you’re going to end up working to the bone on this.”
The third thing I want to try – and we’re not there yet, we don’t have the staff or deadlines or anything yet – but it’s managing extra hours in a way where it’s like, okay, maybe you need a push for one or two weeks. But what we need to get rid of are the death marches: months at a time of working crazy hours.
Like, having to work some extra hours for a week or two to hit a deadline, I don’t think that’s the end of the world – as long as you’re not doing it every other week. If it’s every few months, or a couple of times a year, that’s the normal creative process – to an extent.
But the death marches are not. They’re what crush teams, and that’s what crushed me in my personal career.
It’s gonna be something that we’re going to have to manage on the fly. We’re gonna have to adjust, listen to our team, and have real frank and honest difficult conversations.
And the great thing is that all three of us as founders are really up to the challenge of having difficult conversations with each other and staff, as those things happen.
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