“In time of silver rain. The earth puts forth new life again,” wrote American jazz poet Langston Hughes in an ode to spring and rebirth. Which all makes for a most appropriate name for a new games studio, one built under lockdown, praised for its diversity, and which is now preparing to take its first public steps with its debut title.
Its leaders aren’t new to the games industry, but this is their first time running their own studio. CEO and founder Abubakar Salim is best known as the vocal talent behind protagonist Bayek in Assassin’s Creed Origins and is starring in HBO’s new and acclaimed Raised by Wolves. While head of studio Mel Phillips led the games programme at BAFTA, picking up broad industry recognition for her efforts.
Although for a debut studio working on a debut title, Silver Rain Games isn’t a small outfit, having quickly grown during the pandemic to reach around 20 staff – all working remotely. And the staff aren’t all your usual industry stalwarts either, instead being a diverse set of talents in many respects.
“We have varied people on our team,” says Salim. “We have very skilled gamers who know about game design and production, but we also have people from the film industry and who play games more casually.
“That’s influential in how we design and make our games, because ultimately it’s about making a game which is accessible and fun toplay. You can’t, of course, cater to every audience, but you can to a degree, have elements which cater to a wider audience than normal,” he continues.
“So when we talk about things like diversity, for example, it doesn’t just mean being ethnically diverse,” says Philips. “It means gender, it also means having a different background, you know, these film, television, and game backgrounds all blending together to bring something new.”
And a more diverse team should create more diverse work, Salim tells us: “We do need more diverse stories, and we do need more different perspectives. But you know, the average sort of gamer doesn’t really care about the person who you’re playing as. They want to play, they want to escape in the game, it’s the game that they care about. And it’s the story that they care about. So if you are able to tell a really good story, and in that way, also include something from your own perspective, then you’re winning rather than necessarily forcing it down their throats.”
“We didn’t have diversity hire targets…” Philips notes. “It’s totally about representation,” she adds. “And I think we are a testament to that, we’re a woman and a black man making games, heading up a studio. And because of that, it just naturally brings a more diverse range of applicants.”
“Let’s be really clear and honest here,” continues Salim. “In the games industry a lot of experienced people, who have games under their belts, are white men. But that’s inherent in a lot of other industries too, it’s something that is bigger than the game industry itself, it’s a societal thing. But we definitely didn’t approach the idea of hiring because of the colour of someone’s skin.
“Our first hire was John Bryce, who is a white male programmer,” he notes. “It’s not like we were saying ‘no, the first hire has got to be a black woman’. Although funnily enough, the next programmer that we got on board was a black woman and her and John are working magic together.”
“People want to work in places where they see themselves,” says Philips. “I’m a big believer, when I was at BAFTA with the Young Games Designers, we did a lot of the programme on ‘See it, Be it’, which is this idea that in order for, say, a young girl to know that she can be in the games industry, she has to see a woman like her working in the games industry, and then she can have that career aspiration.
“If you’ve got that within your structure,” as Silver Rain demonstrably has, “then I think that will bring diversity. Not many people want to hear that, because obviously it means, just maybe, changing your directors,” Philips notes pointedly.
While the studio has melded together people from different backgrounds, it’s also brought its two leaders closer together too. ”We do feel like we might have morphed into the one being,” laughs Phillips when she considers the copious hours the two have spent together on Zoom over the last few months. So how do the two split the workload of running the studio?
Salim’s role is probably best surmised as creative director: “I’m more into the design side of things. Looking at the more creative elements of the experience of the game. I deal with story, I deal with mechanics.”
“Not many people want to hear that, because obviously it means, just maybe, changing your directors.”
While Philips is there to rein things in sometimes, and keep everyone moving forward: “Okay, we’ve had a lot of fun with this creative stuff. But let’s whack that into documents and implement some strategies, I turn up and go, ‘you’ve spent too long on this’, here’s a timeline… ‘This is what you need to be doing now, in order to be where we need to be in six months.’”
Salim notes that it’s not a strict divide, though. “Mel comes in with elements of design, which she would like to see in the game because ultimately the game that we are interested in making is catering to a wider audience.” Adding that: “It’s catered to people who play games, of course, who love playing games and who love kind of breaking them, but also people who have never played games at all.”
BUILDING UNDER COVID
Of course a lot of people have been playing a lot more games over the past six months, and while the established industry has largely rolled on, it’s good to hear that the pandemic has also had something of a benefit to those just finding their feet.
”I do think COVID-19 has kind of helped in a way,” Philips tells us. “Because while we miss out on going into London and having lunch and chatting to people in person, we can now do four meetings in one afternoon!”
“And it doesn’t matter where they are either,” she continues. “In terms of connecting to perhaps publishers or people that we wouldn’t have had a geographical connection with… now we’re equally able to contact anyone anywhere.
“That’s how we’ve built the team as well, we have people working all over the world. It’s not just UK based… we were remote anyway before, but [the pandemic] definitely helped open up flexible working practices and brought in people that perhaps weren’t aware of it or were suspicious of it before.”
The pair are certainly at ease in our Zoom interview, and for good reason explains Philips: “Both Abu and I are good at presenting. Abu’s an actor, I obviously came from BAFTA where I did a lot of workshops and master classes. So weirdly, that’s worked in our favour because we know how to put together a good presentation, we know how to speak about the studio. And, of course, we would have loved to have done that face to face but we don’t need to, we have those skills. And that’s worked in our favour.”
While doing the motion capture and voice for Bayek in Origins was a crucial step towards the creation of Silver Rain, Salim’s role in HBO’s critically-acclaimed Raised by Wolves, from Ridley Scott no less, looks set to make Salim a widely-recognised star.
“What I’m bringing from doing the voice acting on other games is I’ve learned to a degree how studio mentality works and especially with Assassin’s Creed, because I was on that game for a year and-a-half I was able to gain a lot of insight into the elements of what it means to actually make a game.
“Now of course Ubisoft is massive with thousands of people, so of course that is no way to compare in regards to like our studio, which only has like less than 30, but ultimately what it did teach me were the different elements that are part of making the whole. Working, collectively to actually build an experience.”
One thing that Salim won’t be drawn on is whether he’ll be voicing the game himself, preferring instead to keep that a secret until its unveiling.
Undoubtedly having an experienced actor on staff has its upsides, but one possible issue is that Salim is still a working actor, so how does that play out when he goes off to shoot other projects?
“I think ultimately that’s the blessing of having someone like Mel, leading while I’m away,” Salim tells us. And that’s what’s also brilliant about the leads that we have on our team, they know the vision of what needs to be created and crafted. And I trust them.”
Salim says he’s not a “control freak” and explains: “I enjoy being challenged, and it’s not my story to tell, this game isn’t just my game, it’s our game, it’s our studio’s game.”
He also notes that the acting provides other benefits, such as exposure. ”And that works towards even marketing the game. Every time that I’m in an interview now, where I talk about Raised By Wolves, I’m mentioning the game studio, I’m mentioning the people in the team because they are part of me, in a sense.”
Philips adds that they will be growing the team as well in the future.
“We definitely want to grow the team, so that there’s a structure there, a really sound structure, so that Abu can go off and do his acting because that’s ultimately been what we want from the start.”
We suggest that there are creative benefits to having a director who is making other work, that variety is inspiring and re-energises you, compared to someone who is ‘just’ doing game development 365 days a year.
Salim agrees, saying: “The work that I’m doing with Ridley Scott has really helped give me the kind of oomph to really sort of take control, take the plunge, it gives me the belief in what I’m trying to do.”
BELIEVE IN BETTER
And the developer is looking for a publishing partner that has similar belief in Silver Rain’s big ambitions.
“Ultimately, I think me and Mel have both agreed on this is that we are looking for a partner, not only just a business partner, of course, but ultimately we’re looking for someone to grow and really kind of explore and change the industry together with.”
“We have big hopes, we’re looking not just at a two or three year plan, states Philips .
“We’re looking ahead further than that in terms of what we want to do as a studio, things we may want to branch out into or explore. We have those big dreams and need somebody that can support them and knows how to direct us as well.”
While the proof is certainly in the pudding when it comes to new games studios, Silver Rain is an exciting prospect, one that looks to be flourishing in its early stages, and one that given recent events, looks well positioned to tell the kind of stories that the industry is much in need of.
“We’re very lucky in the sense that we came into this with incredible industry connections, but also that the games industry has wanted to support us,” concludes Philips. “It’s been six months building a diverse studio, going through COVID-19, with a Black Lives Matter movement, a second #MeToo movement in games – all in the last six months. We’re all still here, which we’re quite proud of.”