Black Excellence in Game Development – Playtra Games
Editors note: This interview has been edited for readability.
Playtra Games pushes the boundaries of what is possible in technology and art. They have a knack for pioneering in the gaming industry and are looking to make a lasting impact on the gaming community.
Dan Bernando is the co-founder & CEO of the game studio. As a Black man, he has overcome his fair share of obstacles and has devoted his efforts to increasing inclusion in this space. We sat down with him to learn about his game development journey and the future plans for his team!
Gaming Origins and Playtra Games Foundation
Two Average Gamers: Tell us about the foundation of Playtra Games.
Dan Bernando: Playtra is a life-long dream. I come from a very poor region of Brazil, a place where you are happy just to be alive and have food on your plate. My mom put a lot of crazy ideas into my head about being able to do whatever I want if I put my mind to it and find the right people. As I grew in my career, I managed to finish a degree in anthropology. I went to work as a graphic designer, but I always knew in my head that I wanted to create a game. In my last job, the company had a good exit. My CEO suggested that I go after my dream. I want to create stories that people resonate with. It’s been a 3-year journey that feels like about 35 years. Creating games is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it is a joy.
TAG: That’s quite an origin story! Where do the name and logo come from?
DB: It came from a night of drinking. I wanted a place where everyone can come together. The first part of Playtra comes from “play”. Secondly, all of my heroes in life are female. I wanted play to sound female, hence, Playtra. For the logo, I wanted the dots to represent different people coming together to create something. We are now rebranding – when I first started, it was just myself. Now that we have a team, I want something that represents everyone better. We have some name recognition in the indie community, so it will be tricky to do the rebranding timing-wise.
TAG: Looking forward to seeing the rebrand. Can you talk a little bit about your earliest gaming memories?
DB: I was actually talking about this a few days ago. I remember being 5 or 6 years old and stopping in a window on my way home. A boy playing an Atari game and I watched a bit. When I got home, I drew the game on a piece of paper and tried to play on the paper. It was a way for me to create something.
TAG: That’s a great sense of creativity at such a young age. You mentioned your heroes being female. Tell us more about where you draw inspiration from.
DB: For Grid Force, it’s about telling a story that explores all types of female relationships – motherhood, sisterhood, romantic love, hate, regret. All these things from a female perspective. I just want to make sure we are authentic. We brought female developers to the team, as well as female writers and artists.
TAG: Glad to see how much emphasis you put on diversity and inclusion! We resonate with your focus on pushing boundaries. Where does this passion come from?
DB: I don’t think we really have options. We either sink or swim. It’s the age of reckoning. We are all trying to correct past mistakes and give people opportunities. I saw this before. I saw moments where society went south. I try to help other people and get them to reach the next milestone. Anyone who is not part of the dominant group needs to do extra if they want their place in the sun. The funny thing is that when the BLM movement started, people stopped asking me to talk about technical aspects of gameplay. They asked me to talk about race and relationships – at a certain point, it made me feel like I was just letting white people feel better. But I wanted to talk about the next steps and actions. Our company has three values – have fun, create memories, and create a legacy (with the games we have, how can we make the world a better place). We want to be remembered positively.
Playtra Emphasizes Transparency and Diversity
TAG: Thanks for sharing about your background. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced, and continue to experience, in developing a game?
DB: long sigh – There’s the everyday grind – there is hidden work everywhere. You put your schedule down, and then each action item opens a can of worms that you didn’t expect. People say they want to finish something in a week, but I know it will take a month. With that comes a budget. Playtra has no revenue and I’ve been paying for everything myself – 10 salaries every month. There is difficulty in finding publishers who understand what I’m doing. You can find a publisher who will give you money to basically replicate an existing game. When you tell them you want to create something unique, they tell you that it won’t sell. Having financial flexibility is really important. Also, going back to my culture, as a Black entrepreneur, leader, creator, you have to constantly define why you are there. Why is this guy leading the group? Why is this guy talking at this event? It doesn’t come out verbally, but you understand the context. On top of that, you have people telling you that you are paranoid!
TAG: That’s especially tough when there are so many people who don’t take the time to understand you. As you grow your team, what are some of the top traits that you look for in potential hires?
DB: Before Playtra, I specialized in going to small teams to create a culture. I did this for almost 15 years. I noticed a very specific type of people who thrive in startups. They like doing different things, they have ownership and commitment, they don’t care as much about salaries, and they love the challenge. In terms of personality, I think we need all types of people. We need people who talk a lot, people who are quiet and efficient, and ready to work very hard. In terms of where the people come from, I tend to give more opportunities to people who don’t have as many chances. Don’t get me wrong, we still have white males on the team, but I also invest in people who may not have as strong of a professional background but have a passion for gaming. We just expanded the team for QA and marketing. They are all different culturally and have different personalities. For our latest batch of hires, I want them to have the best possible start in the industry.
TAG: Great to see that your team continues to grow. Externally, what game studios do you admire and what about them impresses you?
DB: Funny enough, for a company that doesn’t have any games out we have a lot of friends. I really like the developers of Life is Strange – Dontnod. I want to be like them when I grow up in terms of storytelling. It’s hard for me to say just one person because when I get in touch with a game development team I want to get to know everyone. I feel like at big companies like Sumo, Payload, and Humble you see efforts to create a diverse workforce. I admire them for the diversity aspect as well as the storytelling.
TAG: Speaking of storytelling, Grid Force continues to gain traction in the community. What do you hope people take away from this game?
DB: We want games to be cultural and at least speak to one person. I want someone to say “I remember this game from when I was younger which really stuck with me”. I know how magical this experience is. Early in the development, we created a partnership with It Gets Better. They are a large, global charity that focuses on LGBTQ teenagers to help them find purpose, jobs, and overall improvement in their lives. There are so many teenagers who took their lives because they didn’t have anyone to talk to. I’m a Queer creator myself. Growing up in the 80s and 90s was challenging. I want people to go through the journey of Grid Force even though they might say the protagonists don’t look like heroes. I want people to live the experience. If you play the game, there is a lot of silly dialogue to break the ice. We just hope that the feeling of isolation makes an impact and people can be empathetic.
TAG: The world definitely needs more empathy! What does the future hold for Playtra? Can you talk about the release schedule and upcoming developments?
DB: Right now, we are all focused 100% on Grid Force. It will launch by the beginning of Q3. In game development, you never know. It will come out for PC, Xbox, Switch, and we are considering PS. We are thinking about some DLCs that we want to launch as well. The team is already mentally thinking about our next game. Playtra will always work on RPG/strategy titles since the team loves working on these types of games. Our next game will be more traditional in terms of gameplay.
TAG: Looking forward to the launch in the coming months! It’s great that you have the Dev Diary to keep your team connected to the community. How do you create meaningful content here?
DB: It’s a challenge because when you are talking to a community, you have a tendency to filter out your emotions. You want to be secure, kind, and aware of what is going on. I keep saying to the team that it feels boring because they don’t talk about their struggles. The Dev Diary is still quite filtered, but we are trying to talk more about the hard things and the things that we find very exciting. Because I wanted a more unfiltered conversation, we open our dev channel on Discord so people can read the challenges that we are facing. I hope more people join the channel to see this and understand more about game development. I tend to be more polite and make the same joke over and over (it never lands). Other people have very dirty mouths.
Playtra Shares Insights on the Broader Gaming Community
TAG: Where do you see opportunities for the gaming industry to further support Black people?
DB: We have to get all people who say they are willing to support us to actually lay out the next steps. No matter how much you say you love the cause of equity and having more Black/Latin/Asian voices, none of that is as important as putting a check into people’s hands. We can not create a game with compliments, we need to pay our bills. At events, I try to ask the audience how they can turn their interest into action. Humble has a Black developer’s fund, Wings has a female developer fund – we need all of this. Any time I meet someone from a big studio, I ask them what percentage of their budget is allocated to these causes. If they can get up to a 2-3% commitment, I’ll take it. If they only commit with words, then It’s not convincing. We have to understand the support needed for BIPOC creators.
TAG: That’s fair, we need people to put their money where their mouth is. How do you think about diversity as it relates to character design?
DB: I did a presentation recently called “I hate diverse game design”. It’s because the way people create diverse characters is by changing the color of the character’s skin. As people, we are all of the same race. The reality is that race exists and it does matter. We have different cultures and different ways of approaching things. In games, we just see diverse characters just for the sake of diversity. I don’t want a character who looks like me but doesn’t act like me. This is something we are trying to do at Playtra. My opinion is that the industry is very interested in the statistics of diversity, but not in philosophy.
TAG: The industry definitely needs to do better than just darkening the character models of the in-game players. We appreciate you being candid about your experiences and the industry! Anything else you’d like to share?
DB: It might be very dry, but your purchase decisions have more voice than you think. It sends a very clear message to the people who are controlling the resources. I show support by tweeting about people’s games, wishlisting on Steam, buying the game if it’s out. These actions help to increase awareness and get others to show support.
TAG: That makes a lot of sense. How can people reach you?
DB: The best place is Discord – we are there 8 hours a day being desperate, then hopeful, then desperate again. There is a demo on Steam – that is a great way to support the team. This shows people that there is interest, especially publishers. We are always ready to support people who are looking to get into the industry!
Now that we’ve gone through the tough questions, let’s close things out with some rapid-fire picks to understand your gaming preferences!
- Mario or Sonic
- My kid self likes Sonic, my adult self Mario
- PlayStation or Xbox
- I can’t say this one since I’m a developer!
- Favorite game of all time
- Final Fantasy 7
- Favorite game right now
- I’m replaying Tactics Ogre 64 in emulator
- Greatest video game-related movie
- I really like the original Mortal Kombat movie
- What is your favorite Pokemon starter?
- Charmander; I have a beef with Pikachu. I think we are rivals from a previous life
What’s next for Playtra Games?
Dan and the Playtra team are working hard on the release of Grid Force while preparing to rebrand. They already know what they’re working on next, so we’ll be paying close attention to new announcements. Make sure to follow them on their socials!