21 August 2023 News
Northern Ireland’s video game industry is blossoming in more ways than one, according to Conor Bradley from Soft Leaf Studios.
He’s the creator of a new accessible point and click adventure that was launched on August 16 on digital platforms Steam and Itch, and subsequently Xbox consoles.
Soft Leaf Studios – a two-person team comprising creative director Conor and art director wife Clare – focuses on developing video games that are accessible to everyone.
It means working closely with those from the disabled and neurodiverse communities to remove barriers.
Conor, who works from his Belfast home, also hosts workshops across the UK to raise awareness and make the future of games accessible.
“We’ve been working on Stories of Blossom for just under two and a half years,” he said.
“But 10 years before I formed the studio, I did a doodle of a little girl being read stories by her grandfather and that idea always stuck with me.
“We then took that forward and did prototypes for the game.”
He added: “We were able to break it into a series of short stories and explore different characters and different environments, so, creatively, it has been very rewarding.”
Stories of Blossom – a success story thanks to Northern Ireland Screen funding – centres around a protagonist called Clara, who brings to life three short tales told by her grandad.
Clara plays the role of an adventurer, an astronaut and a pirate and gets to befriend cute creatures in odd situations and help solve their problems along the way.
“From the beginning, game accessibility has been our main goal,” Conor said.
“A lot of this work has been embedded into the experience itself, such as the readability of each dialogue line, the design of our puzzles and how we lay out information and our menus."
From the outset, Conor’s game stood apart from others in terms of the use of audio descriptions.
“Over the years we’ve seen it being used more although ours remains more interactive,” he said.
“People see that we’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Soft Leaf Studios is one of 12 local developers attending Gamescom, an annual trade fair in Cologne, Germany, from August 23 to 27.
The others include Italic Pig (with Paleo Pines) and Outsider (with Tax Force) and they’ll form part of a wider UK delegation.
Last year at Gamescom – referred to as ‘Glastonbury for video games’ by aficionados – Conor met a team from Xbox and he was invited to take part in its accessibility showcase.
“They came to Belfast and filmed an interview with myself and Clare,” he revealed.
“It showcased the game and raised awareness of the extensive role developers can play in making gaming more accessible.
“Gamescom is a huge opportunity.
“People swarm to see the new games that are out and to get a hands-on opportunity of demos of games that haven’t been released or updates that haven’t been released."
Northern Ireland Screen, which supports local talent with development and production funding, said the Northern Ireland video games industry has been extremely successful over the last five years.
“Stories of Blossom is one of the stand-out projects that we have helped fund,” said Andrew Reid, Chief Content Officer at Northern Ireland Screen.
“Other developers like Italic Pig and Outsider provide a snapshot of the wealth of talent in the interactive space that exists in Northern Ireland.
“The video games industry represents an incredible opportunity for Northern Ireland an established international location for developers and publishers and for large scale digital content productions.
“There is a symbiotic relationship between games and innovation. Where games were once confined to screens and consoles, they have become dynamic catalysts for progress across industries such as education, healthcare, business and even scientific research, something which aligns perfectly with the Executive’s ‘10X' economic strategy. The Pixel Mill, a Northern Ireland Screen funded games incubator, harnesses our local talent who are competing on a global stage.”
Northern Ireland Screen opened the Pixel Mill at Ormeau Baths in Belfast city centre in 2018 to provide a creative co-working space for local game development teams.
Conor described it as a “fantastic hub where developers thrive”.
“Northern Ireland Screen gave us access to mentorship, the workshops and different event spaces at the Pixel Mill, which has been really helpful for us as a studio to grow,” he said.
“The Pixel Mill is one of the best supported games incubators in the UK and Ireland and it’s the go-to place for meeting business contacts or if you need a space to work in."
Conor got funding for Stories of Blossom from Northern Ireland Screen and Future Screens NI and an award from UK’s game fund prototype.
His love affair with games started in his childhood when he sought a release from depression.
“Games are often seen as a form of entertainment but for me it was a life saver. Without them, and music, it would’ve been a lot harder," he said.
“To this day I have depression and anxiety but thankfully, because of games like Stories of Blossom, this is someone telling my tales of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.
“Things that have helped me – not worrying about things beyond your control, living in the moment and cherishing what you have – are the kind of messages that I wanted to share in a way that was meaningful and helpful."
Further information on fund and support opportunities within the industry, visit www.northernirelandscreen.co.uk/skills/the-pixel-mill.
Conor Bradley, Soft Leaf Studios