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Idealog Podcast: Runaway’s Zoe Hobson and Emma Johansson on VR, feminism and gaming in New Zealand

Runaway managing director Zoe Hobson and creative director Emma Johansson are ready to change the way we think about VR.

Then again, their games studio, Runaway, is all about changing the way we think about a lot things. After all, it’s a Dunedin-based, woman-led games studio that’s doing some pretty kickass things.

“Creatively I want Runaway to continue working on the ethos we’ve built so far, creating games our players trust and feel emotionally connected to, while supporting the communities that grow around them,” explains Johansson. “Being a smaller studio we don’t have the same budgets as some of the large mobile games publishers, so to stand out we need to take risks and be bold and innovative with our ideas and games. We have the freedom to explore new technologies like AR and VR, but we also believe that the full potential of mobile gaming is yet to be achieved. So we are excited about the future, creating the best ideas and bringing them to life.”

 Zoe Hobson and Emma Johansson.

And that’s not all. “If we want to create casual games for an inclusive audience, games that truly reflect and fulfil the human experience, then we need input behind the scenes from as diverse – and skilled – a talent pool as we can find,” she says. “On the consumer side, women are growing as a player base segment in their own right. In fact 80 percent of our players are female. We want to make more games that everyone can enjoy. To do that, we need women to feel confident joining the industry and making the games they want to play. It’s an issue I’m very passionate about.”

Johansson joins the leadership team from her former role as art director after eight years with the Dunedin-based business, an opportunity for which she left her native Sweden for. She fills the role left by outgoing creative director and founder, Tim Nixon.

The studio is certainly doing big things. Runaway has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years, with three mobile game titles (Flutter: Butterfly Sanctuary, Flutter: Starlight and Splash: Ocean Sanctuary) played by more than a quarter of a million people from around the world every month.

With a VR title launching in December and a new mobile game in the works for launch mid-2018, the team has recruited a raft of new talent – requiring a move to Stafford Street in the “Edinburgh of the South” to become part of the Petridish co-working space in one of the city’s oldest buildings.

Runaway started life under the wings of NHNZ in 2010 as its gaming division, where the first game Flutter (on the Facebook platform) proved that there was global demand for a portfolio of “games inspired by nature.” The studio worked to create mobile games that were based on nature, and designed with the aim of “bringing joy to players’ lives.”

Runaway then went on to develop games in partnership with National Geographic, the World Wildlife Fund, and, more recently, global mega-publisher DeNA. In 2015, the company made the move to self-publishing, bringing in-house more elements like player support and user acquisition. The move resulted in them doubling their staff – and revenue.

Oh, and Hobson and Johansson are proud feminists – and vocal about the need for more diversity in the games industry to better serve the needs of the diverse range of people who play games.

But enough gasbagging. Listen to the podcast below to learn more.

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