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An image showing a boat scene portrayed in a risograph-esque look that makes the temple look like it’s from a storybook. It’s depicted in a soft pink and blue hues. Image: Die Gute Fabrik

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Saltsea Chronicles’ creators tracked the game’s climate impact — and now hope to change the industry

‘If you care about video games, you should care about the long term sustainability of game making’

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Saltsea Chronicles is set in a world rebuilt after ecological crisis and planetary flooding; it’s a world that’s not our own, but could someday be. The mythology of the game recalls a time when a group of people called “hoarders” took too much from the land, building up its treasures far too high. The seas became jealous and rise to meet these treasures, leaving only islands across the saltsea.

Developer Die Gute Fabrik’s take on Earth’s current climate crisis is easily recognizable in Saltsea Chronicles. It’s not the first game to take on our environmental impact on the planet, but it is one of the first — if not the first — to build out and publish a report explicitly detailing the studio’s impact on the climate across its development period. “Saltsea Chronicles is set on a flooded world, after a great climate crisis. I’m a storyteller by trade, and that story is easier to tell to the world than ‘a year in [Die Gute Fabrik]’; here’s a game after a disaster, here’s how its production impacted our own,” Die Gute Fabrik CEO Hannah Nicklin told Polygon in an email interview.

The studio hired AfterClimate (a company that helps studios reach climate impact goals) and games researcher Dr. Ben Abraham, who wrote Digital Games After Climate Change, to author the report and put a number on the studio’s CO2 equivalent emissions from January 2020 until October 2023 — the span of Saltsea Chronicles’ development. The results are an in-depth look at the climate impact of a small, independent developer with a work-from-home structure. It’s also a call for studios to make change. As Dr. Abraham puts it, the way things are now can’t go on forever.

“Fundamentally, if you care about video games, you should care about the long term sustainability of game making,” Dr. Abraham told Polygon over email. “It’s no secret that there are aspects of the game industry that are deeply unsustainable from the perspective of work-life balance: from crunch, to unpredictable layoffs, the uncertainty of funding for the next project. But there’s an even wider sense in which games are unsustainable ecologically.”

In an interview conducted over email, Nicklin and Dr. Abraham explained why Saltsea Chronicles’ climate report is crucial step for video game development.

A colorful interior from Saltsea Chronicles, in which the fireplace looks like a cute cat’s head. Image: Die Gute Fabrik

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Polygon: Why commission this report? Why is the studio’s climate impact important?

Hannah Nicklin: The obvious answer, of course, is to better understand Die Gute Fabrik’s impact on climate crisis. As you may read in the report, I’ve been an activist and advocate for climate action ever since I can remember — one of my earliest memories is learning about flooding in my home county of Lincolnshire, U.K.. A large amount of my activism and art over my adult life has been connected to climate. And while there are some things I have tried to implement in Die Gute Fabrik to reduce our impact, I found myself stuck for how to make change, and how effective we already were in reducing our impact. That’s why I wanted to ask an expert to assess us, and it felt ‘right’ to assess the whole of the game’s production rather than a single year. Saltsea Chronicles is set on a flooded world, after a great climate crisis. I’m a storyteller by trade, and that story is easier to tell to the world than ‘a year in DGF’; here’s a game after a disaster, here’s how its production impacted our own.

I fervently believe that climate crisis is an existential and urgent thread — more important and more connected to almost everything, connected to racial justice, to Indigenous rights, to economic and worker justice, gender, disability, all of it. The people who suffer first in our systems of oppression will also suffer first and most if we allow our climate to spiral past the targets that scientists have been warning us about for years. Obviously it pales in comparison to the impact on people but there are no video games on a dead planet, either. Climate crisis is also an existential threat to games.

In the context of all of that I’m always trying to find ways to act, there’s never going to be One Amazing Way To Fix Your Climate Impact, basically all of the problems in this world are in my opinion approached by a ‘path of least harm’ which admits that some battles are unwinnable, what matters is that we chart the most ethical path through them. I found I had the power and the data to commission a report so we know more about what the impact of making a game like Saltsea Chronicles is, and so I’m better equipped to chart a better path with the next games we make.

Why should game studios’ climate impact matter to others in the video game industry?

Abraham: Fundamentally, if you care about video games, you should care about the long term sustainability of game making. It’s no secret that there are aspects of the game industry that are deeply unsustainable from the perspective of work-life balance: from crunch, to unpredictable layoffs, the uncertainty of funding for the next project. But there’s an even wider sense in which games are unsustainable ecologically. We know that the games industry makes billions every year, but we still only have estimates about what that costs the planet in terms of greenhouse gas emissions every year. Filling in that picture with more data from studios is going to be crucial for the long term resilience of the business as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy.

From an entirely self-interested perspective, the games industry should care about the climate impact of game making because it’s also going to cost more to keep emitting CO2 in the future. One example: Microsoft has a net zero target that is less than seven years off, and if your game development is done in a way that produces tons of emissions and you want to be on Xbox — your emissions are their emissions. Either you find ways to reduce that impact, or you end up costing them some real sums of money through CO2 emissions removals. It will almost certainly be many times cheaper, and more effective, to prevent your own emissions in the first place than to try and “fix” them later on with costly CO2 removals

We also have evidence already that players do care about the impact of the games they play, because research from Unity and Harvard found a majority believed the industry has a responsibility to address its own footprint. That makes sense because gamers live on the same planet as we do, and so we all have an incentive to see games get made cleaner, in more sustainable ways, to guarantee that the industry can be around for a long time. It might not happen tomorrow, but on a long-enough timeline sustainability becomes an existential requirement for any industry, and an extremely serious risk for any one that doesn’t have solutions for decarbonisation. We are barreling towards a world of net zero commitments – most of the countries in the world are only a few decades away. It’s never been more urgent that we get this right for the same of games and the planet itself.

What broad takeaways did you have from the report? How will DGF will move forward in the future?

Nicklin: So, obviously right now we’re very full-on with the Satlsea Chronicles launch, so in the immediate term that’s our main focus, but quite soon after we’ll switch to beginning to prototype our next title, and that’s when I’m going to sit down with the board and the production team and plot in how we’re going to respond in detail to the reports findings.

The first few recommendations are pretty sensible: now we have the data for our most recent game, and we know how simple it is to actually begin to assess impact, setting up annual accounting, setting targets and then beginning to try and meet them is kind of a no-brainer. But there were still surprises in there for me — cut flowers, for example! We send flowers to the team to celebrate milestones or birthdays — it’s an easy gift to make equal for everyone, and also there aren’t many online stores in some countries you can send gifts from at all, but it seems all countries have flower shops. As a remote studio it’s a small way of making the studio feel present for everyone. But if the emissions are as much as they appear, then maybe we need to do some local research on each of the countries our team members live in so we’re buying local flowers only.

A short gif of a pink cat swatting at a butterfly in Saltsea Chronicles. The art is expressive but not very detailed, like blobs of color that move. Image: Die Gute Fabrik

And then there’s heating energy — some of our team are based in countries like Denmark where energy is much greener, heating comes from a communal district supply drawn as surplus from processing biomass, for example. But I’m based in the UK, I have a fairly old gas-powered combi boiler. I’ve changed my hob to induction, but I just can’t afford solar and air-source heating right now. What if the company offered people in my position match-funding? Or if it’s as simple as switching to another provider for your electricity, why not offer people paid time to do the admin and research? Sometimes all you need to make a change is the time to catch your breath, what if we made it clear that’s ‘work’ that can be billed to us?

Cutting down on flying even more is also a no-brainer, but one which needs more action from the more powerful entities in games to be possible. For example no one in the company flew for the company for the first 3 years in which the game was developed, but in launch year I have to try and secure funding for what’s next, we have to do an MVP of promoting the game IRL. I think we fly less than some indies, and I’ve gotten trains to Europe fairly frequently, but we have three to four return flights to the USA and Australia on our books for launch year, and I will need to fly to GDC again next year with our next game’s demo, and that stuff is in the hands of the people with power. Money or cultural capital which is held in non-hybrid physical space. If I don’t fund our next game there’s no guarantee the studio will be able to continue, and I’m much more likely to do that by being present at GDC.

So, I think there’s a climate justice (and disability justice — we’re still in the era of COVID) urgency in more local events, and more hybrid events. But until the publishers, platforms and conference holders make that move, those with less power will keep on going to them for survival. The only other option (which I would be behind for sure) is the wholesale unionising of the workforce, and professional unions for the studios, so that those with less power alone can band together to make urgent demands of those with surplus power.

Another takeaway for me along those collective lines is that it can’t just be the big organisations and studios that act. It’s really simple actually: net zero is made up of everyone, after the big studios make changes the emissions remaining will belong to studios like Die Gute Fabrik and others a bit bigger and a bit smaller than us. I think Dr. Abraham’s recommendation around eco-labelling there is really fascinating — holding one another to account, but also just everyone counting in the first place.

Finally, we focused on upstream emissions and impacts for the report, but I bet a company in the position and with the power that Steam has could institute downstream impact accounting at a level which is beyond our scale. Even capturing 10-20% of the data on energy use for Steam games (where they’re played, on what devices, and on average what a device of that spec demands for the game in question) could help us begin to tackle that as a field. Once we have the power of data, we have the power to act. And I suppose I hope that’s what this report communicates: action is urgent, here’s some ways we can do it, let’s start.

Abraham: One of the main findings of the report is that the impact of indie game making is so much lower than Triple A game development, both in absolute scale, and on relative metrics that should reflect comparisons across businesses of different sizes. There’s just something about making indie games that means it doesn’t come with the same climate costs as the latest Call of Duty, for instance, or a big live service game.

So indies are in a great position to start from in the transition to a sustainable game industry, even though there are lots of aspects of the transition that will require action from the major players and platform owners. Indies can do a lot to nurture expectations about this with their audiences, and potentially also stand the most to benefit from connecting with the values of gamers who care about climate issues.

Read Die Gute Fabrik’s full report here.