Former BioWare developer Manveer Heir has often spoken out about race and representation within the gaming industry. He has long argued that AAA game development tends to follow a formula of character creation and narrative design that leads to poor representation of ethnic minorities and lazy stereotypes.
Heir and his colleagues Bryna Dabby Smith and Rashad Redic have now founded Brass Lion Entertainment—an independent studio dedicated to creating fictional universes that center on black and brown characters—and announced its first project—Corner Wolves.
In an exclusive interview with OnlySP, Heir discusses the personal and professional experiences that drove him to found a new development studio, the influences and inspirations to create Corner Wolves—and much more.
OnlySP: Tell me about Brass Lion Entertainment’s formation? Was it something you had planned for a long time?
Heir: Brass Lion Entertainment was formed shortly after I left BioWare in 2017 after working on the Mass Effect franchise. I had planned to start my own studio some day for quite some time; it had always been a dream, but after working in the industry for 12+ years it became clear to me that I needed to create something to fill the underserved markets of marginalized players and stories.
OnlySP: Brass Lion’s stated mission is to create “black, brown, and other traditionally marginalized characters, cultures and stories.” Corner Wolves is set in ‘90s Harlem and involves drugs and gangs. How will you build branching narratives that avoid writing characters as stereotypes?
Heir: Our hope is to first humanize all the characters, by building in depth and motivations and showing how some of their choices are a product of environment and not personal moral failings. I think because we are a team of black and brown folks who know our voices and spaces, and we are the ones in charge of creative, it will be much easier to avoid the stereotypes and see them coming.
OnlySP: You have actively campaigned over the years for studios to increase diversity in games and move away from hurtful stereotypes. Was there a particular or crucial moment in your development career where you realized you either wanted or needed to create an independent studio in order to push diversity of the representation of characters and stories in games?
Heir: I would just say working in AAA for over 12 years and seeing the problems from inside the system made it very clear what the need was and that if I didn’t build it, it wasn’t going to happen the way I felt it needed to. I think a lot of us feel alienated in this industry, and my goal was to build something that would be the kind of place I always wanted to work at.
OnlySP: How will you ensure that Brass Lion is a studio that reflects a diverse and inclusive society?
Heir: Through hiring practices, diversity and inclusion initiatives, implicit bias training, and listening to our staff when they raise an issue or concern with the company or something in a project that is being made. Listening is probably the most important of all of those.
OnlySP: Brass Lion’s co-founders bring years of AAA game development and production experience. How have your experiences within the industry helped to prepare you launching Brass Lion and your own game?
Heir: I think all three founders have worked on great projects and worked on terribly mis-managed projects. The goal is to always take the lessons on what went well from the great projects and find ways to apply them as well as learn what went wrong with the other projects and try to avoid repeating those mistakes. Thankfully, we hold each other accountable and there are three of us with a wealth of experience, so we should be able to draw upon a lot of knowledge to make this studio thrive.
OnlySP: Can you tell me a bit about what games and life experiences influenced you to create your first title, Corner Wolves?
Heir: First, growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. at a time when it was regularly considered to be the murder capital. I was exposed to the safer suburbs of Maryland, where I grew up, and the rougher streets of DC, where I would frequently visit to watch sports or go to a show. You start to realize that there are two distinct Americas, separated by race, and that the rules by which each of those Americas is governed is different. Secondly, a lot of my favorite films from the 90s were things like Do The Right Thing, New Jack City, Juice, Menace II Society, and other classic hood films. I think the works of folks like Spike Lee and John Singleton had a lot of influence on me and made me understand why this concept of the two Americas existed better.
OnlySP: Corner Wolves is set in a fictional universe but explores elements of real life such drugs, gangs, and issues of institutionalized racism within the police. Why did you design the setting and narrative to resemble real life rather than a dystopian fantasy world?
Heir: Frankly, I am just tired of everything being fantasy or sci-fi only and us being unable to talk about the real problems that currently exist in our world. We make military shooters based in the real world (and then change the facts to make us look like the good guys), but we never consider other types of games that could be made in realistic settings. I’ve always loved period pieces and historic settings, and so to me it’s natural to choose a time period that I grew up in and a narrative that resembles things I’ve seen and heard my entire life.
OnlySP: Claude McKay’s book Home to Harlem famously chronicled the gritty reality of real lives and gave a voice to alienated and frustrated people within the African American community during the 1920s. Has this novel inspired the narrative design in Corner Wolves?
Heir: I actually have not read that novel, but I will now add it to my research list now. Thanks for the tip!
OnlySP: The first extract in your announcement was a beautiful and powerful quote by Maya Angelou. What did you choose that quote? How has she influenced you?
Heir: I’ve long loved the work and words of Maya Angelou and read her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school, which I remember finding to be very beautiful and moving. When looking for someone far more eloquent and wiser than myself to quote in the announcement, it’s hard to go wrong with Ms. Angelou.
OnlySP: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?
Heir: It’s still very early and we’re just getting started, but we are excited to publicly talk about what we are working on and we hope that your readers will follow our progress @BrassLionEnt and @CornerWolves on Twitter and Instagram. No matter what your background is, if you care about having new, interesting stories and game experiences, we want you to be a part of the diverse Brass Lion fanbase.