Building sustainability into the heart of a mobile game

Tallest Tree logo

Tallest Tree

Tallest Tree is a mobile platformer built around reforestation. While a lot of games have introduced environmental elements to spread awareness over the years, Tallest Tree blossoms in a way that’s never been seen before.

The free-to-play game sees players collect in-game currency, ‘seeds’, which are used to plant real-world trees. To date, Tallest Tree has helped plant 35,000 saplings around the world. We sat down with the mastermind behind Emberfly Studios and Tallest Tree, Founder Niels Wosylus, to learn about his journey in creating the game and the challenges of building sustainability into the game’s roots.

Founder Niels Wosylus

A tall order

From day one, Niels set out to create “meaningful entertainment with real-world impact”, but bringing that concept to fruition was as complex as it sounds. Few games have core gameplay elements that are so closely tied to sustainability, and to up the stakes further, this was Niels’ very first commercial project in video games.

Niels wasn’t motivated by doomsday scenarios, though. Instead, he simply thought the idea that someone could play his game and plant real-life trees was a beautiful concept. “Even if we weren’t facing a climate disaster, I still like to think I’d be doing exactly the same thing.”

Hearing about Neils’ mission to create Tallest Tree was inspiring, but outside of the sustainability puzzle, it also shone a light on the difficulties of taking your first steps in such a competitive industry.

Tallest Tree began life as a passion project after Niels had the idea to create the game at University. With no commercial backing, seeing the project through to development was only possible thanks to a passionate team of like-minded developers who saw potential in it and volunteered their time to work on the project.

“If you can’t offer people a salary, you can offer them an opportunity to create something and take part in a personal journey. At its core, a lot of people just want to create, so you just need to give them a good environment to do the things they enjoy.”

Equally, a well-developed ecosystem of organisations that’s already set up to tackle climate damage – enabling people to participate or donate easily – was vital. In the end, Niels partnered with Tree Nation, a non-profit organisation that runs campaigns to plant trees around the world.

Tree Nation’s projects around the world. Credit: Tree Nation

Narrow margins

The video game business operates on very narrow margins, particularly in the mobile space. So it’s unsurprising that Niels found one of the biggest challenges of creating the game was the economics. Mobile games rely on advertising to turn a profit and acquire new users.

“The game relies on organic traffic, which means you have to try and predict how many players will play the game, and how many trees to plant as a result. So you don’t overpromise and only plant trees you can afford. Outside of this, you then have external stakeholders who want to make money, so there’s the inherent challenge of making sure your expectations are aligned”.

The future of Emberfly

Niels’ journey in creating Tallest Tree is engaging because it encapsulates not only the challenges of bringing sustainability into games, but also the difficulties of getting started in the video game industry. Many people think that making a difference and business don’t go hand in hand, but Niels’ work has shown that “you can find harmony between them.”

It seems that Niels managed to create a game with passion alone, his and the volunteer developers that joined him. As of July 2022, Tallest Tree has over 500,000 downloads on the Google Play Store. As for the future, Niels is currently conducting market research for his next project. He explained he’s excited to continue “exploring the relationship between players and their real-world passions to create a deeper level of engagement.”, but he hopes to make the leap to console or PC for his next venture. While we wanted to know more about plans for his next game, Niels would only confirm that nothing was certain at this point. “Every game starts with a great idea, and there’s no room in this market for mediocre games.”

Check out MAG’s Green Game Jams and find out why MAG decided to make its green footprint a priority for the studio.

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