The lights are on
Lee Perry is best known within the video game industry as the former gameplay designer for the Gears of War series. Earlier this year, Perry decided to leave Epic Games, take a few folks with him, and start the mobile game development studio Bitmonster. It released its first game Lili last month, and its second game is already available to download. The game is called Thred, and it aims to end the mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015.
Thred isn’t just about raising awareness for the disease. The game is free to download, but the entirety of its micro-transaction profits (with the exception of taxes) goes toward the Global Fund to invest in HIV/AIDS programs in Africa. The money is being used to purchase a special inexpensive medication that has been proven with 99 percent effectiveness to prevent the appearance of HIV in newborns born from mothers with the disease. By playing Thred and buying a few micro-transactions, you can say with confidence that you helped prevent the spread of HIV.
We had the chance to speak with Perry about the game and how it came about. It started with Coca-Cola’s charitable Red foundation coming up the idea, and seeking a developer to help get the project going. Coca-Cola and Red got in touch with Epic Games, and it pointed them towards Lee Perry and Bitmonster. Perry may have left the company, but remains on good terms with his former colleagues and friends who still work there. Epic Games donated the Unreal Engine for the project so the game could be created inexpensively. “Basically, they have a medication that is about $0.40 a day, and with 99 percent effectiveness, it can mean that babies are born without HIV. So, they wanted to make something that they could use as kind of a tool to kind of spread this message as well as hopefully bring in donations,” said Perry. Bitmonster started work on the game immediately, turning around Thred in a relatively short amount of time. Perry said, “We ended up spending about a month and a week now, which is a ridiculously aggressive schedule, but what we came up with is this game Thred that you see.”
Thred is an abstract endless runner with a focus on music, and it provided a complicated challenge to Bitmonster. “How do you make something that speaks to the issues of HIV? How do you make a game out of that? Nobody wants to do that in a literal way. You don’t want to say, ‘I’m making the AIDS shooter.’” Perry said that games like Osmos, Flow, and Rez were major influences. “We started kind of thinking about, there are these games out there that people kind of think of as a legitimate kind of art form. Is there a way we can kind of tap into that without cloning those games? We want to make something that’s really accessible to people.”
Thred features audio from musical artists Tiësto, DJ Poet, and TOKiMONSTA. Players control a ship as it flies down an endless 3-dimensional tunnel, dodging obstacles and collecting power-ups and points. It’s simple, but the Unreal Engine makes the game shine with impressive visuals. Plugging in headphones makes it very easy to get lost in the trance soundtrack as you barrel towards your high-score.
The game has to be engrossing for players but, from a charitable perspective, it’s important that it have lots of micro-transactions for players to purchase. “When we think about apps and, especially over the last year or two where freemium has kind of taken over everything, in-app purchases are either a guilty pleasure or people don’t like them. Nobody revels in the fact that they spent $20 in coins in Tiny Tower or something like that.” Thred is one of the few games where people may actually be proud of their micro-transactions. “Everybody is walking around with this device now in their pocket that allows them to impulse purchase stuff and we thought, 'This may be the one game in history where people might actually be proud of an in-app purchase going directly to this cause.'” Because of this Bitmonster allows people to share their purchases on social media networks and offers expenditure leaderboards akin to the one that appears next to the popular Humble Bundles (a popular series of discounted downloadable game bundles which also benefit charity). Bitmonster and Red even worked together to calculate exactly how much it would cost to conceivably prevent one newborn from being born with HIV, and turned that into its own micro-transaction. “We basically came up with this number that’s about $205, so we made one of the micro-transaction amounts $210 (you have to round up to $10 at that point in app store), which literally is the amount, with 99 percent effectiveness, that is going to allow a child to be born without HIV. If you were to buy this thing, you could impact somebody’s life. There is an incredibly good chance that you could be responsible for somebody being born without AIDS.”
You can head here to grab Thred right now for your iOS device, and you can start playing the game, and hopefully making a difference. “Every step of the way, every bit of text in the game, we’re trying to make it so people know what they’re doing something that is actionably making an impact.”
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