TerraGenesis Meets Ecologi: Integrating Sustainable Game Features to Sustain the Planet
by Hunter Bulkeley
View this blog on the Tilting Point website
With mobile games having the largest audience and revenue streams of any entertainment product in the modern world, major avenues have opened up for channeling that audience for positive impact on that world. Entire features can and should be built around driving social change, which is exactly what we did for the terraforming simulation game TerraGenesis. We partnered with the climate action collective Ecologi to build a feature called “My Forest,” where players use an in-game currency to plant trees on their personal planets, which sends signals to Ecologi’s tree planting API to plant a corresponding number of trees in the real world.
This permanent feature was integrated into TerraGenesis in spring of 2021, and we recently passed a major milestone: our players have now planted over 500,000 trees in Madagascar, as well as Mozambique and Nicaragua.
In this blog, using the TerraGenesis-Ecologi partnership as an example, I will walk you through the process of selecting a cause, designing the feature, and communicating it to your players.
The first important task is to select a cause that your players actually care about, and one that resonates with the subject of your game. You will accomplish nothing if you do not have the players’ buy-in for the feature.
The best way to do this is simply to ask your players what they care about. We ran a survey in TG and found that more than half of our players stated that they would be interested in playing a game built around climate change. With TerraGenesis already being a game about terraforming any planet into an earth-like paradise, it made perfect sense to tackle a cause targeted towards sustaining our own planet.
With that cause in mind, the next step is finding a partner you can work with to effectively address this issue. We’ve learned that one helpful resource for vetting the reputations of various charities is the website Guidestar.org. We ultimately chose to work with Ecologi back in February because they fit our criteria for a social impact partnership in a number of key ways.
The first thing to keep in mind is that you want to end up driving maximum change. There are organizations out there that are designed more towards vanity or low impact giving, with a lot of resources getting lost to company owners or simply not showing significant results once delivered to the target cause. In reforestation, for example, many planted trees are cut down by loggers as soon as they’re fully grown, effectively negating any good done. Ecologi, however, has secured grants to ensure their trees will never be cut down, and is incredibly transparent with exactly what they spend their money on.
The second quality to look for in a partner is an appropriate degree of tech savviness. Ecologi built their own APIs that we could integrate directly into TerraGenesis, meaning the instant a player plants a tree, they receive an order to plant that tree. This means our players have a direct, unhindered relationship with their own social impact, rather than Tilting Point serving as the middleman. (NOTE: I highly recommend having strong anti-cheating controls in place before implementing direct APIs like this).
A bit about Ecologi itself: as a platform for real climate action, they facilitate the funding of carbon reduction projects and tree planting around the world. To date, they’ve planted over 24 million trees and funded climate solution projects that have reduced over 800,000 tonnes of CO2. Ecologi’s primary mission is to reduce 50% of global CO2 emissions by 2040, and to responsibly plant billions of trees every year. You can learn much more about them at their website.
Once you have your cause and your partner in place, you need to determine what this new integration will actually look like. At this point, it ought to be the same as building any other feature: identifying the KPIs you want to improve or a niche that’s missing from your player experience, and executing on that goal. If your solution is a limited time integration, then you may wish to see how you can adapt your existing features to support that.
In TerraGenesis, we wanted to reshape our whole game to support this cause on a permanent basis, after we identified a key niche being the desire for more long term progression. With the creation of the “My Forest” feature, TerraGenesis players can now collect “Carbon Impact Currency” throughout the game, either by progressing in limited time events, completing daily challenges, watching ads, or directly buying them as IAPs.
Once players collect enough CIC, they can spend those points by planting trees in the “My Forest” tab. When they cross certain thresholds of forest sizes, the backgrounds of their forests will change, growing greener and more lush over time. “My Forest” progress persists no matter what level of the game the player is on.
Now comes the hard part: distinguishing this impactful feature from other purely in-game features, and impressing upon the player that this is indeed a genuine charitable action. In the crowded UI of most mobile games, you have only a few seconds to teach the player everything they need to know about a new game element before you’ve lost them. The answer, as with most features, is repeated reinforcement across multiple channels.
In TerraGenesis, we first expose the player to a pop-up with the greater details of the feature, explaining the targeted social cause. Then, once they’ve acquired enough currency to plant their first tree, we tutorialise the feature itself. In the player’s view of their forest, we link out to our full forest on Ecologi’s website, so that they can see exactly what they’re collectively contributing to. Finally, we regularly run competitions on the game’s social pages to see who can plant the most trees in a week, reminding them all the while that they are planting actual trees as a result.
To date, we are incredibly pleased with the response our players have given to the “My Forest” feature. Together, we have planted 500,000 trees since April, which has put TerraGenesis in 4th place on Ecologi’s business leaderboard. At the start of the integration, our players took to it like wildfire, planting an incredible number of trees. As time has passed, metrics have stabilised so that we plant around 300 trees per day, or nearly 10,000 per month. On average, our players that engaged with the feature have each planted at least 20 trees. Altogether, Carbon Impact Currency makes up over 15% of our ads watched.
While we’ve made great strides with our Ecologi partnership, there is a wide range of improvements we can make to the feature to further increase the good we can do. For example, at the moment, we are only taking advantage of the Tree-planting API, but we’re also exploring Ecologi’s Carbon-Offset-API which would fund carbon offset and green energy programs. We’ve also previously worked with the Eleanor Crook Foundation to address starvation with our limited time LifePack integration in SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, and Tilting Point is making big strides to revamp our philanthropic capacity in the new year.
It’s ultimately our goal to push further impactful integrations in our games so that players can make a difference through play, and I hope that you find this guide helpful in learning how to do the same.
Explore impactful game features with Tilting Point
Sustainable feature integrations can bring new excitement to your independent game, not to mention doing great things for the world. Are you looking for a partner that can provide product support and connect you with excellent platform partners, along with world-class marketing and growth services? Reach out to Tilting Point today by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Want to experience the Ecologi integration and plant real trees in TerraGenesis for yourself? Download the game here.
As Senior Product Manager at Tilting Point, Hunter Bulkeley has led all aspects of TerraGenesis development and marketing for the past three years as well as several secret unannounced projects. He was also responsible for Live Ops on SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off and previously led the soft launch of Warhammer: Chaos & Conquest. Prior to Tilting Point, Hunter worked as a Game Designer at Outplay while pursuing a degree from the University of Saint Andrews.