Maru Nihoniho discusses Māori culture, New Zealand’s gaming industry, Metia Interactive and her latest game “Guardian Maia”

"...Dealing with cultural content isn’t something to take lightly, especially if you are from that culture as well..."

When people discuss the video game industry’s presence around the globe, many overlook what is going on in New Zealand. Though New Zealand is small, it is home to a growing and vibrant video game industry. One such member of this community is Maru Nihoniho and her company Metia Interactive. Metia just released its most recent game, Guardian Maia – Episode 1 (which you can get for free on iOS here and Android here). Wanting to learn more Guardian Maia, Metia Interactive, game dev in New Zealand, and her background, I was able to interview Nihoniho for ScifiPulse.

You can learn more about Metia Interactive by visiting its homepage, following it on Twitter at @MetiaNZ, and liking it on Facebook. And feel free to follow Maru Nihoniho on Twitter at @MaruNihoniho.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some video games that you loved playing? Are there any games from your youth you still enjoy revisiting?

Maru Nihoniho: In the 80’s I used to play arcade games in the takeaway shops, like Moon Patrol, Galaga, Defender and Space Invaders. A game that I still enjoy playing today from the 90’s is Sonic the Hedgehog.

Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in game development? Was there a specific moment this goal crystalized for you?

Nihoniho: That happened about 16 years ago, that’s when I decided to start my own games company.  I thought to myself that I want to make games because I enjoyed playing them. I had no game development experience so decided to put myself through a one-year course to gain some relevant knowledge that could help me in my journey ahead. After I finished that course, I founded Metia Interactive and 2 years later had my first internationally published game called Cube on the PlayStation Portable.

Yanes: Like most Americans, I am sadly unaware of what goes on in other countries. Could you take a moment to describe what the gaming industry in New Zealand is like? (On this note, do know that I am insanely jealous you get to live in New Zealand which just looks beautiful.)

Nihoniho: Although small compared to the international scene, the gaming industry here is growing fast.  We have large studios and small ones like mine with a strong indie scene here as well. The games industry here could be our next creative industry boom if our government supports it as much as they do our film industry.  In the meantime, we’re all just making our mark and creating cool content.

(New Zealand is beautiful, we have great landscapes and scenery which makes for excellent backdrops for Guardian Maia ?   We’re quite multicultural here too especially in Auckland which is known as the Pacific capital of the world.  The climate is not to bad either.)

Yanes: You founded Metia Interactive in 2003. What were the motivations behind founding Metia? Specifically, were there gaps in the market you wanted to fill?

Nihoniho: I wanted to tell Maori stories through games.  I could see that Maori made and told stories were having success in the film industry so thought games would be the next step in getting our stories out there.  My first attempt was to create a fictional story based on Maori cultural elements and mythology with a sci-fi twist, something different and not told yet.

Yanes: Metia Interactive has now been around for over 15 years. In this time, what do you think are some of the biggest changes the gaming industry has gone through?

Nihoniho: The biggest change I have seen was the mobile game market, changing the way games are published and the business models that go with that.  Previously you would develop a game and get it sold through publishers to retail stores off and online.  Today you can develop a mobile game quickly and cost effectively and publish it yourself however making the game is only half of what you do now, analyzing data, marketing and making audiences aware of your game is a completely different story and that itself is a challenge.


Yanes: Metia Interactive recently released the game Guardian Maia. What was the inspiration behind this game’s creation?

Nihoniho: Guardian was an idea I had before I started Metia back in 2003.  I had planned for it to be my first game, an action adventure styled game like Tomb Raider but realized quickly a game like that was going to require a large team to develop and a large budget.  At that time, I had neither.  Fast forward a few years and the mobile market presented opportunities to get the same story told but in a different format.  I was able to design a proof of concept which ended up becoming interactive fiction now published on Google Play and the App Store and now called Guardian Maia Episode 1, part one of a duology.  Maia is the lead character and she is a guardian.

Guardianship or kaitiakitanga is an important aspect of our culture.  The Maori world view kaitiakitanga means protection or preservation where there is kinship between humans and the natural world. A guardian or kaitiaki is a person who is recognised by the people of a tribal group or Iwi and this person acts as the protector of their assigned area such as a lake or forest or special valued items.

Guardian Maia is a way to highlight aspects of the Maori culture here in New Zealand and around the world.  It is a way to promote Maori culture and New Zealand in a unique way.  Popular games based on other cultures have introduced players to the stories of other peoples and I see a future where the rest of the world will know more about the Maori culture from games made here.

Yanes: Guardian Maia is based on Māori beliefs and myths. Were there any challenges in adapting these stories into the videogame medium?

Nihoniho: Dealing with cultural content isn’t something to take lightly, especially if you are from that culture as well.  I did take creative license in a respectful way.  The main challenge was to integrate the cultural elements with the sci-fi setting, so it made sense.  The mythological themes in the story lent itself well to the sci-fi elements.

Yanes: The homepage for Guardian Maia mentioned that a live-action movie is being planned. What would need to happen for this film to become a reality? Additionally, what are your other long-term goals for Guardian Maia?

Nihoniho: Initially Guardian Maia was a proof of concept, a story that I wanted to tell.  That story lends itself to different formats such as the gamebooks, a planned action adventure game and potentially a movie.  I’m not sure if that movie will be real-life or animated.  It could be an interactive film because we already have a game script based on choice and consequence.  I’m currently looking at using the Unity game engine to create an animated feature.  I’d like to see Guardian Maia expand into one or more of the above as there’s so much more to show and tell.

Yanes: When people finish playing Guardian Maia, what do you hope they take away from the experience?

Nihoniho: I have had comments about the Maori content in my story, things like “no-one overseas will get it” or ‘won’t know who Maori” are and “it’ll be a hard sell”.  There’s only one way to find out and that’s just to do it and get something out there.  From my perspective it doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t even know where New Zealand is or who Maori are because the story is relatable.  I think other indigenous cultures will connect with our idea of guardianship and everyone will get the story.  It’s unique, cultural, interactive, historical science fiction and I hope that my small contribution will get people interested in our culture and they will want to learn more.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Nihoniho: We are a couple of months away from releasing Guardian Maia Episode 2, the conclusion.  This will also be available on both the App and Google Play stores.

Apart from that we are to finish up a completely different game for the mobile called Takaro that teaches coding concepts in a 3D environment.  That game also integrates Maori language and is based on a space hub called Matariki.  Matariki is the Maori name for the cluster of stars known as the Pleiades and when it rises in May or June, we celebrate our new year. Integrating the Maori cultural element into this game was done purely for our young people to see something relevant to them, something they can see themselves in.  I want to incorporate our culture into our games whether that’s obvious or subtle.

Kia ora

Remember, you can learn more about Metia Interactive by visiting its homepage, following it on Twitter at @MetiaNZ, and liking it on Facebook. And feel free to follow Maru Nihoniho on Twitter at @MaruNihoniho.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow ScifiPulse on twitter @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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