A new era of game developer has arrived to shake up narrative game making. In this episode, host Alexandra Takei, Director at Ruckus Games, welcomes Emily Pitcher, founder of Sondering, and Karla Reyes, founder of Anima Interactive, two Forbes 30 under 30 game developers focused on narrative innovation and socially conscious storytelling. The discussion delves into the evolution of narrative in games, innovative storytelling mechanics, the importance of representation, and finally, the limited innovation brought to business models within the narrative genre. Beyond building stories for the underrepresented, they are also committed to building studios whose developers are uniquely qualified to do so: social media and Tik Tok native (check out Emily’s robust following here), and importantly, have lived experiences that lend themselves to a creator’s truth. Games are a powerful medium for storytelling and social change and it is developers like these that are leading the charge. 


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This transcript is machine-generated, and we apologize for any errors.

Alex: What's up, everyone, and welcome to the Naavik Gaming Podcast. I'm your host, Alex Takei, and this is Interviews. In a talk by Warren Spector, who most members in the audience will identify as the director and producer of critically acclaimed Deus Ex, he shared a quote in a GDC talk from a book by Janae Murray, which states the following.

The video game includes still images, moving images, text, audio, three dimensional navigable space, and more of the building blocks of storytelling than any single medium has ever offered us. And I personally have strong conviction, and I bet our guests today would agree, that games are one of the most powerful storytelling mediums on the planet.

And not only from an A to B style narrative, think something like The Last of Us or God of War, But through other story structures, retold stories, so think of something like a card game or a match three game, I almost got it, but then I didn't. And then the next round was different. Decisions and consequences.

So think any JRPG or The Witcher. And sandbox or something like Minecraft. But as much as games have been a powerful avenue for narrative, there's been limited innovation in how the stories are told about whom they are told, how they are monetized and by whom they are created. And so today I'm excited to welcome two other fellow Forbes 30 under 30s, Emily Pitcher, the founder of Saundering and Karla Reyes, the founder of Anima Interactive, both are female founders of two studios that are focusing on narrative innovation and to tell socially conscious stories.

To me, they represent a new kind of game developer, native to the social media content creator ecosystem. Sondring, for example, has, I think, around 55k followers on TikTok, which is just Wow. And building studios that are representative of the actual stories that they plan to tell. So, um, Welcome to the show, guys.

Karla: Thanks so much for having us.

Alex: Yeah, it's awesome to have you guys on. And I know that I gave you guys a loose intro, but Emily and Karla I know you guys know each other, but I would love for you to tell the audience a bit more about your background in games, how you came to found your studios, and at a high level, what narrative scape is your studio focusing on for its first product?

Karla, maybe we'll go to you first.

Karla: Sure. Thanks so much. So again, name's Karla Reyes, pronouns are she, her. Alex kindly gave a bit of overview, but my background is, primarily as a game designer. So I started my career in the industry at Square Enix, where I was helping build out their mobile publishing division in Europe, and then I moved over to Niantic.

So I was working on augmented reality games, but I think the through line in a lot of my experience has been that I've always been deeply curious about the ways in which video games can drive real world social impact. And I've also in tandem done a lot of advocacy work, so I helped build an organization called Code Coven, which Sondring Studio actually participated in one of the programs, but it's essentially a classroom and accelerator for underrepresented game talent.

And I've just been doing a lot of work to try to increase representation at all levels within the industry, both behind and on screen. And then as far as the focus for Anima, so you alluded to it earlier Alex, but basically we call ourselves socially conscious. And so what this means is that we're really thinking critically about a lot of social justice issues in the world and exploring ways that interactive media can address them to foster greater empathy and awareness around them.

And while our first game is unannounced I can speak broadly to the fact that the narrative scope is addressing real world human stories. And there are themes of the immigrant experience probably.

Alex: It's fantastic. Yeah. I think honestly, a background like yours always me feel like I should be doing a lot more.

You are, thank you. This is it in action. Since you've been involved in so many awesome things. I know Code Coven is a really has had a tremendous impact on the industry. Especially for female coders and getting more people into the gaming industry from the, even from the earliest funnel of recruiting and being younger and knowing how, knowing that's actually a career pathway in the first place.

So, thank you for sharing about that. And Emily, maybe I'll have you go next.

Emily: Hi, I'm Emily. I'm the founder of Soldering Studio. We make artistic narrative games that focus on Asian American representation. My gaming journey started in college when I joined UCLA's game development club, immediately fell in love with the craft and it was through a game jam game that I made called The Taste of the Past that really gave me the confidence to propel my gaming career further and to start my own business and studio.

As you mentioned earlier, I am also a content creator, mainly on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. I make videos about insights to making games, my favorite indie games, inclusivity in the industry, and sometimes memes as well.

Alex: That's amazing. Yeah, I took a look at your portfolio page, and it's it's actually really, it was really funny.

I definitely found them to be quite humorous, and I think it's a very effective way to create compelling content. I recently recorded an episode with the heads of global gaming at TikTok, and humor is the way to win on that platform. It takes a very unique content creator and it's awesome to, to have you here.

So thank you both for sharing a bit about your background, and I hope that gives the audience some grounding for the kinds of studios that you guys are building, and the kinds of games that you're trying to make. And so today we're going to talk about the full stack of narrative, right? So how stories are told in games, and what mechanics are used to influence narrative flow, will then turn towards your stories that your studios are planning to tell, and how and why you plan to operatively staff and build that studio to support the socially conscious mission.

I. e. what I'm calling, the rise of the new game developer. And then finally, we'll conclude with discussing the predicament of the narrative business model. Which is, to me very interesting. And needs a shake up, for sure. Before we dive into the kinds of studios that your studio is, Stories that your studios want to tell.

I want to spend some time on the field of narrative game making and what new innovations have been brought to the space over the past years, and what narrative can do to influence society. So an opening question might be, what story structures today do you think are the most interesting? And Karla, maybe we will start with you.

Karla: Sure. Oh, gosh. So much, right? And I think this is why video games especially intrigue me because you can explore nonlinear and that quote that you opened the podcast with really resonates because we can really tell stories through so many different Bye. media within the broader media of video games, right?

You think about things like environmental storytelling, which is done through visual art, or there's so much emotion that you can capture through audio and music. And it's just a fully dynamic, immersive experience. And I think that's what really excites me. I, and I think that there are a lot of people exploring new techniques within video games.

As far as Like narrative, more narrative driven games and the Life is Strange series is one that's been obviously very impactful to me and inspiring just because I think it was a really effective way of showing choice and consequence, right? And that's, you alluded to that earlier as well, but so many more to name, but I'll let Emily address it as well.

Emily: Yeah, for me, I think the big change in narrative is just, Making characters that have deeper backstories, making more empathetic stories. I think a great example of this is Jinx from League of Legends. If you read her lore, there is a lie that says Oh, Jinx was always this crazy and there's no reason why.

She just is that crazy. But then, obviously Riot Games made Arcane, which really delved into that backstory and explained why she is that way and that was a huge success. I think Also, my favorite game of all time is called Before Your Eyes. It's a narrative game that's told through blinking. Literally, it uses your webcam and blinking is the mechanic.

The saying is that life flashes before your eyes, so it tells a story of a young boy from birth to when he grows older through blinking. And that was a massive success. I think people are looking at gaming as more of an art form, and because of that, we're moving towards more diverse stories.

Alex: Yeah, I think I love that the approach around mechanics , Karla, you mentioned life is strange. And Emily, you mentioned this blinking mechanic. I think one of the profound things about life is strange. It's personally also a game that I've played is the actual unique gameplay feature of the rewind time mechanic as a way that is very like synchronous with the storytelling and the motifs.

And I think Life is Strange has done that, Gardens Between has done that, and I think that's actually a very interesting way of actually tying together the game design and game mechanics with the actual story itself. And from this, you know, right, you know, we talked a little bit about story structures and interactive story games Karla, about Telling stories through the environment, telling stories through scripts that you can read in the environment, through audio, through blinking, through a variety of other things.

For you guys particularly, and at your studios, what do you think some of the most compelling game mechanics for narrative are? And Kind of why and what do you plan on using at your studios?

Karla: Yeah, I can talk a little bit about it. And maybe it's worth discussing our approach to narrative a little bit so for this particular project it's rooted in a lot of real world stories and inspired by a lot of real world stories So we have A lot of consultation and interviews that we're conducting with people with lived experience of the theme and the context and the setting that we're portraying in the game.

And I think that being able to translate something that's rooted in reality into a fictional world, because inevitably it is fictional as much as it is, realistic because it is a video game and it's a piece of art. And that, that's been an interesting. Challenge, but I think there's it's also a welcomes a new opportunity and a lot of excitement to try to innovate around that.

And some of the things that we're doing or that, we're exploring is obviously as even just simple imagery, like 2D. illustrations can be so powerful and can, when you think about somebody's a photograph or a memory, right? So that as a moment of stillness in a video game can be quite powerful and compelling.

I think cinematics are very useful, narrative mechanics as well. And being able to strike a balance between The interactivity while also having the passive viewing allows the player to meditate on something and then actually engage.

Alex: Yeah, I see that there is this for you guys that are making a stories about that are grounded in the real world reality, having something like a fantastical realism of a life is strange rewind feature.

Obviously, prevents contradictions to the authenticity of making and telling a real world story. I think we were talking before we got on air, but you were saying that you're focusing mostly on migrant stories, which, theoretically, those people wouldn't have superpowers. And, a lot of the reason for why people play deeply single person narrative games is to feel powerful and to feel like a hero.

But in reality, what you're trying to tell in your story is to try to put somebody in the shoes. of that actual journey which is really fascinating. And Emily, I would give you a chance to react to that, but I think another additional question would be, from the point of balancing interactive gameplay with cinematics, a lot of the other issue is that people want to do economical storytelling.

So they want to get into the action very quickly and don't have the patience for the cut scene. So everybody's like, skip, skip, skip. And they skipped the story, so what do you guys think about that kind of as a framework for people who, is it just an audience mismatch? Or is there something else that games can be doing to tell stories in a way that's not through cinematics?

Emily: That's actually a struggle that my studio was having, so Our game that we're working on right now has a lot of cutscenes, and our original intention was to have the player just sit through them and watch them. And we realized, actually, this GDC, when showing off our game to other designers, that it doesn't lead to the most compelling experience.

It almost makes you wonder like, you know, should this story be told through a book or a movie? Why is it specifically a game? And for us, One thing that we're evaluating right now is how to add interaction in cutscenes to make them feel more alive. One thing I realized that like even simpler mechanics, like it doesn't necessarily have to be like dialogue choice or walk, it could just be like walking around, clicking through the dialogue, picking up objects, like those like small moments of interaction can actually contribute a lot to keeping the player engaged during a cutscene.

Alex: Yeah, something a little bit more in the What Remains of Edith Finch style.

Karla: Exactly. Definitely. Yeah, you think about a lot of walking sims and even though there are a lot of cinematic moments, just simple interactions like Emily just mentioned are, can be quite effective. A game that comes to mind that I think does it effectively is We Are OFK, which is essentially an entirely like narrative driven experience, right?

It's a story for, yeah, those who don't know, it's a story of a virtual band in Los Angeles and it's a hugely narrative driven experience and they have these music video moments where you're essentially watching a music video, but then you can play, there are some mechanics where you can play while you're in the music video, which is unique and I don't know, I think experimenting with things like that is is cool.

Alex: Yeah. Do you think that there's something that in the past? Two years, you guys are the most have found to be the most innovative. I think that's the other thing that, we're struggling with is like, as narrative has gone on, some of these things have not, are not really not necessarily new or novel.

And it's, I think it's very rare that there's something that steps onto the scenes, like maybe like a What Reigns of Edith Finch, that really like tectonically changes the way that narrative is framed. What are the projects, for example, that you guys most admire in terms of that?

Emily: I was gonna say just hearkening back to Before Your Eyes like, that game genuinely changed the way that I felt about narrative gaming.

It was a game where very similar to the Before Your Eyes team my team, for us, narrative is the pillar, it's the most important thing that we care about like, art, atmosphere, it's like, the vibes, the feelings you get when playing your game, and then everything else is supposed to support that.

And what I love about Before Your Eyes is that it is a game about blinking, which is Firstly, just such a unique mechanic, but it's not just blinking. There are moments in the game where you have to hold your eyes open to make sure that you hear this dialogue. There are moments in the game where you have to keep your eyes closed.

And I really admire the way they use such a simple mechanic in different ways to tell the story's themes.

Karla: Yeah, I will say, I know Ollie and Graham, who are the primary developers behind Before Your Eyes, and I have such deep respect and admiration for what they've done. It's definitely up there as far as narrative inspirations.

I guess I can talk about Venba. I played that. I don't know if either of you have played that one, but I thought that really did, it did a really nice job. I was actually, A juror for the BAFTA Games Awards, and they won the category that I had served on the jury for, which was the best debut game.

Which is very exciting, because it shows that there's a lot of interest in narrative driven experiences. But basically, something effective that I think Venva did was that It told some, some pretty heavy hitting like stories about the immigrant experience but it also wrapped it in this very light hearted mechanic, which was the cooking mechanic right, something that a lot of people can get, wrap their heads around, and so it doesn't feel like trauma porn like necessarily, it's that there's You can address adversities, but know that the human experience is nuanced and complex.

And there's a whole spectrum of emotions and being able to package that up and serve it on a platter, no pun intended, given the Venva cooking mechanic. But yeah, I think that was certainly an inspiration for us as well.

Emily: Wait, I definitely want to talk a little bit more, but I'm also like the biggest fan of Venba.

So my team, we actually also made a narrative cooking game about the immigrant experience. We actually were making it at the same time. And then we realized, oh wait, we're making similar games, we should be friends. But one thing that I found really interesting was how we approach the cooking differently.

In my game, the mother teaches you how to cook. And for example, it's like, at first, it's like, oh, chop these vegetables, and then with each part of the cooking process, the instructions will go away, showing that you are growing too. Your mother is teaching you how to cook, and now you no longer need your guidance, you can just do it on your own.

And in Venba, they had it Your mother left recipes for you, but some of the parts are grayed out or difficult to read. And so you have to fill in the blanks there and gain independence through partly following your mother's instructions, but also rely on your own taste and memory.

Alex: Hmm. Yeah, that's pretty cool.

Both of these games I have not played. So now I can also, the purpose of this podcast was to recruit sorry. To basically elicit new new games for me to play, which these sound fantastic and amazing. A question that I would have in those games is, how important do you think dialogue design is to that narration?

Especially since we know that dialogue right now is a trend in our industry is, one, expensive. Voice actors cost a lot of money. You might be hit with some kind of animosity if you use AI. As for your voiceovers as well. And so how are you guys thinking about actual dialogue in terms of storytelling and some of the pros and cons of that, especially in the production stack?

Karla: Gosh I'm grappling with this every day because I think, especially when you're telling real world stories, you want to hear those human voices because it they so poignantly capture emotion, but of course, production costs are high with VO. I think there are a lot of mechanics that you can explore.

That still involve, text. We've talked about what remains of Edith Finch, but the text animations and the text effects that they use are so compelling and not very expensive to produce, right? Like now Unity has all this whole suite of amazing plugins for, text animations.

And I think being able to just digest dialogue Through these interesting like animated effects could be compelling because it's all about the perception right and as you're as the story is unfolding the way it unfolds, you can explore so many different mechanics and manifestations of that.

Emily: I was going to say for me, I'm the writer of my studio. So for me, dialogue, love it. I love thinking about like the rhythm of how people talk, obsessing over every single word. I guess I can talk about this a little bit with. the game that I'm working on. It's currently unannounced, but I can talk about it in a more broad level.

So our game is divided into two different worlds, a fantastical world where there's magical realism, it's inspired by Chinese mythology, so there's figures in the Chinese history, and then a real world, which is a bit more like gritty and they're supposed to juxtapose each other to show, you The highlights and aspects of each world for us.

The real world is very heavy in dialogue. The story centers around a young girl and her family and every family member is voiced versus in a fantastical world. It's not voice at all. And we rely more on environmental storytelling to get the point across and for me I think what's important is dialogue, of course, and crafting that dialogue to be beautiful.

But I think, A tool that you can use is also when there's no dialogue, or when there's no voice acting for a certain dialogue. I'm very much a believer of actually using voiceover maybe a bit more sparingly, so those moments can be highlighted even more.

Karla: Yeah, I fully echo what Emily says. I think less can be more, especially when you're telling, poignant stories.

Leaving it to the player's imagination, I think is really exciting, right? So there's a lot you can do there.

Alex: Yeah, it was super funny because I think, obviously the method is, less is more, but games are typically longer than movies or something like that. So there was like this funny meme that was like a film script, and for those that can't see us on YouTube I'm, it's a small stack, a film script is maybe two inches thick, and then the Witcher script is like, Yep.

Nine feet tall, because there's so many lines of dialogue, and there's so many characters, and so, um, you know, it's interesting to see how you're using voice and dialogue as a way of a powerful point of like, oh, this part of my world is loud with voices, but this other part of my world is quiet. Okay.

As a means of actually creating an actual ambiance and an effect. And so I love that example Emily, between your game and I know that you, it's unannounced, but that's very helpful context and grounding for how you're thinking about dialogue. One thing that I want to touch on before we shift to, you mentioned that your story is taught, told mostly about Asian Americans and Karla, you talked about, the migrant and the migrant story, right?

Is the concept of using consequences and choices and narrative games to teach and address social behavior. I grew up playing a lot of JRPGs where if you make the bad decisions, like you end up getting the bad ending either other people die, you kill yourself you kill everybody else, or something else that's very horrific that only a maudlin writer could potentially imagine happens, right?

And these are consistent motifs across a lot of games like Sea of Stars, Final Fantasy, Tales of Xillia and even Western titles as well. You talked about building socially conscious studios For Narrative specifically, what are you guys thinking about in terms of choices and consequences in your games in general?

Emily: I can answer this question. For the game that I'm currently working on, the theme is about finding beauty in the broken, making mistakes, and owning them, but also knowing that you can come back from your mistakes, you can ask for forgiveness, you can become a better person despite your flaws. I think for our game, like how we're approaching choice is that, You probably will make mistakes, you will make the wrong decisions, but actually that's good in a way.

Celebrate the fact that you're human and you're imperfect. That's what makes life better. Worthwhile and meaningful. So I guess like that's how we're approaching in our game. Like mistakes are good almost we're not sure about like alternate endings yet We're still earlier in production but like for us like again because the theme of our game is that to celebrate imperfection We almost encourage the Player to say sometimes the wrong thing.

Alex: So, do I get to save? Or is that not a is that you get to save.

Karla: Yeah. No, it's it's so interesting because as we're capturing, you know, real world stories, how do we sensitively portray Like what people have actually lived through, right? And how do we not gamify that so much? And so it has to be a little bit more curated, a little bit more authored.

There aren't infinite branching paths, right? Like choices have real consequences in the real world. And we show that. And I think that, Resilience. So thematically similar to what Emily's just mentioned about acceptance and, accepting that you're going to make mistakes, but continuing to persevere amidst and after adversity that those themes are really salient through what we're designing.

And that means that even if you make the wrong choice, quote unquote that you learn from it and that you have the opportunity. for a second chance, right? Sometimes you don't get a second chance on that specific event, but if you survive, if you remain alive you'll grow wiser and, in the next iteration that looks similar to that circumstance then you make a different choice.

Alex: Yeah, even thinking about it myself perhaps actually even like, not having a save function. Would be an interesting innovation within the narrative genre itself, right? I've found myself in every pen and paper RPG saving immediately before Disco Elysium. I'm about to like, I'm good, about to go do the skill check, and I'm like, ah, don't like that, I'm gonna go back, right?

Even right now, I'm playing Final Fantasy Rebirth, and I'm like I think I said the wrong thing to Barret. I'm just gonna, Just going to reload. Just rewind. And perhaps actually that's an element of replayability, right? That for a smaller scale game, if you wanted to experience all the variety of the things that could potentially happen, all the branching trees, depending on how many you have that could be something that's like, Hey, like you're not allowed to, to save and go back which is, I think, an interesting proposition.

But I think actually right now might be a good time to actually transition to talking about the kinds of stories that you guys are telling. And in Hollywood and TV, there's been this exhaustive push to increase on screen representation of minority groups i. e. shows like Insecure on HBO that explicitly focus on being black in LA.

Karla: Amazing show if anybody hasn't watched that I actually worked on a game that was about it It's called insecure the come up game. I was an early programmer and prototype. Really? Yeah for that. Yeah and the mechanic was actually like, Wrapping in front of the mirror, right? Because that's what he does.

Alex: So Yeah, that is awesome. I'll have to look that up. That's so cool That show is so funny and that's a great and clever way to do that mechanic. Exactly. Oh, that's so cool But anyway, shout out to Insecure if anybody hasn't watched that. But just, Korean dramas and shows that have high representation of sexuality and gender spectrums and more.

And in games, however, I think we're lagging a little bit behind, right? So only 6 percent of popular games feature female protagonists. And unfortunately, when you think of big narrative heavy hitters, especially in PC console, Last of Us, God of War, Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted, Witcher, and even like Final Fantasy there's a positive gender diversity there, especially too.

Ethnic diversity, sexual diversity, and the like. And you guys are building two studios that are going to tell a different story. And Emily, I would love to start with you. We talked about the fact that you're building studios that are centered around being Chinese American, but, what's the first story that you're going to start with telling for that demographic, and why do you think that it's going to resonate?

Emily: Yeah for us, we're telling, in my next game, we're going to be telling a story of a Chinese American girl grappling with growing up coming of age, having a complicated relationship with her family, and also having that generation gap of her mom and kids, Grandparents are from China, they were born in China, and they have that culture, and yet she was born in America.

Not only like an age gap, but just like a culture gap, and coming to terms with like balancing these both cultures is she American, is she Chinese what word you fit in this world? And I think that this is really gonna resonate with audiences. I think about movies like Everything, Ever, All at Once, and books like Crying in H Mart that achieved extreme critical and commercial success.

And for me, I don't see my game as risky for taking this type of more niche, narrow story. I think that it's still Time for these stories to be told to resonate with other Chinese Americans But also people in China who have relatives living abroad and they want to know what their lives are like Something that I think a lot about is that actually Chinese is the most popular language on steam and so for me, like I don't see my game as a I what i'm trying to say is like I see my game as a more I guess like reliable investment I think that You This game could be the game that bridges the gap between, how movies are ahead of us.

We could be there soon, I think.

Karla: No I think like I echo everything that Emily has said. Something that I, I haven't mentioned yet is that at our studio, we're not just building our own content in house, but we're also trying to empower creators more broadly. And so we've actually hosted a couple of game jams.

Or one more prominent one most recently, which was actually in partnership with a an organization that was historically a film production company and specializes in narrative and storytelling. Is interested in investing in new media and video games. And I think we're seeing a lot of that now, right?

Hollywood is very intrigued by video games being the largest entertainment medium in the world. And so how do we exchange notes? How do we collaborate? And so I'm personally very excited about the impact driven lens that we can take through that, right? Because there's obviously a greater impact through collective action.

And what we've done is we've. Basically, we've been trying to just empower creators with addressing different social justice issues through video games. So the Game Jam that we ran last year, it was themed around justice and we asked developers around the world to to basically weave different justice narratives in video games through their prototypes.

And we had about 100 participants from 20 countries and that all culminated in a showcase and award ceremony at South by Southwest. And we're actually Going to be continuing that building off of the momentum and community we've built there. Things will be announced soon around that. But I think there's a lot of, Opportunity for us to learn from, as Emily was saying from film and TV, and there's a lot of catching up to do.

There's also immense untapped potential in our industry being the largest entertainment medium. We should be thinking about sharing these new stories. And I know we've talked about, The global majority, right? It's is really our audience. So when we think about these more quote unquote niche stories, they're actually about a lot of people in the world have experiences.

So when for example, in our case with the migrant journey, the immigrant experience or the refugee experience, right? This is something that Yeah. A lot of people can resonate with whether they've experienced it themselves, or if they're a product of the second generation or third generation, especially in the US, for example, right?

Like, We are a nation of immigrants. So I think that a lot of people could resonate with that experience. If you can think about like, Spanish is slowly becoming the most widely spoken language in the U. S. As opposed to English, so it's, the tables are turning, and it's an exciting and opportune time for the rise of, these new audiences, new new creators and new characters.

Alex: Yeah, so TLDR, what I'm learning, Chinese is the most spoken language on Steam or written language on Steam. Spanish is the highest spoken language in the U. S. and so therefore, yes, but I think it makes sense, right? And you even aptly correct, corrected myself, like it's not the minority story. It's actually like the story of the majority, right?

I, myself as an, as a half Asian American right, may even resonate with some of these journeys. I was reading this thing on the New York Times about What it's like to be half Japanese, right? Because in Japan, you are absolutely utterly rejected as being Japanese. If you're not Japanese and someone like, even like Naomi Osaka is just like, they don't consider her Japanese at all.

And it's an interesting, like life's it's an interesting life story and interesting, but way to to be, and games can obviously let really physically let you stand and play actively in the shoes of somebody else. And so it's incredibly powerful. And so I love that. And so actually a question, Karla, for you will your game be in English or Spanish first?

Karla: We're actually developing it bilingually. So it's a little bit of Spanglish at the moment, but but yeah, I think it's an interesting one. I imagine for the audience and maybe based on the publishers, English is probably going to be the primary language, but Of course it will work on localization.

Alex: Emily, what about you? Anything in Chinese?

Emily: Yeah, so our game is currently mostly in English, but there is like a little bit of Chinese here and there. So for example, in the Chinese, you have a, you're, there's a Chinese zodiac and you're born in a year of a certain animal. So the main character is born in the year of the rabbit.

And so the grandpa as a pet name, we'll call her Xiao Tu, which means little rabbit. So there's little hints here and there, but we obviously do want to localize it as well.

Alex: Got it. I see. And actually, that might be another great way to shift into our next topic, which is, how do you do justice to those stories, and is there a truth and, what I call creator truth to the developers behind the game?

So if you're going to build this game in Spanish, you're going to build this game in Chinese, right? And it sounds like you guys are thinking about that or considering it, or like you said, there's elements of it. Who are the people at your studios, and why are they uniquely qualified to tell these stories?

And has it also in that same capacity been challenging to build a studio like that? That's already rife with diversity from the ground up. I know that we talked a little bit about what you, what your studios are doing, what kind of games they're making, but I'd also love to hear about who's in, who are the developers inside of them.

So Karla, we'll start with you.

Karla: Yeah, gosh This is such a big question for me because I'm very excited to answer it because we're doing a lot of groundwork in the way that we're approaching these stories. And what we're mindful of is, Every individual has a unique lived experience. So while representation matters, just because somebody identifies with a specific background doesn't mean that they are the experts in that right specific topic or theme.

And I think that's something that As I've gone through a lot of kind of diversity and inclusion work in the industry, it's come up as a salient theme, right? Just because you have a person of color or let's say you have a Latin American person on your team, it doesn't mean that they're going to be able to speak as experts on this specific, experience lived experience.

So we need to make sure that There are also people with lived experience that are involved in the development process depending on what it is that you're capturing. And so we have several external consultants. We also partner with like academic institutions because of the culture. So we have an anthropology lab at UCLA that's been supporting us as well.

And I think that's been really enlightening and a really powerful resource for us. But it's been really fun because our, so our team is very. Distributed and diverse like we are, I think over 85 percent people of color over 60 percent female non binary. And we're kind of dotted across three continents.

Many of whom are in Latin America, but I think that adds a lot of richness to the development experience. And what I've discovered over time is that everybody like the themes and stories that we're telling are truly like, Touched by everybody behind the project and it's all coming together and it's very eclectic and it's always that's the fun of game development, right?

It's like when you see what everybody has to bring to the table and and then it comes together. But yeah, I the TLDR of that is that don't assume that just because somebody is like representative of a specific, right? Like demographic that they're going to be the best people to be, telling that story.

And so you make sure that you're doing the due diligence and research as well.

Emily: Yeah. So for my team, I'm a vast majority of us are Asian living in a different country. So Asian American, Asian, Australian, Asian Canadian. So for us, when we were deciding what type of game we wanted to make, it was almost very natural.

Like this is just making a game about our lived experiences. Also similar to you, Karla, I think the majority of my studio is either woman or non binary. For me, I never really had diverse, to be honest, I really didn't have diversity in mind when building my studio thinking, oh, I need to have this genetic makeup of the people working.

I've just always been extremely clear about the types of games that I want to make from the very beginning of me making games, I knew I wanted to make story driven empathetic games for me, making games of being Asian American. Just also just came naturally because that's just who I am. And. As I made it abundantly clear to everyone I ever collaborated with what types of games I want to make, naturally, the people who gravitated towards that probably also had a more diverse perspective or just understood, this is the type of game that Emily wants to make.

She's not going to change her mind. If I join her for that journey, I'm going to be making that game too. But thankfully, through working in games for so long, I have formed a really passionate and talented team of people making the game. I also really want to touch on the fact that although, of course, this is a game about cultural representation and diversity, for us, the number one goal is just to make an objectively good game.

We're not just trying to appeal to an immigrant audience. For us, we're trying to appeal to everyone maybe people who are Asian or immigrants have a special connection to our game, but it's the type of story that It's human, not just Asian American.

Karla: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's a really important point that Emily makes is that we're not just trying to preach to the converted, right?

Even though that global majority would like that game would resonate with them. Our hypothesis is that there's a large portion of the population that simply isn't really aware because they don't have the association with it in any capacity. But if you wrap it in. Experiences that are universal, right?

Because I think things can be deeply personal, but also universal. And I think that's what makes a great story, right? That's what makes you connect with any character, right? Even though it's not, this character is an archetype, but they're not necessarily who you are, but you can still be inspired by them and look up to them, etc.

And I think that's something that we should be and can be exploring.

Emily: Yeah, there's a movie called The Half of It. It's about a young Asian American girl who is a lesbian. And when they were doing testing for the movie, they actually specifically showed it in very rural, conservative areas because the goal of the movie was to change The minds or expand people's perspectives of those who may not already be accepting of peop, people of color or people in the L-G-B-T-Q community.

And that's like something that I really resonate with my game too. I definitely don't want it to just appeal to people who are already accepting of these ideas. I want it to bridge people's cultures, expand perspectives and make people think. Think of Asians with more empathy especially after the Stop Asian Hate movement, or with the Stop Asian Hate movement.

Alex: Yeah I hate to go all cringey, cringey Stanford, but our slogan is change lives, change organizations, change the world. And so I think when you said that, Emily, that's the first thing I thought of. I definitely drank a little bit Kool Aid, so I will 100 percent admit that, but I do think it's important.

Karla: No, I just wanted to just append to that because like our thesis at Animar, like our theory of change is that like entertainment moves culture and culture moves society, right? It ends video games as the largest entertainment medium in the world. We have an unparalleled opportunity, also some responsibility, right?

Because we are the ones bringing the narrative to the culture, to the world, to society. And so it, the stories that we share will have an impact inevitably. So we have to be, Thinking critically about the stories that we share.

Alex: Yeah. But honestly, I think the most impressive thing is that beyond just the actual, like you said the creative entertainment content can change perspectives and change people's hearts and minds.

You're also walking the talk on who is making, who are making those games, right? Because as we mentioned before, I talked about Hollywood increasing its onscreen diversity, but Back of the set, it's still incredibly low, right? The directors, the gaffers, the grips, the cinematographers, the entire business staff that actually builds Hollywood content is still, by far, drastically lagging on screen representation.

And so I think what's so impressive here is that you guys have built studios That are actually uniquely equipped to tell these stories from a truthful perspective. And they're also supporting a new generation of people who will be the future game developers, right? Because it's one thing to just tell a new story, and it's another thing to actually have the industry and the people who are the labor behind it actually be representative of those stories, which I think is just Super incredible which I guess also goes to my next question, right? I think, Emily, you mentioned that you are a games development content creator you mentioned that before that this has given you access to a lot of developers that you would never have actually met.

Can you talk a little bit about kind of the balance of being a social media creator and a games content creator, having amassed a fairly like large following on TikTok through game development and content videos, and then also recruiting to your studio and how you formed relationships with those people that you brought on board?

Emily: Yeah, I should say social media growing this, becoming a content creator was Firstly, an accident. I started making videos on tech talk, just wanting to spread the word about my game. I saw marketing as this evil, but necessary tool. And then I started growing an audience there and then I reposted one of my.

Videos from TikTok to Instagram and that video got 2 million views. I gained like 10, 000 followers within a week. And now Instagram is my biggest platform with 160, 000 followers. For me, social media has been a huge help in elevating my game's career. So for example, I was in the game awards feature class, which is the game awards every year.

They nominate 50 people who represent the bright, Bold, inclusive future of gaming. And I had people from my audience to nominate me to be on this list. If it hadn't been for social media, I would not have been on that list. And being in that network, I got to meet so many of my favorite developers. For example, like I got to meet like developers from among us.

And just also just like getting their help has helped me immensely. So for example, like this is my first time starting any type of business. And so there's all these things that I do not. No, about like, for example, how should your business be structured? Revenue share all these different things.

How should you pitch your game to investors? These are things I'm incredibly unfamiliar with before I started this process, but it was through the help of people at future class who would guide me at conventions. I remember Nick from agro crab. He is like low key, my mentor who I met through future class.

I will just like, whenever we see each other at conventions, I'll ask him all my questions and like, furiously write the answer on my phone. Then I'll meet up with my team. I was like, Hey, this is what Nick told us to do. And actually he's helped us a lot. In terms of like how we structure our business or how we went about pitching.

And he also gave input on our budget, which has been massively successful. If I didn't have the momentum Of being on the game more teacher class, I probably wouldn't have made it on Forbes 30 under 30, which is another big accomplishment for me in terms of like making myself and my studio seem more legitimate in terms of like pitching my game to investors.

We do talk about the fact that we have such a big social media following across platforms before we've even made our game. We have an audience of prospective players. We got the marketing. On lock if you partner with us also it's just been like fantastic in terms of like, um, inspiring other young developers.

I remember at GDC this year, I made a ton of bracelets for like my fans. I thought it'd be a cute handmade gift. I gave out all of them. And Friday I had none more to give. And it was really rewarding. I even had a meetup at GDC for people who followed me. And it was just so awesome to see that my audience is also developers who are doing their own thing.

Which is usually immensely cool. I got to see, the games that my fans are working on and it was really rewarding.

Alex: That's fantastic. And if you're wondering, from the VC world, we call what you have a unique distribution edge. If you want to use that,

but I think it's it's incredible. And I think that's also been it's a new era of of basically a people who are building and creating that content online. I think that there's such a difference And an awesome like new innovation and brilliance that it's brought from being a younger developer and having that kind of community, which is just, different from the, people who started making games in the 90s.

It's just a different era. It's just a different generation. So really appreciate you sharing a little bit about your content creation experience and how it's had an impact on games. Before we move on to the business narrative, business of narrative, I do want to touch a little bit about, what the actual industry is doing today to empower that new brand of developer.

I think Karla, you've talked about some of the programs that you might've been partnered with. Can you tell us a little bit about it? Bit more about that before we move to the next topic.

Karla: Yeah, I think it's really aligned with what Emily's just discussed as far as community building community is so essential.

And I think that our approach is a little different. I will admit I'm not the greatest with social media. I'm much more of a grassroots marketer and campaigner kind of person. So I'm probably more focused on just like engaged, deep relationships, even if they're fewer rather than having a large following, but I totally see the value.

And I have such. Perspective admiration for Emily, how far you've come in building such a wide audience. And I would love to learn from you honestly, . But in, in our work and it all culminated, right? As I mentioned, the South by Southwest event that we hosted an awards ceremony and it's on YouTube, so I can share it after if you ever wanna have a look at it.

But I think that event was really. special and a testament to the community that we're building. As I mentioned we had developers from about 20 countries participate in that game jam. And it was just, I think, a testament to the fact that people from underrepresented Backgrounds tend to gravitate toward impact driven experiences or the want to share different types of stories or new stories, perhaps because of lived experience or something right.

And I think as an example, like we had a team from Lebanon. We had developers from Venezuela, right? And and they were all excited to talk about justice in their video games, right? So why, right? Why do you think that is? Because they're experiencing systemic injustices in these nations, right?

And I think that that's just a way to start. Amplifying and like our goal through that initiative was to raise visibility of these developers. We had a lot of advocacy group partners as well like IGDA Foundation, Latinx in Gaming, Black in Gaming Foundation. These are really powerful communities.

And what was cool is that, there was a, the grand prize winner got 10, 000. They're now in talks with further developing the prototype, right? It really gave People, the opportunity to get their projects in front of investors and partners and funders that they would not have had otherwise.

And so it's a lot of ground, a lot of work, but like anything worth doing is, and I think that's what it takes to move the needle. It's. It took, it took us years to really build out the programs with CodeCoven as an example, right? But now it's just a well oiled machine.

You see they've already had such an impact on hundreds of developers, probably thousands at this point, around the world. And it's exciting. So just more of that.

Alex: Yeah, that's awesome. I think after this, I think I just need to text you and get a list. Yeah, some organizations just like follow and LinkedIn because they're just it seems like there's so many I just it's and that everyone is doing such great work.

So I would love to keep up with that. But, we talked a lot about how the ecosystem is supporting the new developers. And now I think I want to go to what I think is one of the biggest conundrums of narrative, which is. How do you frame narrative as a big business? And one of the ongoing predicaments, I believe, is that the business model for narrative has been totally devoid of innovation, and it's sold in one of two ways.

One, sell a box so complete experience and access model, or episodically update narratives over time, right? Which is lots of lots of romance games on mobile pursue this, like chapters or something like that. And when you think about the business models for your games, Are you thinking about or trying any innovated go to market distribution strategies?

So Emily, we know about your unique distribution edge, so maybe less around, go to market and more about the actual monetization model on the business model for narrative as a way to think about innovation for your game.

Emily: I want to say for us, I'm, like, super inspired by what Riot Games did they have KDA, which is a whole band, they have Arkane, and that's something that I'm definitely interested in doing for my game, so maybe the universe starts through a game, but then becomes a TV show, it becomes a book, it becomes a comic, it can become all these different things that have side stories, so for us that's something that I'm super passionate about growing for my studio, but We're starting with games right now.

Karla: Yeah, I think trans media is definitely the trend and the exciting opportunity for narrative driven experiences especially now. And again, like Hollywood is very intrigued. Graphic novels are becoming ever more, present and exciting, I think. And so there's a lot of opportunities that are lucrative.

Gosh, monetization. It's an interesting thing because. It was kind of my bread and butter for a lot of time that I was working at studios like Niantic, like I was thinking a lot about free to play business models versus premium. And when it comes to narrative driven content, as you said, yeah, there's We're exploring the episodic concept, right?

Or what's the replayability factor? Maybe it's through DLC but I think other avenues are also just thinking outside of the games industry or traditional gamer audiences as well, right? It's like, Whom can we reach that will, that might be excited about this topic who maybe isn't even that well versed in video games, but if we create an accessible experience and they're really, that resonates with them, then how can we reach those audiences?

And I think partnerships for us like through, either like different non profit partners or academic institutions, like that's the direction that we're going in. That's not applicable to everybody, obviously, but I think being able to really hone in on who you're, whom your target audience is.

And because again I don't know, there's this theory about having 1000 fans, for a musician. And if you can manage to curate like a fan base of an engaged fan base of 1000 fans you might end up having a more successful career than somebody who has I don't know the millions that not always, obviously, but but I think that there, there's something there that might be worth exploring.

Alex: Yeah, it's also the crypto strategy. As long as you yeah, exactly. Paying 800. There you go. That's an incredibly high up down.

Karla: Yeah, I guess in the free to play world, we call them the sharks, right? The whales.

Yeah, I think it's I think it's really interesting because you're talking about market, you're talking about market expansion, right?

Alex: Perhaps the audience for my game is a different type of consumer, right? But I think again, like at the same time, this is, has been one of the challenges for narrative game making in general across the board. From the venture side, the business, there is this kind of ongoing impression that narrative's not fundable.

Because that's a one studio, one game, not a gas model, not a, and not a live service model, right? It's one game, one hit, move on, make the next game shutter for shutter, go dark for five years as you make the next title, right? And as an investor who's looking for a stable cash flow, Unfortunately, narrative doesn't provide that and therefore so much of that innovation and those big narrative games can only be floated by the big ticket prices of AAA studios or the indie scene who's doing incredibly innovative strategies to reduce costs and, tell stories through pictures without voiceover and there's like this like middle section of games where they're like, Hey, It's better to have, and I think Ben Brose said this one time, , it's better to have no story than a bad story or something like that.

He was like, just don't have narrative in your game unless it's narrative or something like that. I can't remember, not a direct quote. But, I think you guys are speaking to some of those challenges. And, Yeah, I presume that for right now, you guys are speaking to investors on your projects, and I presume that potentially publishers are more interested in the kinds of products that you're making versus venture, given the business model framework that we just discussed.

But when you're talking to a publisher, for example, what has been the biggest challenge with you guys getting a publisher excited? I know that's a hard question, but I'm Evan. I'm interested to hear, because what you're sounding, what you're doing sounds so incredible.

Emily: Yeah. So for us, there's two big challenges. The first one is actually when we pitched our game, we pitched it as a platformer and actually a lot of publishers were like, Oh, we really like your game. Like we resonate a lot with the story and the art style, but publishers are a genre that we're no longer doing.

We actually reflected on that and realized like, actually, I don't even think platformer is necessarily the correct genre for our game. So we're actually currently like reworking our genre for that. So that's been a huge struggle. Especially when a publisher will be like, we love your game, but hate that it's a platformer.

Emily: And now I'm like, Oh, like what if it wasn't a platformer? And then the second, this is the biggest struggle. This is by far the biggest struggle I would say is we're asking for too much money. So the, Truth of it is that I live in Los Angeles, my programmer and my art director live in Los Angeles, and it's very expensive to live here.

Versus a developer that lives in, I have a friend who runs a studio in the Netherlands, and she says that she can live off of, Much less money and still live a very comfortable life. And so it's like, damn, I want to pay a livable wage to my employees. But that's also stopping me from being able to get funding.

Like I think. I think it's, my game itself, I think a lot of publishers actually really like it. It's just the dollar sign associated with it. And then it's do we move to a cheaper part just to make the game? But that's also like sacrificing like our friends, our connections. It's so great to live in LA because we get to network with other developers.

It's very complicated. And definitely something that I'm struggling and grappling with.

Alex: Yeah. Thank you for sharing those two things. Yeah. Yeah.

Karla: Yeah on our end, we're actually quite early in our development. Just transparently, we're just about to finish our first playable. It's only it's only been a process for the last few months.

So while we've planted seeds with publishers and there's been a lot of positive reception there hasn't been any like negativity yet, thankfully, touch wood it's really been, yeah, questions around what the moment to moment gameplay will be like. And so that actually. is I guess goes back to what Emily was saying about the genre classification, because that's something that is really crucial when you're pitching.

And it's such a, it's such a delicate dance these days because there's so much hybridization and there are elements of, and I'm again, as a game designer, like I think about games like Dave, the diver, I don't know if either of you played, but that is like a game designers game. It actually won best game design at the BAFTAs most recently.

And it explores such a vast range of mechanics, but all under this umbrella of you are a diver managing a sushi restaurant, right? Like at the end of the day. But yeah, so in, in our game I think trying to to pitch it is interesting because the narrative element and the narrative component is so critical, but we do also want to make it an engaging and compelling experience and mechanics and gameplay are so critical to that.

So shaping that the narrative around the gameplay, is, has been the biggest challenge I would say, but hopefully that will just, It will rather like show than tell when the demo gets in the hands of publishers.

Alex: Thank you for sharing some of those thoughts.

I think it's always helpful because again, like even the fundraising process and pitching to publishers, pitching to investors is part of the business of gaming. And it is. In order to make your game Capital of the Lifeblood in order to do that, to pay your reviews, to do something awesome. As we're arriving at the top of our episode, I want to ask one, both of you guys, one concluding question, which is, on this topic specifically of building a new, a new, fostering the growth of a new type of game developer, what do you think, we every day right now, We could all be doing better.

Like what's the one thing that I could be doing better or anybody that's listening could be doing better to help and help grow that.

Karla: I will say, thank you, Alex, firstly, for curating this, because I think it means that we like Emily and I will be reaching an audience that might not be necessarily the same audience that, cause you were just talking about, for example, like the VCs versus publishers, I think that something that everybody can be doing better is, thinking a little bit outside of the box and exploring things that they typically wouldn't. I don't know how, gosh, we're so inundated these days with media consumption. And we have tons of algorithms and AI that drive us.

And I don't know how many people are doing things like to, for discovery, right? Discoverability, right? Is, are they just looking at the top 10 games? Are they just going to IGN? Try thinking about different platforms, maybe ones that are a little bit more underrepresented and I'll send you that list of advocacy groups, Alex, people who are really like championing that the Indies or because there's a lot of great talent and I think that's something that, I've learned throughout a lot of the DNI work that I've done is, um, there's a lot of talent, but not a lot of opportunity where that talent is.

And so how do we amplify the voices of people? Because gosh, there are some brilliant ideas and I would really encourage people, especially investors. If you want to like strike gold, like you really got to dig deep, so that's that's what I would encourage everyone to do.

Emily: For me, it would be to stop seeing these more diverse games as charity work or things you want to support and goodwill. I want to make games that are just good in general. Of course, I have my own agenda of wanting to be culturally diverse and for us, for example, we have a female protagonist.

But at the end of the day, we want to make a good game regardless of who the audience is and regardless of the representation. And so it's one thing that I wish investors and maybe like even the audience saw more is just like the potential of these games to really innovate and move us forward instead of, oh, like doing this, playing this game or, investing in this story because it makes us look good.

Alex: That is an amazing message to end on. And so with that guys I think that's our takeaway, right? Is that this is, this is, this is great gaming and it should not be thought of as pro bono gaming, which I, it's just a phrase I just came up with just now. But thank you guys so much for coming on air.

This has been so fantastic. We usually conclude by asking the guests in case they, There's someone in the audience that wants to reach out to them, how they can get in touch with you. Emily, you seem incredibly easy to find given your 160k followers on Instagram, but if someone wanted to shoot you a DM, should they just DM you?

Um, how can they get in touch with you?

Emily: Yeah, so if you want to contact me, my email is [email protected]. Sonder is spelled S O N D E R. If you're curious about following my journey though, you could, Find my videos on Instagram, which is SonderingEmily. My TikTok is SonderingStudio, and my Twitter is SonderingStudio.

Alex: Awesome.

Karla: For me LinkedIn is a good way. Uh, Twitter, I'm at, at, at K Reyes one, two, one. And then my email hopefully it's safe for me to throw it in the ether. Please don't spam me. [email protected]. Thanks so much.

Alex: Ah well, it sounds you know, you have only like two things to remember.

Emily had like seven different characters. But that's awesome, guys. And with that as always, friends in our audience, if you've got any feedback or ideas, hit me up at [email protected] always open for notes. And with that route, See you next time. Thanks guys. Thank you so much

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