Pokémon Go maker Niantic is investing in black recreation builders to fill the variety hole
The Pokémon GO manufacturer Niantic Labs announced its in early February Black Developers Initiative (BDI), a program to support black game and augmented reality (AR) app developers.
The five-month program will fund new projects for black game development teams with the intention of building a playable prototype and pitch deck for their real-world AR games.
“BDI is our commitment to providing access, opportunity, resources and mentoring,” said CEO John Hanke in Niantic’s official announcement.
Trinidad Hermida, Niantic’s director of diversity and inclusion, told CNBC in an interview that the company’s most recent 2020 Pokémon Go Fest raised $ 13 million and roughly half of that funding will go towards this initiative.
“A game costs a lot of money to develop,” said Hermida. “It’s a billion dollar industry, and it’s moving fast with so many different parts that finance can be a huge barrier.”
The diversity problem of gaming
The video game industry, booming during the coronavirus pandemic, continues to struggle with diversity behind the scenes.
“The game industry has been mostly white for the past 20 years,” said Hermida. “Even though we’re moving away from that and really creating more balanced and fairer studios, it’s still difficult when you’re trying to enter a culture that you really don’t know.”
U.S. consumer spending on video game products exceeded previous record highs of $ 11.2 billion in the third quarter of 2020, up 24% year over year, according to a report by the NPD Group.
Niantic’s multimillion-dollar commitment follows on from the company’s pledge to provide assistance following the murder of George Floyd last summer.
“We believe the next area where we can make a strong, scalable impact is the culture, ideas, and role models we help shape,” said Hanke in an internal memo published in June 2020, Projects by Black Creators Fund and bring the best of these creations to a mass audience where they can shed light on characters, stories and viewpoints that affirm the life and experiences of the black community. “
Nielsen reports that African Americans are still among the most likely engaged gamers (71%), the second largest ethnic group after Asian Americans (81%), followed by non-Hispanic whites (61%) and Hispanics (55%).
Despite this high level of consumer engagement, data from a self-reported 2019 survey by the International Game Developers Association paints a bleak picture behind the scenes. The survey found that only 2% of developers identify as Black, African American, African, or Afro-Caribbean.
Jessica Murrey, Co-Founder and CEO of W! CKED SAiNTS Studios, will be the first black game developer to participate in Niantic Labs’ Black Developers Initiative.
“The hard part about being a person of color is you just don’t get the benefit of the doubt,” said Jessica Murrey, Co-Founder and CEO of W! CKED SAiNTS Studio.
Murrey is the first developer to join Niantic’s Black Developers Initiative.
The black and women-run studio based in Bedford, Oregon develops graphic novel-style storytelling games to connect with young executives and create social impact.
Before Murrey became a game developer, he was head of communications at Search for Common Ground, one of the world’s largest conflict resolution organizations.
She was soon there, training young activists in storytelling and strategic messaging, which is now reflected in her game designs. However, their contact with gaming began at a young age.
“Actually, my mother is a great player,” said Murrey. “When I was in high school, my mom was ranked the top 25 players in the world on Lost Planet.”
Murrey’s Path to Growing W! CKED SAiNTS, a multi-generation gamer, has overcome its share of obstacles. To focus solely on the studio, she quit her lawyer job and focused on networking with artists, story designers, and raising money on Kickstarter.
Before joining Niantic, Murrey said that one of her key investors at the time pulled out of her investment.
“The feedback we got was, ‘I really like you and you’re really energetic, but I don’t know if you can do it,” said Murrey.
Now W! CKED SAiNTS partner with Niantic to create a game called World Reborn – a gaming experience Murrey describes when Game of Thrones meets Riverdale with a shot of Black Mirror.
When asked what options developers have to remain part of the Niantic family beyond the five-month initiative, Hermida said it was a decision that would have to be made on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s a dance,” said Hermida. “In the end, developers have to want to walk with us, want to dance with us, and we have to want to run and dance with them.”
Hermida ideally said that they would like to build partnerships with developers that they can bring to their in-house game development team.
“A well-balanced workforce will not only make you more innovative, but also be very important to your company,” said Hermida. “If we don’t balance our workforce to look like what society looks like, we are at a disadvantage for our business.”