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Always Game

By Jennifer Shaklan M.F.A '02

Published Apr 1, 2017 8:00 AM

Pokémon on your shoulder? This game designer is turning heads with his work on augmented reality games that change the way we interact with our world.


Photo by Ethan Pines.

Raised in Pakistan by parents who encouraged creativity and self-expression, Raza Ahmad M.F.A. ’12 found himself drawn to two things as a youth: powerful stories and technology. While mastering the complex art of directing and other aspects of filmmaking as a grad student, he also took every gaming class offered by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. He became so knowledgeable about the subject that he was asked to T.A. several classes, including one taught by Flint Dille. A year later, Dille made the introductions that culminated in Ahmad getting hired at Niantic, Inc., a start-up within Google, to help create the mobile game Ingress, a huge hit in Japan (with strong followings in the U.S. and Europe as well). Niantic has since spun off from Google, and Ahmad, who oversees narrative creation and game design, was part of the team that created Pokémon Go. Augmented reality hasn’t been the same since.

Q: How has gaming changed since you’ve been involved?

A: People have not always viewed it as a respectable means for telling a story. But I’d played games that had affected me, that had power as a story medium, and I was always very drawn to that. Games are doing more to create immersive, emotional experiences. They’re getting bigger. You have the equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster now in the video gaming world, and you have the little student indie, and they’re all doing interesting things.

Q: What led to the creation of Pokémon Go?

A: It was a very natural marriage, because in the fiction of Pokémon, the trainer is out in the world capturing these magical creatures. And the real mechanics of Ingress were out in the world. That’s the fundamental backbone of this style of gaming: You have to go out to play. And I think someone put two and two together.

Q: Do you work in a writers’ room, and, if so, what’s it like?

A: It’s mostly just a virtual room. Every morning, we get on a call and spend a couple of hours video-conferencing. We talk about events, cool gameplay ideas. ... There’s a certain amount of work we get that’s “Here is something that has to get done by this date, and it has to be this,” and there’s a certain amount that’s free-form.

Q: Which is the more powerful driving force, story or technology?

A: I think it goes both ways. One isn’t necessarily a slave to the other. When good ideas happen, it doesn’t matter where they come from. If it’s doable and cool, then our aspiration is to try to do it.

Q: What do you like most about playing Pokémon Go and Ingress?

A: They’re the same, and different. With Pokémon, they can be anywhere. And so there’s this great movement of being able to just be out and about and discover something randomly. And I personally really like the augmented reality thing of being like, “Oh, go stand in the picture, there’s a Pikachu on your shoulder.” … What I love about Ingress is that it’s this deep, complex game that’s full of all different kinds of people who are drawn into that world for different reasons, but are [all] incredibly passionate about it. And more than that, they’re passionate about being part of that community.

Q: These games have users interacting with their devices, yet still connecting with others.

A: That’s where the lodestar is for the future. We’re stuck right now on a piece of technology that requires you to be looking down to break from the world so you can interact with the secondary world that we’re creating. I think that’s a temporary hurdle in terms of where this technology can go in the future and what these games are really aspiring to be.

Q: How far out do you plan? Are you creating for technology that doesn’t yet exist?

A: Absolutely. With Ingress, we’re easily thinking three to five years out. We’re thinking about big shifts that we can do in both the game and the game mechanics … and a lot of it is like, “Someday we’re going to find a way to do x, and we should never forget the idea of x.” … It’s a mix between dreamlike visioning about what we want and the incremental steps forward toward that.

Q: What are some challenges you face working in gaming?

A: One is being an international product. It’s always on, so how can you do a thing in L.A. and Colombia and South Africa and Korea and Tokyo and have it be equally meaningful for all of those people who may not speak the same language, have the same culture or the same history? It requires constant thought and effort. Doing fresh stuff is also a challenge. We are five years into this, and a lot of ideas have been executed. And just sustaining it — it’s always ongoing. We’ve shipped content every day for the last four years.

Q: What inspires you?

A: The stories we get back from people who are playing Ingress and Pokémon Go are probably the most inspiring thing — they’re incredible, transformational. One of our “power players” literally overcame a brain disorder when her doctor said she couldn’t, by just getting out and walking while playing Ingress. She eventually broke what was affecting her, which was a balance condition. We’ve had vets who’ve used Ingress in the community as a means of treating their PTSD. There are people who have ... babies named after characters, and people writing long messages and doing studies on the fictional language in our game.

Q: Do you feel like you’re already on to the next innovative thing?

A: There’s a lot of vision in the company, so there’s no shortage of people who are thinking big and willing to gamble on that.

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