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Blazing her own path

Jessica Murrey learned a little about pressure and how to deal with it when she helped lead the Ashland High School volleyball team to its first and only state championship in 2005. But even the Grizzlies’ dramatic three-set victory over Central Catholic in the Class 4A final that year may seem like a stroll through Lithia Park compared to the forces that will be pushing Murrey from all sides over the next five months.

That’s because Murrey, who local prep sports fans may remember as star outside hitter Jessica Walters, is the CEO and co-founder of Medford-based W!cked Saints Studios, which in December learned that it would be the first game developer signed on to Niantic Lab’s Black Developers Initiative. The mega software development company best known for creating Pokémon GO, Niantic created the Black Developers Initiative to support Black game and augmented reality app developers — support, as in funding, which Murrey desperately needed to transport her vision for a graphic-novel style storytelling game called “World Reborn” from her fertile imagination to millions of smartphones.

She got the call in early December, roughly seven years after the idea for the game came to her and only months after a major investor abruptly and unexpectedly dumped W!cked Saints Studios, Murrey’s 2020 start-up with co-founder Alicia Clifton, with a two-sentence email. The good-news email sent Murrey into a private celebration in her Medford home. She had worked 14 straight 14-hour days to prepare a 60-page pitch deck for Niantic, then waited for an answer. A former creative lead for Search for Common Ground, one of the world’s largest conflict resolution organizations, she had to pull her kids out of day care to get by while looking for funding.

“We saw the email and I called (Clifton) and then I called my husband and I was just like, ‘This is happening,’” she said, recalling the moment she learned Niantic had committed. “Seven, eight years of us pursuing this one idea, this one line, and after getting rejected and broken-hearted and other stuff falling through and we had so many things happen. I was like, ‘This is our launch pad, this is it for us, this is our opportunity.’

“I’m working at home by myself and so I definitely did the out loud scream, the little happy dance, running around my house by myself. I’m like, ‘Someone pick up your phone, I have to tell somebody.’”

Now comes the pressure part. Murrey and her 10-person team have until July 31 to deliver a prototype, or as Murrey puts it, to “basically prove that this is fun.”

Based on her summary of the game — Murrey didn’t want to give away too many details — she’s aiming for a wide target audience. Players are dropped into an interactive story that’s part Game of Thrones, part Riverdale, part Black Mirror, with maybe a little bit of Indiana Jones thrown in. When it comes to game play, Murrey, a lover of science fiction and fantasy novels, points to the simple interactive story games as her main source of inspiration.

These choose-your-own-adventure-style games are massively popular with the 11-to-21-year-old age group, said Murrey. Like many, “World Reborn” will immerse gamers into comic book-style text and backgrounds, but Murrey’s game has a twist that’s close to her heart and which drew the attention of Niantic. Its purpose, she says, goes far beyond killing time on your phone.

In the short demo available at www.wickedsaints.studio, players can run through “Pathways,” a stripped-down excerpt from “World Reborn” that places the gamer in the shoes of a teen who’s traveling, via a virtual reality suit, to Birmingham, Alabama, with the Freedom Riders in 1961. During this futuristic history lesson, the player is confronted with some difficult decisions, each of which leads down a new path, then another decision. One character, Saxon, thinks the whole lesson is an excuse to “make us ‘privileged Whites’ feel bad.” Should you agree with Saxon? Disagree? Stay out of it? At the end, players are awarded an influence score with two of the main characters.

“No one had used, really, interactive story games in this way, for conflict resolution, and to activate people to do activities in the real world,” Murrey explains. “And Pokémon Go is one of the only games that has truly succeeded in moving people in the real world. To actually get out and do stuff in the real world, versus everything is just contained in whatever screen you’re playing on.”

Murrey is thrilled at the response the game has received so far, but she’s looking for more feedback and said she’s in talks with administrators from Ashland High, Crater High and South Medford High to get more game testers.

“About 80% of the people that have gone through our little text-based play — like five minutes of game play — afterward in the survey they say they are slightly to much more confident to have a conversation that touches on race or deals with race,” Murrey said. “That’s the whole point.”

Murrey’s hope is that those who play the game gain those skills, but she’s not naïve to the business side of it. The game W!cked Saints Studios delivers in July, she said, must be fun and commercially viable. And if it’s both of those things, there’s a good chance Niantic will push it through its publishing pipeline and “World Reborn” would retain all the technological benefits that go along with Niantic, such as its augmented reality engine and geolocation data. If that doesn’t happen, one benefit of the Black Developers Initiative is that the W!cked Saints Studios would still be able to take its creation and shop it around to other developers.

And that, Murrey explains, is as good as gold in the world of game development, especially considering the talent W!cked Saints Studios currently has access to: an Emmy-nominated writer; a character designer and illustrator who was the art lead for a company that’s attracted more than 130 million users; and the product director of “My Talking Tom,” a mobile game that’s has more than 1 billion downloads, among others. When the deadline arrives, Murrey said, she’s confident her team will come through with something amazing.

“And that’s been one of the hardest things,” Murrey said. “People don’t invest in ideas usually. You have to have something in hand. But it takes resources to get that thing in hand, so this is why it’s so huge for us. It’s a win-win either way, but we are definitely going for the Niantic pipeline.”

As for the Black Developers Initiative, Murrey can’t wait to prove its value.

“I am a young woman of color,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of doors slammed in my face, I’ve had a lot of times where people really liked me because of my energy and my ideas but at the end of the day they didn’t trust me enough to fund me and give me resources.

“I know there will be things like, ‘Oh, you only got this opportunity because you’re Black.’ But what I’m so excited about is we’re going to create something that’s incredible and something that’s really special that could like not only be entertaining but hopefully move the world. And people are going to see that we did this — a super-diverse team led by two young women.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Jessica Murrey works on her computer from her Medford home.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneJessica Murrey shows her cellphone app from her Medford home.