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Medford game studio startup secures $1.1 million

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Wicked Saints Studios, based in Medford, has secured $1.1 million and top talent to prototype a mobile augmented reality game they describe as the “World’s First Adventure Activism Game.” Wicked Studios graphic.
Wicked Saints Studios, cofounded by Jessica Murrey of Medford, secured $1.1 million in pre-seed startup capital.
Wicked Studios cofounder Jessica Murrey is working with top talent to create a mobile game called “World Reborn,” which prompts the players to make real-world improvements to themselves and the world around them. Submitted photo.
Wicked Saints Studio plans to create ‘world’s first adventure activism game’

A mobile game startup co-founded by an Ashland High School grad and backed by some of the biggest names in augmented reality is now worth seven figures.

Wicked Saints Studios closed an early funding round with $1.1 million in startup capital earlier this month, giving the Medford-based studio the funding it will need to launch a mobile game that co-founder Jessica Murrey describes as the “world’s first adventure activism game.”

Murrey’s vision for “World Reborn” is a game that bridges the fictional and real worlds through a mix of interactive storytelling, “Pokemon Go!” style gameplay and real-life quests that challenge the player to make small, real-world improvements to themselves and the world around them.

Thus far, Murrey has drawn some top artists and tech engineers to help make her game a reality.

The initial investors in Wicked Saints’ pre-seed funding round include LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Paul Joffee, vice president of games at Sony Pictures Entertainment, and former Fortnite user-experience director Celia Hodent, according to the company.

The work is far from over for Murrey. She's spending her days with virtual meetings with artists in Europe and working out “key hires” that include technical artists specializing in augmented reality and user interfaces.

She’s said she’s “blown away’ at the pool of applications for two slots in Wicked Saints’ paid internship program, describing “superstar youth from around the world.”

Wicked Saints, stylized as “W!cked SAiNTS,” got a boost last year from software developer Niantic, and its Black Developers Initiative incubator. The San Francisco-based maker of Pokemon Go! — among other games in which players use mobile phones for virtual experiences in the real world — provided five months of development funding, executive mentorship and development support.

Murrey and co-founder and COO Alicia Clifton worked with Niantic technical lead manager Daphne Larose, who was listed on Forbes Magazine’s “America’s Top 50 Women in Tech 2018” for her work as a senior engineer creating “Pokemon Go.” Larose previously worked at Apple, where worked on tools App Store developers used.

Larose left Niantic to join Wicked Saints as its chief technical officer.

“Between me, Alicia and Daphne, it is like our three-legged stool,” Murrey said. “And now it feels complete with the three of us in leadership.”

Together, they make up an all-female and majority Black leadership team that’s a rarity in the tech startup world, according to a press release announcing the $1.1 million pre-seed investment round.

“With an all-female, majority-Black C-suite, Wicked Saints joins an exclusive group of startups helmed by one of under 100 Black women founders who have ever raised $1 million or more,” the release stated.

Murrey and the team attracted more top talent in games, software design and storytelling.

“It’s kind of a dream team,” Murrey said.

For character design, Murrey cold-called her “favorite digital artist,” Berlin-based digital illustrator Meybis Ruiz Cruz.

“Art-side, everyone wants to work with Meybis,” Murrey said, adding that her artists worked on the recent blockbuster hit “Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

Their lead narrative game designer, Christian Marsh Reiman, has written TV shows for Disney, Nickelodeon and DreamWorks, and helped edit in-game stories for major mobile games such as “Marvel Future Revolution,” “Marvel Future Fight” and “BTS Dream.”

In “World Reborn,” players are “sent to this crazy reality” in the game world where characters need the player’s help. The game overlays game imagery with the player’s real-time smartphone camera footage to “bridge” the player between the two worlds to investigate “interdimensional rifts.”

“Your choices in the story world are powered by Courage,” Murrey said, describing capital-C Courage as “our main resource in the game.”

Players will need to do “a small brave thing” to get more Courage and move the story forward.

As one example in the prototype’s concept video, the game prompts the player to find a piece of litter on the ground, pick it up and throw it in the trash. The game has the player snap a photo of the litter as proof.

“In order to power yourself in the story, you’ll have to power yourself in real life,” Murrey said.

Murrey’s latest game draws from lessons trying to create a similar gameified app she called “Battle For Humanity,” which challenged players to make positive real-world impacts. In testing, however, she found that that game’s players rarely took action.

“The barrier was self-efficacy,” Murrey said. “Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to accomplish a goal.”

Players can optimize “World Reborn’s” prompts in categories of Understand, Strengthen or Serve. An Understand prompt for Courage could ask the player to reflect on or journal a real-world interaction with someone else, a Strengthen prompt could include having the player take five mindful breaths, and Serve could include having the player pick up a piece of litter.

She sees interactive story and gameplay as ways to break through and encourage new players to take action.

“Storytelling is really powerful because behavior change doesn’t happen by giving people information, it happens through experiences,” Murrey said.

Find the latest on Wicked Saints and the development of “World Reborn” at wickedsaints.studio.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.