Interview

Can we create a more equitable mobile games industry? Niantic’s Karla Reyes may have the answer

Code Coven and Niantic’s Karla Reyes details how she found her place in the games industry, and her extensive efforts to make sure the door didn’t shut behind her

Can we create a more equitable mobile games industry? Niantic’s Karla Reyes may have the answer

Here’s a quote from Karla Reyes that will be intimately familiar to (PocketGamer.biz makes an informed guess) roughly 40 per cent of readers.

“I was never really guided in the direction of creative industries – my parents are immigrants, and there was a prevailing narrative that if you can’t succeed in a creative industry, then you have to follow a more traditional path.”

Nonetheless, Reyes took her first steps in the games industry in 2019, and in three brief years she has asserted herself as a pioneering presence, with both a nomination in the Develop:Star 2022 award for Diversity Star and celebrated as the 2022 Mobile Games Awards Rising Star.

She joined Square Enix as product manager and is now growth product manager at Niantic, but it is her work with Code Coven, the first global games industry accelerator and learning community for underrepresented talent, that has come to define the kind of significant impact she is already imprinting on the industry.

But all stories have a start, and Reyes’ did so in an inauspicious manner, if looking for success in the games industry: senior business associate at Visa.

Life takes Visa

“I started out in the payments industry, always joking that I sold my soul to pay off my student loans.

“The goal was to enter a lucrative industry specifically for that purpose. But my dream was always in creative spaces. Video games were always in my heart, but it’s also an industry that is multidisciplinary and inviting to the skills acquired in other technology industries.”

However, her tenure at Visa was the perfect opportunity to explore nascent technology as a means of entering the games industry, such as blockchain, and she joined a blockchain startup. Although initially, it seemed as though Reyes had replaced one obligation for another – “at the time, the crypto markets had crashed, and most of the companies were focusing on more lucrative sectors rather than creative industries, and I found myself working on finance-oriented projects” – she began to teach herself Unity and attended local games meetups in London.

Video games were always in my heart, it’s an industry that is multidisciplinary and inviting to the skills acquired in other technology industries
Karla Reyes

“I found Women in Games and BAME in Games and thought to myself, ‘I can find my people here’. I felt comfortable, and I felt I could learn about the industry.”

After volunteering at a number of events, Reyes met Ed Perkins, then-head of mobile publishing at Square Enix, in 2019. But it wouldn’t be until a year later that a product manager role on the mobile publishing team, working on Tomb Raider Reloaded, became available.

Code RED

Among the initiatives that Reyes spearheaded during her time at Square Enix include Square Enix RED, an employee resource group (ERG) dedicated to racial and ethnic diversity initiatives. Social justice initiatives certainly existed within the games industry, albeit to varying degrees of success or dedication. But a global movement reignited by the murder of George Floyd would put the need for true representation back into focus.

“In 2020, with the resurgence of social justice movements – particularly, at the time, Black Lives Matter – there was much more attention to diversity. Specifically, the lack thereof in the industry. There were some ERGs but no groups specifically dedicated to racial and ethnic diversity.” Reyes subsequently co-founded Square Enix RED, which was able to provide sensitivity consultancy among numerous teams, including toward the Outriders development.

“The first step was trying to educate the how and why. Square being a Japanese company, there was a somewhat traditional homogeneity, but the London studio wasn’t particularly diverse from an ethnic perspective either. This was something new to a lot of people, but Ed was one of our champions, and I think 2020 galvanised not just Square Enix but the whole industry.”

Into the coven

Reyes left Square Enix in early 2021, and joined Niantic as growth product manager. But it is her work with Code Coven, a global accelerator for underrepresented groups who face a crippling lack of opportunities, that began to spool considerably during 2020-2022 – of course, the pandemic years.

“So many people lost their jobs during the pandemic, especially people in service industries. We wanted Code Coven to be a way for people to upskill, and the games industry was booming. How can we bridge this gap and start supporting underrepresented people who were really the ones facing the short end of the stick when it came to job and income loss?”

It was during a brainstorming session with co-founders Tara Mustapha and Francesca Carletto-Leon for a programme similar to a summer internship for students without the infrastructure for remote work, Reyes was approached in March 2020 due to her fundraising experience.

Reyes and ustwo's Jennifer Estaris at the Mobile Games Awards 2022

“It’s a hustle! I’m quite shameless, so I approach everyone. But I know the benefit and impact of what could be achieved with this funding, and I know the experiences of people we’re looking to help support.” Regardless, initial fundraising for Code Coven came with “a lot of calls, a lot of late nights, and a lot of rejection”.

Providing this kind of intimate support and truly removing the widespread barriers faced by marginalised people means scaling up. Scaling up can necessitate more focus on external backing and, for some, losing the perspective of the individual you’re looking to support. But Code Coven has found a sustainable way of bringing about its own means of scaling.

“Something that’s unique about Code Coven is how nuanced our programme is. We want to raise representation at all levels, starting with reducing barriers to entry. We have an introductory course that, thanks to Unity and Epic, we’re able to give to all of our learners.

“As a result, we’ve created an ecosystem whereby once someone has gone through our introductory course, they can qualify for our accelerators; if they decide against joining a mid-sized or triple-A studio, we can help them build their own studio to work on their own titles. It’s our way of trying to encourage entrepreneurship, and alumni from our accelerators have not only gotten published but are hiring introductory alumni, making this really supportive ecosystem where everybody is trying to lift each other up.”

Whitewashing

There are two sides to the games industry: one immediately, enormously inviting; a circle of like-minded compatriots looking to create, share, and support games and communities together across the world. The other is one in which burnout is all-too-common, which routinely fails women and marginalised people, and international inequity – both in significance, authority, and value – of player bases, companies, and opportunities.

Both are just as true as the other. The industry should be celebrated as much as it needs to be confronted with the hardships of creating an equal space around the world.

“The games industry has been dominated by tier one markets, North America and western Europe, and then Asia. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, every single nation – down to every studio – will have nuanced needs.” Reyes sits on the Niantic diversity and inclusion council, and has first-hand experience of the diverse needs of its different teams across the globe and how DEI conversations within those countries has shaped the company’s wider perspective.

“In the US, the conversation tends to lean towards diversity and inclusion in terms of gender, and the Black Lives Matter and Asian American and Pacific Islander movements have lifted the conversation around race. Whereas in the UK, Black Lives Matter didn’t have the same impact.

“You have to take a very rigorous look at the demographics of your office location, team location, of the setting of your game itself, and understand where your knowledge gaps are and how that impacts your ability to meet the needs of the people within.”

Similarly, Reyes was cautious that Code Coven did not appear to be capitalising on the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the subsequent greater awareness of social justice. “That can be a little weird – some people may argue that we’re exploiting the increased focus on diversity. But I think it’s about intent and impact; I know the benefit and impact this work has, and I know what we’re trying to achieve, in our heart of hearts.”

Emergent storytelling

While many in the Web3 space have celebrated the influence of blockchain gaming in regions such as Vietnam and the Philippines, principally focusing on the financial benefit for players in low-income countries, this is no longer true as games such as Axie Infinity struggle with maintaining their ecosystems and the financial benefit for players has, for some time, failed to even reach parity with average salaries.

Just wait until I’ve started my own studio!
Karla Reyes

But most notably for Reyes, with a mission to elevate everyone to have a home in the games industry, very few Vietnamese and Filipino voices have a central presence in those conversations, and a situation emulated in many underrepresented regions of the world.

“One of my initiatives in 2022 is to support the African game development ecosystem – specifically, empowering local studios. But you obviously don’t want there to be a colonial edge to it. How do you strike the right balance, giving them enough support and remain self-sufficient and self-defining?

“A lot of that comes from open dialogue, and something we’ve been tackling at Code Coven: really understanding the needs of people you want to support to be able to give them the very specific resource behind them. I’m hopeful we’re moving in the right direction, and I would love to see more truly established studios from developing countries such as the Philippines, Uganda, Mexico, and Vietnam emerge.”

These are heady topics, immense in scale and difficult to confront, let alone resolve. Reyes closed with a gag – “Just wait until I’ve started my own studio!” – but I’m hoping it’s a promise.

Editor

Unlike many of the stalwart hands at Steel Media, Khai joins PocketGamer.biz fresh to both the games media and the wider games industry. There is much to learn, and he wants you onboard that journey.

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