Students + Campus

Q&A with UCLA alumnus Raza Ahmad

Ahmad, who worked on Pokémon GO, will be speaking as part of FuturizeX on Oct. 13 at Janss Terrace

Raza Ahmad

Raza Ahmad, a creative designer at the company behind Pokémon GO, earned an M.F.A. in film production at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

One of Niantic Labs’ creative designers, the company behind the mobile gaming sensation Pokémon GO, UCLA alumnus Raza Ahmad, will be on campus this week for FuturizeX, a campuswide initiative that brings together members of the UCLA community and others from throughout Los Angeles to explore technology, innovations and ideas.

Ahmad, who earned an M.F.A. in film production at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, will be sharing his thoughts on the future of augmented reality, his experiences as a game designer at Niantic Labs, his work on Ingress — another augmented reality game, and more. Ahmad will be speaking during a forum scheduled for 7:15 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 13, at the Janss Terrace.

Jeff Burke, assistant dean of technology and innovation at TFT, will deliver opening remarks.

Newsroom asked Ahmad to share a few thoughts about his work.

Looking back on your time at UCLA, what experiences, courses or faculty members have been most influential as you’ve pursued your career?

From a practical point of view, there were a series of gaming classes under the TFT umbrella while I was in the program. I took them all and was eventually brought in to TA those classes in later quarters. I ended up TAing a one-off class on alternate reality gaming taught by Flint Dille. The relationship I formed with him ultimately directly led to my involvement in Niantic — he’s the creative lead on the project and he recruited me for it. Much of what we did together in that class laid the foundation for work we would expand on and improve as we embarked on Ingress.

From an artistic and personal point of view, the teachers in the program represented a really diverse set of styles, attitudes and approaches, and learning to appreciate those varied positions on how to treat the craft of storytelling was valuable ... the sum total being stronger than any individual component in the system.

Pokemon GO at the UCLA Central Ticket Office

What does your position at Niantic Labs entail and how did you get involved with Ingress and the phenomenon that is "Pokemon Go"?

I’m part of the creative team for Niantic. We’re a pretty small group, and our mission is to explore this new space we are operating in ... experiment with how the real world can weave back and forth with a fictional medium, how that can integrate with people’s desire to go out and see, discover and experience new things and ... importantly, do that together so that this process is not just personal but communal and engages people with different strengths and interests.

At the top level, that’s sort of the open mission we have, and we’re pretty privileged to be in this position. Niantic as a company and John Hanke (our CEO) give us a tremendous amount of support and empower us to experiment and learn. We are trying to figure out the playbook for this new kind of gaming and storytelling; it’s not virgin territory but at the same time the rules are highly fluid and there’s tremendous opportunity for creative exploration. I was very early in on the process, probably a year and change before Ingress emerged into the open. Our adventure in and learnings about this medium as a company have helped create the foundation that Pokémon GO then built upon.

What does the rampant popularity of this game tell us about the future of mobile entertainment and media?

That’s a huge question, but at the most basic level I think this has to do with how we relate to each other and to technology.... There are ways that technology separates us both from the world and each other, and there are ways it brings us together and connects us back to the world. The success of both Ingress and Pokémon GO are an affirmation that people have an appetite to get out there and really be within their neighborhoods and cities, and that they have a desire to be part of communities that engage in real, meaningful and positive ways. The technology might be new, but the instincts here are not. I think experiences like Ingress and Pokémon GO are empowering and enriching these desires that were already there.

What (if anything) surprised you about the response to “Pokémon GO?

The scale definitely caught me off guard. I was cautiously optimistic when we launched. Real world gaming is a really new thing — and it’s not easy.... It’s much easier to pull open your phone and spend five minutes on a match 3 game or something than to get on your walking shoes and go outside. That’s a big ask. We knew from Ingress that when people took that first step, there are things in this experience that they would love, but I personally at least didn’t know that as many people would be willing to take that first step as actually happened.

What’s next for you at Niantic Labs (or beyond)?

This is the beginning of something. We are developing something new, not just technologically but in terms of exploring a new medium for story and game and social experience. We’ve been successful with Ingress, and more so with Pokémon GO, but we’re just scratching the surface of what real world games and augmented reality can ultimately be. The technology is just starting to emerge, and it’s only going to get better. Our creative strategies evolve as we learn. My hope is that this will become a really vibrant space, with lots of different kinds of games and storytelling experiences going on inside it. It’s going to be challenging and interesting — lots of opportunities to explore and obstacles to solve and surmount.

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