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Launch of Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a source of pride for brothers Josh and Mike Grier

The co-founders of one of the only Black-owned gaming studios hope the game is PlayStation 5’s surprise hit

Running one of the only Black-owned and -operated animation, digital and now-gaming studios has been quite the journey for brothers Josh and Mike Grier.

“Our experience in the game development community has been overwhelmingly positive. Making games is hard and there is a sense of camaraderie and support that exists in the industry,” said Josh Grier, chief operating officer and co-founder with his brother Mike of Ember Lab, an independent studio based in Los Angeles that specializes in character development for animated commercials and film.

“We are very proud of who we are and we always feel our work will speak for itself. When we began developing Kena, we never really thought about ourselves as being one of the only Black-owned game studios,” Josh Grier, 36, said of the new game they created for Sony’s new PlayStation 5.

“We are a small team and everyone carries a lot of responsibility. We work really hard and we are extremely passionate about the process. So, as long as we are creating, we don’t have a lot of time to think about much else,” he said.

The Grier brothers hope they – and Kena: Bridge of Spirits – can change the gaming industry and possibly pave the way for more Black game developers as the new Sony PlayStation 5 gaming console launches on Thursday.

The already coveted gaming console will feature a slew of new and original games, including Kena: Bridge of Spirits, which was developed by the Grier brothers.

The game, a first for Ember Lab, debuted during the Sony PlayStation 5 “Future of Gaming” event in June that showcased new PS5 games. Kena takes players on an adventurous journey of self-discovery as Kena restores balance to an ancient village that was once a thriving environment. Players take on the role of Kena, a young spirit guide, on a quest to uncover the mysterious story surrounding the demise of the village. One of the most unique aspects of the game revolves around enhancing Kena’s abilities with the help of her Rot companions.

The action-adventure game is presented through a third-person perspective.

“It’s hard to describe the excitement and pride we felt for our entire team as the trailer of our first game streamed during the PlayStation 5 event,” said Mike Grier, 34, who spearheads design for the company as chief creative officer.

“We founded the studio with the goal of creating immersive content through compelling characters and cinematic worlds. The reveal of Kena: Bridge of Spirits represents a huge step towards the realization of that vision.”

When the brothers initially started developing story ideas for Kena, they thought it would wind up becoming an animated series or film. But once the Rot became part of the story, they knew it had to be a game.

“We wanted to be able to go on adventures with the Rot and explore the world with them. The Rot ended up being the crucial element that helped us connect gameplay and story,” Mike Grier said.

The brothers pitched the concept of Kena to publishers in March 2017 and had partnered with Sony by October.

With the game already generating buzz ahead of its official release, expectations are high and the brothers realize the game’s success could open up doors for them – and others.

“We are hopeful that Kena will be a success and if so, you can be sure we will develop more,” said Josh Grier. “We anticipate making games for a long time. It’s a medium we really enjoy with different challenges than filmmaking.

Uncharted territory

The gaming developing business is a space where you don’t see many African Americans, as the Grier brothers found out when they started pitching their ideas and attending gaming events.

“It was clear that we were in unchartered territory,” Josh Grier said. “There aren’t many Black developers in general and very few Black-owned studios. But we were never made to feel out of place as people were genuinely excited about the project and welcoming to new members of the community.”

It’s hard for them to think of their work as redefining Blackness in a unique arena due to all of the tremendous opportunities they have been given, Josh Grier said.

“For us, people like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson and thousands of others redefined Blackness by helping others see African Americans as capable of greatness in any endeavor,” he said. “We know that without our family’s support and the generations of African Americans that came before, we would perceive ourselves much differently.

“As Disney kids, our environment and family support encouraged us to try things and not be afraid of failure,” said Josh Grier. Their father worked for The Walt Disney Co. as an executive for the theme park operations.

“Growing up so close to the Disney parks, we were exposed to the process of creating fantasy and nurtured the belief that ‘if you can dream it, you can do it.’

“Many young African Americans aren’t given opportunities or guidance on how to navigate their way into a specific industry,” he continued. “We were fortunate to have great role models around us, people who helped us, and guided us.

“Although the Black community is one of the largest markets in the game industry, it has not been viewed as an accessible career path.”

Josh Grier said the brothers are passionate about storytelling and crafting exciting visuals, whether in games or other art forms, including film and animation. “We will continue to seek out opportunities to creatively bring people together around common values and experiences.”

Ember Lab’s beginnings

Founded in 2009, Ember Lab began as an animation and digital content studio with a portfolio that included character-driven commercials and animated shorts for The Coca-Cola Co., Hisense and MLB.

“We are driven by a passion for telling stories. In the studio, the lines between technical, design, art and story disappear as our team focuses on delivering immersive experiences that match our passion,” Mike Grier said as he also explained the studio’s name.

“Embers are an excellent representation of story ideas: They can remain with us, burning long after the story ends. They can travel across cultures, nations and continents exploding into fiery excitement,” he said.

“It’s been a dream of ours to inspire future generations of storytellers, just as we were inspired. We wanted our name to capture some of that do-it-yourself and entrepreneurial spirit that pushed us to try new things. The ‘lab’ for us represents pushing boundaries and finding new ways to tell stories.”

Ember Lab, which includes animation director Hunter Schmidt, grew from working in film production to computer graphics content for commercials, allowing them to build connections with marketing agencies.

“Our first major client was Coca-Cola,” Mike Grier said. “From there, we grew organically and the studio eventually became known for developing commercials featuring CG characters in live-action environments. We have always tried to invest in ourselves, developing our own projects between commercial work. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the culmination of our efforts.”

Esports has grown in popularity and interest over the past few years and is now a billion-dollar industry. The NBA has a separate NBA 2K league and gamers are some of the highest-paid entrepreneurs around.

“Competitive gaming, like any other sport, brings people together around a common goal,” Mike Grier said. “Players want to win or watch other highly skilled competitors win. In that regard, esports is the same as traditional sports. Its success should not be surprising and isn’t to most of the gaming world.

“People who don’t play regularly might find it hard to understand, but when you think about the industry in terms of competitive play and use traditional sports as a benchmark, the growth trajectory is understandable.”

So, too, was the brothers’ transition into gaming.

“For us, films and video games are more than just entertainment. As young kids, we moved around a lot, following our dad on various assignments.

“Games and films centered us and allowed us to feel at home no matter where we were. Our love of games pushed us to create our own projects, which led to the founding of our studio and independent short film, Dust.”

The challenge of storytelling in the video game medium always interested them, Mike Grier said, recalling that many of their childhood experiences came from the stories and worlds crafted in video games.

“We created several small mobile games for Coca-Cola advertising and that was our first experience with game development. From there we began to experiment with Epic’s Unreal Engine. We felt our strengths in animation and storytelling would allow us to create something really unique in the game space.

“Looking back, we were very fortunate to connect with people and organizations who were open to our ideas and trusted us enough to give us a shot.”

Family ties are the reason for their success.

“We attribute a big part of our success to being brothers. Having someone to lean on when things get tough really helps,” Mike Grier said.

“When you work with someone that knows you, someone who has common experiences, the uncertainties of building your own business can be shared effectively,” he said. “We rely on and complement each other. Our partnership helps us overcome challenges that would be difficult alone.”

Navigating the growing world of esports – and their growing company – is a little bit easier because they have each other.

Dorothy J. Gentry is a freelance writer and educator based in Dallas. She’s covered the WNBA, NBA, G League and other professional sports leagues for several years. Her work has appeared in The Athletic, Slam and The New York Times among others.