Gator wins international award for indie video game

Akurra title screen

Image courtesy of Jason Newman.

“Akurra,” created by SF State alumnus Jason Newman, recently received IGN Japan’s Media Highlight Award

Jason Newman (B.S., ’17) grew up making games for his friends. Now he’s turning that hobby into a career — and his first indie game is already making waves. “Akurra,” a puzzle-based game designed for multiple platforms, recently took home one of the top awards at a Japanese gaming convention.

Newman never thought he’d make games for a living, especially given the competitive nature of the field. He didn’t even come to San Francisco State University to study computer science because he found math so challenging.

“When I first went to SF State, I was actually studying Chinese, and that goes back to my interest in multiculturalism and things like that,” he said. His interest, at least in part, was due to growing up in a diverse community in his hometown of Fremont, California.  “I have a deep interest in every culture, including my own.”

But then a single math class changed everything. Instead of lectures, the course encouraged group work and more discussions. Seeing math in a new light ignited Newman’s interest in STEM. He ended up graduating with a degree in Computer Science and a minor in Chinese. All of his training and interests are now channeled into his game.

The main character in “Akurra” is a castaway with no memories who travels through puzzle-filled islands to uncover a larger story. Newman wanted the game to be accessible to a wide audience, so the entire story is revealed visually through exploration; there is no text in the game. It harkens back to classic games like “Zelda” and, at its core, is Newman’s attempt to make his own creation myth inspired by stories from across the globe.

“When I was doing research for the story of the game, my mind was blown that there’s lots of commonalities in the myths and legends in the whole world,” Newman explained. “Every religion has ideas that are very similar to each other.”

The game is slated for release in late 2022 but already has a loyal following. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Newman released a two-hour demo that helped him grow a community around the game. In 2021, he attended BitSummit — the largest indie games convention in Kyoto — where he received IGN Japan’s Media Highlight Award for “Akurra.” He also won an Astra Fund grant to support his project and was recently awarded a second year of funding.

“I can’t believe how into the game people are and how excited they are,” Newman said. “It just feels amazing.”

It’s especially amazing to Newman given the circuitous path he’s followed to gaming success. After graduating from San Francisco State, Newman assumed he’d get a tech job in industry, but an internship made him realize it was not the right career for him. He then moved to Japan for his wife’s job and worked in restaurants while continuing to work on “Akurra.” It was encouragement from friends and the successful Kickstarter campaign that gave him the confidence to pursue game development full time. Now Newman is brainstorming future games and hopes to start a small studio in the future.

“It’s interesting how with so many fields, all of our perceptions are based on movies and TV. That’s the thing with science, too,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t think about science as a career because they think of a mad scientist. They don’t know all the different paths there are.”