New Zealand Gaming Executive Shares Her Hero’s Journey

From theater to film to video games production, Audrea Topps Harjo shares her unique journey and her fight for diversity and inclusion.

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Audrea Topps Harjo is really good at telling people what to do. Whether they are making a movie or building a computer game, she has that knack for communicating calm efficiency while pushing for maximum effort. Starting with her undergraduate work in theater, Audrea has always excelled at managing logistics, organizing teams, and bringing complex tasks to fruition. She’s a born project manager, able to see around corners and predict the future. She gravitated from theater to film, focusing on visual effects (VFX), and, more recently, switched again, this time to build a highly anticipated open-world role-playing game. She’s on a fascinating journey, well worth sharing.

Along the way, Audrea remained devoted to promoting social justice, encouraging diversity and fostering inclusion. As a woman of color, she has faced her share of microaggressions, mansplaining, and worse. She didn’t shy away from the battle for equality; her response was to found InclusionFX, a platform designed to support and amplify underrepresented voices in the VFX universe.

We recently caught up with Audrea via Zoom* from her office in New Zealand, where she is an executive at A44 Games*. The independent studio had good success with Ashen in 2019, and is turning heads once again with Flintlock, publicized in March 2022 with an intriguing trailer. Audrea took time to explain her own hero’s tale, marveling at her own career path, and offering words of wisdom for anyone on a similar journey.

photo of Audrea Topps Harjo
Audrea still channels her inner "Wonder Woman" as necessary.

 

Born to Organize

Audrea is convinced she was never a child—instead, she says she was “one of those old people in a small body.” She chuckles at the memory of her early years where she perpetrated an elaborate ruse to convince her mother and teacher that she could read. “I memorized all the books in our library,” she laughed, and made it seem like she was reading. Eventually she took the time to start over, and by the third grade she was consuming Anne Rice’s classic Interview with a Vampire.

“I was never without a book after that,” she said. “I always loved stories. I always loved television, I always loved movies. And my favorite still to this day is science fiction.” She became, in her words, “a big, huge nerd for Star Trek.” That was her first foray into falling in love with a television show. Seeing Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, had a huge impact. It was rare to find a woman of color in a key position, master of all the communications technology of the future, and young Audrea saw her as a guide and beacon.

Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols
Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, had a huge impact on young Audrea Topps Harjo. (Photo courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA))

 

Years later, Audrea met Nichelle Nichols in person and was able to thank her for her work as a role model.

Growing up in Washington, D.C. was good for Audrea, as it showed her what a melting pot the world can be. She avoided politics “like the plague,” she said, instead opting for creative arts. She credits the city for her international outlook on life, as her core of friends were from Vietnam, China, and elsewhere. “We had this kind of DC swagger,” she admitted. “We run things.”

When she attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia, she gravitated toward theater and dance. She reveled in the opportunity to make something from nothing and, six weeks later, to step back and witness a full stage production. “That was where I honed my skills in organization,” she added.

As she describes it, there is a process and a methodology for bringing something to life on the stage. Starting with scripts and rehearsals and costumes, the result can seem unattainable. But the set design, stage direction, and all the other details begin to amalgamate into one big production, and by the time she graduated she had worked on multiple shows and knew the process well.

She next enrolled at Howard University, a prestigious and historically Black institution in Washington, D.C. Her dancing career was winding down due to a cranky knee, and she was beginning to have second thoughts about theater. “I was so sad when the lights came up, the curtains closed, and there was nothing left to the stage,” she said. “We did all that work, and there was no history left.”

What she realized is that film is a medium that can capture all that work and all that brilliance. “So I definitely wanted to study film,” she said, reminding herself that she had been studying it all her life already. Howard was the place to do it; noted alumni include Toni Morrison, Sean Combs, and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as the late Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), plus former Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and current vice president Kamala Harris.

At Howard, she studied under Haile Gerima, a famous African filmmaker from Ethiopia known for his work with the L.A. Rebellion film movement. He helped attract a new generation of young African and African American filmmakers to the UCLA Film School from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. The result is a recognized Black cinema that provides an alternative to mainstream Hollywood cinema.

“Howard taught me how to make a movie starting with a piece of paper,” she said. “And taught me that it's hard—there's nothing easy about it.” Fortunately, Audrea had some natural abilities as a manager, organizer, and person who gets things done. “I tell people what to do really well,” she said, and they seem to sense that she means it. “That's a skill I've had for a really, really long time. And I've actually gotten three great jobs by just being a bossy perfectionist and being very clear. My gift is taking a large, complex thing and seeing it clearly, organizing it all in real time, and bringing a project to fruition.”

Audrea Topps Harjo meeting her early childhood idol Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura.
Audrea Topps Harjo, left, meeting her early childhood idol Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura.


To this day, Audrea has a graphic of the vintage Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman on her wall, visible behind her during video calls.

Launching a Career in Hollywood

After creating three short award-winning films at Howard and graduating with a Master’s degree in Fine Arts, she was ready to move up. “I wanted to go somewhere that took film seriously, which was in Los Angeles,” she recalled. New York wouldn’t work for her—too cold, as she learned when one of her films (Raw Intensity) was screened at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan. Later that year, at an industry mixer in LA, she met a producer and chatted him up.

Sensing her potential, the producer gave her the script of his next project, asking if she had any ideas. She fell back on her natural need to organize things, stayed up late that night and worked out the breakdown for how to shoot the entire film. He offered her a job as the unit production manager and first assistant director, and she accepted.

She soon found herself working with leading figures such as Joanne Toll, known for her work as producer on In Treatment, Grace and Frankie, and Better Things. After about a year with Toll, Audrea went into digital ink and paint with USAnimation, later known as VirtualMagic Animation, Inc.*

She worked with very talented people who had not yet hit their stride, including David Lipman before he went on to produce Shrek. She also worked in television on Red Shoe Diaries with Zalman King and Butch Kaplan; Kaplan later went on to produce The Notebook, and he was a great mentor to her.

By now the arc of her career was becoming apparent to those she worked with. She had a fearless energy that made people around her better. Jeanette Volturno, a former co-worker from Red Shoes Diaries who was now working at Sony Pictures Imageworks* alerted Audrea to an opportunity there, and Audrea jumped at the chance to interview. When she got there, the software director asked if she knew C++ or Perl, or any software language.

“No, but I tell people what to do really well," she said with a smile, and she was hired.

Trail to the C-Suite

Dropping a dance major with stage skills into the hectic world of Hollywood movie production might seem like a stretch for Sony. But for Audrea, it was simply another step on her journey. “You just had to figure it out,” she recalled of her foray into visual effects. Her undergrad studies emphasized being well-rounded, and she’d been forced into a program of hard science—in her case, physics, which was a nice counterbalance to fine arts. “That allowed me to cope, to figure things out that I needed to know. Actually, I still don't know how I can do it, but I'm able to understand highly technical concepts.”

Her well-honed skills in communication and collaboration helped as well. At the time there were four large projects running: Phenomenon, The Craft, Anaconda, and Ghost and the Darkness. She had a team of 10-12 software engineers, and, to come up to speed, she took each one out to lunch and picked their brains with a barrage of questions. She was to be the liaison between the software department and the rest of the studio, so she needed to understand the issues from both the technology side and the management side.

This was at the height of the visual effects boom in the 1990s, and Audrea was right in the middle of it. She realized immediately that she liked working with brilliant people, because it seemed to rub off on her and make her better. After a year, Sony moved her to work on Contact with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, with a team that had just won an Academy Award* for Forrest Gump. She took the strategies of unit management she had learned and applied them to digital art, now with an army of 165 people. Many of the team members from those early days at Sony have gone on to win their own awards and recognition, and she can rattle them off without notes: Stephen Rosenbaum for Avatar, Sheena Duggal for Venom 2, Jerome Chen for Jumanji, Scott Stokdyk who worked on Spider-Man, and Jim Bernie who worked on the Divergent series.

Through it all, Audrea organically developed her own management philosophy. Sony Pictures Imageworks provided plenty of grounding in theory and practice, and they recognized that she had raw talent. “I just needed to smooth the edges a little bit,” she recalls. “I was always very clear. My style was very direct, but I learned how to flex and not necessarily dictate.” What helped was her ability to attune herself to the person in front of her, to speak in the language they needed to hear, so that they felt encouraged to do their best work.

After Sony, she worked on her own production: she stopped to have a baby, which was (and still is) somewhat rare in that industry. “You come back after starting a family and you see people that you managed have now sprung ahead of you because you took time off to build a human,” she laughs. Some people decide not to have kids just to ensure their career continues, but Audrea feels there is more support now, so people are able to do both. But a lot of work and infrastructure change needs to happen to fully eliminate the pregnancy stigma women face.

When she did return to the office, she worked on X-Men 2, Garfield, and Sky Captain. But when the team was getting ready to fly to Australia to work on Superman Returns, she balked. Fortunately, the Sony recruiter that hired her had subsequently moved across the street to Electronic Arts (EA)* and got her an interview.

Their first question should have stopped her in her tracks. They asked the standard question: "Do you know anything about playing games?"

Audrea was honest and said “Nope.”

The interviewers asked what she DID know how to do. She had a ready answer for that, the same answer she’d given Sony: "I know how to tell people what to do really well," she told them. She explained her understanding of managing large teams, picking up information quickly, communicating and collaborating...it was exactly what they wanted to hear, and she was working on Medal of Honor immediately afterwards.

Her team had about 100 people, and they weren’t using a standard engine such as Unity or Unreal. “People were building their engines from the ground up, which made things very complicated,” she said. She adapted easily, starting off as a manager, then art development director, and then served directly under Neil Young, who was the general manager before leaving to start his own company, Ngmoco*.

Working in New Zealand

After six years, she was head of EA’s North American production team for mobile gaming. One of her professional contacts had joined the VFX experts at Wētā FX* as a senior producer; they needed someone to help run the creature department. Wētā FX is based in Wellington, New Zealand, and thus a long way from home, but she took the interview. She flew out for it, did well, and by the time she had returned to southern California, she had the job. So, in 2011 she packed for herself and her daughter and moved to New Zealand.

She brought with her a sense of urgency, installed from her years in theater and film, and sharpened from her years in digital software development. She had already learned that game making has a totally different rhythm from movies, but her secret sauce—her ability to finish projects—still held immense value.

Image from the game Ashen, by A44 Games
The dreamy world of Ashen, created by A44 Games as their first title. (Image courtesy of A44 Games)

 

Audrea fit in well at Wētā FX, starting as creatures production manager. Her team was responsible for all the digital doubles and software support needed to put in controls for animation. They baked down the models and assets, streamlining them and simplifying the vertices so that the pipeline didn’t overload. Eventually the team won an Academy award for scientific achievement for the facial work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Image from Flintlock trailer
Flintlock's trailer showcased beautiful worlds of wonder. (Image courtesy of A44 Games)

 

She was on a good career track, but then her father died suddenly, so she moved back to the US. She put in six months working for Lightstorm Entertainment* in Manhattan Beach, handling VFX for the movie Avatar, under the direction of the legendary James Cameron. “Believe the hype,” she says of Cameron. “That guy is a genius. I was really lucky to get to work with him.”

For family reasons, she moved back to Washington, D.C. where she made commercials and produced feature films, teaching film on the side, and spending quality time with her mother and daughter. Still, her VFX skills were valuable, and eventually, the world came knocking.

Joining the New Zealand Game Industry

New Zealand has had good success recently with homegrown game developers. Sidhe*, the largest game studio in New Zealand, developed a number of sports games, including several titles in the Rugby League series. Dinosaur Polo Club* developed Mini Metro. The action RPG Path of Exile, perhaps the best-known New Zealand game, was developed by Grinding Gear Games* and released in 2013, enjoying international success. Space Rock Games* recently raised more funding to further develop Criminals Within.

One day, Audrea got a LinkedIn* message from Derek Bradley, a digital artist she had hired at Wētā FX. He told her that he now had a gaming company in New Zealand called A44 Games, and he asked if she could come out and help him run it. She took a minute to place him, eventually thinking “That kid I left ten years ago, he was a baby when I left—what do you mean he has a company?”

She started with A44 as a senior producer and began working on Flintlock. She installed new processes and workflows to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, eventually setting up a production process even better than before the lockdown kept everyone out of the office. When New Zealand came out of lockdown, Audrea became the chief operating officer (COO) at A44. “Just take it all—just do it. Just take it all over!” Derek told her.

Audrea says that she doesn’t miss Hollywood because, in fact, the production side of movie making is now so global, with rendering farms in India and artists scattered all over the world. And besides, she has totally fallen in love with New Zealand. She found the city safe, the people “super chill”, and the food as good as the conversations. She was hooked.

There were a few bumps, as her drive to complete projects ran into New Zealand’s tendency toward mob rule on key decisions. “New Zealand has a wonderful communal culture, which very much goes with the tide of emotions,” she said. “Back in the States, emotion is secondary to product. Not here.” More than once she had to tell someone that she understood how they felt, but they still had to do it the way she wanted.

Game Representation Is Still a Big Issue

Computer games historically tended to appeal mostly to young white males, who favored action above all. To this day, Audrea believes, game characters are 98% white male. A44 is helping change that in their new game Flintlock, an action RPG due out later in 2022. The game’s main character is Nor Vanek, a coalition army member who fights her enemies with ancient weapons, as gunpowder has just been invented.

After the Flintlock announcement, Audrea heard dozens of interested and favorable responses from the community. But there’s always that one person, she laughs. “This guy asked us, ‘What is with all these games with girls in them?’ As if that’s a bad thing.” From Audrea’s perspective, the direction is set. “We’re getting there with more representation, both in terms of gender and color. That’s why I’m super-excited about Flintlock because it's definitely hitting that sweet spot for representation for me.”

During the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Audrea found herself thinking she needed to stand up and speak out more. As a woman of color in an industry where she isn’t well-represented, she thought about ways to make a difference. She then founded InclusionFX, a platform designed to support and amplify under-represented voices in the VFX world.

Every two months, she picks out 10 people from her network and asks them three simple questions:

  1. What is your journey?
  2. What inspires you?
  3. What would you tell your younger self?

She finds the challenge sparks imagination and conversation, especially when combined with her own hero’s story. “Seeing people that are enjoying success already, and especially doing it for this long, well, that’s really key for our members,” she said. “That’s how I think InclusionFX can help, by publicizing success stories.”

Advice for a Better Future

Around the world, companies are establishing programs to nurture minorities and women within their ranks. Intel has a Diversity and Inclusion program entitled RISE, standing for Responsible, Inclusive, Sustainable, and Enabled. Intel is aiming to increase women in technical roles to 40% by 2030 and double the number of women and underrepresented minorities in senior leadership positions. Beyond that, Intel says it wants to work with the industry to create and implement a "Global Inclusion Index" to introduce a baseline understanding of what it means to employ women and minorities in senior and technical positions.

Audrea believes such initiatives will help immensely—as long as they provide support and continuity. “I can't tell you how isolating it can be as the only woman, the only person of color at a large company,” she said. And what was almost as distressing, Audrea recalled, was that many times when she changed jobs there was never anyone behind her to continue to represent. “When I left Sony and Wētā FX, that was it. There was no one of color behind me and no women in upper management. I had to really fight when I got there, and after I left, I worried things would just snap back.”

That’s why she chose the black unicorn for her logo—“because we're rare and we have magic,” she says. In high tech slang, a unicorn is a startup that bursts from its financing stage and reaches $1 billion in annual revenue. According to People of Color in Tech (POCIT), there are 506 tech unicorns globally—and none are run by a person of color. POCIT spotlights ten growing companies in a Top 10 List that could include the first Black Unicorn.

InclusionFX logo
The InclusionFX logo includes an elusive Black Unicorn.


Audrea hopes it happens soon, to jolt the world of high tech if nothing else. She shared one story from her Lightstorm days that illustrates how exasperating it can be to work in a predominantly male world. “I was working on Avatar and I checked with an engineer to see how I could help him. He asked me if I could go get him a burrito,” she recalls. It took all of her professionalism and more not to explode.

"I'm not here to give you a burrito," she recalled thinking. “I've been working in this industry for 20 years and when I ask how I can help, the first thing out of your mouth is to ask for a burrito? Are you insane?”

Those expectations about women and how they're at the office to bake cookies and be a surrogate mom or girlfriend still exist, and they can’t fade fast enough. “We should not have to deal with shenanigans,” she says emphatically. “But shenanigans meet us wherever we go. And that's all that I'll say about that.”

Nor Vanek character from Flintlock
The main character in Flintlock is a soldier named Nor Vanek. (Image courtesy of A44 Games)

 

As for career counseling and work advice for the women of color behind her, Audrea keeps it simple. “You're only as good as the last thing you've done,” she says with emphasis. “I'm hoping that the world is becoming a kinder or gentler place,” she admits, “but it’s still called ‘work’ for a reason.” She tells young people to keep their eyes open, increase their network, get mentors, find people around them who can support them, and work hard.

Flintlock: The Siege of Dawn is a story where gods and guns collide. (Image courtesy of A44 Games)

 

“It's going to be a little lonely because there aren’t going to be many people there looking like you. And they will test you. It’s not going to be easy. Sometimes there's going to be a lot of crying in bathrooms.”

One of her first bosses at Sony was alarmed at how much time young Audrea was putting in at the office and told her point-blank she was going to fail if she didn’t figure out how to work smarter, not harder. She took that advice to heart, and it helped her stay true to herself. “Sometimes your light irritates their demons,” Audrea heard once. She liked the sound of it.

To constantly have to prove yourself over and over again after almost 30 years in the business can be exhausting, she notes. Still, she enjoys what she does. “I love making wonderful things and working with amazing talent. I love creating things that move people,” she adds. “But now it's time for me to reach back and guide the way for the next generation of Black Unicorns. I know they are out there, just waiting for their time to shine.”

Audrea at dinner with her Flintlock team.
Audrea at dinner with her Flintlock team.

 

A44* Games Readies Their Next Title

Following the success of their debut game Ashen*, which sold over 200,000 copies on Steam*, A44*’s second effort, entitled Flintlock: The Siege of Dawn* is now in production. Much like its predecessor, Flintlock is also an action-RPG set in an open, fantasy world, but that seems to be where its similarities to Ashen end.

While Ashen was set in a more medieval time, judging from the trailer released in March 2022, Flintlock offers a unique fantasy backdrop for its story. A44 CEO and Game Director Derek Bradley told the Future Games Show* 2022 Spring Showcase that Flintlock’s setting is “built on black powder and technology and old gods and dark magic.” He described a tense and desperate situation for humanity, which comes across through early gameplay footage of eerie, war-torn trenches and scrappy military camps.

Game Design Lead Jimmy Bicknell weighed in, adding that “The advent of gunpowder has changed the face of war, giving humanity an opportunity to fight back against these gods and their magic.” Flintlock’s trailer shows the player character Nor dispatching an undead soldier with a powerful-looking flintlock pistol. While an undoubtedly significant part of Nor’s arsenal, this and other flintlock weapons will make up only a part of the tools available to Nor as she strives to hunt down the god who killed her father.

Along the way, players must combine their sharpshooting skills with melee combat and the prowess of Nor’s magical animal companion Enki. While Nor brings the technological boom of black powder weapons, Enki assists players in combat using powerful spells. It’s too soon to say the full extent of abilities that will be available to Nor and Enki, but Flintlock: The Siege of Dawn promises to give players an explosive experience.

Hayden Asplet, director of software engineering at A44 Games, explained that his team is in contact with Intel regarding optimization for CPU and GPU performance. “We are working closely with Intel to get our hands on the next-generation optimization tools,” he said, adding that the team is also interested in exploring Intel® Arc™ graphics and Xe Super Sampling (XeSS).

The new game will debut simultaneously on Sony PlayStation*, Microsoft Xbox*, and PCs. Nintendo Switch* is not yet on the roadmap. The team is targeting the end of 2022 for release.