By: Jonathan Greig
Every industry is being upended as a new generation pushes for greater diversity, and gaming is no different. Black game developers are few and far between, with a 2018 International Game Developers Association survey of people working in the game industry finding that just one percent of respondents were Black.
Brothers Khalil and Ahmed Abdullah are trying to change that with Decoy Games, the indie game development company they built on their own from the ground up.
“We’re really focused on breaking barriers, being thought leaders and people of color that can actually go into this industry, develop and lead. For us, we never had a role model where we could say, ‘oh that’s one of the black developers that we really dig,’” Khalil said in an interview with The Source.
“One of our biggest goals is, for the next generation coming up, I want to be that representation that I didn’t have when I started getting into the industry. So many of the gamers in the industry are African-American. Look at NBA 2K. That’s Hip-Hop culture all the way through. If you look at how the MyPlayer has played out, that is literally the biggest sports game. I definitely think there is a market there that is waiting to explode and it just needs a bigger push,” he added.
Decoy Games can trace its origins back to a school project Khalil had to finish for a flash development class during his senior year at Umass Amherst in 2008. To pass his midterm, he threw together a relatively barebones flash game that he named Swimsanity: The Adventures of Mooba Jiver the Scooba Diver.
The game was a hit with his classmates and friends, so he built a sequel with an appropriately long name. By 2012, the success of that game snowballed into a full-fledged effort involving his brother Ahmed and childhood friend Chris Venne, who helped the two redesign the look of the game as they migrated to using game development tools from Microsoft.
Since then, Decoy Games and Swimsanity! racked up dozens of awards as they built the game out over five difficult years. In 2018 and 2019, Khalil and Ahmed did a tour of gaming festivals with Swimsanity! to make connections and build up a reputation in the industry.
Yet despite the industry and fans’ positive response to the game, being Black game developers in a mostly white industry is not easy.
“Now you’re dealing as a business person with these people and corporations. When we walk into the room, they think ‘Who are their bosses,’ or ‘Who is their publisher,” and we have to tell them, ‘No this is us.’ There were no minority entrepreneurs in this space,” Ahmed said.
“We knew we were taking a weird path because we wanted to be self-published on consoles like XBox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch and typically, people get publishers or they make games for a while. That journey to have your first game get on that platform, for me and my brother that was something we always strived for, so we’re really excited to reach that goal self-funded. We felt like it was a cool path to take.”
Now that Decoy Games is taking off as a developer outfit, the brothers are planning out a bunch of other games. But they also want to make sure people play Swimsanity!, which Khalil said was innovative because of how versatile it is. Most games are typically released on one platform or only have local play, but Swimsanity! offers an old-school experience similar to online games.
The game will be officially released this year and everyone can sign up on computers to play for free. They will continue to add downloadable content and said they have three more games prototyped out.
But their main goal is to bring in a new era where Black game developers and players can feel like they’re seen in the games they love so much.
“Nowadays, games become so competitive that you lose the fact that games can really bring people together. If you look at it, you’ll see people of all nationalities and religions, genders coming together to have fun. We’re trying to bring back that old school, where people can come together and have fun and playing games together but with modern stuff, where you can play online. You can play on your own or with teammates locally, online or competitive. We have everything,” Ahmed added.
“We belong in this industry. In entertainment, you’re seeing a lot of change. Music came first, and now you’re seeing movies like Us, Get Out, and Black Panther. Gaming is the next thing that becomes something where we can show how games can be played. We’re hoping to usher that in.”
Swimsanity! has been featured in the Nintendo Spring Nindies Direct and won “PC/Console Game of the Year” and the “Player’s Choice Award” at Playcrafting’s 3rd Annual Bit Awards, which are among the top honors in the gaming world.