The NMAAHC recently interviewed Khalil and Ahmed of Decoy Games for their Through the Window and Into the Mirror series. We enjoyed getting to know Khalil, Ahmed, and Decoy Games a little bit better through this interview and think you will too.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.
An introduction from NMAAHC:
Khalil and Ahmed Abdullah have been playing games since the age of 3. They carried this passion into their adult lives and transformed it into a career. Shortly after college they decided to form Decoy Games and enter the gaming industry.
Relying on their foundations of being self-taught, self-funded, and self-published developers, they built their inaugural game Swimsanity! for the PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Steam.
Outside of development, Decoy Games is devoted to promoting innovation and inclusivity in the gaming industry.
On creating paper prototypes as kids:
Ahmed: I feel like when growing up, one thing that led us to make games without us even trying was that we couldn't play games during the week during the school year. That was just a rule for our parents. So, we got creative and decided to try to create the games we could play on the weekends.
We would create these paper prototypes for different games. For example, if we wanted to play Mario Kart, we would start putting together a Mario Kart course and create our own version of it. Little did we know that this was a real way of designing games with paper prototypes.
We were just trying to find a way to enjoy games, but it ended up creating games like card games and different things that got our minds thinking about game design. I think from an early age, you always love the creative part and that translated into us just wanting to do that and create the games we loved playing when we were younger.
On being role models for each other:
Khalil: I come from a family of a lot of entrepreneurs. Even our grandparents who lived down south owned a convenience store. My dad got us into becoming entrepreneurs. My sister sells jewelry and has a jewelry business. We've always been taught to do something on your own, even if you have to build it from the ground up.
I wouldn't say I have any individual role models in the game industry because, admittedly, there was no one I could necessarily directly relate to back in the day. But, there are definitely games and works of art in the video game industry that I looked at and wanted to make something like that. A lot of the games I played, whether they be party games, sports games, or JRPGs, there's a lot of influence I take from the games I used to play growing up.
Ahmed: There weren’t a lot of influences in the industry as far as folks we could look up to and creating games that we felt we could relate to. My inspiration came from my family, and that included my brother. We're a team. If he's moving in one direction, I'm moving with him. That's pretty much how we operated when it came to education, our passion for games, and creating games. We're very family-oriented, so we try to lean on each other for any inspiration.
On getting started and building confidence through small games:
Khalil: By the time I got to my senior year, I was a bit disappointed. I didn't feel like I learned anything that would help me towards game development. I learned a lot of fundamental stuff, but I didn't feel like I had a specific skill that I can take right to the workforce.
I ended up finding this class that was hidden on the top level corner of one of the buildings, with only seven people or so in it. It was a flash development class. One of the assignments was to create a game. I got super excited about that, and super excited about the fact that I could start learning how game development works.
So, I made a very simple Flash game for my midterm, called "Swimsanity: The Adventures of a Scuba Diver." It was a super simple hyper-casual game. Basically a scuba diver who goes down to the bottom of the ocean to grab gold, bringing it back up to his boat while dodging a bunch of sea creatures.
When I made that game, the way the class was set up, people would have their projects on the computer and others could go and play them. So, whenever I watched the class, I would see people playing the game, and that gave me a feeling of "okay, maybe I can do this for real." Maybe I could do this professionally, because I'm seeing people play my game without me telling them or asking them to do so. That class in itself gave me the confidence to say "this is a realistic thing that I can do professionally if I stick with it."
On learning how to operate a business through their full-time, non-gaming jobs:
Khalil: We were working full-time jobs. Computer science helped us by giving us a backbone that allowed us to get a regular job that could pay the bills. We were in software sales for about nine years and worked full-time.
Our job involved traveling and creating demos for different software companies around the world, convincing them to buy the software for their company. This taught us the sales process for software, from customer discovery to marketing to legal, which are all aspects that many indie developers typically don't have.
So, while we were teaching ourselves how to make games, we were also teaching ourselves the business and sales side of selling software. This all came together for the perfect combination of starting an indie game studio.
On what African-American representation in games means to them:
Khalil: I didn't really have any game industry role models because I literally couldn't name a big name in the industry that I could relate to. So even within my family, getting into the game industry was seen as a long shot. It was like talking about wanting to be an astronaut. It just wasn't a normal thing.
Diversity in the game industry is about normalizing it, making it so that it's not so out there for people to take on any roles, from a game developer to an artist, to a game project manager, to a voice actor, whatever your specialty is. It's about opening up those doors so that it's normalized for everyone. So that when we become prominent faces in the industry, it's not a story, it’s just a normal part of it.
Ahmed: Being African-American in the game industry is finally getting the opportunity to become creatives in a space where we shape the content. We're able to finally be the ones creating and owning the industry that flourishes off our culture. We're setting the trends on what the next cool product is, just like in any other industry today, whether it's the dances in "Fortnite" or the fact that the top games are sports games where we're predominantly featured. It's about being able to be on the creative side so that we can bring stories to the industry in the same way that black movie directors are able to bring stories to the movie industry.
But we need to be able to do the same thing now in the gaming industry, not just at an indie level, but at a level where we're actually getting funded and supported the same way that others have in the industry. It's about opening doors so people can see, and hopefully, people that are in the industry and want to be a part of it, can see what's being done and make these types of games. So that kids growing up can see that and say, "Okay, I can enter the game industry and be able to produce these types of products."
It means a lot to us. It means equally as much to us as making a successful game, to also build successful paths for others, and for people from marginalized communities, so that they feel included in this very awesome industry.
There’s a lot more in the full interview, including how Swimsanity! became one of the very first cross-platform playable games, their approach to and advice for networking, the favorite and most challenging parts of game development, and even a few tips for the middle and high-schoolers out their hoping to make their own games one day.