Black Excellence in Game Development – Decoy Games
Black Excellence in Game Development – Decoy Games
Editors Note: This interview has been edited for readability.
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Decoy Games, a remarkable video game development company, was founded by two brothers with no prior professional game development experience. Additionally, the brothers are Black men operating in a predominantly White space.
They have channeled their passion for video games and extensive imagination to build a Black-owned studio that continues to win awards and encourage innovation. We sat down with co-founder Khalil Abdullah to hear about how they started, what the team is doing now, and where they’re going in the future!
Gaming Origins and Decoy Games Foundation
Two Average Gamers: Tell us about the foundation of Decoy Games.
Khalil Abdullah: My brother and I have been playing games since we were 3, beginning with the original Mario game. Once we got to high school, we knew we wanted to develop video games. We started in computer science, which allowed us to get a job out of college, but we weren’t working in gaming to start. We used Youtube to learn the necessary skills for game development and educated ourselves about Unity. If you can get into school, then do it, but the reasoning of not being able to get into school isn’t a valid excuse. Video tutorials were really important for us.
TAG: Great to hear how you two were able to make it in the industry while teaching yourselves what you need to be successful. What’s it been like to work with a family member in gaming?
KA: Me and my brother went to school together. We had our first jobs together after graduation. It’d be weirder for us to work with someone else. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, plus we can trust and depend on each other. That’s one of the biggest challenges in indie games. We can give each other direct feedback. My family is very entrepreneurial – my sister runs a jewelry business and my dad is a contractor. We were raised with a hustle mentality. In our early careers, we were solutions consultants for a software company. We would help that company build tech demos, then go out on the road to sell software. That’s kind of what we do in the gaming world – selling software.
TAG: When did you know it was time to make the leap to your own company?
KA: As far as making the leap, we were patient, but an opportunity came up in 2018. The opportunity outweighed our patience, so it was time. We set ourselves up such that if we failed, we had a plan to bounce back.
TAG: That makes sense. Going back to your childhood days, what are some of your earliest gaming memories?
KA: My mom used to work for Toys ‘R Us, so we had a wild collection. Playing the N64 for the first time was big. We played a lot of Mario 64 and Virtua Fighter. We also put a lot of time into Power Stone on Dreamcast and Left 4 Dead. All the 3D games were really great.
TAG: That’s a really strong lineup! As you prepared to make game development your profession, where did you draw inspiration from?
KA: There were so many great games that came before us. It’d be crazy not to draw inspiration from them. For our early projects, we drew inspiration from multiplayer games. Most of the games we played were 2 players growing up, but we knew we wanted to make a 4-player game. It sounds corny, but my brother has been a huge influence inside the industry. Because we had a different background than a lot of the people around us, we had to rely heavily on each other for confidence and support. We used this reliance as a backbone and built off our family’s entrepreneurial spirit. A lot of the inspiration in the industry are people I’ve met along the way. Kirk Scott from Nintendo, met a lot of people on the distribution side at Microsoft and Nintendo, Hip Hop Gamer is great. I hate naming people because I know I’ll leave some off the list.
TAG: That’s understandable. Are you a part of any communities that you’ve tapped into?
KA: For sure! We’re part of Playcrafting which helps create an environment for indies who aspire to be professionals. They do game jams and bring gamers to conventions. They also have platforms for indies to do tests with the community. We’ve also been a part of The MIX, Game Devs of Color, BostonFIG. We do a lot of grassroots activities as well as the bigger game communities like PAX and E3.
Decoy Games Continues to Make Waves in the Industry
TAG: We’re still trying to get to those bigger events so hopefully, we see you there eventually! Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit more about the work that you and the team are doing today. What are some of the things that Decoy Games has done to encourage innovation across the gaming industry?
KA: This isn’t just about gaming. The gaming industry has grown so much, where entertainment used to just be TV and movies back in the day. Now that games are more widely accepted, we try to innovate on how that information is passed. We do a lot of talks at schools and philanthropy efforts to spread the knowledge. We want to bring more great minds in to create content – both in playing games and creating games. We’ve been thankful to get the scale from our publishers.
TAG: The scaling aspect can make a big difference! What are some of the biggest challenges in developing a game?
KA: We had an artist contracted for the first game, but making a game is also running a business. When we released Swimsanity, it was on PC and console with crossplay. At launch, we didn’t have the same support for cross-play. Since we released during the pandemic, we didn’t have full support like QA testing. One of the biggest struggles was finding enough time for everything.
TAG: I can only imagine what that must have been like. What would a typical day look like for you two during development?
KA: When you say a “typical day”, that implies the day ended! You have to stay at an eagle eye view so you don’t miss opportunities from being too heads down. We were obsessed with organization → we used whiteboards to capture all of our tasks while staying in contact with any important networks. Things haven’t slowed down since, but we’ve learned a lot and are now better at what we do. We also have a team with us. Immediately after Swimsanity launched, we started planning what was next. There’s no way we could do bigger and better things with just me and my brother. We knew we had the potential to do better things, but we knew we needed a larger team. The first thing we did was to look for a publisher. Ours was very supportive of enabling us to expand. We grew a genuine network and gained friends in the industry.
TAG: Time management is definitely one of those key skills that can benefit people across all different industries and roles. I saw social impact mentioned on the website. What drives this passion for you?
KA: This is never-ending for us. We know there are a lot of intelligent individuals who are misinformed about the industry. Gaming is a whole entertainment form. It doesn’t matter if you’re a voice actor, musician, project manager, etc. We need all kinds of roles. We need to be able to educate all levels of education on what there is to do in the industry.
TAG: We’re thankful to have people like you pushing for this type of education! What game studios do you admire and what about them impresses you?
KA: When we were starting, Castle Crashers was a big inspiration. We actually talked to the developers of Bastion in person. At the time, indie gaming was on the rise. They showed us you can make a gaming studio without having hundreds of employees.
TAG: Castle Crashers is such an incredible game! We’re still making our way through it. Speaking of incredible games, Swimsanity has won a ton of awards. What was it like to get that kind of recognition and see your hard work pay off?
KA: It’s weird because some of it doesn’t seem real. Swimsanity is the game I was working on in my parent’s house when we first started. You need to stop and appreciate the accomplishment, but we still have so many things that we want to do. Seeing our game up there was really cool. As far as the brand, I can do so much networking on my own, but if Nintendo talks about the game, it has a much larger reach. I really appreciate how those larger companies can help us. We learned a lot on the social media side – IG, Twitter, and Discord especially. We’re still learning since social media is a science in itself. Currently, me and my brother manage the socials ourselves.
The Future of Decoy Games and More Industry Insights from Khalil
TAG: You guys are doing really well and we’re excited about what’s next! Can you tell us about the future of Decoy Games?
KA: For us, it’s just on to bigger and better things. We can’t say a lot about our current project, but everyone is really excited. It’s going to be like something you’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, these things take a long time, but they will be worth it. We have about 13 people right now which has been a big jump for us. At the risk of sounding too confident, I think it’s going to be really successful.
TAG: That must have been wild 6-xing your team size! How was it transitioning from game development mode into manager mode?
KA: We’ve had experience leading projects and teams, as well as being on teams in the past. While my heart is in development, my passion is in game design. I think it suits my needs really well. We have an awesome group of people that we are lucky to work with.
TAG: Growing the team is a great way to increase your overall creativity and productivity. Where do you see opportunities for the gaming industry to further support Black people?
KA: You have to start at the education level. It’s harder to jump in when people don’t have the foundation. We need to make sure that schools have the resources and technologies available. Outside of going to a 4-year college, you can open the doors for people who are capable and ready to contribute in entry-level positions.
TAG: How do you think about diversity in character design in the gaming space?
KA: I think it can be better. There is an effort to get diverse characters into games.
I think the issue is actually not having enough diversity in the creators’ pool. I think the point is to have diverse creators who make diverse characters.
There is a long way to go, but there have definitely been some eyes open in the last couple of years.
TAG: Great recommendation on increasing diversity. Anything else you’d like to share?
KA: If you’re interested in getting into the industry, start now. This might mean asking questions or searching for tutorials. Waiting to start only puts more time between you and your goals, so start now.
Now that we’ve gone through the tough questions, let’s close things out with some rapid-fire picks to understand your gaming preferences!
- Mario or Sonic
- I love Sonic but Mario is winning
- PlayStation or Xbox
- Xbox – the controller feels better
- Favorite game of all time
- That’s difficult…Left 4 Dead and I like The Tales of Series
- Favorite game right now
- I put a ton of hours into Far Cry 6. I think this was their best character design to date
- Greatest video game-related movie
- Original Mortal Kombat movie
- Thoughts on the latest Pokemon starters?
- I dropped off Pokemon after Yellow, unfortunately. They’re cute – I like the simplicity of the original starters but haven’t paid much attention to the later gen Pokemon
What’s next for Decoy Games
Decoy Games shared what they could about their upcoming release, but couldn’t get too much into the specifics. Follow Khalil and the team at their socials to stay up to date on their new developments!
We’re grateful that Khalil took the time to share his insights on the industry and provide more context around what it looks like to be a person of color in the game development world!
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