Black Excellence in Game Development – Nuchallenger
Nuchallenger is all about making and publishing dope games and culture. The independent games studio launched Treachery in Beatdown City across multiple platforms and is always looking for other individuals who want to change the games industry!
Shawn Alexander Allen is the founder of the studio. He comes from the AAA gaming space and has built a name for himself in the indie community. He shares the challenges he faced in the gaming industry and the trends he’s noticed through his journey!
The interview has been edited for readability.
Shawn’s Background and Nuchallenger Foundation
Two Average Gamers: Where does the name ‘Nuchallenger’ come from? How did you land on this logo?
Shawn Alexander Allen: Back in 2010 I branded my game design analysis blog “A New Challenger Awaits”. I love fighting games, so it made sense at the time. I used to play Street Fighter IV a lot and I wanted to be competitive at one point.
I was making my twitter handle at E3 2010 on the line for whatever was the big thing that year.
I went for “newchallenger” and it was taken. It’s still taken, by a defunct account that has been dead since 2012, oddly the year that “NuChallenger” started.
Eventually, I just said screw it and threw a u in there (@anuchallenger). Eventually when it came time to make an LLC, that name stuck. Now it’s officially a C-Corp.
Also in late 2012 I found out my dad was a musician. It was incredible to find out my dad was a Black rocker who played at the big New York rock clubs. I never knew where all the Black rock groups were, and I suspect if I had known what my dad did, I’d be doing music instead.
I found a flier for my dad’s band Zoid, and they played at CBGBs (I’ve got some music from them). The logo for ZOID had a Z made of thick lines and triangles. Before I saw this logo I had made a terrible looking logo for NuChallenger when it was just an idea, and it eventually got very real, so I needed something better. I went back to my graphic design books, opened up illustrator, and the NuChallenger logo ended up looking a lot like the ZOID logo, at least in principle. The “NUCHALLENGER” at the bottom is how ZOID was written, on a black rectangle and everything, with a font that’s very similar to the flier font. It’s just a way of having some of my dad’s creativity with me.
TAG: That’s awesome to hear about that influence! You’ve worked on some big-name games for Rockstar. What are the top 3 things you learned during your tenure there?
SAA: First, don’t ever work 7 days a week for anyone, it will most likely not be paid back.
Second, your bosses aren’t your friends. Just because a boss invites you to their birthday party, doesn’t mean they have your back when push comes to shove.
Third, I learned to appreciate film. Before the job I had a few movies I owned and didn’t really appreciate or understand cinematography. I just had some sense of camera placement. Despite going to school for 3D animation, we were never taught film principles. But my job required understanding how to move cameras and how to capture footage that cut together well. It also helped when we worked with a studio to redesign the camera system for shooting trailers.
TAG: That last point isn’t talked about enough, especially when it comes to video game cutscenes. How has your game development experience affected the way you approached VR projects?
SAA: I’m naturally a storyteller, though I accidentally fell into VR. There was a project I worked on that dealt with slavery and telling a story with 3D images from the 1860s and 1930s audio clips that I was asked to be a part of. I dove in because I thought the project was interesting, even though it was sorta clear I was asked to work on it because I was Black and it needed a cosigner. Years later I’m glad I got the experience, but I eventually saw it as trauma porn and abandoned any need to bring it back.
Years later I was given the ability to learn about the space more, and curate a collection of games that showed off what VR was capable of. I found VR to be a really unique space that needed design unlike anything else. Something unique to VR is the novelty of unstructured play in the form of messing with random things in space. I loved the idea of this, but the constraints around the corporate projects I worked on made it so I could never really have just a play-centric approach, which was unfortunate.
Now that I’m out of the VR space, I’m not sure I’ll return, at least for a while. It’s a hard business to be in. But I do have a game concept I want to explore one day.
TAG: Can’t wait to see that future VR project! What were some of the most impactful things you learned from animating in Flash/Gifs? Where would you recommend people start today if they are interested in developing video games?
SAA: So for reference, I got a lot of my early computer graphics experience with Gif animation and Flash. Gif was fun, but I didn’t understand animation principles so my stuff was very basic.
Flash let me experiment with animation, and I eventually made some interactive pieces. I made what I thought were funny Pokemon sequences where Pikachu, Squirtle, and Venusaur all murdered Jigglypuff. I was 15 or 16 at the time, and I laughed hysterically every time I played them.
But making Flash animations and projects made me want to make games, even if I never got to do it in Flash because I just couldn’t figure out how to do so regardless of how much I tried to learn.
How Nuchallenger Changed Beat Em Ups
TAG: It’s cool that you had that experimentation when you were younger. Let’s jump into more recent projects. TiBC has a rich story and relevant overtones of the current state of the world. Can you talk about the process of writing the story and dialogue for Beatdown City?
SAA: Thank you. Writing the story and dialogue for Treachery in Beatdown City involved a lot of iteration. I had never written so much dialogue before. In fact, I mostly wrote short stories and poetry, and this was me learning something new. I wanted the game to be dark and funny, and I got my first taste that I wasn’t quite getting it when I entered a festival with the game and got a note saying that it wasn’t clear if the game was supposed to be serious or funny. This haunted me all through my writing process, but it was very sobering and made me focus more on my authorial intent.
Almost by coincidence, I started getting really deep into the comedy scene in NY in late 2014. I spent some time hanging out at comedy clubs and getting to know comedians. I learned what makes them tick, how they do joke structure, what topics they cover, how they might edit a joke for different audiences, watched them pitch a different punchline in real-time, and more. This really helped me get into the space of writing comedy. My friend Xalavier Nelson, another game designer/writer, mentioned making your game quotes fit in a single screenshot, which worked within the framework of punchlines and so I altered text to read better screen to screen.
I kept writing and rewriting the game, watching how people reacted at events, and eventually did a huge rewrite in the last few weeks leading up to launch. The jokes were finally punchy and they really came through to the right audience, which is mostly Black folks from the city who just burst out laughing while playing, and that’s how I know I did a good job.
While the story is simple, the worldbuilding took a bit of time to flesh out. A large part of our game is sort of explaining the ridiculousness of beat ‘em ups. Why are these folks all around just ready to be punched? And as we got deeper in characters from drunks and cops to bikers and cyborgs, I sat down and had to figure out at least some logic for why they existed.
TAG: Studying comedians definitely had a major impact on the writing process. Additionally, the sound design and musical score of TiBC are incredible! How involved were you in the music creation and how do you ensure the tracks align well with the gameplay design?
SAA: I’m glad you liked it, the music was something I was very adamant about getting right. I wanted the tracks to be something you could loop forever. However, I didn’t make the music, and my involvement was greater in the beginning, and a bit less as time went on. I would generally listen to a track for hours on end and give feedback based on what I felt.
The intro song to the game was the first thing I ever commissioned. Back then, it was supposed to be just a song for an intro to a made-up video game. I found the musician Inverse Phase through a cover for “F*** You” by C-Lo Green, and that’s how the conversation started.
I know I was a bit of a pain in the ass, as I have musical vibes I want to hit which are hard to express. I’m naturally musical, but gave it up as a kid because I had to drop out of music school due to lack of a scholarship. So Inverse would make stuff, and I’d sometimes have to call and hum stuff back to him to try and get a specific build of a tune, or whatever else I was thinking.
Inverse Phase is great at making tunes that fit the game. He gives me WIPs and I let him know what I wanted or didn’t want, though I usually wanted everything.
TAG: It’s good that you had a strong collaboration with Inverse to help bring your vision to life. Can you share a preview of what we can expect from the sequel to TiBC? Are there other projects you’d like to give details about?
SAA: Right now we’re doing free DLC to TIBC, and sort of relaunching the game, plus launching on other consoles. Can’t give any other game details about the future – you only get one chance to announce anything.
Trends in the Gaming Industry
TAG: No worries, we’ll keep an eye out for future announcements. Having just returned from the Game Developers Conference, what are you most excited about in the coming year in the gaming industry?
SAA: GDC isn’t really an event that shares what’s new. It’s more a recap, and a spot to see your friends who you barely see, especially after the last 2 years of the pandemic.
A couple of my friends, who are also Black devs in leadership positions, are on the come up, so It was great seeing them at GDC, as I’m always excited to see what they will do. In general, the people who I know who are working to make cooler games are starting to rise, and that’s also very exciting.
Also, I was able to talk to folks about the Game Devs of Color Expo, the event I co-organize, where arguably we are about the new NEW, and folks at GDC were telling me how much our event meant to them, which is always touching.
As far as what I’m most excited about, I’m working on making NuChallenger a bigger thing. We have investment money, and we’ll be building a team. So I’m most excited about what I’m doing. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that.
TAG: Looking forward to that event and the continued emergence of more developers of color! You’ve presented at several conferences and events. What advice can you share for aspiring speakers? How do you keep your material fresh and prepare for your presentations?
SAA: Honestly, find something you’re passionate about that you can talk about easily and tell the world about it. If you’re Black or Brown and/or a marginalized genre, don’t make your talks be about your marginalization, or you’ll be trapped in capital D diversity hell. That happened to me for a bit, and I got tired of it quickly.
Advocacy tracks are trash, too, because people who do not agree will just simply avoid your talk. Talk about what you care about, and what you know about, and what you’re doing, and less about who you are and your struggles, unless those things directly affect the other elements.
Finding the right place to talk, especially for your first talk, is also important. I was lucky to have some panels that I was on early in my speaking career in order to make a bunch of mistakes. Game Devs of Color Expo is an event where we work to give space to new speakers, because we want to hear from everyone.
TAG: Yea, that makes sense to talk about things that you are passionate about. What groups and platforms have you seen do the best job of amplifying underrepresented voices in gaming?
SAA: I can only speak to the Game Devs of Color Expo, because it was the first event I attended that felt like I really belonged. It was a beautiful sight to see so many different people interacting in a space, talking about feeling seen.
What it Takes to Run a Business
TAG: What have you learned about running a business since launching your own development studio?
SAA: Basically everything. I didn’t know anything when I started, which was important to realize. Despite having a background in management, it all just disappeared when I was working with folks on Treachery in Beatdown CIty.
After years of working myself into the ground and having a hard time managing folks, things came around and I just focused on being a better manager and communicator.
TAG: Communication is key! In other interviews, you noted that time is such a valuable resource. How do you prioritize all the things you want to do and ensure you don’t burn out from overworking?
SAA: That’s a good question. Prioritizing things has been tough. I found printing out a schedule of my hours and hanging it up helps me understand my days better.
But I’m still figuring it all out.
TAG: We’re right there with you. What tools/apps do you use to help you effectively manage your time and productivity?
SAA: The best thing I’ve found has been Calendly. I have a lot of appointments, and it helps me a lot. It was dope to find out it’s Black-owned.
TAG: Calendly is doing some great work and we’ve enjoyed using their product as well. Anything else you’d like to share with the readers?
SAA: Did you know that the Super Mario joke “Your princess is in another castle” is not just a joke about having to do more, but rather a joke about the fact that all Nintendo games ended at 1-4, so the first time you see there’s something beyond 1-4, it’s like WOAH games are so big now! I think it’s important to know the root of a joke to reference it, and many games don’t, which leads to misunderstandings about what the culture actually is.
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
- PlayStation or Xbox
- Nintendo’s been the most influential of them all
- Favorite game of all time
- Too reductive
- Favorite game right now
- Tunic, but previously it was a tie between Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator/Returnal
- Favorite video game-related movie
- John Wick
Shawn has a wealth of knowledge and big visions for the future of gaming. If you’re looking for speaking engagements, mentorship, artwork, or conversations about hip-hop, make sure to check out Twitter and Linktree to be informed of their latest news!