With the release of their game coming up, we had a nice long chat with Kahlil Abdullah, co-founder of Decoy Games about all things Swimsanity, helping other marginalized game developers, and what’s next.
BlackNerdProblems: So, you have a release date.
Khalil Abdullah: Yeah, yeah. Hype!
BNP: How does that feel?
Khalil: Feels pretty good. I always tell people a lot of this stuff happens behind the scenes months before it occurred. So people have been asking “Have you been celebrating recently?” and I’m like we’ve been celebrating like months ago because we already knew when it was going to be. But we’re hype to get it out there in public and stuff. It’s cool, it’s cool to see the page on the console pages and stuff like that. So, we’re excited.
BNP: So, for all the folks that don’t know about Swimsanity, tell us what the game is all about.
Khalil: Swimsanity is a 4-player, underwater shooter with competitive and cooperative game modes where you can play with or against your friends. Basically, you control this underwater, aquatic hero called a Mooba. And he’s equipped with all these special power moves called ‘Unleashes.’ You can become a humongous shark, you can heal your teammates, you can deploy an underwater, what we call, an aqua tank. There are 13 of these, across 8 different game modes.
So, if you’re kind of a competitive guy, you can play against your friends in a typical deathmatch or elimination mode. We also flip the game on itself and let people play all on the same team with cooperative modes where you can do big boss battles or survival. There’s really something for everyone. The game is gonna have local and online play, and we just announced last month that it’s gonna have cross-play across all consoles and PC.
BNP: I met you guys a few years ago at Game Devs of Color. I noticed you move from convention to convention. As you moved around, you’ve gotten the attention of players with plenty of tournaments going. What’s it been like building a community over those past few years as you guys were making the game?
Khalil: Yeah, I think one of the things that we wanted to do, even as we were building the game at my mom’s house, we wanted to meet the people who played our games. Around that time Castle Crashers was the big indie game and [Dust: An Elysian Tail]. The way these guys got big, they were going to PAX and E3 and that’s kind of how they got their name out there. We used to go as attendees, and we thought it would be cool to just showcase our stuff.
As we started making the game, we found out that not every convention is like an E3 or a PAX – they have local conventions too. That’s where we started showing our game off. We showed it off at a local convention called BostonFIG, which had maybe at most 300 to 400 people there, it’s like held inside of a gym. I think the first time we showcased there, there was something that really just attached to us. Making your game is cool, being able to share it with someone else, seeing someone play your game, or see two people who don’t know each other come together because of your game is just a really cool feeling.
So, while we are building out this dream of becoming game developers, we’re also seeing what games can do as far as bring people together. Once we realize that was a possibility, we wanted to use our game to do that in the community. Whether that’s going to a local Game Devs of Color, BostonFIG, the humongous PAX East/West, E3, we just feel like its a really cool thing to bring communities together.
BNP: You guys released a demo last month. I had some hands-on time with it. It’s really good. How has the reception been between showing it in person and having people play it on their own at home? Has it been different? Has it informed how you build the game?
Khalil: The reception has been all around pretty great honestly. People’s feedback as far as things that don’t work have been awesome. But as far as how much they’ve enjoyed the game, we’ve gotten really good feedback from that front. It’s always different, taking a demo to a show where you’ve taken kind of like this small hard tested demo that you know if it breaks, I can go turn it off and turn it back on real quick. Whereas someone is playing the demo on their own in a completely different state or whatever. If it breaks, they might not turn the game back on ever again. So, there’s a lot more anxiety going on with that but I think, all in all, we really enjoyed doing the digital showcases. So far so good.
BNP: This is you and your brother’s first game, right?
Khalil: Yeah, this is our first commercial game. We’ve always messed around with game development. Even Swimsanity itself didn’t start off as a console game. It started off as a flash game. We’ve done flash games, Facebook games before. These are just all ways to keep our skills going as we kind of work towards what we knew our goal was – to sell a game on console.
BNP: What’s been the most challenging part of building Swimsanity since when you guys conceived it a few years ago to now?
Khalil: Man, the crazy thing with being an indie, especially self-publishing is that you have to wear so many hats. A lot of things where just learn as you go. I think one of the biggest challenges for us was just timing. Planning your timing, smartly making sure that you give yourself enough time. Working against demand you’d say. I think early on when we were younger, we just gave in to the pressure. So, if we heard a few people be like “I want to play Swimsanity” and then the next month we’re like “Yeah, Swimsanity is coming out in 3 months” when we really weren’t ready. I think as we matured, understanding that we control our own destiny. That’s why your self-published, right?
We control our own schedule and making sure that we own that. When we say, “The game is going to come out next year,” we have to make sure that we are locked into that. We give ourselves enough planning in doing that. But it’s a learning process with it being our first console game. There are a lot of development challenges that we didn’t expect. There were a lot of challenges in general that as far as getting the right network and stuff together that we didn’t expect as well. We feel like definitely equipped for the release of Swimsanity and what goes beyond that as well.
BNP: You and your brother are from Boston. When we talked the last time, two years ago, you guys were telling me how you had day jobs and basically you were working on the side as you were building this game. How hard has it been creating and maintain interest in the game along the way?
Khalil: Yeah, so when we started we knew that what we didn’t want to do is put ourselves in a position to burn out, which I think a lot of indies do that. You know, that “I want to make a game, I’m going to quit my job right now, work out of my parents’ house and just go until the game comes out.” They always flame out. It’s too much to handle. Whether it’s game development or any other entrepreneurial thing you want to do, having that foundation so that rent is taken care of, food is taken care of, all of the basis of life are taken care of before you start working on your passion is extremely important. We knew that especially from the advice that we got from our parents going into this.
Day one, the first thing we need to do, we need to put ourselves in a position to get a job that just pays the bills. We don’t have to like it. We used our development skills to get software sales jobs. So, we were building software that sells it for a company. It’s definitely a sacrifice, it takes up a good amount of time. Some weeks you don’t get to touch your game for very long. Other weeks it might be an easy work week and you can work a full 30 hours or so.
The way that we thought about it is that we are always moving forward, right? As long as we were never just stagnant, things were always progressing. The cool thing is that last July, we left our full-time jobs. We just hit a point that the opportunities were starting to outweigh the benefit that our job gave us, and we always knew that the moment would come so we saved up towards the business. So, we just kind of made the leap. Since then we’ve been full-time indie, going into release now, and it’s cool.
BNP: With current events as they are now, with being stuck at home, and not being able to go to conventions. How has that impacted your work on the game?
Khalil: Yeah, it was crazy when it happened. It happened around PAX East. Like you said, we do conventions all the time. That’s our thing. So that was a big kind of hit to us as far as being involved with the community and stuff like that. We definitely had to put on our brakes and change the way we promoted Swimsanity and stay engage with the public too. We had to focus a lot more on digital showcasing and finding partners who did digital showcasing. I guess if I could call it a positive out of what is a very horrible situation, the lockdown, is that it allowed us to focus on the game.
Not as much traveling, not as much running around. For a very short period of 3 months, we were able to lock down the game, finish online play, get our stuff certified for consoles. Our mindset when this whole coronavirus thing hopefully passes and we are all vaccinated and however they are going to resolve this, we can get back out there and do what we were doing before without worrying about the game development taking up so much time. Luckily, that’s kind of how it wrapped up and here we are at our release date. So, we’re excited about that.
BNP: As developers, how do you guys feel like you’ve evolved?
Khalil: When we started … how old was I? 24 or something like that. 24 when we started talking about development. Maybe 26 when we actually started developing. I’m 33 right now. Just as a man, I feel like I’ve grown. I’ve matured a lot. So, the way that we look at things, from a much more mature view, we take our time. Before when we started doing stuff, we would just go all in. We were like “Hey, we are starting the game right now. Next year, we’re going to E3.”
Things don’t work out and we hit this big low. Now, we plan things out a lot better. We also take things as they come. We understand there are ups and downs. Not everything goes exactly as you plan. Not every no kills you. It’s just a no. At the end of the day, you’ll still be here tomorrow as long you’re genuine about your work. I think that maturity has gone into our work, how we present ourselves, and just our sights of where Decoy games will be. It helped us slow down and understand the process.
BNP: You guys get a lot of buzz out of conventions and seeing fans react. After doing all those conventions and dropping the demo, what’s it like seeing fans react to your game, especially with it being your first big game?
Khalil: It’s a blessing honestly. I’ll be honest with you. Sometimes I see the game and some people like it more than I do (laughs). It’s cool to see that. I’m all for it. I mean, it’s cool. I don’t know how else to say it. Making the game was cool but seeing people enjoy it is just a whole different vibe because you’re seeing people sit there and enjoy. A lot of times at conventions, people don’t even know that we’re the ones who made the game, which is a whole different story itself. You see someone say, “Oh mom, I really want this game, can you get it for me,” and they don’t even know that you’re standing right there. Little moments like that are just cool to witness. Yeah, it’s awesome.
BNP: I know the game is coming to Xbox, Switch, Steam, and the PS4. Could you tell me a bit about what the process is like since it was your first time putting a game on those platforms?
Khalil: Yeah, there’s two sides. There’s the development and then there’s the business or networking side. I don’t care how good of a developer that you are, if you can’t make those connections, you can’t get on the consoles and that’s the honest truth. And there’s a lot of games trying to get on there. Giving the fact that we worked in our previous software sales job, that allowed us to develop our sales qualities you could say. So, we leveraged those sales and networking qualities to meet some of these console representatives who honestly, they go to big and small conventions and they walk around like a sports scout. They’re looking at games and go “Oh, I can see that on our consoles” or ” No, that’s not mine.”
They literally pick things out and we were just always ready. We always had somebody, eyes open, looking at badges and stuff while we were at conventions. When we went to Game Devs of Color, there was a Nintendo representative walking around. He was just walking around looking at games and he pulled my brother aside and said “Hey, do you guys have Nintendo Dev kits?” We were like “No, that’s one of the ones we were looking for.” He said he was from Nintendo and we’ll be talking and he started walking away. My brother was like “No, we gotta talk more right now. We gotta finish this conversation.” From there, we told him how much we wanted to be on the console, about our plans about how we would adapt Swimsanity to the Nintendo Switch, and we basically had to sell ourselves.
We had to sell him. You gotta sell people your game and you have to do that with all the consoles. You have to give them a reason to say I want your game on our console. From there, he sent us dev kits the next week because we were like “You’re not walking away from us.” So, yeah. There’s that side, you know, networking and stuff. Development wise, it’s crazy because most of the development with consoles, every console has their set of rules. You game needs to abide by these rules to be on our console. And they are like small things that you would never think of. Like, if I put the Switch on my TV, I have to say it’s “The Nintendo Switch.” There are little rules like that, a ton for each console that are different before publishing your game to each one. Developing for those individual aspects is challenging and passing all those tests is challenging but it’s kind of cool.
BNP: Do you guys feel like you’re ready for when the game drops? Will there be some relief when it’s finally out there?
Khalil: It’s weird because I think there the customer-facing perspective of us where the game just came out but like I said, we knew about the release date that was locked in months ago. I think that was the moment of excitement for us. We are already working on DLC and stuff. In our minds, we’re already on to the next thing. Not that we aren’t happy and not excited. We’re pumped for it to come out. I think we took our breath a while ago when nobody knew, and we were just laying low and stuff. We’re hyped. We want to see how many people jump online to play day one to see how this game turns out. But we are already back working on the next thing. We’re excited to be working on the next thing.
BNP: You guys obviously have more stuff planned for Swimsanity when it drops. What about the future beyond Swimsanity?
Khalil: Oh yeah, for sure. We already have our next two and a half games prototyped out. We’re essentially locked into what our next game is going to be. We’re also not just doing games. There’s a lot of different avenues that we want to get into like merchandising. We’re always open to opportunities, whether it’s something with animation or comics or something. We think a lot beyond just the game and we do a lot of our community stuff too like our Game On events and things we are doing to inspire other individuals and individuals of marginalized communities to get into the game industry, whether you’re a developer for not. We always have a lot of stuff going on besides Swimsanity. Swimsanity is our child but we feel like that child also has a whole bunch of wings that it spreads out to which allows us to work a whole bunch of different avenues.
BNP: How do you and your brother feel about your experience working as developers of color? Obviously, you have experience helping other people get into the industry, what do you think of the avenues and opportunities available to you now?
Khalil: So, I feel like especially when we started the representation is so low. On one hand, it definitely affects your confidence where you start to question whether or not you even belong. A lot of the times I hear people who are not of color say, “There’s nothing stopping you from being a developer,” like everything’s the same. Yeah like, written down is the same if you’re just looking at what the actual rules are, yeah it’s the same. But when there’s a lack of representation, you lack confidence. Regardless, if people have the door open or not, that itself is a problem.
One of the examples I use for representation is that I play basketball a lot and a lot of times when you play ball you have that one white dude who’s a real good baller. He’s just as good as anyone else when he’s playing around people he’s used to. But when he goes to the gym with a bunch of Black people, he has no representation. He shrinks a bit. He doesn’t feel like this is his area. The same thing happens in game development. We can have all the skills and stuff but when I get into a classroom or a job where everyone doesn’t look like me, I don’t feel comfortable. I’m not around the people that I’m used to. I don’t see anybody who looks like me developing or doing the things that I’m doing, you lose that confidence.
We definitely had those moments when we were younger, me and my brother relied on each other to have that kind of support, but we realized that not everybody has that kind of support with them. As we kind of started getting further along in our journey, we realized that we are in a position to be that representation if we choose to be. Also along the way, we meet other individuals who are doing great things but aren’t necessarily being shown doing those great things. And we put together the initiative to say, “We need to show ourselves doing great things in the game industry.”
I don’t care if you’re a developer, I don’t care if you’re in music, media, podcasting, editorials, or voice acting. We need to see that you’re out there so that the next kid who wants to do these things can say “Hey, that guy, he looks like me, walks like me, talks like me. I can do exactly what he does.” There are definitely other issues that come with being of color in the game industry, but that representation is one that we can control, quickly. That’s the one that we are focused on.
BNP: Do you guys have anything to say to fans excited about the release?
Khalil: Yeah, August 7. Get the game, download it. We are going to be playing, so we’ll be announcing events where we are playing. Download the game, it’s a lot of fun. Regardless of how you play, if you’re playing at home, locally, online, with friends, competitively with other people, there’s a lot of stuff for you to do. Also, we’re continuing our energy. We’re always staying active. Doing stuff with the game and the community. Just follow us at Decoy Games on Twitter, Facebook. DecoyGame_Official on Instagram. Discord too, just search up Swimsanity, we are always chatting there too.