The video game industry is as prone to systemic oppression as any other. Developers of color, and perhaps particularly Black developers, face an uphill battle for employment, let alone creative expression. With this series of features, DBLTAP hopes to highlight the creations of Black developers working to tell their own stories through games in this monthly series. We've previously talked to Neil Jones/Aerial_Knight about Never Yield, Studio Zevere about She Dreams Elsewhere, BareHand about Cede, Decoy Games about Swimsanity!, and Veritable Joy Studios about ValiDate.
Jarryd Huntley never expected he'd work full time in games. Even as he studied computer science in college, working on games seemed like a world apart. Cut to today, Huntley's released his own games commercially, ported several with his studio Polytundra, and is hard at work on another by the name of We Are OFK. He's also a linchpin organizer for the Cleveland Game Developers, a published author, and a father. We caught up with Huntley for his take on teaching, the importance of community, and preparing future generations of developers for the racism in the industry.
DBLTAP: You retweeted that meme that was like, "Game developers be like," and it's the guys with all the hats and it's like, "Wears many hats." That's actually you. Like, you've done so much shit. Can you trace your career trajectory a little bit for me? Maybe walk me through the steps?
Jarryd Huntley: I grew up playing games, you know, a lot of computer games. I got an N64 when I was pretty young and stuck to Nintendo consoles. And I always thought games were cool. There was one N64 game that had a debug mode where you could just mess around with the game, and turn on different, you know, the AI, or adjust different parameters. That was kind of the first thing that made me think, oh, like, people actually make these. In middle school, I think it was RPG Maker — I played a little bit around with making games, but it was always something like, "Oh, there's no way I could do that [as a career]."
Fast forward to college, I was majoring in computer science and was still playing games, but wasn't really thinking about making them. I saw a book at a bookstore. It was an old book on XNA, which was a programming language — or programming framework — that Microsoft made where you could release your own games on the Xbox 360. I saw that book and was like, "Oh, that's cool," and then walked past it and just didn't buy it. Then after I got home, I'm like, "Man, I should have bought that book. I should have bought that book!" And I couldn't stop thinking about that book. So I went back as soon as I could and bought it. That was kind of the start of me, just teaching myself.
Now, at the same time, I was learning programming in school, I was teaching myself a little bit about game programming, and how games work. But after graduating college, I worked in enterprise IT doing things like web engineering, application performance management, DevOps. So I was working with a lot of, you know, large computer systems. I think around that time is when I joined the Cleveland Game Developers, which is a local group of game developers here in Cleveland. Because game development was always — it was something I did, you know, just as a hobby, for fun. Something I enjoyed, but I never thought about it as something I could do as a career. But when that changed was, there was a scholarship for marginalized people in the game industry — so racial minorities, gender minorities — that I applied for. I wrote an application and I didn't think I would get it, but the next day, I got an email back saying that I won the scholarship, you know, a ticket to GDC. This was, I think, two and a half weeks before GDC? And I had never been to California at the time.
DBLTAP: Jesus Christ.
JH: It was one of the craziest things I've experienced in my life. So I immediately booked a ticket to California. I had to borrow money from some family members to book a ticket, I had to find a place to stay, and ended up staying in an Airbnb with a bunch of strangers, which I wouldn't necessarily recommend. But it turned out great. They're all wonderful people and people I still chat with today. And that whole experience of, you know, going to GDC, being surrounded by people in the industry. And all the people in the house I was staying with, you know, were super encouraging and like, "Yeah, this is totally something you can do. We see you're passionate about it." But that was kind of where it started.
DBLTAP: Do you remember the name of the game on the N64 that had the debugging mode?
JH: Yeah, no, that was Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire. It was pretty much the most asinine and complicated code I've ever seen in a game. I think you needed to hold L and R on the N64 joystick, like, two of the C buttons and, like, left on the D pad, then you needed to move the joystick almost all the way to the right, but it couldn't be all the way to the right. So it was like 7/8ths to the right, hold it for five seconds, and move it 7/8ths to the left, but not all the way to the left, hold it for five seconds, to the right for five seconds, to the left for five seconds. And then it would enable debug mode. It was ridiculous.
DBLTAP: Dude, the Contra code could never. So after you got that scholarship, and you went to this big event, where did you go from there? What was your first job?
JH: Yeah, so I came back from GDC super pumped, but I came back to Cleveland, where, you know, there's not much of a professional game industry. Especially not six years ago. There's more now, but it's more indie, and individuals and small companies. And so since there wasn't much industry, I decided to start going to conferences and learning from people around. So I started going to conferences in New York, started going to conferences in Chicago. There's some in Kentucky — Vector is one in Kentucky that's excellent. I just started meeting people, and networking with people, and learning from them, and just learning how the industry worked in their city. Learning how people started their careers in their cities. Just started connecting with people.
As far as my first industry job, that would have been teaching at Lorain County Community College. That's where I teach some game development classes. So somebody from the local game dev group is one of the faculty heads there and had posted there was an opening to teach. I thought it would be a good way to make a little bit of money and at the same time exercise kind of some of my game development skills and teach some of what I've been learning over the years.
DBLTAP: So you've never worked at a triple A studio or anything, right? You've worked as a professor and you've worked on your own stuff at [your studio] Polytundra, but you've never worked at a Ubisoft or something like that, right?
JH: Yeah, I haven't worked with a triple A studio. But my company Polytundra, we've worked with a number of indies from very small to medium-sized indies, I'd say, on a number of different titles and a couple of Switch ports.
DBLTAP: Was working at a triple A studio ever an ambition of yours? Is it an ambition of yours? Or do you prefer working on this smaller scale, more personal, maybe more in your control, kind of thing?
JH: I guess my goal when I was starting out was to be able to work on games. Even when I started, I wasn't necessarily thinking about working on games full time. I was like, "Oh, maybe I can work on the side and make some games and see where it goes." So that's kind of where it started. It wasn't necessarily a triple A vs. indie thing. I mean, triple A, I always kind of, I guess, discounted, because there isn't any triple A here in Cleveland, and triple A really doesn't hire remote. This is, you know, pre-2020. It's probably a lot different now.
DBLTAP: In the before times.
JH: [Laughs] In the before times. But in a weird way, you know, working in enterprise IT for nearly a decade, you know, there's a lot of similarities to triple A. The large teams, and meetings, and committees, and things like that.
DBLTAP: How did you get the idea to write your book ["Game Programming for Artists"]? And what was it like trying to distill all the stuff that you had learned about game development into one finished thing?
JH: The idea for the book came from a podcast I was on with some friends, Bill Whetsel and George Kopec. [The now-defunct North Coast Game Educators Alliance podcast.]
We were talking about our different backgrounds. Their backgrounds were in art, and they had kind of moved into game development. My background was in computer science, and I kind of moved into game development. I think it was after we were recording the show, we were just kind of chatting, and one of them had mentioned, you know, "It'd be nice if there was some kind of 'game programming for artists' resource that could kind of help fill in the gaps." You know, some of the computer science gaps, or the things that you don't necessarily learn.
We kind of chatted about it a little bit, but then after that, I just kind of took notes. When I encountered something in my work or a game that I was working on, I was like, "Oh, you know, that might be something nice." I thought I would maybe make a blog post out of it, maybe a blog series. But it was at GDC — I was talking with a friend, Chris Totten, who is another local game dev; he's a professor at Kent State University. I'd mentioned the idea of game programming for artists. And he's like, "Hm. That's a really good idea. You should talk to my publisher." And this was at GDC, so we literally just walked out of the coffee shop, or wherever we were at, into the expo hall and talked to the publisher. They're like, "Yeah, that sounds like a great idea. Well, here's some information, send over a proposal."
So now I'm kind of, you know, freaking out. I have a proposal to write. At that time, I wasn't a writer. The most I'd probably written was, you know, a three-page college paper or something like that. But at one of the local meetups from the Cleveland Game Devs I had bumped into a friend, Hanna Brady, who is a writer. A games writer. I had mentioned to her that I had this proposal for a book, she's like, "Oh, that's great, congratulations!" Then a couple of weeks later she was like, "How's that a proposal going?" And I'm like, "Uh. It's not." She's like, "Do you need help on it?" And I'm like, "Yes, please, that would be so much help." And so we just set up a Google Hangout, and we sat down, chatted, worked out the proposal, and sent it over. After that, she was like, "Hey, you know, I don't want to step on your toes or anything, but I thought we worked really well together. Would you be interested in co-authoring this book?" I was, like, "I was thinking the exact same thing and wanted to bring that up as well."
So that's how we ended up co-authoring the book, which was a really cool way of taking my background in programming and engineering, and Hanna's background in game writing, narrative design, and writing, and combining them into this book that we like to say is a programming book that doesn't read like a programming book. Or a programming book for non-programmers.
And, you know, we're really proud of the end product. We still hear from people. I heard from somebody earlier this week, who is going through the book, and they were saying how helpful it was. It's humbling that people are still getting value out of the book.
DBLTAP: Did you learn anything about how you work as a developer in writing that book? Did it reveal anything to you about how you work?
JH: Oh, yeah. So much. One of the things I was learning around that time is that I work so much better as part of a team. I was still working on my game Art Club Challenge. That's out on iOS. I'd been working on it by myself for... maybe two and a half years at that point. I just learned working even as part of a duo, having ideas to bounce somebody off of, knowing that you and somebody else have a meeting coming up. When you get stuck, having somebody to chat through things, or, after you've written something or produced something, seeing if it makes sense, if it's the same way you thought it would be. I mean, on top of writing a book we had to come up with games that we were demonstrating how to make, the programming exercises. So in a lot of ways it was the production of a couple small games, and writing, and kind of book material to surround it all.
DBLTAP: So I know you help organize the Cleveland Game Developers, but how did you join? And then how did you become one of the organizers?
JH: Around when I was getting my start doing internships, while I was still in school, I bought that [XNA] book, and started learning how to program. But then I was like, "I wonder if there are any game development studios in Cleveland?" And so I think I just searched you know, "game developers Cleveland," and the Cleveland Game Devs popped up. It was just, at that time, meetings at a coffee shop. I joined and whenever I was able to make it, I would head out to one of the meetings and just sit down with people, chat. But over time the group grew. We started doing game jams, and game jams are where I started getting a lot of experience working on a small team, and taking something from the start to [the] finish, even if it was something small. That's where I started volunteering and helping to organize the group. Because if you have, you know, 30, 40, 60, 80 people, there's a lot of coordination that needs to happen. Then I just continued to get involved from there on.
In the before times we'd do game jams, hosted tables at a lot of local events. Ingenuity Fest is a big arts, culture, music festival for people in Cleveland that comes around every year, and we've had a booth there every year for the past six or seven years, at least, where we let our members show their games [and] let people from the general public playtest their games. There's GDEX in Columbus, which is a local-to-Ohio game developer conference and game enthusiast conference. And we've had a booth there I think every year since the second year. So that was part of how I got involved and started becoming an organizer with the group. There's almost no better way to cement your knowledge on a topic than to teach somebody else.
One of the events we do with the Cleveland Game Devs is called Excuse to Create, and a lot of our members, like me when I started, are people who are doing game development on the side. They're doing it as a hobby, or something to learn, or maybe they're in school. If you have side projects, it's really hard to keep up with them sometimes, and it's easy to put your project down and not pick it up for another, you know, 4, 6, 8 months. So once a month on Saturdays we get together and, all in a co-working space, just sit down and work on our games. It's a time to hang out, you know, get out of the house, away from distractions, and just kind of work on things. And it's also a time to ask questions. So somebody might be like, "Hey, I'm running into this weird bug, has anybody seen this before?" Or somebody else might say, "Hey, I'm trying to brainstorm how to make this art look like this, or how to get, you know, an algorithm to do that." It's a lot of these incidental conversations that pop up, where we'll just kind of all gather around and help somebody with an issue, or talk through things. That's just been a really great way to give back to the community and grow at the same time.
DBLTAP: What's it been like, having to move that community into virtual space because of the pandemic?
JH: It's been challenging. I mean, for a number of reasons. One, everybody's still on "doing-our-best" mode. Some of us have more responsibilities, or our schedules have changed drastically. We started out just taking our Excuse to Create meeting, and then we have a social meeting that we previously did it at a coffee shop, where we just sit down and real informally just kind of hang out for a couple hours, then go out next door and get food from a local eatery — So we switched to Zoom, and that was fine. It allowed us to see each other's faces, chat. One of the things that we were kind of lamenting [and] missing was just being able to kind of break off into conversation groups. Because being on a Zoom, felt kind of like... I don't know, it felt like a little conference. It felt more formal. It didn't have the same energy.
So a couple months ago, we found a website called Gather.Town. It gives you these little RPG avatars, like Dragon Quest 1. Your webcam is on as well. So you can just walk around, and then when you walk up next to somebody, their video feed will pop up at the top of your screen. So you can walk up to a group of four people and four boxes will, you know, pop up on your screen. So you can just walk around and chat with people. Just being able to walk around and have conversations? It just brought so much energy back, and kind of that spontaneity that we were missing.
DBLTAP: I know that you used to, and maybe you still do, play bass in your brother's band. You guys have gone on tour, right?
JH: Not necessarily tour. He's gone on some tours. But we as a full band normally play around, the Cleveland, Northeast Ohio, Akron kind of area.
DBLTAP: And then also, you work on OFK, right? Do you make the music for OFK, or contribute to it?
JH: No, I'm on the programming and design side.
DBLTAP: Do you feel like being a musician affected how you think about game design or organizing?
JH: Yeah! In — oh, gosh, I don't remember what year... GDC 2018? [It was GDC 2017.] I gave an Indie Soapbox talk about my experience as a musician, and how it relates to game development. I mean, at the end of the day, most indie game development, if you're doing it commercially, is a business. And most musicians, especially if they're on tour, it's a business as well. It's a business that creates art. In the indie game space, I think there's still a lot of room for innovation, and in that talk, I was kind of proposing looking at music as an alternative business model. But even just the creative process, and working in a creative group, and valuing the creative input of all members and things like that — I think there's a lot of parallels between music and games.
DBLTAP: What's different about working on a virtual band, as opposed to game development? What do they share?
JH: Even though it is a virtual band, we just refer to them as a band, if that makes sense. But as far as working on We Are OFK, I mean, it feels a lot the same. There's a lot of creative input. It's a much bigger team than you'd have in a traditional band, but everybody kind of being a master at their craft — you know, the team is excellent — there's different times where we might chime in on something outside our discipline and have a chance to give some feedback. So it is a collaborative process just like playing in a band is.
DBLTAP: You mentioned before how teaching something is the surest way to solidify your knowledge of that thing, which is something I definitely have experienced and believe. Where do you think your passion for teaching others and lifting up your comrades in the gaming space comes from? What inspires you about doing that?
JH: In a lot of ways that comes from the people who invested their time into me. Because like I mentioned, when I was getting my start I was traveling to New York, Chicago, and then Toronto. I think my heart is in four equal parts between those three cities and Cleveland, because those are where some of my best friends are. Some of the people who have mentored me, who invested time into answering my questions and really helping me early in my career. So that's something that, when I have the chance I love to be able to give to others.
DBLTAP: Do you feel a particular responsibility to lift up other developers from marginalized backgrounds?
JH: Yeah. I'm glad it's part of the conversation now, in response to Black Lives Matter and a racial reconciliation that our country is kind of going through. Some studios have totally stepped up and are doing great things with sponsorship programs or scholarships, or sponsoring conferences. Other companies are, you know — maybe they released a press statement, or maybe they did nothing, but there's still a long way to go.
And if these big companies aren't going to do it, there's a lot of us in the industry that have resolved to doing everything we can to help out people who might think the game industry doesn't have a place for them, or people from different backgrounds that might not feel welcome. I feel some responsibility to helping out where I can, addressing issues and helping come up with solutions where I'm able to, and helping support those who need it.
DBLTAP: Do you think that those grants, funds, whatever, indicate a trend that has real staying power in the industry?
JH: That's my hope. Because, you know, there's a lot of games that are kind of created by the same types of teams. They're created in the same types of genres, the same types of stories, the same type of experiences. Through conferences that support developers of different backgrounds — events like PixelPop, or the Game Developers of Color Expo that actively seek out people who might not have given a talk before or might not have ever shown their game publicly before — it shows that the experiences of people from different backgrounds are different games. Things we haven't seen before, mechanics we haven't seen before, stories we haven't seen. So I'm hoping by empowering these people with the funds to create more experiences that it's just going to enrich the industry.
DBLTAP: I hope so, too. Have you had moments in your career in gaming where you felt like you were on the receiving end of discrimination, either structural or interpersonal? You don't have to be specific about the instances, but if you have, could you tell me what that feels like?
JH: Yeah. I mean, a lot of it is the kind of subversive and dismissiveness. Like, walking up to some people talking and introducing yourself, and then nobody acknowledging you. People just making assumptions and not being very welcoming, I guess.
I haven't experienced a lot of direct discrimination, but that indirect discrimination is almost kind of the worse, because people don't acknowledge it. Especially when you're new, and especially when you're vulnerable in a lot of ways. People, a lot of times can take advantage of that, or that can destroy somebody's spirit for, their passion for, working on games.
DBLTAP: We lose so many voices before they even get a chance to make their mark.
JH: Yeah. Thinking about that again, a lot of the subversive stuff is people being dismissive, or overlooking you, but then also, off-color jokes, statements that are just not cool, or discriminatory. It sucks when you're the one who is at the receiving end or is hurt by those statements, and you have to be the one to stand up and call somebody out for them. It doubly sucks.
DBLTAP: Not only are you on the receiving end of whatever discrimination is happening, you're the only one — the onus is on you to stand up for yourself. No one's going to fight for you, right?
JH: Yeah. I've also had the fortunate situation of friends standing up for me or for people of marginalized backgrounds. Those are the people that I value their friendship and allyship as well.
DBLTAP: Have you mentored other marginalized developers? Do you talk to them about how that may happen, or how that's going to happen, and try to prepare them for that experience?
JH: Yeah. There's been a few developers here in Cleveland. I've had the opportunity to work with some high school students, or some college freshmen. I've had the opportunity to speak to some middle school classes here in town, and then just some developers through Twitter, or people I've met at conferences. And that's something that comes up. Sometimes people ask, "As a Black man in the industry, was it difficult for you to get into this? Was it difficult for you to get started?" And the answer is, absolutely.
When I was studying computer science, I was the only Black person in my program. For years. At most of the companies I worked at, in IT, I was the only Black person who was a programmer or an engineer — I think all the teams but two. And then also, in games, Black game developers, I think, represent 2% of the industry. So there's not a lot of us out there. As far as meeting other indie game developers who are Black, or game programmers who are Black, there's not a lot, but a lot of us know each other. A lot of us network and chat with each other through events like the Game Developers of Color Expo. I'm part of a group called the Jamaican Game Dev Society — I'm Jamaican-American. Those are ways that we can kind of keep in contact with each other, through peer networks.
DBLTAP: When you were coming up, did you have game developers or game makers that were Black that you looked to as an example? Or ones that you looked to for guidance?
JH: Yeah! It was through traveling through conferences where I'd meet people. I think the first place I met a lot of Black game developers was at GDC. There was a Black in Gaming mixer, and I met a lot of great developers there. People like Catt Small, Auriea Harvey, Shawn Alexander Allen, were people that I looked up to and would see at conferences, and people who I valued their time and input.
DBLTAP: Is your child into game development?
JH: They're interested! There's a programming language called Scratch that's a programming language for kids, and they really enjoy using Scratch and making projects. Sometimes, if it's one of my personal games, I'll have them playtest it. It's a fun way to connect with them.
DBLTAP: Is We Are OFK your primary project these days? Are you working on anything else?
JH: That's mainly what I'm working on now, since we're releasing this year. I had some personal projects on the side that, with the pandemic, I haven't had time or energy to work on, but I'm hoping to pick up the one a little later on this year. It's an idea that I've had and wanted to start working on for a while.
DBLTAP: I've looked at the We Are OFK Twitter and not seen a date for when that's coming. I assume that's intentional, but I'm going to ask you anyway: Can you tell me roughly when that's going to really start to pop off?
JH: The Steam page is listed at spring 2021, so that's what I'll throw out there.