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. New entries in the series come out the second Tuesday of each month. Last month we spoke to Veritable Joy Studios about their visual novel ValiDate.
This week's focus is Swimsanity!, an underwater adventure that lives up to its name. With a strong focus on multiplayer — local and online, co-op and versus — Swimsanity! leans into the chaos, pitting players against all manner of semi-cute, semi-monstrous sea creatures. Co-founders, lead developers, and brothers Khalil and Ahmed Abdullah joined DBLTAP over Discord to talk working as while brothers, advocating for marginalized developers, and to reveal for the first time the team plans DLC for this year. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Swimsanity! hit PC, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on Aug. 7, with a PlayStation 4 launch coming "very soon." Decoy Games curated the upcoming Graffiti Games event for Play NYC, and Khalil and Ahmed will appear on a panel for the event Saturday, Aug. 15. Tickets are still available.
DBLTAP: I know it's a long time ago, but I want to start back at the origin point for Swimsanity!. Where did the idea for the game come from?
Khalil Abdullah: So the idea for the game actually came from when I was in college. It was my senior year and — just a little bit of backstory, we always wanted to get into game development but didn't really know how to. But when I went to UMASS I decided to go into computer science, because I just figured this has to get me in some sort of direction. They didn't have a game development program or anything like that. I was like, "Let me just take computer science and, whatever I learn, I'll see if it guides me in the right direction."
Come senior year, I was kind of losing hope because I wasn't finding myself getting any game development skills, or anything like that, until I found a really random, 10-person class for Flash development. Mind you, this was back in 2008 or so. One of the midterm projects for that class was to make a video game. Obviously I got overly excited and just kind of went all-in. I started working on this game called Swimsanity: The Adventures of Mooba Jiver the Scuba Diver. What it was based off of was, I don't know if you ever played Game & Watch Gallery on the original Game Boy, but there was a mini-game there called Octopus where Mario would go down to the bottom of the ocean, try to collect gold and bring it up to his boat while an octopus would try to reach out and grab him and whatnot. So I basically took that concept and said, "OK, instead of just an octopus I'll add a jellyfish, a blowfish, a crab, and some other sea creatures." And that was the basis of Swimsanity! — it was a single player, kind of hyper casual game.
DBLTAP: That game sounds terrifying. I have a fear of the deep sea.
KA: [Laughs] Yeah, me too. I'm with you there.
DBLTAP: I'm glad to finally met a kindred spirit. Nobody respects the deep-sea fear.
KA: I don't even like shallow water, so I don't even know where this all came from.
DBLTAP: Dude, yeah, that's crazy. Underwater game with that kind of fear. Anyway, I know it's maybe a little bit silly but I love the original title for the game. Mooba Jiver? Where did you even come up with that? It's so funny.
KA: [Laughs] Ahmed's hating right now that I'm getting more shine for this name because they couldn't stand the name.
Ahmed Abdullah: [Laughs]
KA: I'm just corny, I guess. I don't even know how to say it. I like rhyming things. It honestly leaked into the game itself, where I would come up with these really silly names for the characters and stuff and they'd be like "No, that's not going to happen." But I had to find something that rhymed with scuba diver, and that's all I could think of. Mooba Jiver.
DBLTAP: You mentioned that Ahmed would step in and redirect things that you were doing. What is it like developing as brothers?
AA: It's great. I mean, it's definitely a blessing, because, one, no matter what happens with this we know we're always going to have each other's backs so we can go at each other pretty passionately on ideas. And we know what we both — what our goal is, so it allows for us to really put our best foot forward in making sure that in everything we're doing it's aligned. It just makes it really easy, really, to make sure that we're going [after] the same thing. Trying to find teammates, to make sure that they're meshing with your team, I know that's definitely a step there, but we already had an advantage to be able to be brothers and both have a lot of the same interests. So it's been a really cool experience. We love doing a lot of things even outside gaming together, so we're able to explore all different assets we can kind of bring, whether it's Swimsanity! or Decoy Games itself.
DBLTAP: How do you guys actually divide up the labor? Who does what?
KA: We have our specialties, but depending on who is overloaded with work we'll wear different hats. So I guess you could say we have primary and secondary focuses. So me personally, I did a lot of the level design, a lot of the physics, a lot of the back-end processing, some of the enemy movements, and stuff like that. Ahmed focused a bit more on a lot of the front-end and the UI. He did most of the netcode. But like I said, there's different parts. Depending on who's the most busy on a certain week, where the other person has to come in and help them in the background. We definitely take lead in certain areas, but given the fact that we are a small team, we have to make sure that we can step in for the other guy when necessary.
AA: Yeah, we make sure that even if one person's kind of leading one part, the other person's kind of educated enough so that that person can take on something if something else comes up. So there's not very much we both can't touch, not just on Swimsanity! but throughout the whole architecture of Decoy Games and the business side, as well.
DBLTAP: Have you guys run into moments where there's friction between the two of you? And if so, how do you handle that?
KA: I mean, I think there's such a thing as healthy conflict. I think if we literally just woke up every morning and agreed on every single thing, we wouldn't be able to get where we are. Because you're not challenging each other. So yeah, of course we challenge each other. We disagree. But it's in a healthy way, because we know our passion is in the same place. We know we're trying to get to the same goal. But honestly, those disagreements, and that, I guess you could call it tension, those get us to where we are now. If he agreed with everything that I said, then we would have made a lot of mistakes, and the same thing [is true] if I agreed with everything he said. So yeah, there's definitely that there, especially as brothers it probably adds another layer. But yeah, I would do it all over the same way, if I had a choice.
DBLTAP: I know you guys were at PAX East, which was one of the last big, in-person gaming events in the U.S. before the dreaded coronavirus (COVID-19) arrived. What's it been like releasing and promoting your first game during the pandemic? What particular, unexpected challenges have you run into?
AA: Our game is a multiplayer game, so as we were heading to release we were like, "Man, if we need influencers, media, whatever to cover our game, the chances that they have four players together and can even do that in the same room is rare." So we knew that was going to be a challenge, to make sure that people are experiencing the game to its fullest. I mean, we're still facing that challenge now, even kind of post-release, just to make sure. Obviously having online play definitely helps, and we had to make sure that we had the right amount of players that can be able to access online to be able to play together.
It didn't just affect us; obviously it affected all the companies, all the big consoles that we're working on, so a lot of processes slowed down and we had to make sure that was in our scheduling. As you saw, there was kind of this gap in gaming where not a lot of games were being released. Even now I feel like we're still kind of going through this gap because everyone's just trying to recover and pick a different way to release. But it was really interesting with PAX East really being — it felt like we were actually at the last big convention of the world. I remember when it happened I believe there was only one case in Massachusetts, and there was only a couple of people wearing masks there. No one really knew if it was going to be a thing or not, and it was pretty much a week or two after that I think we were all quarantined.
DBLTAP: Yeah. It was so crazy being at PAX. Some people were wiping down the controllers at demo booths, but mostly people were just vibing. Nobody cared yet.
KA: By the way, that shouldn't be a coronavirus thing. That should just be a standard. [Laughs] I don't know if I can but I want to make platform for that once this hopefully all passes, like "All right, some of this is COVID-related, some of it should just be general hygiene."
DBLTAP: Yeah, I mean everyone just finally learned how to wash their hands for the first time because of coronavirus.
KA & AA: [Laugh]
DBLTAP: So you mentioned the netcode. I saw that you guys had rollback [netcode, a rising and improved standard in online multiplayer]. As a Smash player, as a Melee player, we just developed rollback netcode for our grassroots version of online, and it was really a big deal. Is that the feature that you're most proud of putting into the game over that nine-year development? Or is there something else that really stands out that you're like, "This is what I would plant my flag in, that I'm most proud of?" [Note: rollback netcode provides significant advantages over typical, delay-based netcode. Learn more about it here.]
AA: Yeah, it was definitely the most challenging. I would say that I'm very proud of that because we had to pivot towards that. We started doing online without rollback netcode, and we just weren't super satisfied with it. Because, as you said, you know the different issues that come with [delay-based netcode]. And then when we saw what we could do, I mean, we had to re-architect, really, most of the game, even though it was already near-done to go to [rollback] netcode. So it was a big risk to do that, but we felt like that was the best thing to do, especially if we wanted this game to scale. So doing the netcode and being able to play in different regions without much issue, it was definitely challenging but it was very, very satisfying. And I know all the fighting game communities and things like that definitely would be able to appreciate that. Thankfully technology's gotten better and better, and more offerings where companies can develop this, and I hope that really becomes more of a standard. It really gets frustrating when it's not a standard at first, because it's really just a better way to have stuff run. And there's still improvements we can do on ours that we're looking forward to doing. But yeah, it was challenging, but very, very satisfying.
DBLTAP: How does it feel now that you've finally finished Swimsanity!? How does it feel to have it be out in the world? Is there relief that it's done, or are you sort of realizing that this is just the beginning of a whole new kind of crazy?
KA: I think it's both. I think there's still moments where I turn on my Xbox and I'm like, "Yo, my game's on Xbox." Or, "My game's on the Switch." It's still weird to me, seeing it in the menus and stuff like that, and being able to boot it from a console instead of just from my development environment. I don't know when that will ever be normal to me, because it might not ever just be a normal thing. But yeah, on the flip side, and I think this is kind of a thing for all developers, you kind of see the release as the end of the journey, but this is kind of the beginning in a weird way. Even though we've been doing this for such a long time, it opens up so many new doors and so many new things that you have to manage that, yeah, we've accomplished a lot but we have a lot to do and we're excited about.
DBLTAP: This is kind of a gear-shift, but I think it's important. Back in June you guys made a video on Twitter about the Black Lives Matter protests and the outrage that was fueling them. It struck me that you weren't dismissive of the anger behind them — you really felt like that was valid — but then you also wanted to take that anger and channel it into positivity by promoting other games by marginalized creators. I'm curious why you felt like that was important to do, to take that anger and turn it into something positive, and also why you felt it was important to validate that anger.
AA: Yeah, I mean, this is something, obviously, we live by in the sense that we're part of the people that are being affected by the systemic racism and different inequalities that go on in our country. But even prior to all of this, it's something that we've wanted to dedicate ourselves to to make sure, as we're coming into this industry as people of color, that on our way, since we've actually been able to interact with different people in the industry that were hard to find but that when we found them, looked like us and opened doors for us — if we're making this path, then we want to make sure that we're doing the same thing for others. I think everyone did have the right to be angry with the events that went on, but at some point if you let that anger turn into the kind of rage that you can't channel into something good, then it's not going to benefit us. What we were just encouraging is making sure that, while we want to do everything we can to make sure things are changing, let's make sure we're doing positive things to help within our communities, and for us.
We've actually just recently been able to participate in Play NYC's Graffiti Games, which gave five Black developers a platform to create a game; that was also sponsored by Rockstar. We do our own event called Game On, which focuses on Black excellence, that we ran during Black History Month. That really focused not only on giving people opportunity, but we want to show that there are people out there that are doing great things, they're just probably not given a platform. And the more we can show that people of color are doing great things in the industry, then the more that will open the door for others to enter.
KA: We've had a couple different events. Game On was probably one of our biggest ones that we did in unison with Microsoft Store in New York. Unity was a part of it, too. Like Ahmed said, it was basically an event that we put together to raise awareness not only for the lack of diversity in the industry, but also for the minorities who are in the industry doing great things. Because we feel like the main way to increase diversity is by representation. In our travels and stuff, and meeting a lot of people, we found a lot of minorities in the industry that are doing great things, but they just don't have the platform to show it. We wanted to show like, "Hey, we're out here, we're doing awesome things, we just need more of us." We felt like, in order to do that we had to have a bunch of people come together to then show the next minority who's in his room starting up a game that there's a space for him.
DBLTAP: You sort of already addressed this a little bit, but I'm curious: Do you feel like you have a responsibility to not only help other developers of color or marginalized developers, but also to be a model for them to follow? Does that weigh on you, or does it drive you?
KA: I think it's a driving thing. I think it's more like that's our potential. If we're not doing that we're not reaching our potential of what we're trying to do. And like I said, our potential is not just game development. We have a lot of stuff to accomplish there, but there are a lot of other avenues that we can move in to max out our potential. That's how we look at it, that's how it drives us.
AA: Yeah, we're motivated to do it. It's comforting. I find a lot of happiness when, every time we have an opportunity to do that, every time we're able to reach out. It's a good change of pace, too, when you're doing all this [development] work. I always find when we're able to use our platform for things like that it's probably some of my favorite parts just being what we are doing now.
DBLTAP: When you guys started out there weren't many people for you to look to as that kind of model. Is there anyone in particular who stood out as an inspiration for someone who was marginalized but was able to make it in games?
KA: Yeah, I mean the honest truth is that it was pretty limited when we started. I think that the one thing that pushed us through is the fact that we were brothers. So I'll go all the way back to college; when I took my first computer science class — and this is an auditorium class, right — I did a scan of the whole room and I swear I was the only black guy there, out of like 100 students. It wasn't until my brother joined, and like I said we were working together, that I started to get some sort of confidence. Because I had moments where I was like, "I don't even know if I belong here," when I was struggling. When my brother joined, and we're kind of working off each other, I felt like we became each other's role models. We became each other's inspiration. So we're like, "If I can do it, you can do it, and if you can do it, I can do it." Until we actually I guess you could say got into the industry, and I'd say within the last few years, is when I started actually meeting other Black professionals. But as far as getting started, we really had to rely on each other.
AA: Yeah. There really weren't any Black independent developers that we knew of when we started. To shoot out a few names of professionals in the industry that really helped us along the way: Kirk Scott, who used to work at Nintendo was just a major opening for us. He became someone that's really helped us along the way; great mentor. James Lewis, who also worked at Microsoft. He's also just someone that really helped us along the way and have some mentorship there. You meet these different people, and it was cool to just see them. They're kind of so engrained in these bigger parts of the industry, and it's always helped quite a bit.
DBLTAP: Through your advocacy stuff, like promoting other marginalized developers, have you made any friends that you feel like are really, like, your people?
KA: Oh, our network since we've started — and that's kind of been the cool thing of this — our game developer, games industry network is awesome. I've met so many people along the way that, even if game development stopped today those are professional, genuine connections that I feel like I'll have forever. It's so many that I can't even name at this point. They know who they are. And this isn't just minorities, this is people in general, actually. There are really awesome, genuine people in the industry. We've met so many along the way that have been great.
DBLTAP: While you guys are really active in promoting diversity and inclusivity in games in your press and on social media and stuff — correct me if I'm wrong — but I feel like that thread of your identity as people is sort of absent from Swimsanity!. Why did you make the decision to keep politics and identity out of your first game, and do you think that those are topics you might engage more in the future with your games, or do you think your out-of-game advocacy stands on its own?
AA: We always have so many ideas that touch on so many different subjects, so it's definitely possible it might go that way. But just like anything else, I think part of being a developer of color is just to be able to do any idea that you feel is great. For Swimsanity!, we're big multiplayer gamers and that was our main focus, to do multiplayer games. And that's fine. I also don't think, necessarily, that if you are part of a marginalized community, I think sometimes there's some expectation of, all right, that person needs to make this game that just focuses on that [part of their identity]. That's not necessarily true. There's many different avenues you can do that. And no matter what we do with our game, as you said, outside of our game we're always going to show our support and do all the things that we do. That will never go away.
But we have so many ideas for upcoming games, and if we feel like it makes sense within the game to touch base on different kinds of topics that help put focus on the things we do outside of gaming, we'll do it. If we find that we have some great multiplayer game or great other game that might not touch on that, we'll do it as well. We always want to make sure we create games that include everybody, that are for everybody, so all our games will be very diverse in that sense.
KA: Yeah, and if I could just add to that: When we started [Swimsanity!] I just wanted to make a game. I was so naive to the industry that I didn't really know who was in it, I just wanted to make a game. And that's what I did; I made a game that kind of reflected a game at the time that I was playing, that I was inspired by. Now, obviously, as I started to become more and more familiar with the industry, and where it was lacking and whatnot, some of these issues are brought to my attention. But with that said, we wanted to still keep Swimsanity! to its origins. We didn't want to change it just for a cause that we could otherwise, honestly, promote without changing the game itself. At the end of the day, we are Black game developers, but we are just game developers as well. Primarily, we make fun games. We also happen to be Black game developers and we understand the issues in the area and the industry, and where we can help promote and support others. But those can both support each other without us changing the origin of where Swimsanity! really came from.
DBLTAP: What does it feel like to be one of the Black developers who is suddenly in the spotlight in a way that, to me at least, seems like wouldn't have happened without protest, and police violence? Do you have conflicted feelings about that?
AA: Prior to that we'd definitely been gaining a lot of traction, getting the spotlight. No, we're proud of who we are and always open to doing that. As far as that period, where some organizations saw it as a trend, others really showed different things. For us, as long as you're not seeing it as a trend and just trying to go with the wave, then we're really supportive of it. And any time we get opportunities to put a spotlight on developers of color and people in the industry, we should. If it's just a trend, and just saying a statement, and doing it just for a little while, and maybe you're just going to wait until Black History Month and you're not looking at your own organization, seeing how many diverse people are there and making sure their voices are always heard, then yeah, you definitely feel conflicted, and it's going to show. Some organizations were getting called out for it as well. And we just hope that those people, those leaders, are really looking at this and are taking the right steps to actually make change that will really [be] put on a platform, as opposed to posting something on social media and then moving on.
KA: Yeah, and to add to that, we definitely, 100% had instances where people who we had previously reached out to maybe didn't accept us, but during that week or spin they were reaching out to us. Which, you know, we've always felt like we'll take every opportunity that we feel like has value to Swimsanity! itself but also doesn't devalue us as game developers and Black game developers. But I mean, I think that was happening in all industries. Companies jumping on trends. But I think people need to make sure that they are continuing to challenge these different companies and entities, that this isn't just a phase. This is making sure that you are paying attention to all avenues of diversity in everything that you do, and not just something you do for a month, because you'll find yourself up on the news or something.
DBLTAP: What do you see in the game industry that makes you optimistic for the future of games, and for the future of who gets to make them?
KA: I think the game industry, people need to realize it is still relatively young. I know it's been around for years, but it hasn't been around for as long as music and movies and stuff. Music's a little older, but even with movies, you know — "Black Panther" was only, like, how long ago? The rush of "Black Panther" and Jordan Peele's movies like "Us" and "Get Out." You kind of see a real representation of Black culture outside of the stereotypes, inside of mainstream media. I do have a lot of hope that video games are next to see that shift. I think that when you start to become inclusive of all different members across diversity lines, what you end up seeing is just really different, cool experiences. Whether people liked movies like "Get Out" and "Black Panther," I think we can all agree they were different. They were different movies from what we'd seen before. Like I said, it's not so much that other forms of entertainment, other movies, other forms of music aren't good, but it's always good to have these different representations of movies and music. I think you're starting to slowly see that with gaming. It's new to people, that's why there's a lot of friction involved, but I do have hope that if we fast forward five, 10, 15 years from now that we're going to see a lot of those different influences not just among Black developers, but whether it's Asian, Indian, the LGBT community. Everybody who comes from all these different avenues, they'll be able to have their imprint on gaming.
AA: It's inevitable, in my opinion. As much as some powers that be try to fight it, I think, just like you said about the movie industry, once you want to push the industry forward I think that's definitely what you have to do. Some of the biggest games out there — talking about NBA 2K — I mean, a lot of it's focused on Black culture. You see sports, you see music that are really crossing the genre so tightly, you're going to need to have more opportunities and things where you put people of color in those leadership positions. Then you're really going to be pushing out the products that pertain to an audience that is pushing this industry forward. It's inevitable. I think it definitely will happen. I think it definitely needs to happen now, and I will always try to push to make sure that from our side, our platform, that that's definitely something that is really important.
DBLTAP: This is kind of a jump, but you brought it up earlier. Obviously Swimsanity! is very focused on multiplayer. Did that focus come out of you two playing games together when you were younger?
KA: 100%. [Laughs] Just that direct of an answer. That's all we did was play games together. This was before online play and stuff, so. One TV, a single-player game causes fights. So the multiplayer games that you have, the more we can play together. So yeah, definitely. To this day, honestly.
DBLTAP: Did you guys have to fight over the controller a lot back in the day?
KA: Uh, yeah. To keep it civil we can say that.
AA: Our mom already knew. Our mom kind of introduced us to games, and I think she always knew right away we could both play, since our ages were so close. We always had the controller support. We always had two controllers on something. She always bought either a co-op game or a versus game, for the most part. We didn't have that many single-player ones. Maybe she knew what she was doing there when she set that all up.
DBLTAP: What is the age difference between you guys, actually?
KA: A year and a half. I usually just say two years but he usually catches me if I don't get it down to the T.
AA: It literally is a year and a half, exactly. To the day.
DBLTAP: What's next for Decoy Games? Do you have an idea for the next game you're going to make? I know you also mentioned you have this event coming up this weekend if you want to talk about that?
AA: Yeah. We have a big tournament coming up. If we weren't in the COVID pandemic we definitely would be at Play NYC right now, which is one of our favorite shows of the year, and we always hold a tournament there. Even last year we had about 80 people in a tournament that people were signing up that day and playing for the first time. It's really fun. We get them on stage.
We wanted to make sure we didn't lose that, so we're having a virtual tournament on Sunday. It's going to be hosted on Challonge. Details will be out this week, so people can go and join in. It's going to be really fun.
Outside of that, we want to keep supporting this game. We definitely are working on DLC right now for the game. We have our PS4 launch coming soon, very soon, so we'll have more information on that. And hopefully we'll be having some big updates on there. So we're supporting it throughout this year, and we do have ideas for next projects coming up, and we'll definitely make that transition while supporting Swimsanity!.
DBLTAP: You guys have run tournaments from Swimsanity!, you're running another one soon; how much do you see — maybe esports is too strong a word for it but — how strongly are you supporting Swimsanity!'s tournament competition?
KA: It's definitely one of our top priorities. We have a lot that we want to do, and we're doing a lot of work to try to get there. We really do feel like it has a space in professional competition, or esports, or just general competition. We want to do what we can from the developer side to put it in the right spots.
AA: We're going to take a grassroots approach, so we want to do something that's very accessible. That's kind of always how we've been, is having accessibility to our games, to make sure everyone's included. We're going to take that approach. But starting with that tournament this weekend, we have some ideas we'll be announcing soon that really will give more structure to tournaments coming up.
DBLTAP: I have to ask. How firm are your plans around DLC? Can you tell me anything about what you expect you'll be adding to Swimsanity!?
AA: Oof. I can say that they will definitely get DLC this year. That's just one version of it. We have different versions that we have DLC planned, but for now the most I can say is that DLC is definitely planned within the next few months.
DBLTAP: Nice. Sweet, I got a scoop.
AA: [Laughs] We haven't said that anywhere, so you can take that as a scoop for sure.