Decoy Games: The Abdullah Brothers’ Journey into Videogames

Written by Fabian Wood

October 12, 2022

Video gaming includes playing simple mascot-driven side-scrollers in your home, enjoying games at cramped arcades, playing immersive cinematic masterpieces, and partaking in colorful time sinks on any handheld device enjoyed the world over. Video games’ modern ubiquity and lucrativeness have globally eclipsed that of the multi-billion-dollar film and streaming industry. Nowadays, you can play video games on virtually anything with an electronic pulse and a wi-fi connection, running the gamut of copious genres and sub-genres, tastes, and preferences.

Once exclusively dominated by big-name developer studios and production companies with iconic logos, the appearance of “indie” (independent developers) has exploded over the past two decades. In such space, single individuals or small groups can create fantastic titles and franchises – albeit with varying degrees of success – in an otherwise oversaturated and segmented market.

Whereas talented and passionate persons with the exceptional acumen to succeed in the industry could perhaps only dream of working for one of those same huge video game conglomerates, the appearance and relative feasibility of the “indie” has placed that very power into the hands of those same individuals. Companies such as these come with the inherent benefits of autonomy and ownership over their IP (intellectual property). This was certainly a dream many from diverse backgrounds once thought impossible.

This is one such story; of two brothers, Ahmed and Khalil Abdullah, who took it upon themselves to do what they perceived was the impossible – make and publish their own videogame.

Black Sci-Fi: Can you give a brief background of you and your brother and where your passion for video games started?

Khalil Abdullah: Ahmed and I started playing games at the young age of 3 and 4. Our very first game was actually the original Mario Bros for NES. Our mom was actually the one who got us into gaming back when she used to work at Toys R Us. Ever since then I don’t think we missed a single major console release.

BSF: When was Decoy Games, LLC founded, and how did you two get started?

KHALIL: We started working towards building Decoy Games towards the end of our college tenure. We always knew we wanted to get into gaming, and given the rise of indies back at the time (around 2009) we got a lot of inspiration from games like Castle Crashers, Bastion, Super Meat Boy and more to create our own indie game.

BSF: Your first game was Swimsanity! Can you give us an idea of what made this type of game your premier videogame? What was the conceptualization?

KHALIL: The idea for this game was inspired by a game called “Game and Watch Gallery”. It was a collection of addictive arcade games released by Nintendo. One of those games was “Octopus” a game where you would control Mario as he went down into the bottom of the ocean to retrieve gold while a large octopus would attack him. We took that idea and added other sea creatures such as crabs, blowfish, jellyfish, and others. This was the initial version of Swimsanity. Once we decided to make this a console game we went through several iterations adding crazy weapons, multiplayer, boss battles and other bells and whistles to make it console ready.

Khalil and Ahmed Abdullah. Photo credit Decoy Games.

BSF: What was the hardest part about developing the game, and what was the easiest?

KHALIL: I think this depends on who you ask and the skill set, but reeling in creativity can be a challenge when you are in full control of an indie title. It is natural to want to cram every great idea into the game, but at some point you need to cut it off and get things into scope so you can finish the game. The easiest part is playing it after release 🙂         

BSF: Are there any lessons/tips you’d like to share with prospective indie game developers having made Swimsanity?

KHALIL: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Also don’t be afraid to ask questions whether it is about dev, business, or networking. The worst thing someone can say to you is no.

BSF: Swimsanity! received a number of accolades and nominations. How important do you think that recognition is to other aspiring Black creators? Were you surprised by that kind of acknowledgment of your flagship title?

KHALIL: Recognition brings opportunities, so it’s extremely important. Sometimes getting that platform is very difficult. While I do there have been strides to inspire more diversity in the creative side of gaming over the last year or so…There is definitely a long way to go. I would say yes and no as far as being surprised. I knew if we got the right eyes on us that we could take the game somewhere. Once we got that attention things kind of came quick and fast. So not surprised as we always tend to motivate ourselves and keep confidence high, but definitely grateful and never take it for granted.

BSF: Can you talk about the importance/impact of 2020’s “Game On!”  and 2021’s “Play NYC” tournament?

KHALIL: Game On was a special event put on by us at the Microsoft Flagship Store in New York City. We felt that through our own journey we discovered there were plenty of people of color doing amazing things in the industry, they just were not getting the recognition they deserved. So we felt why not practice what we preach and create a moment to acknowledge those individuals. But we wanted to also inspire, so we told everyone who participated in the panel that we need them to interact with the attendees person to person and share their journey and advice. It was a great experience and we look to create bigger and better events going forward.

BSF: Would you say that the videogame industry is “indie-centric” (favoring and populated by indie developers such as yourselves) or a mix between big-name developers and smaller companies such as yourself?

KHALIL: It is a mix as it should be. I think we will always need big name developers to release those blockbuster type experiences that really make the industry such a monster. But we also need indies and smaller studios to keep the industry fresh in between those releases. It creates for a pretty cool ecosystem where we rely on each other. I consider indies the replacement for all of the several major third party studios that used to exist back in the day.

BSF: How much has Decoy Games changed and/or grown since its inception?

KHALIL: We have gone from a team of 2 to a team of 15 and are looking to scale to over 20 by mid next year!

A scene from “Swimsanity!”.

BSF: Since starting Decoy Games, how have you seen the industry change in terms of diversity and inclusivity both in the videogames themselves and those creating them?

KHALIL: I think when during the pandemic when so much attention was brought to discrimination based on minorities, a lot of companies for better or worse gave more attention toward shining a light on diversity. While it should not have taken tragic events to shed that light, I do think people have their antennas up when it comes to bad representation.

BSF: What remains the biggest challenge/barrier(s) for aspiring or nascent Black indie game developers in the industry?

KHALIL: Opportunity and enablement. The youth in our communities are not enabled, informed, or prepared to enter the many disciplines of gaming and it’s unfortunate.

A scene from “Swimsanity!”.

BSF: You also have the Decoy Games Scholarship – Fashion Institute of Technology (through Yellowbrick). Can you elaborate on it and its importance to aspiring Black and minority creators?

KHALIL: More diversity means more stories and experience. Everyone wins.

BSF: Would you care to speak on or tease any upcoming games in the pipeline or other projects/events we can expect from Decoy Games in the near future?

KHALIL: I would… but unfortunately I can’t. All I can say is that Swimsanity was our rookie entry into the industry and we are about to blow the roof off with our next game. Stay tuned.

Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics, or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

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