Tj Hughes

You may have been scolded as a kid for playing with your food, but with Tj Hughes’ new game Nour: Play With Your Food, that’s the primary objective! I had a chance to speak with Tj, the creative lead behind Nour, fresh off of the game’s release on PlayStation, Steam, and Epic Games.

We spoke a lot about the intersection of art and game development, and Tj shared how teaching himself and gaining knowledge working with a studio helped shape his perspective as a creative. Tj also talked about creating Nour’s unique gaming experience, the challenges and rewards of indie game development, experimentation, and what he wants to do next now that Nour’s been released. If you want to create something truly special, then be like Tj and think outside the box!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Tj Hughes:

Hi, I’m Tj Hughes, and I am the creative lead on Nour: Play With Your Food, which recently launched on PlayStation 5, PC, a few other platforms as well. Yeah, I just make 3D art and shaders and just colorful stuff on the computer. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. And I definitely want to talk about the game; we’ll get into that in a minute. But first of all, congratulations on the launch of the game! I know that the game dev process is arduous. It is often not linear. So congratulations on publishing.

Tj Hughes:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It’s been a crazy and very long journey. It’s wild to see it just finished. Yeah, it’s hard to process and wrap my head around and also figure out next steps.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s the reception been like so far?

Tj Hughes:

Mixed, which I fully expected. Honestly, it’s a weird game. It’s a weird game and it’s a weird format for consoles, but I’m still confident in it because it works so well at events and stuff. Like, I’ve seen many people enjoying the game. I’ve seen when I was at PAX last this last month, it was super well received. Like, folks were really enjoying it and commenting on it. There was, like, sort of a crowd around it at the time at one point. The Panic booth was really cool and like really fun to be at.

Spaces like that, it really works. But the whole time I was making the game, I kind of feared, like, “oh, once it’s an at home experience that people can run on their consoles, folks might not get it” or they might not see the appeal, or they might have just, like, a different experience with it. Yeah, that kind of turned out to be the case.

We tried to do as much as we could to, design wise to, sort of curve that, but, yeah, it still kind of came across as just like, “oh, what is going on?” But then again, there were other folks…like, there were streamers that played it on stream to a Discord call or while having the chat open and they had a good time with it. And so it’s weird. It’s the kind of game where I feel like in a crowd of folks, it’s a really fun experience. It was an experiment, for sure. It got received like an experiment kind of would.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I feel like all games are kind of like that, right? Like you hope that the story and the gameplay and everything that you’ve envisioned as a developer and as part of the creative team, you hope that that’s going to be received on the other end by the player. Sometimes it is; sometimes it’s not.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s such an exercise in communication of just, like, how well do the concepts in this game communicate? Does it resonate with people? Do they enjoy it? And so, yeah, it’s an interesting thing because games are just such a weird medium in that just two people’s experience can be so different just because of how much is possible in games. There’s just infinite permutations of your setup or what you can do in the game. And so, yeah, it’s just really interesting to see that see folks kind of rate that experience because one person will have the best time ever and then another person is just like, what’s going on?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that’s the way for a lot of games, I think. I watch streamers kind of play modern games versus retro games and things like that, and it’s funny how even I think the language in which people talk about games has changed a lot. I’m in my forties; I am a first generation gamer — I guess that’s kind of a good way to put it. And the way that we talked about video games, like when I was a teenager or in my twenties is totally different than how people talk about it now. People are obsessed about framerates and DPS — they’re spitting out all these terms and stuff and it’s like, “how about you just get immersed in the game and not try to technically pick it apart?”

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and there’s a lot of focus these days on bugs, too, and how finished the game feels and all that, which I understand, to an extent. Folks are looking out for their value and making sure that folks aren’t trying to penny pinch and whatever. But, yeah, I feel like that has kind of gone overboard and led to folks really technically picking apart a game where that’s not what it originally ever was about.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I just finished playing and beating two other Kickstarter-backed games. They’re both RPGs. One is called Chained Echoes and the other one is called Sea of Stars. And maybe this is my fault — I went on Reddit to kind of see what the discourse was, which…I went on Reddit. But it’s so amazing, like the spectrum of how some people love the game or how some people are picking little things apart. And some people love the music. Some people hate the music. “Why is the plot like this? Why are the characters like that?” It’s like…just play the game. If you don’t like it, don’t play it. Just put it down. Play something that you like. Maybe I’m looking at it too simplistically. I don’t know.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I feel that sometimes where it feels like the energy spent hating on certain games could be redirected to games that that person actually enjoys. Yeah, I don’t really know what that’s about. I think it kind of satisfies a lot of folks to kind of just, like, I don’t know, just heavily criticize stuff like that. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s something unique to the game space or not, but yeah, it surprises me too when it’s like an indie game that’s being picked apart where it’s just like, “hey, a dude made this in his free time. Maybe not fair to compare it to the game that’s made by a team of hundreds of people.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, like indie developer versus AAA studio. Of course there’s going to be a big disconnect in a lot of things just because of that, because of resources.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, just the medium of Reddit and Twitter kind of connects folks directly with the developer, which can be a double edged sword. I’ve received a lot of support and a little bit of hate as well, so that’s been interesting.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s like a media thing in general. Whether you’re a developer, if you’re a musician, if you have a television show, a movie, a podcast. I mean, in the early days when I did this, I would get so much hate on Twitter and it’s like…if the show is not for you, then don’t listen. People would call me a racist because I only have Black guests and I’m like, “what’s racist about that? It’s the focus of the show. Like, did you not know that’s what the show was about?” It’s crazy.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, that’s wild. It’s not like you weren’t warned.

Maurice Cherry:

Right? And also we’re not trashing anyone. I can understand it. Maybe if it was like a hate-filled kind of show or something like that, but that’s not the case.

People find fault in what they want to find fault in. I find — and the Internet and social media really particularly, I don’t want to put this all on just the Internet — but social media tends to just exacerbate that because it’s given people the illusion that their voice matters.

Well, let me walk that back. It doesn’t necessarily give them the illusion that their voice matters. It gives them the illusion that it’s sort of like “the customer is always right.”

Oh yeah, that’s not always the case. I don’t know who came up with that, but that’s not always the case. Just because you feel away about it and you express it doesn’t make it like law or anything.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly how I’d put it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s a delicate thing. I mean, a lot of creatives I know have sort of even walked back from social media because of that. It’s like, yeah, it can be a great thing for telling people about your work, but then the feedback you get can be just so caustic.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I’ve experienced that. And also, just, no folks who have experienced that firsthand, I completely understand it. It’s not for everyone. You do have to develop a thick skin about it. Just kind of learn how to not react to certain things.

Maurice Cherry:

We’ll get more into the game, but now that it’s out, do you have anything else that you want to try to accomplish before the year ends? I’m pretty sure a lot of this year might have been just all leading up to this launch date.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, pretty much all of this year. And I’ve been working on this full time. And that, first of all, is just really cool that I’ve been able to work on a passion project for this long because not everyone gets that opportunity [to] just sit down and just make what they want to make all day. And so that’s something about this project I’ve been super grateful about. It was able to be funded long enough for me to do that. It’s been awesome. But yeah, this year has been just leading up to just the launch of Nour and yeah, now that it’s out, I kind of told myself I was going to rest for a while and so that’s what I’m in the middle of kind of trying to do is just kind of take it easy. And of course we’re updating the game, like fixing bugs and stuff like that, but just in between that, I’m trying to just relax, take it easy as much as I can.

Also kind of let the next steps kind of naturally come to me because this project started out of just me messing around, having fun with a different kind of art medium. I think my best work kind of comes out that way, so I just want to kind of make sure I nurture that a bit.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, you earned a break. You definitely have earned a break. So if you get a chance to take some just R&R, please do that because you definitely have earned it.

Tj Hughes:

I appreciate that. I really appreciate that. Yeah, it’s hard in game dev to just tell yourself to take a break because it’s just like, oh, wait, but there’s so much I could be doing, could be updating the game, could be pushing out this and that. It’s easy to just kind of let it run your life. Yeah, I’m just trying to get away from that habit.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, let’s go more into the game. Like we mentioned, it just launched in September. We’ll put a link to the game website as well as the trailer in the notes. I’ve played the game. I have it on PS5. I love that it starts off with your face so people know it’s from you. It’s from a Black person. I love that. I love that when you start it up, you’ve got that little…it’s like a 3D model of you with the terrifying jellyfish.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s photogrammetry.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. So much of the game reminds me of, like, Katamari Damacy from Keita Takahashi. It’s kind of this unfettered play. There’s some ambiguity to it. You kind of just have to figure it out as you go along. I mean, granted, the subtitle of the game is “play with your food.” So that’s the premise. You play with your food, and you have a number of different sort of food-related scenarios that you can work through.

What was the idea behind that? What was the idea behind the game in general?

Tj Hughes:

The game didn’t start off as a game idea, necessarily. It’s kind of interesting how it came about. It was a very just, like, nonlinear path towards making a game. So Nour kind of started out as an art test. I was basically figuring out how to make shaders for the first time ever and just, like, practicing being a tech artist. And I needed a subject for testing out these new art techniques and whatever. I looked at food immediately because I just recently had started branching out as far as food goes.

I was traveling. I went to my first GDC. I had discovered bubble tea, and I was like, “oh, this stuff is great. I love this.” And, yeah, it was just the perfect subject because it was colorful, it was playful, it had all these different elements that had a kind of physical component to it. I was just like, “oh, I can make this in 3D, like, using 3D models.” And in doing that, part of my inspiration was also anime food and how lovingly food is rendered in 2D by animators and how, say, with Ghibli movies, like, how the food looks so good, you want to eat it, you just want to eat it. Makes you hungry. And so, yeah, I was just hoping that video games as a medium could give the same kind of love to food.

Because food is usually a background prop in video games. It’s usually this low poly thing that an artist spends maybe a little bit of time on. It’s not the focus. I always thought that was really interesting. And also shout out to the low poly grapes in Final Fantasy XIV, I believe it is. But yeah, to the point of them even becoming a meme is just, like, low poly background food in video games. And so I just kind of wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to be like, okay, what if it was just, like, high fidelity, super detailed, foreground food where just, like, everything’s, like, way too many polygons and just, like, HD and so, yeah, that’s kind of how it started.

It was me just making 3D models with different effects on them, different shaders and stuff, and as detailed as possible, and then just taking a screenshot and putting it on Twitter. And folks were super into it. The response was immediately just like, “oh man, that makes me hungry. That looks so good. Wow, that’s great.” Yeah, just super positive responses about it. And eventually I got to a point where some local friends of mine wanted to show…they wanted to show the art at an event, at an event about just, like, interactive art. Just saying anything that’s like art plus tech.

And I was like, okay, it’s not interactive, so it probably wouldn’t work at this exhibit. Not exhibit, but like, event, but I’ll see what I can do. And so I just hooked it up to some controls. Pressing a button on a keyboard just makes a food appear and fall down from the top of the screen. And that’s it. That’s all it started out as. The response was great. Folks were super into it, they were having a lot of fun with it.

That was kind of my moment where I was just like, oh, this is something. I’m onto something. And my background was already making video games, but I kind of didn’t expect this to really be a game. I was just like making stuff because it was pretty and just putting it out there. The game itself kind of evolved from folks, like sharing feedback, just being like, “oh, it would be cool if this food was in it”, or “what if this button did this? This button made the food fly up”, or like, “hey, you should add a meat grinder”, or whatever different things folks would say about the game. And then I would just be like, “oh, that’s great”. And I would kind of like, add it and then see how folks reacted at the next event. I was doing a lot of events and so it was this kind of back and forth of just like, I could directly talk to the folks who were playing the game and get immediate feedback about what folks really wanted in it.

And so, yeah, it was just like a really fun process and yeah, just like a weird way to make a game because I didn’t really start off with a premise or like a concept. I just started just making it from scratch, like no game design document or anything, just directly from my brain into the game engine.

Maurice Cherry:

So there wasn’t really like a story that you were trying to tell. It was just an experience you wanted people to have, it sounds like.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I had some visuals that I really wanted to make and I just wanted folks to kind of appreciate that without really needing a ton of context. Yeah, there wasn’t really much set up or anything like that. I was just kind of like, “hey, this is a really pretty food. Look at what games can kind of be and look like. You can use this medium to do a lot of crazy stuff. What if we just appreciated the visuals and textures of food?” So, yeah, it was just like an art exercise that was just really heavy on the visuals. That was really what I wanted to accomplish. It was just getting folks to kind of appreciate that side of things.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, is there an optimal way that you suggest people play the game? Because I played it on PS5 and I’ll admit that it felt like the controller was holding me back. I think there are certainly parts where if you, I think, pull a trigger, like a magnet will happen. Or if you press a button, it can change the color of the food or it can change the rate at which the food drops or something like that. It almost felt like, I don’t know if a controller is the right way to play this, and then I’ve seen videos of you playing it and you’re playing on this almost like 16 button, like MIDI controller almost. So I’m curious if there’s like an optimal way that you think people should play the game.

Tj Hughes:

The original version of the game played with a MIDI controller. The first first version was just like…keyboard, but then after that I started getting into MIDI controllers and just like music production and stuff like that. And I hooked up a MIDI controller to the game just for the fun of it. And it’s the Midi Fighter which is this board of 16 buttons and they’re like, arcade-like, fight stick buttons. So it was trying to be like kind of a reference to fighting games, but repurposed for music production. But then I’m kind of like taking it back into video games, which is sort of funny. That was originally how I presented it at museums and stuff. I would just bring out this controller and yeah, it was a really good way to play because it was just the satisfying nature of pressing a button and then seeing a really high-quality visual appear or being able to interact with it in some way.

It was a really satisfying thing. The initial release. We don’t have MIDI support in the current version of the game, but it’s something that we’ve been meaning to put back in because trying to support consoles and stuff, I couldn’t really have it, the MIDI tech back end, in there. But yeah, we’re trying to put it back in. It kind of just got broken along the way of making the game. Yeah, that’s something that we’re trying to get back to the roots of. It’s just like, okay, this game has been shown at a few exhibits with this controller. It would be great if folks could plug in kind of any controller of that sort and just play the game and just see what happens.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I like that experience, though, because it sort of reminds me of sort of like early gaming in the 90s, where I think developers were experimenting with a bunch of different types of input styles. I mean, of course, you had Nintendo with their standard controller. Sega had the same thing. But then Nintendo eventually also had R.O.B. the Robot, and there were like two games that you could use with the robot and then the Zapper. I think the Zapper came with when I got my Nintendo in ’85, I think it came with a Zapper. So it was like a combination [Super] Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, and so that’s an alternate way that you can play the game.

And then with Super Nintendo, you’ve got [the] Super Scope Six or whatever. And so there were all these sort of, like, alternate controllers for different games that you could play the games with. So I like that. This kind of harkened back to that for me because now everything is either Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, PC, like, it’s one of those four things and it doesn’t really give you a lot of variety onto how you play. It just the platform that you play it on.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and the folks would call all that stuff, like, gimmicky back in the day. And I always thought it was pretty fun, like, Nintendo would always try to be the ones to use those really alternative controllers. Yeah, I miss it. I genuinely miss that kind of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, this game, to me, like I said, it really kind of harkens back to that and I think it opens up creativity for the gamer in a different way that’s not just — it’s pressing buttons, but it’s not in like a standard type of controller-esque format. It feels like to me, when you mentioned that sort of 16-button thing, that almost kind of feels like a good way to play it, especially because you were play testing this at exhibits. So you weren’t like play testing this in a play lab or something like that. You were out in open spaces and mixed spaces with people, so people could really interact with it any way they wanted to.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and even though we were kind of just siloed off to controllers with the console release of this, we tried to do as much as we could with it as well. So with a DualSense controller, we’re just like, okay, even though you’re just controlling the game in a regular way, we still want to find alternative ways to interact with the game. So we use the microphone for that. And in the game, you can blow into your controller and that will blow all of your food away. Or if you make a slurp sound that’ll suck all the food towards you. And then if you whistle or in pitch with a song that’s currently playing in the game, all your food will kind of levitate. And so we just wanted to just whatever way you’re interacting with the game. We wanted to make it to where you just had options that were just kind of weird to kind of complement the MIDI controller back in the day. It was just like, okay, so at least with this controller, there’s something special that you can do that you couldn’t even do on the MIDI controller.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I could see certainly something like this doing well on VR or even something like I know you mentioned like, Nintendo with these different controller things. I mean, like the Switch controllers, you can kind of have each joy con in your hand or something like that. I could see definitely a future of don’t. Like, maybe I’m putting idea in your head, I don’t know, but I could see a future where you’re using that as the inputs as opposed to like button presses with some stuff. And that could be another way to unlock more gameplay for people, more appeal.

Tj Hughes:

Oh, yeah, VR is an idea I’ve had for a while. I would still love to do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk more about sort of the team and the game dev process because I know that the process can be long. You raised money on this via Kickstarter and you had a team behind you as well as you also worked with Panic for kind of helping to distribute the game. Talk to me about that.

Tj Hughes:

So it’s a fairly small team that we’re working with. So there’s Me. There’s Joey. He does programming. There’s Maximilian. He helps with initially music, but now it’s kind of just everything that he helps out with. Just programming just so much. He’s come a huge contribution to the game as well as James.

Also, like, on the music, we had like a two man music team who just kind of became developers over time. We have Mark who is on sound design and sound effects. So any of the foley or just kind of ASMR sounds that you hear throughout the game, that’s him. And so, yeah, just like small team of five folks just kind of making this over discord, basically. I’m kind of like leading the pack on that. It’s a really interesting process. Yeah, just like especially on a weird game like this, it’s kind of like anything goes type thing where there’s been just weird ideas presented to me, where I’ve just been like, yeah, send it, let’s do it. That’s how multiple things got into the game.

Like the jellyfish idea, just like having this character that comes and steals your food. When you say nonlinear, that describes everything about this game’s process from the funding to the idea, to its actual technical development. Yeah, it’s just completely nonlinear. But it’s been cool though. It’s been a really cool way to kind of make something because it truly felt like we’re just kind of playing around, really. And just like, any idea that sounds cool, we’re just like, yeah, let’s do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, we. Talked about this a little bit before recording. The game development process can be long, especially if you’re raising funds through a crowdfunding medium like Kickstarter. There’s been video games that I have helped to fund in the past that just took much longer, I think, than the developer originally might have thought of for it to come out. Like, we talked about Omori, for example. This was a game by an independent developer, Omocat. They got funding for it through Kickstarter in 2015. And I want to say it didn’t start coming out on consoles until like…I know it came out on the Switch in 2020. It might have been out on Steam in 2019, but it was years past when they initially said this is when the game is coming out. And Kickstarter, and you can probably attest to this, Kickstarter is a bit of a double-edged sword. Like, yes, you have people’s funding, but the people that fund it can be real assholes when it comes to, like, “where’s my game? Why don’t you have it now? You said it would be here by this date, I want my money back”, blah, blah, blah. Tell me about that, because I feel like the game dev process and then having to answer to backers kind of might have been a source of contention throughout this process.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s always tough dealing with folks who just really want the product. I luckily feel like I found a really nice corner of the Internet who backed this game because folks have been, for the most part, just super patient with it. It’s actually crazy because, yeah, we’re talking about Omori, but I think we took even longer as far as when the Kickstarter started versus when the game actually came out. It’s such a long process and through so much of it, I felt bad. I was just like, “oh, dang, folks are looking for this.” And I’ve definitely had folks kind of reach out when things were more silent because we’re just really heads down on the game and trying to make it happen. So folks have been super nice and super patient for the most part, but there are definitely a few standout folks that reached out and just weren’t so nice. I definitely had just like a few folks get in the Twitter mentions and it wouldn’t be like a majority by any means. It’s maybe like five people, but we kind of, as humans, remember negative experiences way more than positive ones. And so it was just really stand out how someone called it vaporware or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no…

Tj Hughes:

I was just like, “okay, you don’t even have the game yet, so that’s an early judgment.” Yeah, just certain folks, someone got really extreme with it, but luckily we have what’s called the block button, and so that is a fantastic tool to curb these kinds of responses. But yeah, I don’t know. I’m super grateful to have found just like a really supportive fan base and backer base. It’s a hard thing because you kind of can’t predict how development is going to go. Because straight up, I thought this game would be wrapped up by 2020, and then 2020 comes around, boom, hit with a pandemic, right? And I was just like, “oh, okay.” So this is kind of a great time for games in general, but terrible time for [the] mental health of tiny teams working on very ambitious projects. That was an interesting hurdle that no one was prepared for. But it’s hard to make such an ambitious project around such an unpredictable hurdle, right?

Maurice Cherry:

For people that are listening, Kickstarter is not a store. If you pledge something and you get your pledge rewards, that’s great. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and I’m not going to spend time on it on this podcast, but there are a lot of campaigns that I have helped crowdfund. Where the money? I’ll never see that money again. The developer or the creator, whomever, has just took off with the church’s money, as they would say, you don’t know where they’re at.

I think one campaign I did, the person…it was for tea, of all things, this guy had a tea company and he was trying to raise some money for new blends, and then he just never sold the tea. And then he used the money to come out with an LP because he was starting his music career. It was so stupid.

You have to kind of vet, of course, how this goes. I tend to vet more projects where I can see the people have had some track record of success. But it’s tricky. I mean, I think whenever you’re crowdfunding, it can be kind of tricky, but just realize there are real people behind this. There’s real people behind this. And that if stuff happens, stuff happens. But curb it a bit. Don’t get all in people’s faces about it.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I think it’s very fair to be like, “hey, we’d like some communication about this” and all that. When it veers into the realm of harassment, of just, you don’t need to attack their character. I don’t know. You don’t need to send a death threat.

Maurice Cherry:

It was never that serious, especially for video games. It’s a video game! What are you getting that riled up about? It’s a game.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s a game, not a therapy session. It’s interesting. Also, he made an LP with the money?

Maurice Cherry:

I’m not going to shout out the name of the company, but they were making tea blends. I had gotten some of their tea before. I’m a tea aficionado and I really like tea. And so I was like, “yeah, I’ve had some of their tea before”, sure. And I think they raised maybe like $8,000. And then we just never heard from the person again. And you know how on Kickstarter you can see the person’s profile is sometimes connected to a Facebook page or like their Facebook profile. And so basically people in the comments had clicked through and was like, “wait a minute, he’s making music now?” Like, wait a minute. What? So we’re just never going to see that tea again because now he thinks he’s a singer?

Tj Hughes:

Okay, for a second I thought they posted their own backer update and was just like, “Actually…”

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no, they never updated or anything! They just went completely radio silent.

Tj Hughes:

Oh, okay. And people just kind of put it together. Okay, for a second I was about to say, that is so bold, bro.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s kind know switch up a little bit here. We’ve talked about the game and we’ve talked about development and stuff. Let’s talk more about you so people know more about just kind of your background and how you got to where you are now. You’re in St. Louis, Missouri now. Is that where you’re from originally?

Tj Hughes:

Yes. Yeah, I lived here my entire life, bro.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Did you sort of get exposed to a lot of creativity and design and stuff growing up? I’m guessing that you probably have.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. So my mom is a traditional artist. She does like acrylic and whatever medium she can get her hands on, really. And my dad was a jazz musician. Kind of just naturally got exposed to art super early on because of that. It was interesting because no one was really trying to push me in the direction of art. It just kind of happened just like naturally. And my dad was also really into tech and would have just like random trinkets and synthesizers and circuit boards just strewn throughout the house and yeah, I just kind of had this subconscious interest in tech that I never really noticed as being weird or different until later on when I just kind of said it all at once.

I was like, “oh yeah, I was kind of exposed to this stuff from way back in the day.”

Maurice Cherry:

That’s awesome.

Tj Hughes:

I grew up just like drawing comic books and stuff. Not to expose my brother and I, but we had our own Sonic characters and stuff. That’s how we started out. We just draw our own Sonic characters and that was huge for us. We would just make these comic books. That was kind of just the early influence. And then, I don’t know, just as the Internet was a thing, we started playing more video games. I was just interested in both those things at the same time.

And as a kid I would just always be like, “oh, I want to be a game designer when I grow up.” I said that without any kind of confidence at all. It was just kind of like a kid’s dream sort of thing. And I remember the moment where I kind of really questioned it, where I was just like, “oh snap, I’m not good at Math. How am I ever going to make video games? This is going to be so difficult.”

But then fast forward to when I was 13. I discovered Unity while procrastinating some homework. One day, I was like, “oh, what is this? It’s an engine that anyone can download. That’s crazy. Let me go and do that.” And, yeah, I just started going through these PDF tutorials on how to make an FPS game. I made this really crappy little first person shooter project, but I was learning the engine, and it was before I was even realizing it, I was just like, “yo, wait, I’m actually doing this. It kind of makes sense. It’s just like, logic.” Yeah, that’s when I kind of realized, like, “oh, snap. I have a really self-learning oriented brain” because I wasn’t particularly good at school. I wasn’t really good at Math, but just figuring things out and putting things together and disassembling them, I was just like, “wow, I’m great at this.” And so, yeah, it just kind of really worked for me. Just, like, teaching myself the video games and how to make them and how to make my own art really.

Yeah, that kind of just worked out.

Maurice Cherry:

First of all, I have to say that’s excellent that you were picking that up so young and that it was available for you and you were in an environment where I’m guessing it didn’t sound like your parents at all were trying to hold you back from doing that.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, that’s something I’ve always realized I’m super lucky about was like, they’ve always pushed me in this kind of direction or just been supportive when they learned what I was making. Yeah, they’re just like, “wow, that’s really cool.” They’ve always been okay with me going into art because they did it themselves. And anytime I would show them something, they’d be like, “wow, that’s really cool.” Even if my mom didn’t really understand it, to this day she’s like, “what do you do? You do, like, the computer thingy?” But she’s still really supportive. She set the donut from my game that’s her wallpaper on her phone. I’m just like, “okay, that’s really cute.” I feel really honestly supported.

The only hard part was when I decided to not go to college for any of this. That was something that was very controversial for a lot of the adults in my life. They were just like, “no, you need to go to college. You got to get a degree. You had to have a fallback, and you had to get the proper education”, blah, blah, blah. But it was also just like, “yo, we can’t afford that. Student loans and all that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to have debt. I just want to make money and also create cool stuff.”

That was really hard. Part of it was just, like, convincing folks that, hey, I know how it looks, but I have a plan. Yeah, I think I can say that it’s worked out and that school wasn’t exactly necessary for this kind of work, but I know it is helpful for a lot of people to have a curriculum and go through that path. And so, yeah, I’m not knocking it by any means. Just with my set of circumstances, I don’t think it would have been the best move.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that’s something that the prior generation, I think, is always going to try to impress upon the younger generation. Not necessarily so much the value of education because you were teaching yourself, so you were getting your own education. You were learning about this at a young age prior to college, you were creating projects. I mean, a lot of that is honestly stuff that you would do in college anyway, just with a price tag attached to it. But I think specifically for game development, that’s such a different type of field than say, being a doctor or an engineer or something like that. I mean, game development as we know it is still a very young field and so the ways that you get into it are not necessarily through a four-year institution.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. Another part of it is that things change so fast that by the time you get through your curriculum, it’s just like, boom, everything’s different. There’s a new tool that everyone uses. Everyone stops using this engine because of the weird PR or whatever. There’s so much that can change so rapidly. I think it really lends itself to self teaching because then you can just find all the latest, most up to date stuff and yeah, people make tutorials out. People make plenty of tutorials nowadays. Even when I got started, there was a lot of stuff, but I can’t even imagine having access to the amount of content there’s out there now. Yeah, I feel like you can kind of make anything nowadays.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, everything you mentioned is 100% like it was in the days of the early web. I’m talking like maybe 98 to from 1998 to 2008 was such a huge jump in web development because the browser went from being this tool of presentation to now a tool for development. And so you started having people developing tools in the browser, using the browser not just as a viewport, but also as your development environment and everything. And there were no programs back then to really teach web design. Like, I went to school and majored in computer science initially because my dumb ass was like, oh, if I’m a computer science major, that means I can be a web designer. Wrong. Absolutely wrong. Everything I learned about web design has been self taught because back then there were no courses unless you went to like an art institute or something like that.

And even then, as you mentioned, the technology changes so fast that the curriculum is out to date. It’s out of date as you’re learning it. So it sounds very similar to the early days of the web, is what you’re mentioning with game development. So it seems like you certainly went in the right. I mean, look, you have a video game that’s out now on PlayStation Steam. You’re doing something right. So I think the way that you went certainly is what’s worked for you, which is all you can ask for, really.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. Super grateful it’s worked out this way so far. It was also great just being like, “oh, hey, this is a possible route. You don’t have to fork over just like a bunch of debt just to get into this field and make stuff that you care about.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Now, you did start your early career at a studio. You were at Happy Badger Studio. How did you get started there? How did you find out about them?

Tj Hughes:

Once again, through Twitter. Weirdly. Everything in my career has happened through Twitter. Both getting this game out there, getting hired there. Yeah, it was a similar sort of thing. I discovered Unity when I was 13 and kind of just throughout the rest of high school, I’ve just been just making little experiments and learning. Every now and then, I would do a game jam. I would do the Ludum Dare 48 hour game jam a few times. I would just make things to show my friends and I would take screenshots of what I’m making and put it on Twitter. I had a bunch of projects that were way too big that I was never going to complete, if I’m being completely honest. But I was just like a kid in middle and high school, so I didn’t know what I was doing. But it was still really fun stuff to make and it was still really pretty — the different kinds of projects I was making just from those screenshots and stuff.

I would show off this company, Happy Badger Studio, they saw my work on Twitter and they hit me up. They’re just like, “hey, who are you? Want to come by our studio and just hang out because your stuff is crazy.” And so, yeah, we did that. And they offered me a contractor position and me being fresh out of high school, this was right after I graduated, I was like, “this is really cool. This is a dream job.” Like, exactly the kind of stuff I want to be doing. Yeah, absolutely. And so, yeah, I worked with them for a bit and then became a full-time employee there after a few years. It was just really fun. I got to do the exact part of game dev that I wanted to do, which is technical art. I really just like the art pipeline, the art side of things.

And so, yeah, that was just like a really good situation. And there we made SmuggleCraft, which is a hovercraft racing game with procedurally generated tracks and customizable ships. And yeah, it was a super fun project to work on and [it] really got me started with tech art. And I got to really control the art in the game, which was super fun. Like, all the colors and particle effects, that was all my domain. And so, yeah, that was just, like, super fun and a really good experience. I feel like that was honestly my college course.

Maurice Cherry:

I’d say that was your college course, your first real job…I mean, that kind of work right out of high school? I mean, that’s the dream. That’s the dream. Like, if you’ve been doing it, especially as a kid and you’re able to go right into working, I mean, that’s the best kind of education. Especially like, as you said, you learn by doing, so that’s perfect. That’s perfect for you.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it was a really good situation. That’s actually where I met Joey, who’s on my team as well. And he taught me so much of what I know about programming because we just have sessions of C# just sitting down and he just tells me that he’s a wizard programmer. He knows so much. I know just enough to get by and actually make a game, but he’s who I go to when I’m just like, “okay, I need to do this very specific thing. How?

Maurice Cherry:

What’s in the future for Terrifying Jellyfish? I mean, we’ve talked about the game coming out. We’ve talked about sort of how you’ve gotten here and everything. And now that the game is out and it’s getting that reception and you’re in this sort of rest period, I should say, what do you want to do in the future? What’s next?

Tj Hughes:

I’ve been thinking about this. It’s hard to say. I don’t really know. I definitely have ideas for projects, but I definitely need to take some time to think about how I would make them happen. Like what the ideal setup is, whether I have a publisher yeah, just what the setup would be. But right now I’m focusing on just kind of resting up and just taking a break and letting what happens next come naturally. I don’t really want to force a project. I want to make something that folks are actually genuinely interested in.

I think I’ll do a lot of what I did for Nour. I think I’m going to just kind of mess around a bit for fun and try to fund that as much as possible, but just mess around with a few different art projects, put it out there, show folks, see what they like the most, and then just see it evolve from there. I think that’s kind of my formula now, is not just taking bets on what I, as my ego thinking, is the best idea possible. I want to actually get feedback in real time of just like, “oh, folks other than me actually like this. I’m going to pursue this idea now.” I think that’s kind of going to be my approach. So, yeah, my plan is just mess around a bit, throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, see what sticks.

Maurice Cherry:

Basically that’s a good strategy. I like that. I mean, it’s certainly different from what you would see maybe, like, a bigger studio might do, where they might make — and I don’t necessarily mean a game studio, but like, say a television studio — might make a bunch of pilots and then they will do testing on them and then they’ll sort of go and see, “okay, this is the first one” where instead maybe they could put all the pilots out on YouTube and let people sort of see which one they respond to instead of going with what the studio might think. So I think that’s a good tactic.

Tj Hughes:

I like that, yeah, thanks. Also, like something I’ve been talking about because I want to put the seed out there. I feel like if I talk about it, that’s an easier chance of kind of manifesting it. I want to do more museum games because Nour started out as a museum game, just being installed somewhere with a controller and then folks can walk up and interact with it at an event or something like that. I really love that format of game. I kind of feel like I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about the tech of it all. I don’t have to worry about performance and optimization.

I’m just like, “okay, it runs on the computer and it’s interesting and it’s wacky and attention grabbing” and that’s all I had to worry about. I love making stuff like and also I got to travel to a lot of really cool places with this project as well. I got to go to South Korea, Amsterdam, like South Africa, just bringing this game to different exhibits and stuff. And so yeah, I would just love to do more of that. I don’t know how much of that it’s going on post pandemic, but yeah, any events like that I would love to be a part of again and they would just kind of find me as well. I have no idea how these opportunities were kind of come to me, but definitely want to do more stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:

I think that’s awesome. I mean, I can certainly see this kind of thing being done in design museums. Like Atlanta has a museum of design. Atlanta. I think they just had a gaming exhibit earlier this year where they I think it was called Pixels and Code. I don’t recall it, but I could think like design museums, that would work. Conferences could work. There is a conference and it doesn’t go on anymore; maybe it will in the future, but there’s this conference in Portland called XOXO….

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, Nour was actually there one year. I think it was like 2018 or 2019.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh wow, okay. I was there in 2018. My team was there in 2019. The startup I was working at at the time, we did an event in 2018. We did like this art and code event, but they had this game expo that’s where I played, like, Hair Naw and a couple of other games. I assume they probably had it the next year, so if it was 2019, I wasn’t there, but members of my team were there. That’s cool. I could see it being done in something like that where people can really interact with it in an open space.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it was a really cool setting for it because the screen that they got, I guess it was a projector, it was gigantic. They really knew how to present the game. And so I thought that was great, seeing just this HD food up on this big, giant screen. And so, yeah, just more things like that. I just loved how just wacky and just different that convention was.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Tj Hughes:

I just hope more things like that exist, like post pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:

So for people that are hearing your story, they’re listening to you, how you came up in terms of learning about game dev, and now you have your own game out there. What would you recommend to them? If they’re looking to create their own game, what kind of advice would you give them?

Tj Hughes:

I would say just use what resources you have and go for it. It’s completely okay to just google everything. That’s basically what I did. I just googled my way into a career. I have no formal education about any of this. And so use your confidence and ask people as well. Ask people who’ve done it before. There are so many folks that are more than willing to share expertise.

Mentorship is kind of how I really got through most of this. Just folks from Happy Badger Studio just being like, “oh, here’s how you do this. Here’s how you start an LLC and get your business organized. You want to start your own bank account as, like, that’s separate from your personal funds.” There’s just, like, a lot of little pieces of knowledge that aren’t actually hard to execute, but once you know them, it just sets you up. Yeah, I don’t know. Just like tax organization. Don’t ignore that stuff.

Like, taxes. This is if you’re making it commercially, like, if you’re actually trying to make money from it, I would say the biggest thing is start small and ramp up incrementally. Think of it, I guess, like. working out. [That] sort of thing. You don’t go right to 300 pounds on your first deadlift or whatever. You want to work your way up there because you don’t want to tear a muscle. You don’t want to burn out. You want to do what you’re capable of. That was something that I really had to just learn.

It had to just be nailed in me because, yeah, starting out, I wanted to make the biggest FPS project ever. I wanted it to be multiplayer and have, I don’t know, like, be an MMO at the same time. Just a ton of players on the same server, zombies everywhere. It was just like I was in way over my head. I was never going to do that. But still fun to start out and mess around with.

Then I scaled it back and my first game, Feesh, that’s when I made that. I made that during a Ludum Dare game jam, like in 48 hours. That was the tiniest possible little arcade game. I released it on Steam for like 99 cents and with no marketing; folks bought it. That was a great experience. And so I think there really is something to keeping it simple, scaling it back and cutting things. If you have an idea for a feature, just imagine the game without it. I can’t stress that you can never cut too much from a game.

Just actually done is so much better than having it be perfect.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about Nour, about the game? Where can they find that information online?

Tj Hughes:

Terrifyingjellyfish.com is the main spot, but social media-wise, Instagram is the most active — @terrifyingjellyfish on there. I post anything I’m working on to there. I’m on Twitter, X, or whatever the heck you want to call it, at terrify– @jellyoccult or at @_Teejay5 online, everywhere. Food.game, if you just want to look up Nour and buy that game. Yeah, everything’s linked. So if you just look up “terrifying jellyfish”, you’ll kind of find everything all right.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good. Tj Hughes, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you, one, for just…I mean, you’re such a creative force. I mean, I feel like I’ve learned a lot just from hearing your story and hearing you talk about game development and your process. I think what you embody is kind of the core thing that I try to put forth with Revision Path is to let people know that there’s more than one way to get to what your definition of success is. And I love that for you. You’re really creating what you want to see in the world. It’s coming from this really pure place and I’m really going to be excited to see what you do in the future.

But yeah, definitely take your rest now, but in the future I’m going to be so excited to see what you accomplish. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, thanks for having me on here. Yeah, it’s been really fun talking about games and through the whole process.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

The BFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts consistently produces innovative and acclaimed work that is rooted in a strong foundational understanding of visual communication. It encourages creativity through cutting-edge tools, visionary design techniques, and offers burgeoning creatives a space to find their voice.

Students in BFA Advertising are prepared for success in the dynamic advertising industry in a program led by faculty from New York’s top ad agencies. Situated at the center of the advertising capital of the world, the program inspires the next generation of creative thinkers and elite professionals to design the future.

School of Visual Arts has been a leader in the education of artists, designers and creative professionals for over seven decades. Comprising 7,000 students at its Manhattan campus and more than 41,000 alumni from 128 countries, SVA also represents one of the most influential artistic communities in the world. For information about the College’s 30 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, visit sva.edu.

Shawn Alexander Allen

Games are an integral part of our society, and not I’m not just talking about Nintendo, Xbox, or PlayStation. Games are culture, and this week’s guest — Shawn Alexander Allen — has dedicated himself to getting people to think about games as more than just a leisure activity.

Shawn and his family recently moved to Atlanta, so he spoke about getting adjusted to the new location and getting into a groove with work through his studio, NuChallenger. We also talked about his critically acclaimed video game, Treachery in Beatdown City, and Shawn shared his origin story of growing up in NYC, working at Rockstar Games, and a lot more. Shawn is ready for a revolution, and I’m interested to see what he has in store for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Hey, my name is Shawn Alexander Allen and I currently make video games for a living, I guess. I make a lot of things, but video games are basically what my company does.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going so far?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, it’s been a wild year. A lot of stuff from the last two years just all hit in 2022. One thing being COVID, the thing that we’ve been trying to run away from. My wife and I got it from my kid at daycare and we have a lot of my wife’s… A lot of our family lives down here. We’ve been basically in a bunker in this house looking at people through windows and gates and once we got COVID, it was post vaccine for us. I don’t know, it pulled the bandaid off a little bit. So we go to family gatherings more and we go out more. And I’ve been traveling again, going to games conferences and stuff. Definitely with masks. I think I’m still being treated like I’m crazy by a lot of people. Even doctor’s offices where no one’s wearing masks, but still wearing masks.

And then on a better level… I mean, that was really good for mental health actually was being able to get out, see, just go back to games events, go to new games events, hang out with people who I’ve gotten to know better over the last two years on the internet. And finally getting to see each other in person. I got to see my business partner in person, actually both of my business partners meet one of them in person for the first time and see my other business partner who I’ve known for 26 years, got to come stay with me in Atlanta. That also leads to the fact that after two years of negotiation, we were able to get investment in my company, NuChallenger, which allowed me to leave my day job. And so I’ve just been able to focus a lot more on things that I love and less on corporate game development.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s jump into NuChallenger. Talk to me about your studio and talk to me about the game Treachery in Beatdown City. I know they’re pretty closely linked.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
For NuChallenger, we like to say that… We say we making publish dope games and comp culture and I think younger me, I don’t actually know what younger me would’ve wanted out of a games company, but as I get older, I started working on this game Treachery in Beatdown City 10-ish years ago, maybe earlier, and just in my thoughts trying to do an indie dev thing even probably 12 years is where my brain started really thinking about it. And so the purpose was games, but then I started looking at the industry and I started looking at just the world and… I don’t know, having more space in my brain, being able to getting to meet Saul Williams’ poet who I love person and talking to him about video games because he’s interested in that and he’s doing a comic book and all this other stuff and talking to comedians who like video games and they’re interested in it.

And all these people that I really respect in other art forms, all being interested in what I do. A very formative conversation was when Saul introduced me to Vernon Reid, one of the best guitarists in the world, Living Colour. And he’s like, “This is Shawn, he’s a game designer with the most enthusiasm.” And I’m like, “You’re Saul, one of the greatest poets of the planet and you’re Vernon Reid, one of the greatest guitarists, but also secretly a heavy sci-fi nerd.” And the fact that we could then talk about video games after that really gave me this… A lot of these folks that I meet don’t know what it takes to make video games and I don’t know what it takes to make what they do. And I’ve wanted to make music and I write poetry from time to time and have been discouraged from doing it and doing more as an adult.

And comedy is something I love. And these are all Black art forms that there’s been a whole lot of innovation in. And so what I want to do is be able to work with people from all these groups. So I think about even with Treachery in Beatdown City, one of the thing that came out before the game was a rap single for that we dropped with our launch trailer with Open Mike Eagle, like a rapper who started loving in 2015. We met at the Highline in Manhattan where Vernon Reid was actually funny enough, that was the second time I saw him in person. He was at a rap show again, that was… I kept looking at these intersections of interests and then getting to talk to Mike over years and being like, “Oh, Mike really likes video games.” And it was like, “Okay. Cool. Let’s see about making just a cool track that’s like, it’s a track, it’s about a game.”

Game is about more than just games because the last decade has shown me that who I am as a person isn’t just as someone who plays video games. It’s a lot of things. It’s a game that deals with fascist police and stealing elections and all sorts of things. And so let’s make a song about that and then let’s release that song and let’s do cool things that are transmedia I think is very important. And something that was really big in the [inaudible 00:09:08] and kind of died off, but you saw a Black Panther, they put out a Kendrick Lamar album with it and everybody loved both. So that’s what we want to do with our studio. It’s being led definitely by games because I don’t think I want to make movies and there’s no shame on just a people that are just game studios, but that’s just not all that we do.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, tell me more about Treachery in Beatdown City.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, Treachery in Beatdown City, so I’m from New York and originally biracial kid who grew up with a white mom looking different in a lot of different neighborhoods, always being harassed by people for that difference, being random person on the street, cops, whatever. And always having a lot of personal anxiety around the city in general, but also loving the city tremendously. I love New York. I love New York more than a lot of people do. There was a line from the last Black man in San Francisco where the main character says… Because people are saying, “I hate San Francisco” or something, and he says, “You can’t hate a city unless you love it.” And I feel that way about New York. Growing up in the city and growing up through one billionaire mayor that ran for three terms. One of them dubiously legally, fairly illegally. Or another mayor who threatened to kill the other mayor basically.

New York’s just a wild place. A lot of cultures from there, a lot of cool stuff’s from there. A lot of really bad stuff on corruptions there. So all in all, to say beat them up have always felt very interesting to me because they were always based in a Japanese retelling of post apocalyptic New York and other media around there. And we wanted to make our own game that was the New Yorker telling of post apocalyptic New York, which is now post Cold War New York essentially. And then, yeah, doing a funny… What if the president gets kidnapped? Except now it’s based on a Black president and it’s no longer complete fiction that there’s a Black person as president. You get to fight these weird stand-ins for… Well, a lot of people that are just on the streets. The people that would shout at you, ask to touch your hair, all sorts of things.

You get to fight those people. It’s like this catharsis that we always wanted to have. And also at the same time, again, loving comedy. I’ve loved Key & Peele for a very long time since both of them were on Mad TV even. And so their humor bled into the scheme. We call it a dark comedy tactical brawler in that it innovates a lot on the fighting stuff, but it also, it’s dark humor, it’s funny, but it’s also… It’s not really uplifting in a lot of ways. And that’s also my way of being a comedy writer when I don’t have time to do standup because I’m working on a game for 15 hours a day or more.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I know that’s been the main game that you’ve worked on through the studio. Are there any sort of other projects that you’ve been working on through the studio?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. So Treachery in Beatdown City, yeah, it started full-time, full-time when I was finally able to work on it. Because I used to work at Rockstar Games. That was my first job in the industry. Then I moved into Treachery in Beatdown City in July of 2012. And then over the last two years I’ve been pitching projects and pitching projects, pitching the idea of the studio just as a Black led studio that does cool culture working with the things I was saying, working with people from creators from other art forms. And so we have a two or three projects that are in various stages, but nothing that can really be talked about.

One thing is that everything that we talk while we do is NuChallenger’s mission is to definitely focus on the oppressed and also focus on being able to subvert that oppression and also just to fight back. And one of the projects we’re working on, I can just cryptically say it’ll deal with boxing and I’m very excited about it because I love boxing games. I know lots of people do and I would love to make a really unique, but cool boxing game that makes a lot of Fight Night fans happy. Makes people who like stories happy as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Boxing game would be pretty cool.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
There’s not enough. I stumbled on in the Punch-Out!! manual they talk about the dude who’s with him said-

Maurice Cherry:
Doc Louis?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Doc Louis, yeah. And they have a one sentence thing about how he was a champion or around the champion circuit in the ’50s and I stopped and I was like, “Wait, wait, we need to know more about that.” That really actually started making me think about just wanting to… Because, yeah, I love Punch-Out!!, I love Fight Night. Up until a certain point where the controls… Like Fight Night around three was I think the height of the games for me personally.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I know we could definitely go more into video games and I want to definitely touch on your time at Rockstar because that sounds super interesting. But I’m curious, when you’re coming up with a new game, what does that process look like?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
It’s strange. It’s interesting because it’s a… Process is I think always different. 10 years ago I did not know what I was doing at all. And I think I had been working on this project. Actually 10 years ago, earlier in 2012, I had actually put out two smaller games with teams that were two to four people and those games were made in a weekend each, because they have these Gamejam things that are 48 hours, they could be six months long. Also, I worked on a few month long, Gamejam also once upon a time. But it really all depends who you have, what resources you have in those instances because in a Gamejam setting, you’re just writing down stuff on a board and seeing what sticks and doing… I mean, I think in any game thing you want to have brainstorming, but when we are working on Treachery in Beatdown City, it was like I want to make a beat them up and playing a lot of beat them ups, writing down the things that I like, the things I didn’t like.

Taking those things, putting them together, then trying to make something, make a prototype, fail, continue going. I think that’s always something that no matter what you’re doing with your games, you always want to try to get something that you can play to see if it’s the idea that you have is working. You obviously don’t want to polish something too much because if you work for months on something that you could get in within a week and in months later you’ve polished the thing before implementing it and then you implement it and it sucks, then you get it rid of it or you keep it because you sunken cost fallacy, you then are like, “Well, we got to keep it because we spent three months on it.” Yeah, it’s just all over the place. Right now, I’m sitting in Miro for one project just dragging art onto it because we’re creating just a massive vision board of games, movies, people, our art styles, all sorts of things just to… And then I also cut together a hype reel that basically folks what we want the game to feel like.

And that would be something to stay internal and it would just get people hyped internally and say, “Oh, this is what you want to do. So we’re working towards this.” I don’t know, every studio I think has their own ways of doing it. I’m always trying to learn. The next projects we’re working on are the first time I’ll be working on a bigger project for myself. And when I worked at Rockstar, I never got to start those games ever because they were already in process when they were handed to me. And when I worked at MLB, which I worked at for six months, a lot of stuff was usually in progress or they were such short deadlines that it’s hard to even tell somebody like, “Hey, here’s how you make a video game in three months”, that where you already have existing tech and have to staple stuff over it. It changes constantly.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like though, at least part of that beginning process is just setting the mood, setting the motif for the game. Because it sounds like, as you were saying, you’re like dragging stuff in the mirror. It sounds like you’re making a mood board almost.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. It’s something that a friend of mine who’s designing a game, he’s designing a lot of it in Muro actually. And so that’s a new thing that I learned this year. I’m learning to model my stuff after studios that are successful. I have a whiteboard in the corner. Yeah, I mean, my whole thing right now is I’m working to try to get small bits of the game put together and then we’re going to put them all together when we know that they’re working. Especially when you’re trying to pitch a project, it’s all about de-risking.

It’s like getting a good piece of concept art ahead of time could be better than even getting a broken build because if you could sell the game then you can make the game and that’s the… I don’t know, there’s a chicken and egg issue sometimes. And that’s actually been something that the games issue’s been trying to fix is that people need money to make prototypes, but they don’t want to give money to make prototypes. So that’s something that’s new. But yeah. And so for me, yeah, I’m just learning because I have these several projects and they’re all have different paths ahead of them.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really curious about what the process is like because I know that we’ve got listeners that probably have thought about making their own video games. We’ve had other video game designers that have been on the show. I’ve even had ideas for video games, but I feel like it does involve probably a lot of programming. I mean, are you doing the programming as well or do you have a team to do that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, I’m right now working with a team of folks doing programming. I’ve wanted to program, but it always puts me to sleep every time I try to learn anything. The most I really know is I can code html in notepad. That’s the most code I really know.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. No, I was just curious on what that whole process looks like. I’ve had an idea in my mind for a long time, probably much longer than it needs to be for… I’ve had a fighting game idea, but I’ve also recently started with a role playing game idea and I saw this artist, this guy he used to work for Buzzfeed, his name is… Oh, it’s escaping me. No, his name is Adam Ellis. He started this on Instagram where he was making these character sketches for essentially a role playing game that never existed. He made these characters and these debuff items and bosses and all this sort of stuff, right? And then turned around and turned it into a book.

So the book is sort of a strategy guide, it’s called Fever Knights, but the game doesn’t exist. And I got the book, I was like, this is really cool. I really like how he sets the setting and the characters and the story progression or as much of a story as you can probably piece together from all those elements. But it’s not a game, it’s a game that doesn’t exist. But I feel like it has the elements that could become a game. I don’t know if it ever will be a game, but I just thought that was really cool.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. I mean, the ways that I’ve been able to actually do anything is the first “lines of code” for Treachery in Beatdown City was, I was getting frustrated because the person who ended up becoming the lead programmer in the game, we were just not working for any money at the time and I kept being like, “So when are you going to start putting stuff in the game?” And one day I just said, “Screw it.” And I booted up Game Maker because this was 10-ish years ago and I just put a Sprite in and you can get a Sprite walking around and animating pretty quickly in Game Maker. So if you have ideas, that’s a thing you can definitely do. I had to do a ton of UI design, all those things and that was the last bit I ever did also because as soon as I did that, it got a fire under his butt to start.

I said, “Oh, if I don’t start on this, then Shawn is going to just keep going without me.” And I’m like, “That is absolutely not true because I would fall asleep, I think I would die under pressure of trying to code and do all the art in a fighting game.” I’ve seen fighting games from all sorts of levels. There’s a really good that requires. I mean, there’s a… How I think double helix pitched killer instinct to Microsoft when they wanted to make the New Killer Instinct. They had just made one character that could play against themselves with barely any animation and they had to, but they did have to do probably a lot of code to make sure that everything felt good. They focused purely on feel. It was all gray models for on gray backgrounds. And then the hard part comes from then building out all the characters, but getting that little prototype that they had was fun.

So that was why Microsoft was like, “Oh, cool, you were able to get the feeling of killer instinct, but with 3D models.” So we want to do that. That there’s a famous story for Street Fighter 4 actually, where it used to not have 2D hip boxes and the team was confused why it didn’t feel good and they put it in 2D hip boxes and the whole game felt better. But it took hiring people who knew better to, so even big companies can forget how to do things. Yeah, like I said, everything comes from different paths. I feel like how did you start your game from 10 different teams? You’ll get 10 different answers.

Maurice Cherry:
So the process is still… I don’t know, it feels a little mysterious in that way then because everyone’s working from their own base of experience it sounds like.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. I mean, even a lot of video game stuff is, it’s what I always talking about how information dissemination is one of the keys to unlocking the problems of there being not enough Black and other underinvested in peoples in the games industry is that there’s no information on how to do a lot of things out there. I worked at MLB, I grew into a producer role there that I was hired to do because they just needed somebody to manage some stuff and also help out with a various other things. But I’m a game designer first and foremost. I ended up becoming a designer producer, but my job was always producer and I asked, we had four or five producers and I asked all of them what being a producer was and none of them could answer be the same way. And I’m like, “We all have the same job apparently.”

But some people would be like, “Oh, a producer, good producer plays the game all the time and gives no to the team.” And some producer’s like, “No, you really got to be good about the time.” And even in Japan, the term producer is different than it is in America. So there’s game planner, there’s game director, there’s like all these words that might mean something slightly different depending. I’ve had people explain job postings to me as being not as complicated as they list them. And someone tells me, “Yeah, you should apply even if you don’t have this skill.” And then I’d interview for their… Like, “Yeah, but you don’t have that thing that we asked you for.” I was like, “What is going on here?” So there is a lot of mystery there and that’s I think a key thing that we need to figure out. Because you know what a best boy is, what a key grip is, what a director on a movie is, what executive producers are like.

Executive producers don’t really have any weigh in on the final edit the editor does. Usually those are discrete things, but in the industry the executive producer could walk over to you and be like, I want this to be different. Yeah, I think we need more definition, more transparency. Everything’s just in opaque soup over here.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. You mentioned when talking about Treachery in Beatdown City, that you are from New York. You grew up in New York and I see that you went to SVA and you majored in graphic design, dynamic media and 3D rendering in animation. How was your time there? Do you feel like it sort of prepped you for getting working into video games?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yes and no. When I was in high school I decided I wanted to be in games. I was working on comics, I’d been working on comics my whole life. I always was interested in music, but music always seemed to be a dead end where… I don’t know, I just couldn’t figure out how to get in or I couldn’t figure out how to get over my own stage fright to try to, I played piano as a kid and then didn’t get a right scholarship, so then I just stopped doing it. And comics sustained me through high school. But I remember a career person asking me, “What are you going to do in five years?” And I was like 15. I was like, “I’m going to be working on games.” And they were like, “Well, what happens if you don’t do that?” And I was like, “I’m going to be working on games.”

And so it just locked it in my brain. And so then I guess spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make games. And again, the information thing there… I mean, it was a lot harder to do back then. There weren’t Unity and Game Maker and Construct and Scratch. There’s so many engines that you could just pick up and go make something with. Now all you had back then was RPG maker on PlayStation and I ain’t known a PlayStation until a PS2 in 2000. So going into SVA… Something about SVA, I think I’ve been doing art my whole life because I wanted to. And then I hit SVA and with all those, I clashed heavily with the pretentious art weirdos that I had a couple of friends there. But also I lived very close to school. I was very depressed from all my friends from high school going away to school elsewhere, everybody basic, like I went to Brooklyn Tech with 5,000 kids.

So my graduating class was like 1,500 people, 12,00 people, 1500 people. I think I legitimately knew 100 to 200 of those people and most of them all went away. It’s a school. And so even one of my best friends from eighth grade also went to school at in Albany, New York. So I was like, “Ah, I’m all alone.” The girlfriend that I followed to SVA, that’s why I actually went to SVA was because she got accepted. She got actually told that Brett just didn’t want her and that her work wasn’t good. It was wild. So she went to SVA, I was like, “I’ll do web design.” So then I was like, “I’ll go to graphic design, I guess I don’t know what I want to do.” And when I got into SVA, my creativity tanked. I stopped wanting to do anything creative whatsoever. And 2002 I finally got a job at the EB Games I’d been hanging out at and I’ve actually found hanging out at that store once all my friends left, I needed friends so I would be on message boards play like…

It’s how I started playing Fire Pro Wrestling on the Dreamcast because it was an import. And I really got obsessed with that game, which actually then that game in turn helped me want to make video games because they actually would mod that game to make it in English, to give people new moves, all sorts of stuff. It was really cool. It was something that I was like, “Oh, you can do this even on a console.” And just being at this game store meant I was always talking about game stuff and it made me think about the games that I played.

And so then I thought, “Oh, maybe I could get into games as a writer. So I started, I just kept writing and writing and writing until I started finally writing about what I liked about the games didn’t like from… Which was from divorced from aesthetics, which was a bad idea at the time. But I was just like, “Do I like this part of the game? Do I not like this part of the game?” I was trying to ignore art and stuff like that, which again is hilarious since I’m an artist. But that’s actually what got me more into wanting to make games, was talking to people about it daily, talking to customers about games, going home and then writing about them. That’s what kept me living the idea of wanting to make games because art school made me want to not be an artist anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard that sentiment from folks before, not just specifically about SVA but about other art schools in general. They had all this promise and then there was something about the structure or the regiment or the attitude or the discrimination or whatever about the particular school that just sucked it out of them. That’s what it sounds like. Sounds like that’s what happened to you.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, I think also just working, I had to work… I mean 2004, the first two years of school graphic design was a bust and I wanted to do animation, but computer animation was like, they talked about how sophomore year, which would be my 2004 because it would be my fourth year in school. But they basically made me go back a year. It actually made me go back two years in terms of what I had to learn to relearn a bunch of stuff for foundation year. And then the sophomore year they were like, “Yeah, you’re going to have to take two majors on and figure out which one you want.” Dynamic and 3D. So they said most people would just quit the school during that year. And this was a thing they told you in the interview and it was just like, “Yeah, you really did give me way too much work.”

Classes are supposed to be three credits each so that you’d have five classes for 15 credits. In computer art they made you take three, two credit classes so that you had six credits and then a no credit class. So four classes to fit into two space of two classes to just jam. But that means you still have an extra six hours a week of class you have an extra six hours a week or 12 hours or more of homework. Yeah, just so when I’d be done working, I just want to play video games. I didn’t want to do schoolwork, I just wanted to watch wrestling and stuff like that. I’d hang out with friends because also not being able to see people at school, not being able to have friends there, it was not being on a campus I think really was detrimental. But I also couldn’t afford living at SVA and I lived 10 blocks away so couldn’t justify it.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get your start at Rockstar? Did that happen while you were at SVA or afterwards?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
That was interesting because I was eyeing jobs in my last year at school and there was a lot of stuff at a lot of different companies and I was like, “Oh cool”, but I have this mental blocker where I can’t apply for something until I know I will have the space for it. And so I waited until I graduated to start applying and everything had disappeared and then I was like, “Oh no, I’m going to be stuck as an assistant manager at GameStop.” And because the games industry in New York is very small. I had a partner who had a kid, had my mom. I didn’t want to move outside because outside, I had never really lived outside the city so I didn’t know how to drive. I was like, I don’t know how to find a games job and I’m not going to go move to somewhere with no skills or whatever to just go try to work somewhere.

So that summer I just kept refreshing all the websites. I saw PR job at Rockstar and I applied to it. I had two interviews and then nothing. And I kept asking, “Hey, what’s going on?” And the guy, the first interview guy actually was like, “Yeah, I don’t know either. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” Turned out the whole department fell apart. I found this out after I was hired because of something that the global PR guy had said who actually he quit then that’s why I couldn’t get hired because the person who was supposed to hire me quit. So then Game Capture or Gameplay Capture showed up as I kept refreshing through the summer in September of 2007. And I think GTA four had just been delayed. It was supposed to come out in the fall and it had been delayed to the spring and they needed some folks to work on their trailers and they needed to fill that role quickly.

And I guess that’s where I’ll say the SVA thing did come in contact because I did actually have a decent thesis. I had to jury rig together this 2D slash 3D thesis, which just showed good camera use. And that was something that I think I just had inherently. Anyway, my teachers were all like, “How do you know how to do this? Other people don’t really do it this well.” So I don’t know if Rockstar got me there, but I don’t know if SVA got me to Rockstar. But it got me to make the thesis and I sent Rockstar storyboards that I had made for my… Actually because I had gotten failed in a class and I had to redo a thesis class. So I had two thesises that I had completely storyboarded out. So being able to hand over all the storyboards, the scripts that I had written, all sorts of stuff that apparently got me my job.

I interviewed for… I found out my salary at GameStop. The guy came because I was a few blocks away from Rockstar and he was able to just come down and be like, “Hey, we want to hire you, we just need to talk money.” So then within a week and a half even, I think I was working at Rockstar.

Maurice Cherry:
And so if you could sum up that time, I know you were there for a good while, but I mean you helped with launching a lot of games. There are GTA 4, GTA 5, Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3, LA… I’m reading from your bio, if you could sum up that experience in a couple of words, how would you say it was for you?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I mean, definitely complicated. I always say I wouldn’t have stayed there if there wasn’t anything good, but the amount of work you have to do wasn’t tense. It was within two weeks of me working there that I was working seven days a week for a while. But I learned a lot. I didn’t necessarily learn again things towards making my own video games, but I learned how to manage people better. I got to watch movies to learn better cinematography because there was a lot of good stuff there.

Also good friends, it’s really cool to see those games from the inside out and know how that stuff. So if I ever get to make a AAA game at that level again, I’ll be like, “Ah, I’m ready for this, because I’ve already worked on cut scenes of stuff that are 3D, big stuff.” But it did help me, my trajectory also working at Rockstar, having Rockstar games cards, people are in awe of you for working there. Got me to have a conversation with Method Man at an E3 where he really actually, he bought a copy from Madden of Madden from me at EB Games one time and then many years later he had a show at E3. It was right after Red Dead came out and we got to talk about Red Dead Redemption, which is cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now I had first learned about you from your Kickstarter campaign that you did for Treachery in Beatdown City back in 2014. I’d love to just know, I know you’ve had the genesis for the idea around that time, but I guess what drove you to start a Kickstarter campaign to try to get it off the ground?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
So the initial development of the game was built fairly off of either free time or severance/unemployment to be able to pay my bills. Because I’ve never existed in a space where I could just not pay myself. I needed to contribute something. Having gone to school and having student loans and everything and also having grown up in poverty, I didn’t have… Savings wasn’t a thing. My mom could not support me. I had been supporting my mom through my job at EB Games. Any job basically. Even after I moved out, I was still paying into internet. I got my mom internet, I got my mom, new computers, et cetera, et cetera because she could not afford any of that stuff. So I never had that luxury. That’s one of those things you hear about indie games where they’re like, “Ah man. And that person just worked for five years and then they put out the game and it was like, yeah, that need money to do that from somewhere.”

And again, I was living with my former partner and her kid, so we all had mouths to feed still. And so leaving Rockstar, it was good because I was able to leave with some package that with some money and some unemployment because I could never just quit and leave with nothing. And then I had this PlayStation Mobile contract that there was an interest there that they had this where they were putting some money into alternative indies, I guess people who had alternative backgrounds in games. Because having a AAA background and then from Rockstar and then having this idea for this interesting beat him up was something they were interested in. It wasn’t a lot of money they would give you, but it was something. And so that kicked in as my unemployment kicked out and after the six months and I was able to pay the programmer who was able to buy his own computer so that we could work together, which was a game changer in and of itself.

You know, don’t think about the resources that you need. One of the game jams that we were at, we had to share a computer and that made it really hard to make a game when you had to keep handing each other the computer. So yeah, we didn’t have a whole lot of resources. And PlayStation Mobile in 2014 we could tell was going belly up. I don’t know, there’s a lot of strife internally from what I could tell. And we knew New York just isn’t a place where games are made a lot of times. It depends, it comes and goes. But I don’t think I could have gotten a job in the games industry as again, a designer, non programmer. I’d have to find somebody who wanted to just hire me specifically for that.

So we had been working on this game for a while and yeah, end of December 2013, I was like, “What am I going to do?” I was really scared actually. And so I was like, “Yeah, we’re going to do a Kickstarter.” So I started getting to work and it was a few months of work to get the Kickstarter ready. The launch went really badly in that I didn’t know they needed to vet your page.

I sent it in and then they were like, “Yeah, we’ll get back to you.” And I was like, “Oh no.” So it threw off what your 30-day trajectory looks like. It was not even going to end during the week anymore. It’s not going to end on a Saturday, which is not a good idea. I was very naive and I thought I’d built up enough of a fan base following of the game that and just of myself as a person in the games industry that we’d be able to be successful. But nothing went right. We weren’t able to get videos recorded in time, we weren’t able to. And I honestly should have just waited another month or so. But I was desperate. I was, again, coming from poverty, you come from a money is just constantly dripping away mindset. So I was just like, I need this money as soon as possible. And so I launched and you can tell.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say, I know that the campaign wasn’t successful, but I mean the way that you… And I understand where you’re talking about it, I launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 that flopped hard. So I completely understand. I think also though just the climate around crowdfunding was not as, what’s the word? I guess prevalent as it is now. When I started mine in 2011, a lot of people had no idea what Kickstarter was, what crowdfunding was, why should I give you money, that sort of thing. And I thought that I had a audience behind me that would be able to support what I was trying to do with my campaign and it just flopped. So I know what that’s like. I know exactly what it is to go through that whole thing. You did end up starting another Kickstarter campaign, but I’m curious when it fell through, what was going through your mind? What drove you to keep continuing working on the game?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I’m actually trying to remember. In video games, there were actually a bunch of successful Kickstarters. That was why we were like, “Ah, this is a place that we could go to.” That was one of the burgeoning sides of it. People in my direct family still did not know how Kickstarter worked obviously, but you could see making millions of dollars on Kickstarter and I wasn’t looking for that. But I think why I saw it as a possible path out and when it failed. So the last day, two days, Kickstarter were hilarious. Like I said, it got bumped to Saturday. That weekend was Game Developers Conference that year, so starting on the Monday. So it was failing on the Saturday before the Monday and the Friday before that. I never missed a plane. I missed my flight to San Francisco at 8:00 AM. I had to sit in JFK for 12 hours.

I was basically… Because I wasn’t sleeping well that time either. So I basically just went to sleep in my lap and waited for my flight to finally show up. I think I went and found some food at some point and because I was fairly broke back then, I really would. I try to leverage my friend base to try to find somewhere to stay the first night or two before an event kicked off. So I didn’t actually have anywhere to stay that night when I got to San Francisco. But when I landed in San Francisco and it was at night and a friend of mine was like, “Hey, you can come stay at my brother-in-law’s apartment.” It ended up being in a basement that had no cell reception. So it was actually perfect because I’d have to go outside to check what the internet was doing, what the Kickstarter was doing.

So I just had resided that it was going to end and I just turned on Archer on Netflix, on an Xbox and I went to sleep and I woke up and it was over. But it was really good to be there at Game Developers Conference because literally the next day there’s this website, unwinnable.com where they write about games and they have all sorts of amazing great games writers there. I had written for them a couple of times. They write about personal stuff. Sometimes they just write cool music of the year lists and stuff.

But they used to rent a house for Game Developers Conference so that they could bring a bunch of writers and charge them based on how much they could pay. This is before Airbnb really. And I got to stay there the day, I think the Saturday after Saturday night after. Yeah, that was awesome because I got to just talk to these people who were like, “Oh man, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know about this game was on Kickstarter, et cetera, et cetera, cetera.” I just was around all these people were like, “Oh, this sounds amazing. What are you going to do?” People all very, very uplifting, very positive. It was the exact right place to be when something didn’t succeed because I had so much support.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it sounds like it. That’s good. No, I feel like we’ve seen in the media over the past couple of years that game development can be a hostile environment. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I mean, yeah, my thoughts mostly are that my wife used to work in non-profit stuff and I’ve seen her abused as much as I was. In terms of time and what people expect of you, it’s more benign. I don’t know, I think all industries suck. I always say like, “Well, let’s look at the CG industry and how they farm it out to non-US countries a lot of time and then don’t credit them and stiff them on money and stuff.” The games industry’s definitely got a lot of bad parts. It’s got a lot of good parts. A lot of people want to keep focusing on the bad things and I mean there there’s tons of hostility. It’s absolutely true and that’s why I don’t give up. And I’m always trying to mentor folks on the side, introduce people, tell people who did a thing so that they can avoid that person.

I’ve been the victim of a lot of more, I guess insidious toxicity or just people smiling to your face and stabbing you in the back. People just not wanting to work with you after they screwed you over rather than them act or if you just complain about things, people not liking that. There’s definitely an air of toxic positivity, which I think needs to be talked about a lot more because I don’t know, there’s an uroboros of people being like, “Why is the games industry, why are fans so toxic?” And then the industry, you look at 30 years of the industry being like, if you don’t have the best form of hardware, then you’re nothing. It’s just like why you think, I think it’s up to climate change. It’s up to the big companies to really put money in to fix a lot of the stuff. I just try to do as best as I can by the people that I work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Ultimately, what do you want to accomplish as a game developer? Do you have a bigger goal or a bigger message?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I’m an artist, so game development is the thing I use to do stuff. But yeah, I mean, I don’t know, Treachery in Beatdown City is about how far will rich people go to take control over things. And it’s a very timely thing. Every piece will be different. I mean, I also put out a little Twitter art piece a while ago that was being Black in America and it was using Mega Man Sprites, which evoked an interesting response from a lot of people on the internet. A lot of people being like, “Wow.” And a lot of other people being like, “Well then they should just act right” and you see people showing up on themselves. Basically what I make is does exist to provoke a response a lot of the time, one way or the other. But again, I’ve released music with people.

I release board games, big video games, small video games. I think it’s just who I am. It’s how I think the term NuChallenger is funny that I stumble on it because I feel like my existence in the games industry is a challenge to the games industry. It’s funny that EAAS was challenge everything and I’m like, we’re one of the biggest companies in the industry. You don’t challenge a whole lot of things clearly because you keep making the same matting game every year. Everything we do is going to be different, but definitely feel like something we’re doing.

There was an article a long time ago that was looking for the Spike Lee of games and I don’t think the article understood what the Spike Lee of games was. They were just seemingly looking for a Black person making video games. And I’m like, Spike Lee went and had to hustle a ton of people for money to make Malcolm X the movie. And it’s a huge epic that has its flaws. It’s an amazing, amazing movie that I’m so happy it exists. He’s also made stuff that I don’t ever want to see again, like BlacKkKlansman and because of its weird propaganda thing. So he’s an artist. He’s entitled to make Project to Project. That’s how I think of myself and what we want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t think of yourself as a Spike Lee of games?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I say I’m the Malcolm X of games.

Maurice Cherry:
Unpack that a little bit. What do you mean by that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Well, I mean, I don’t know. I think of a lot of things, but I mean I provoke response from the games industry a lot. I mean, again, I’ve been fighting this fight. I think about having written that thing about having written a talk, how Urban Black and Latino cultures the next frontier of indie games nine years ago, taking months of researching and educating a ton of people in the industry about how it’s very strange that if hip-hop was in parallel with video games and it’s a very technical art, especially from the production standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense. Actually other than that video games were so insular that it told people that they were not welcome basically to be in it. My whole thing is, and I provoke responses to people. I say things that are uncomfortable to people’s faces. I’m trying to make the games industry better.

I’m trying to bring Black people together to make a bigger space for them so that people aren’t always expecting Black people to make sad games about blackness. I don’t know, I just want Black folks to be free in the games industry. That’s a very important thing to me. I don’t know about Spike Lee’s intentions for movies. I know that NYU likes to parade him around. They’re like, “See, we have a successful Black person who came from our program”, I’m like, “Where are all the other Black directors?” I think of myself more along the… I want to work with Jordan Peele one day. I like Boots Riley. When I saw Sorry To Bother You, I was like, “Ah, this is along what I like to do. Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t say I’m the Spike Lee again, but the Malcolm X or the Stokely Carmichael are more what I try to go for.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was just curious. That’s a powerful comparison. So I was just curious to know where that came from. For people who are listening to this who want to get into developing games, what would you recommend to them?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
It’s always hard because I feel like every time I give people advice, they just want to hear advice to hear. They are hoping that the thing that they’re doing is the thing that’s right. And then they just move on. I’ve told so many parents how to do things for their kids and then they never do anything games. Well, I mean, I’d say don’t be afraid because I mean, it’s just like, don’t take every game tutorial thing with, take a lot of them with a grain of salt. Don’t sit in your head for too long. A lot of times I think trying to take a small game and just modify it. Can you turn a deck of cards into fighting game or something for the game? Corporate Vandals I worked on, it was like, can you take Tic tac toe and make that a graffiti tag warfare game?

Basically turf warfare game. And it doesn’t take, It’s really hard because people always tell me that I seem to have a knack for these things. And again, I guess the thing that really got me to the point that I’m at is I played a lot of games and I wrote down analysis about what I liked and did not. I feel like an opinion on things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And don’t be afraid to be really harsh on big games because I feel like people tend to let big games off the hook more. And I’m like, we don’t say Transformers is the pinnacle of movies. And that’s what we say for video games a lot of time.

The biggest flashiest thing that makes absolutely no sense at the end of the day. And it’s maybe a little ugly from an arts perspective, art design perspective, we’re like, “Oh man, that gets a 10.” And you’re like, “What?” So look at that stuff. Look at that stuff. Look at small games, big games. See what overlaps, see what doesn’t. I would say also read Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy. I really like that book a lot. And she’s just very, very smart game designer.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve done if you didn’t get into game development?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
That’s always a hard one because like I said earlier, when I was a teenager, I decided this is what I was doing. Everyone tried to talk me out of it. It was weird. I don’t know. As an artist, every time I try to think about my life without making video games, I’d come up with a blank. Because when I was working on my comics, the reason why I wanted to make games was because I wanted to have this old comic when I was 15 that I really wanted to turn into a thing where you could make real meaningful choices and then have these sprawling side things. And I had another game like that too, where I wanted to basically turn Crono, make Chrono Trigger, but make it 10 times as big. I always had these ideas about telling stories that go off in these different branching narratives, and as I make games now, I really love the mechanics of them.I mean, I think I wanted to make movies, but I had to work at a game company to learn that I liked movies. Strangely enough, I stopped liking comics. I don’t know, my brain just doesn’t have the attention for them anymore. I don’t know why. The only comic I could read was, what was it? The Understanding Comics is the best comic that I can read. And it’s funny because it’s about comics and it’s about sequential storytelling, but I can’t read, I get bored of them. Even short comics very quickly nowadays. Even ones that I loved since I was a kid. So it’s really hard. That’s one of the, as someone on a funding landscape and seeing people saying, “Oh, X, Y, and Z is going to replace, X is going to make it really hard to do this, or people only want these types of games, or these people only want that and it’s going to make it hard”, puts me in a weird place.

And that’s why I’m also very protective about the games industry as well, because I look at it as a place where art converges, I mean, I want to do hobbies when I am no longer doing a lot of this stuff in my free time. I was actually trying to gear up to do standup few years ago and then COVID happened. I’ve been trying to had a guitar for a while that I’m trying to learn. I want do those things, but I actually think I want to do those things and just practice them without the need to make money off of them. Because making video games for money be being a thing that I love tremendously for money and having to sell that art is very distressing in and of self. But yeah, I don’t know. The path is, I hated graphic design. I mean, I love graphic design as an idea, but I hated it from a, I don’t know if I could sell it because it changes so often. I guess I do apps, I have a bunch of app, I have a bunch of things, designs that I’d like to do. I’d really like to make a good dating app. But it also comes from game design.

Maurice Cherry:
Well that’s where the dating apps are getting their behaviors from. I

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Think we need to onboard people in general for everything Twitter needs to onboard people. We need to have a little quest that you go on that’s slightly hidden from the user so that they can somehow be tripped into learning that people are people on the internet and that they can’t just be shouting at women that decide not to answer their texts and hiding messages. I don’t know. All sorts of things that, as someone who met my partner on OkCupid, after a lot of digging through in A/B testing, profile pictures and length and this and that, and just figuring out what actually made people interested in me on a very quick interface. I want to make that better for other people. That’s what I would do, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What work do you want to be doing?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Really hoping that we’re done with the project that I’m pitching now. I would like to be done with that before the next five years. So in the next four years I’d like to be done with that and have that in the world while making the other project that I’ve also been pitching. Those are the key things. I’d like to just be at home more or rather, I work from home so I’d rather be not. Because right now I’m just in this time space where I’m doing this update to treasury and beat Town city. So it’s taking a lot of my time and I’d like to just be able to spend more time with my kid and my wife and hopefully have more of a feeling of Atlanta as a city since I’ve only been here for about less than two years now and just vibing out with musicians, maybe doing some music, doing some standup. I don’t know. I just want to be able to be more creative and free I guess, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, Atlanta’s a good city for that. I mean in, I think you told me you were in Marietta, right? Yeah, yeah. Got to get out the suburbs, come into the city. Yeah. Yeah.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Tickets to see Qualey Chris at 529, October. Him in push a fee like three days apart. So it’s going to be, so two different experiences. I’m trying to go in as much as possible. It’s exciting. But yeah, that’s also the other thing is working all the time keeps me out here. I need to learn how to drive. We might need to buy another car because the car right now basically takes the baby to and from daycare, takes us to doctor’s appointments and does grocery shopping and I can’t drive to the city while my kid needs to be picked up. Right. We’ll see. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and about your work and everything online?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I have a site, it’s a nuchallenger.com, N-U-C-H-A-L-L-E-N-G-E-R.com, where I’m trying to post stuff about the games. We’d love to update that more. beatdowncity.com is Treachery in Beatdown City. Twitter, ShawnDoubleA, S-H-A-W-N-D-O-U-B-L-E-A. That’s where I just am on at beatdown_City on Twitter is where I do a lot of corporate ship posting. It’s funny. I like it because I can actually be free there and post dumb fighting gay memes and stuff that I find funny that I don’t feel uncomfortable posting to my eclectic group of artists and game important people.

I don’t know. I have a strange Twitter following that. I’m like, Why do you follow me on Twitter? And I don’t want to lose everybody. And also I’ve just been bullied so much over saying anything about being Black in games that I just stop arguing on that side. But I’m trying to get more things like this going like a podcast. I’m trying to, I want to work on a book at some point because I think it’ll be important. I’m going to try to put out some video content too, because people keep telling me that I should be talking about more of these things and I’m just like, yeah, Time is the key limit there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, Shawn Alexander Allen, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, I mean, one, just sharing your story of how you got into games and about the story with building treachery and Beat Down City. It sounds like this is something that of course you’re really super committed to, of course doing this through your studio. So I’ll be excited to see what comes next from you, what comes in the future. I know you mentioned before we were recording that there’s a big update for Treachery in Beatdown City coming, so I’ll make sure that we put links down in the show notes for the games and everything so people can check that out. But thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Thank you very much.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

asia-hoe-300

When Asia and I spoke before recording, she told me that one thing she wanted people to take away from our talk was that it doesn’t matter what your path is, there’s a way into technology. I think that’s super important for people to hear, especially when there’s so much talk about college programs, hackathons, and the like. There’s more than one way to be a part of this industry, and Asia’s story definitely illustrates that.

We started off talking about the work she’s currently doing as a product designer at 2U, including learning how she approaches new projects and the tools she uses. From there, we talked about how she got into design, how her college experiences shaped her, and her love for mentoring and volunteering. We also spend some time going into game design and Asia shared the game she’s most interested in and the one she most wants to design. Thank you Asia for such a thoughtful interview!


rp_patreon_banner


Revision Path is sponsored by Facebook Design. No one designs at scale quite like Facebook does, and that scale is only matched by their commitment to giving back to the design community.
Facebook Design logo
Revision Path is also sponsored by Hover. Visit hover.com/revisionpath and save 10% off your first purchase! Big thanks to Hover!
Hover logo
Revision Path is brought to you by MailChimp. Huge thanks to them for their support of the show! Visit them today and say thanks!
MailChimp logo