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.

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Xalavier Nelson, Jr.

In the early 90s, there was this show on ABC called Phenom about a tennis prodigy. If Hollywood were to reboot that for the digital age, Xalavier Nelson Jr. would no doubt be the star of the show. His body of work rivals those of people in the gaming industry for decades!

We kicked off our conversation talking about his studio, Strange Scaffold, and he spoke about several of the games he’s either worked on or created, including An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs and the popular 90s Internet nostalgia title Hypnospace Outlaw. Xalavier also talked about his newest game, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, and he shared how his work as a pre-teen game journalist helped him become a narrative designer. Xalavier’s prudent vision for finding better, faster, cheaper and healthier ways to make video games is so important, and I think that if he’s making waves like this now, just imagine what he’ll do in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Hello. I’m Xalavier Nelson Jr., I’m a studio director at Strange Scaffold, a frequent writer, narrative designer, collaborator, working on dozens of things. I’ve worked on over 60 games in the past five years. And now my current mission is not just finding new and exciting ways to collaborate with people at my own studio and at the studios and projects of others, but also finding ways to advocate for making games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than they are currently assumed to be made.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you? Have you learned anything about yourself over the past year?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think one of the primary things I learned over the past year is just how much I cared about production. I do love telling stories. I do love of putting things into a video game. I love creative content production. Writing a killer page or scene is a thrilling experience, but when I look at the things that consistently get me out of bed in the morning, that make me passionate about waking up and getting to work and collaborating with other people, it’s getting into the nitty gritty of how something comes together.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The scope of a project, defining, reducing, and defining that vision of a project and how it’s accomplished in very calculated ways. The exercise of finding new and interesting formats and arrangements for artists coming together to build things together, that makes me feel alive. And so exploring those paths myself, sharing what I find along the way, and as much as I can, opening those doors for others is something that I’ve discovered I love. Now my mission is finding ways to do that again and again and again, as consistently and healthily as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about what you want to accomplish for this year coming up for 2022?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the big thing I want to accomplish is, we’ve talked about this in a few forums thus far, but Strange Scaffold is moving into publishing and to have at least one of our published signed projects come out. And the exact thing that the developer wanted to bring into being hopefully substantially de-risked and shipped at a scope and form that made the project better while also making it something that they could accomplish without destroying themselves in the process. That’s something I’m really excited to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If we establish ourselves by the end of 2022, as having a perspective that allows us to not just develop intriguing things in unexpectedly small or efficient packages, but provide those resources and that perspective to others on a consistent scale and timeline, I’ll be very happy. And it’s by all indications that were well on our way to already accomplishing those goals.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. Congratulations on that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk more about your studio, Strange Scaffold. First, I want to know how you came up with the name, but like, I just want to hear more about how you started it, how it’s going, things like that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I started Strange Scaffold primarily as an engine for exploring what happens when your explicit goal for a studio is not to build a dream project, but instead to bring as many things into the world as possible in a healthy, consistent and efficient manner. So exploring how, defining the structure of your game ahead of time and considering that to be set in stone and improvising within those lines and constraints that you’ve set, essentially putting a strange scaffold in place. And then making an interesting thing in between that foundation, that was the starting point.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And it pretty quickly evolved from bringing that perspective to the projects of my clients, to bringing that into projects that I originated and directed, and now sharing those resources that we built to make games in that very specific way with other developers who also want to make incredible things, but not ruin their lives in the process. Because we have so many examples of the desire or dream of what a thing could be running someone into the ground as they pursue a path towards it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I feel like game creators and really creative professionals of all forms deserve the right to pursue and contain the same joy in their working processes that they seek to deliver to their player, users and audiences on the other side of that creative process.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’m looking here at the Strange Scaffold website. I see you’ve got three games that are showing here.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
[crosstalk 00:08:31] finished by the by.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. I see you’ve got El Paso Elsewhere, you have An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. I think I heard about that also on Kotaku. And then Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. Those are some pretty interesting names for titles. And I like that each one of them is very different. You’re definitely trying to, I guess, tell different stories with each of these games, it looks like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, the idea is, again, nothing that we bring in into the world will be perfect. We are flawed human beings doing the best we can to bring encapsulations of our souls into being, that process is going to get a little messy. So coming from the starting point of none of these things is going to be perfect, but how can they be interesting? How can they be built in a way that is itself joyful? And how can they deliver and experience you couldn’t get anywhere else, is something that we want to explore in as many ways as possible.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So sometimes that takes the form of an inherently joyful universe, a first person open world comedy adventure game like An Airport For Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Sometimes it’s a sci-fi body horror market tycoon like a Space Warlord, which at the time of this publication will have come out pretty recently on Xbox Game Pass and Steam. There’s a lot of ideas pinging around our heads and finding the shortest point from A to B to express those things and move on to the next project that allows us to deliver the next piece of our souls is my priority.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the first time that I heard about your work was through a game that currently out. I played it on the Switch called Hypnospace Outlaw. And that is such a unique… I’ll put it like this, the Switch often has very unique games. That’s one reason why I really like the Switch over say PlayStation or Xbox. But Hypnospace Outlaw really for me, just hit that sweet spots for early internet nostalgia, like the late ’90s, early 2000s Web 1.0 aesthetic, just like, “Oh, I loved it. Love it so much.” How did you get involved with that game

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
As a teenager actually. I met Jay, as in Jay Thole, the creative director of the game when I was a teenager playing an early version of one of his previous games. Dropsy. Dropsy is a game about a misunderstood, horrific-looking clown who wants nothing more than to bring joy and love into the lives of the people he meets, no matter how much they despise and/or fear his initial appearance. And playing that game, delivering feedback that he took into consideration, and I saw coming to being in the next versions.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And coming to understand how myself and Jay Thole are both Christians. I’ve been raised around a lot of Christian media, which tends to have mixed results, and finding something that was such a perfect encapsulation of what is intended to be the spirit of the faith, sacrifice and deep unconditional transformative love. And how that could be conveyed in a game about something else entirely different, when all I’ve been raised around was for the most part art, where the only thing that justified its existence was that it had a Christian label or would uphold dogma.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That changed my life, changed my perspective, had a huge impact on me. And we stayed in touch, continued to bounce off each other creatively. And when he revealed Hypnospace Outlaw and continued to go down the path of developing it, eventually he was kind enough to bring me aboard and I got to directly collaborate with him and the rest of the team as a narrative director to serve a double purpose. The first being, writing a whole lot of stuff and doing a lot of narrative design to convey the themes and stories that they wanted to tell in that world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But also how to structure those stories in the game flow and progression such that it delivered those themes and made a game of infinite scope. Because when you’re simulating the internet, you can just keep going forever, finding a way of taking existing material and material yet to be created in creating a flow that made it to where we could make all of these things within a human lifetime, in a way that was faster, cheaper, healthier, and more efficient than we originally considered in my it even be possible to do so. We ended up pulling it off.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It got rave reviews, it got nominated for a lot of awards. I’m still friends with the team and we still talk about potential collaborations in the future. So as much as you can judge a collaboration be successful, I certainly am happy with what happened coming out the other side of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you unpacked a bit about what narrative design is, because that’s what I was about to ask. But as you put it, it’s not just, “Oh, we’re writing the dialogue,” but you’re also looking at how that fits into the overall structure. So it’s like writing and almost producing and directing all wrapped up in the one, it sounds like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It depends on the role, when you’re a narrative lead, it certainly gets more into the structure and vision of the overall project as well as potentially managing elements to accomplish that. But narrative design, being the practice of looking at all aspects of a games experience to tell a story. And then collaborating with people to bring that into being as opposed to a writer, which in many teams can also hold narrative design duties, but their primary job is to write dialogue, write things that will be depicted as text on the screen.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It’s a big part of the ambiguity here, because there is a lot of overlap, but there’s very distinct ways in which if you have a killer writer or a out of this world narrative designer, and you put them in a position to focus on their particular intersection, it can genuinely transform the way in which a game comes to life.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the game that you’ve been working on that just came out recently, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. I love have to hear the inspiration behind that. Just from the title alone, it sounds a lot to digest at once perhaps. No pun intended.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The pun is very much appreciated though. The inspiration point, it’s twofold and there’s a lot of different rabbit holes that can be taken. But at its basis for warm, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, a man not wearing doctor’s clothes walked in, closed the door behind him and said, “Well, I’d like to see my insides.” And in that moment I had one of two decisions. The first was, do I run and get out of here and start screaming? Or two, do I keep going along these lines because whatever happens, I’m going to get an interesting story out of it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I ended up going the story direction and I didn’t end up getting murdered. Turns out this was a nurse practitioner, someone who was in process of doing their rounds and I guess accomplishing their residency and they needed practice with ultrasound machine. So I got to watch my heartbeat, my lungs breathe in and out, my liver function, and being connected to the tangible reality of the invisible processes that made up my life. Every moment of every day was such a point of perspective, of being exposed to something bigger than yourself.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It sounds odd, but looking inward can be as perspective-broadening as looking outwards. So looking at this marvelous, complicated fleshy machine that we are and seeing it working had a big impact on my perspective. So, years later, that ends up culminating in a game about buying, selling, and trading the one thing everyone has and needs in a strange and evolving universe, organs. Because if there’s anything that is as large as space or the universal language of commerce, it is how much our equations of value or inherent value change as soon as you slap a dollar sign on something.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It can be a plush beanie baby, it can be a green piece of paper that says one on it, or it can be a human heart. But as soon as you assign and agree upon a shared belief and value, the world changes in some small and inexplicable way that is very hard to reverse once it happens. And exploring those implications has been a very fun and hopefully compelling… Has been a very fun process that I hope has resulted in the compelling result.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know why for some reason, when I first heard the name and then I saw it on Steam, and we’ll have a link to it down in the show notes so people can check it out. I saw that and the first thing I thought of was Spaceballs. Have you seen Spaceballs before?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I am familiar with Spaceballs, but I’ve never properly seen it.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s your homework, you have to see Spaceballs. I want to see what you think about it-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
… after you watched it, but-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Putting it on the list.

Maurice Cherry:
… I don’t know. I saw it and for some reason it got me to thinking about that movie for some reason, even though I’m sure the game is not… Spaceballs is clearly a parody of Star Wars, but your game is not a parody of anything, but for some reason my minds made that connection. I guess, because it’s space and it’s trading and all this sort of stuff. But what does your process look like when you’re creating a game? Because as you’re explaining both this game, as well as the games that are currently on the Strange Scaffold website.

Maurice Cherry:
It seems like you put a whole lot of thought into like the ethos and the soul of what the game is about and less about maybe the final product with graphics and all that sort of stuff.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Going into the process of how a game or any creative production comes into being is potentially very complicated, but I do try to think of any creative work, which I embark upon. I’ve worked in comics, I’ve worked in other mediums, sometimes in forms that I can’t talk about because of NDA. But I’ve worked in a lot of different mediums, communication styles, genres, and the thing that binds my approach to all of them together is a sense of what brings this to the finish line? And how does every piece of this experience reflect the perspective which birthed it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So the term I like to use for this idea is a prism. Ideally, at least when you’re working on tightly scoped projects, filtering every element of the game through a central prism or perspective. Following those logical conclusions, those leaps of perspective that are grounded because they remain in the same foundation. That drives everything in terms of how I at least approach the directing process. So in An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, the question emerged inside of the team at the beginning of the project, how do we handle currency?”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
How does the player get more money? How do they spend money? How is money and currency represented? And at that moment, I took a step back and I thought about it for a moment and I said, “There is no money in this game,” because the prism, the perspective of the game world is what does it look like for a truly utopian society run by stock photo dog? A universe that is inherently joyful and cares about you specifically. A game that’s playing with you as much as you’re playing with it. How does it communicate with its players?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What are the elements of its world? What is the logic it runs upon? There’s a lot of interesting things you can do with currency or money in that world, but for me in that moment, the truest reflection of the world we wanted to create was one where dogs don’t care about money. A dog isn’t going to not give you a ticket to a FOBO just because you’re $1 short. If anything, they’re just going to give you the ticket or they’ll give you 50 tickets, just because you asked for it. Because they want to be helpful, because they want to see you happy.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Because your joyful existence is more important than exchange of goods and services. Following decision processes like that, of what is this world attempting to express and how is it communicated through every layer and element of the game has become an essential piece of any of my work whether I join as a director or as a contractor. So I really value at this point, the idea of cohesion and how much agency I’ve been allowed in my different assignments to bring that perspective to bear, because sometimes you don’t have that ability.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can run into a project or string of projects or a career of projects where not only are the products disjointed, but your ability to bring any unity to them is nearly absent. So there’s a mixture of skill and execution here, but I’m also just deeply thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity and specific scenarios in which my skill in this area has been allowed to shine.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting when you say that about the dogs not needing money, because I guess, yeah, that makes sense. But to have no currency, what about treats? I don’t know. I guess it’s your game, but I’m curious when you said that about the money, that does make sense now that you’ve pulled back and really explained it in that way. Because what are they going to spend it on? Is there also a supermarket run by dogs? How does that all work? So I get that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And the dogs would just give each other stuff at the supermarket if they have it [crosstalk 00:23:27]-

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
There’s different tree treatments you could do of this definitely. There is a world where there’s much harsher dogs. There are dogs who do demand things in the game. A lot of it is a straight up barter in the project as opposed to using an abstract concept like money. But all in all, yeah, at every single step we ask, “How would this work in a joyful universe? How would this work if dogs were deciding how this should function?” And in many cases, the solution was one that was more kind and more interesting than anything that existed in the real world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And that caused a moment of reflection, at least for myself, whenever that occurred in the project for even how rarely we get the opportunity to imagine a better world. It can be very cathartic to create work that allows you the opportunities to explore that because Lord knows with the 24-hour news cycle, it can be difficult to bring yourself to that point when you’re scrolling through Instagram and it feels like the world is on fire.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that makes sense. So I want to switch it up here, but of course we’re hearing about you as a game developer, studio owner, narrative designer, but I want to know where this all originated from. So tell me more about like where you grew up.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I grew up all over the place. I was a military brat and that perspective in itself traveling so many different places seems so many different perspectives and cultures, has been in a massive contributor to me becoming who I am.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you talk about some of the places where you grew up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, I was in South Korea, I was in Italy, I was in Germany, I was all over the United States. And I’m now based in the Southwest, El Paso, Texas, so been a lot of places.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now I guess while you’re of course traveling all about with your family because of being a military brat, did you get to experience just a lot of different design and tech and all that sort of stuff growing up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. And to top it all off the fact that my dad was so interested in tech when I was growing up, had no doubt a massive impact. One of the earliest photos that exists of me is I am an extremely chubby baby sitting on my dad’s lap with a unplugged controller in my hand, wrapped attention towards a screen that isn’t in the frame while my dad is looking towards the exact same thing, because I thought in that moment that I was playing the game right with him. And in a sense I was, and now, I send him free video games. So, it all works out.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you know what game it was that your dad was playing?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
No, but I do remember certain games for my childhood in a lot of different contexts.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, like what are some of those games?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
One of the big ones was Morrowind.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My dad played it on the original Xbox, the first console with a built-in memory. And he played hundreds of hours of that thing. And I would watch him be enthralled by this world and I, of course wanted to be like my dad. I was like, “Can I play? Can I play? Can I play?” He finally let me do it. And I was like, “Yes, I’m in the world of Morrow ind. I have read this manual from cover to cover dozens of times.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I make a little bit of head way through the game, not really understanding it because it’s a more classic RPG and still having a good time with it, but not really understanding what I’m seeing. I save my game and I log off, a few hours later, I hear this on earthly moan. I walk into the front room and there’s my dad just staring at the screen, because I have overwritten his hundreds of RSAs with all the armor and all the weapons and [crosstalk 00:27:36]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, no.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
… with almost half of his own everything with my misspelled main character in his underwear in the middle of the town square that you first get to. And he was like, “Did you do this?” And I was like, “I do what?” And he explained to me, “You deleted my save.” I was like, “Oh, oh no.” So he went back to it, and if anything, he went back to it harder than last time, it was like the Rocky training sequence, I was so proud of him. He put a blanket over his head, he put a blanket over the TV, he went for it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
He’d work, he’d come home, he’d get it in because he is a good dad. At some point he says, “Yes. Okay. You can play again.” And I start a new game and I get a little bit of weigh in, and I meet an elf who I really hate. He’s just a real son of a bitch. I close the game and I come back out, and it’s very rarely that I’ve seen my dad look defeated, just deflated as a human being nothing inside of the husk, that is his body. But he was sitting, he didn’t even, there was not even the sound or really a conversation, he says, “Was this gone?” And he just like Sisyphus was rolling the boulder up the hill again. And he-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, what, you saved over it again.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yes. I believe [crosstalk 00:29:03].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The third time he didn’t go for it as hard, I think he knew what was coming. Eventually, I asked him, “Hey, can I play the game?” And he is like, “Are you going to delete my save?” I was like, “No, I know how to do it this time. I’ve seen you save, I’ve been watching. I know how to do it.” I didn’t know how to do it. I deleted his save again. And when he stopped playing it in defeat, he’s never turned to that game ever since. I lost interest because it was cool because my dad was doing it. So lesson of the story here is, one, this is on him because he shouldn’t have kept letting me play it. And two, it’s even more on him because he never showed me how the save menu worked. You can tell a five-year-old how games saves work.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can explain the concept. I’ve thought through this for years now, there is a way five-year-old me could have been told about how save games worked. But that process was not undergone, and so consequences were followed and I do feel very bad about it. Every time I can’t log onto my Xbox because he is using the console profile in a different location to have access to my game pass. I’m doing my little bit to pay back the horrible price I incurred by destroying his dreams early on.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good son, that’s what a good son should do. That’s good to hear.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Although now I feel completely old now that you mentioned Morrowind. I was like, “Jesus.” I was in college when Morrow ind came out. I remember the game though, I probably didn’t get as far as you did though. When did I start playing? Not in 2002 certainly. Probably like in maybe ’05, I think I had an Xbox then. And I don’t know, I could never get out the first town. I kept getting killed by rats and I was like, “Eh, forget it.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Because it had a D and D chance to hit. So you would hit it and you wouldn’t know, you’d have to look in the bottom left corner of the screen to be like, “You missed. You missed, it’s before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. That’s not all my fault. So no, I.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What we’re learning in this episode is that abdication and responsibility is good actually. It was my dad’s fault, it wasn’t your fault. It was Morrowind’s fault. We can always find someone to blame and that’s the real takeaway of today’s show.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And speaking of that, when it comes to games, you first got into, well, it sounds like you first got into the gaming industry as a games’ journalist as a 12-year-old. Is that right?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Pretended to be an adult.

Maurice Cherry:
You got to tell me how that happened.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That’s the story in a nutshell, I was 12 years old. I found out that games journalists get games for free. I thought, “Oh wow, there it is. It’s the perfect job, free video games.” And I, as a very driven and precocious young man, pretended to be an adult and somehow I got away with it, and that started what has now been a… Oh, it’s been over a decade in the industry. And people I met back then I have since worked with, and I’m now colleagues with, and everyday I am thankful for not just that journey, but how clearly I can see the journey at every step in my life. I can see the impact that God has had in directing that path, whether it was good or bad, everything came together to produce the person I am now, and the perspective I have.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And so much of what I’m trying to do is without having to go through similar pain in part, any of the things that I’ve learned or discovered along the way to the people that I meet, if I manage to… I think it’s really important to put on your own air mask before you assist other passengers to use an airline reference or metaphor. But I also think none of this stuff really matters if it only goes to benefit me. If I just, even if I make hits, if these games come into the world and all they do is make money.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Money is important, it pays bills, it allows for agency and freedom and a quality of living that’s important and aspirational. But if I work with someone and they don’t come away having learned something, if I come away from working with someone and haven’t learned something, if I am not through my working processes, enabling the people around me to do their best work in the healthiest environment possible, it doesn’t matter what we’ve produced, because the purpose of making that thing has already been lost. What point is a perfect game, If you lose your soul along the way? Or if you never make another thing again.

Maurice Cherry:
I was curious to know, as you started out so early in this industry writing about it, reviewing games and such, did any of your colleagues know that you were that young?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
From what I understand, most didn’t and I don’t know what that says about either my skills for disguise or about my industry in terms of maturity level, but yeah, I somehow skated by.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think that your work as a journalist really helped you out as a narrative designer?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the work I did as a journalist helped me as a narrative designer in a few ways. The first is, I did all of my professional bad writing very early. I got all the bad words out, hopefully, so now I can write good stuff. But the second major thing that I think about in terms of journalism is, when I got older and really leaned into attempting to understand artistic intents and artistic processes and how and why things came to be, or when the creator intended something, why that didn’t emerge onto the screen. And the things that led to that course of events, that gave me an inherent empathy for the people I would come to work with as well as an ability to examine, what was something trying to communicate?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Like reverse engineering, what was something trying to communicate and how, and what pieces of an experience didn’t contribute to that process, led to me now attempting to bring those things to life myself in as cohesive a manner as possible. And I certainly won’t claim to get it right 100% at the time, but I can see how my history as a journalist coming to treasure these things and learning how to form these opinions and thoughts in such a way that I could share them with others and have them be disagreed with or agreed with or spark interesting discussion. It was an incredible training ground, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to come up through that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you ultimately want to accomplish as a game developer? It certainly sounds like, one, your faith factors a lot into your work, just in terms of how you approach the games and it sounds like even the mechanics and the whole ethos behind it, but then also you’ve mentioned earlier about wanting to provide just a more holistic game development experience. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, I’m using a bunch of different metaphors here, but what do you want to accomplish as a game developer? Is there like a bigger goal or message at play here?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The average game developer career lasts about three years. If there’s anything I accomplish in my lifetime as a commercial artist, as a creative professional, I want to see the average career length for someone working in games to be 20 years, 30 years just like Martin Scorsese, says he can be 70, 80 years old, still making interesting films. I want to see games professionals have the same ability to discover what their next story is going to be, what the stories they could deliver if their careers just lasted a little bit longer.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If they had that ability to hit that next rung in the ladder, if they had that ability to fashion their craft that much more. The fact that we get the games of creative potency that we have now, given the relative lack of seniority, we have the ability to crew in, in the industry because our mentors, our elders are few and far between. I treasure and look forward to a future where we find out what breathtaking things can come into being when people have been making these for 30 years instead of three.

Maurice Cherry:
So overall, what are you excited about at the moment? Of course, you got a new game that just came out. Of course, congratulations to you on that, but what are you really the most excited about right now?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the thing is I’m most excited about are honestly the projects. This sounds corny, but it’s the projects made by my friends and colleagues and peers in the industry right now. Games is legitimately a more vibrant, diverse, creatively executed and broad communicator of artistic intent than it’s ever been. The golden age of games is happening right now. And it’s because of the people I often find myself having the ability to work with, no major end point to that other than, “Dang I’m thankful.” And wow, I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like 10, 20 years from now, especially if we can create working conditions to where the folks who are doing this amazing stuff now can continue to evolve their craft and be making things that far into the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Now for people that are listening to this that want to also get into developing games, what would you recommend to them? Any resources or any kind of course of action that they should take?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The most important thing I would recommend is make games or make anything really with the resources you have right now. If you don’t have money, find out what kind of game you can make with no money. It’s possible. That’s to where I started. If you are a fantastic artist, look at how a game can uniquely leverage your art. If you’re a musician, look at how within the resources you have, you can express things that no one else would think to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Or frankly could if only because they have more resources, we tend to forget how sometimes having more resources can be a limitation in itself because it forces the solutions you are finding to take pretty similar forms to things that are successful right now, or that have been done in the past, depending on the environment and which you’re working. So yeah, wherever you are, whatever you have, look for how you can be making something right now, because not only will that advance your portfolio, but whenever you bring something into the world, finish and release it, you learn something about yourself, you learn and what to do, you learn what to not to do, you learn something about who you are. I say you deserve to learn as fully as possible who you are, wouldn’t you?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, sure. Why not? What do you think you would’ve done if you hadn’t gone into game development? It sounds like you had such an early start. Was there anything else that you had in mind even?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My very, very first job was doing landscaping for a cult. Do not recommend it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, landscaping for a cult?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
We’re going to move on from that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But after that, what I got into and what I loved was librarianship. Library science, the practice of serving customers in a community through libraries. I found opportunities with the resources I had and the place that I had in the communities that I was in to end up being a children’s librarian, not just one time, but multiple times. And I loved it. I love what libraries represents. I practically grew up in libraries. The role libraries have in society, the continuing relevance they have, as well as the impact you have on patrons in that environment.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Sorry, I’m getting a little bit emotional in this end, but I loved every single one of those kids who walked in through the door. I loved every single person who came in and didn’t know what they were looking for and came out with a book that ended up changing their lives. I loved every single one of those ridiculous ass romance novels that ended up being, this is a fun fact. Romance novels are the most checked out thing in a library, at least in my experience. Romance readers read voraciously, they’re constantly cycling through those books, same books going in and out, in and out. They’re the secret lifeblood of any library circulation.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And yeah, every single one of those books and the joy that they brought the people who read them. I loved those books and I loved every single one of those people, and I loved everything about that profession. If it didn’t require that master’s in library science to become a quote unquote proper librarian, I might have still even having started my career in games so early, I might have still done librarianship anyway, because if it’s not creative production, if it’s not making games or comics or something in linear media, like film or television. I’ll tell you what feels like home to me, it’s the walls of a library.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Aside from in a library?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure. Why not? I’m sure there’re more games out down the horizon. I’m sure.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. In five years I see Strange Scaffold as a vibrant constellation of projects and people that are sustainable, healthy, and unexpectedly ambitious and well positioned to remain so for the foreseeable future. If I could do exactly what I’m doing now for the next five years and the rest of my life, I would be very happy indeed.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can find my ridiculous Twitter at twitter.com/WritNelson. When I’m not posting puns, I am talking about our projects and how and why we bring them into the world. We have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangescaffold where you can get early access to our work, as well as do things like get pictures of your dog, into the games that we’re bringing out now and get custom content into some of the projects we’re still developing, such as Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And lastly, I work on a lot of games. So if you look on a PlayStation or an Xbox or a Nintendo platform or on Steam, running into something that I’m working on is, or have worked on, there’s a better chance than not that you’ll find it pretty quickly. So Strange Scaffold is the name for a lot of my collaborations, but for a step outside of that, like Skate Bird or Hypnospace Outlaw, if you like one thing we’re doing, there’s a vibrant thread of work to be followed.

Maurice Cherry:
Xalavier Nelson Jr, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, thank you for sharing your really unique look into game development and your very, I think honestly inspiring story about how you even just got involved into games. I love that you really are thinking about not just the stories that you want to tell throughout games, but also how you can make the industry better as a whole. I think that’s something that probably, I don’t know if many other game developers are doing that, but it seems like that’s something that you really tapped into and are trying to put forth. And the games that you’re creating are fun and unique, and I just want to see more of what you’re going to accomplish in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The kind of words mean an immense amount. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

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Derrick Fields

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of video games, so when I learned about Derrick Fields and Waking Oni Games from the Wholesome Direct Indie Game Showcase back in June, I had to have him on the show.

We talked about how 2021 has been going so far — a new gig and a new baby! — and he spoke on why he created his own gaming studio and gave some history behind the studio’s first title: Onsen Master. Derrick also shared his inspiration behind getting into game programming, the indie gaming scene for underrepresented designers, and he gave some great advice for anyone looking to start making their own titles. If there’s a video game out there that you would love to see, hopefully Derrick’s story will inspire you to create it!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Derrick Fields:
My name is Derrick Fields. I’m the founder and studio director or game director of Waking Oni Games, also the assistant professor at Northwestern University, teaching 3D modeling and game design.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I’d ask how your 2021 has been so far, but I mean that sounds like a pretty big announcement right there, teaching at Northwestern. Congratulations.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you. 2021 has been a series of transitions. Formerly, before leaping into Northwestern this year, I was the lead artists over at Uplift Games which is responsible for a really popular Roblox game by the name of Adopt Me! And so it was a significant portion of my life being able to create a title that contributed to kids. But now, I get to teach some of those children in an academic setting and all the while working on games and creating projects for myself.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So I guess as you settle in to your new role, do you have any other plans that you might have had for the rest of this year?

Derrick Fields:
One is in the oven or I should say, I’m thinking of a pun that doesn’t sound so morbid. I’m not sure like in the oven. The package is on the way. And my partner and I are expecting a little one in November and so it’s been a lot of at home, nesting and preparation as we invite a small human into our lives or another small human into our lives, I should say.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations. Look at you.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
A new job, new human. 2021 sounds like it’s your year.

Derrick Fields:
It has been my year. I am very thankful.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about the Northwestern gig. How did you get that?

Derrick Fields:
Sure. So through some work and prior to working at Uplift, I had always maintained doing some freelance work and working on side projects and other projects. It’s like simultaneously balancing a lot of plates there. The one that came along was through a friend and colleague who was creating a grant-funded project out of Northwestern. And they were, at the time, the assistant professor who held the position. And so I have done some talks with him and his class and met some of the students to discuss aspects of game design and 3D modeling. And a little later on, this individual ended up leaving the position for another university out of state. And so I was very surprised to see an email arrived from Northwestern asking if I would be interested in interviewing for the position.

Derrick Fields:
And that’s when I carried on the discussion with the same individual who was leaving the position. And he was very excited that they ended up reaching out off of this recommendation. And so from there, it was a lot of paperwork. I did a job talk which was new to me, which feels like giving a TED Talk to other teachers, faculty and students and to discuss the aspects of why I would enjoy teaching, what I hope to bring to the space and sharing bits about my past. And everything worked out for the better, so I’d be starting with them in September.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Is this your first foray into academia.

Derrick Fields:
I’ve always been on the periphery of the space doing other conversations. I’ve done some talks over at the University of Chicago in their Media and Arts Design Lab, I believe the name is. So yeah, always tangential to this space, but yeah, this will be the first time that I’ll be responsible for my own class, my own syllabi and a handful of students in that capacity. Prior too, I am a board member of the Japanese Arts Foundation where, before we transitioned to this quarantine and pandemic state, I was teaching how to draw anime classes to people of all ages. And so education has always been a really important component. And so I’ve been very fortunate to be able to provide that in certain spaces and this really just became the crux of it all.

Maurice Cherry:
Very nice. That should be a really good gig. I don’t know, forgive me for saying gig, I used to be a musician years ago, so I call every job a gig.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely. I’d use that too.

Maurice Cherry:
But that should be a really good thing to settle into, especially because I remember just when I was in school 20+ years ago, goodness, this kind of stuff wasn’t really taught. I didn’t go to an art school. I just went to a regular liberal art school. I know now technology has allowed for so many different types of things to be taught. So it’s really good that you’re going to be able to teach this, because I would imagine, this is probably you passing that knowledge on from your own personal experience with 3D design.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely, hopefully, being able to lens an avenue for students who are interested in that space and give them direct feedback based on my experience within the industry, I think is going to be really great and I’m excited to be able to share that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s talk about Waking Oni Games. How did you decide to start your own studio? Where did that come from?

Derrick Fields:
Right. So I was, I think, definitely mid store at the beginning of some freelance work. And some years after, I’d say, I don’t even know at this point, but definitely some time after, would be a more accurate description, some time after university and not finding the career placement that I wanted in games that I had grown to expect, I started mingling with other friends. And we got to brainstorming about what would it be like to create our own project and what type of experience could we get out of that just with limited resources. And at this time, it was just myself, my friend and a friend of his and so just the three of us, whom is now a very great friend of mine as well.

Derrick Fields:
The three of us, we were brainstorming, we played around and I said, “We should,” so pausing real quick to rewind, just a tad, but Spirited Away, the Ghibli film directed by Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite movies and has left a lasting impression on me. And so I had always imagined what it might be like to play a game that takes place in an onsen or hot spring as what we might know it as. And so that was really the origin of the idea and the motivation to wanting to create something for myself. And so with that came the need to have an LLC formation and go through all the legalities to make sure that we can be eligible to receive various licenses and things like that. And so then Waking Oni Games was invented or generated.

Maurice Cherry:
So how long has it been since you started?

Derrick Fields:
It has existed, I would say, from the signing of legal documents for six or seven years and Onsen Master was a hobby project throughout that time period. And so it wasn’t until two years ago, I believe, two almost three years ago that we decided to take that project and actually pursue it as something of an actual game, a game that we wanted to share with audiences, a game that we wanted to put up on Kickstarter for crowdfunding and see what the interest would be. And so very thankful that in September of the year that we did Kickstarter 2019, that it went successfully.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you. Since then, we continued working, of course, maintaining full time jobs and any other commitments outside of that to get this game out to audiences that were interested in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me a little bit more about Onsen Master for those that might not be familiar with the concept, you mentioned as being hot springs. Talk to me about what the game is about.

Derrick Fields:
Sure. I’ll say I can’t explain it without getting past the elevator pitch part. So it’s a hot spring strategy game about healing. You play as a character who has been tasked with managing their own bath house, their own hot spring. And that managing component comes by way of various customers who will arrive to your hot spring. And they each have a different ingredient that they desire. And so it is your job as the player to sort them into one of four baths that are located in the hot spring, locating the ingredient that matches to their needs and then mixing it up and tossing it in there with them. And so you play this mix and match game while moving through different environments that may change in scale or layout.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like it can also be partially educational as well because I’m assuming this is based off of how onsens actually operate.

Derrick Fields:
In a very broad stroke, some details are true, some details are not. I would say there isn’t the component of somebody procuring an ingredient for you and lofting out into the bath. What is true to reality is that when you go to an onsen, a hot spring is a naturally heated water and there are many towns and prefectures in Japan, across Japan that have onsen and bathhouses that are, I should say, sento. So there’s a difference there. Sento or bathhouse is artificially heated and onsen or hot spring is naturally heated. And so it’s like small detail. So those are the types of things that really what I hope players will get other experiences that when they play Onsen Master, I hope that it will spark interest in wanting to find out what real onsen like or what real sento are like and learn about those.

Derrick Fields:
Another component in the game that I hope will spark interest in players is, as you’re playing through the game, you’re visited by these spirits called yokai. And they are essentially personifications of the unexplainable. If we hear a creek in the night, we might say, “Oh, that is a creek monster that is responsible for making this noise.” And so when you play Onsen Master, not only will various customers be arriving, but these various spirits that take the form of one that looks like a turtle, one that looks like a skeleton and so on will also be visiting the onsen. And they’ll come bearing with a couple antics to them. One might spill water all over the place, for example, or one might try to come after you and grab you as another thing that you have to deal with while managing these different customers.

Maurice Cherry:
It definitely sounds like you put a lot of thought and care into the game and with all of these different mechanics and such. It sounds really cool.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you. It’s definitely my experience in … I’ve spent a lot of my time learning about Japanese history and culture and mythology and so wanting to build a game that can spark that same interest and hopefully lead others to wanting to educate themselves about what yokai are, for example, is really the desire out of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I think anyone that has kids under 15 probably knows what yokai are because they’ve seen Yo-kai Watch or something like that. It’s amazing how much, I don’t even want to call it American shows because they’re just Japanese shows that have been in many cases dubbed over, but there’s so much anime from Japan that gets dumped over that now are, in some cases, cultural staples in this country like Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, etcetera, but then there’s a lot of newer shows like Yo-kai Watch and others that that’s how people tend to find out about Japanese culture through these different shows and through videogames as well. I remember playing videogames as a kid and that’s how I really learned about small things about Japanese culture. I’d probably say I got more from anime, but videogames definitely played a part in that as well, even through localization.

Derrick Fields:
And I really agree with that, we’ve got to say the sort of subtext to Waking Oni Games and Onsen Master and the projects that are to follow that are intended to explore specifically the intersection of Japanese and African American culture because there are many BIPOC individuals that have had their experience in childhood and through their adulthood, tangent to all sorts of pop culture and media. But mine specifically intersects a lot with Japanese culture and continues to even in my adulthood, being a board member at the Japanese Arts Foundation and teaching anime drawing classes. And so wanting to explore that and hopefully articulate that at my age now has led me to learn that there are many Black individuals that also have that sort of intersection.

Derrick Fields:
And wanting to find representation in the media that doesn’t necessarily originate from our culture can be a challenge depending on the circumstance, but it has led to other outcomes. And things like when we watched Dragon Ball Z, this is why we might code Piccolo as Black. Having those shared experiences with other Black individuals is something that’s very specific. And so with Onsen Master and with other projects, I would really like to continue to explore that conversation and build content that is derived of anime and the pop culture that surrounds the medium, but also insert people that look like us and be able to center that conversation a little bit more.

Maurice Cherry:
Right around this time last year on the show, we had Arthell Isom. He’s a Black guy who owns an anime studio actually over in Japan called D’ART Shtajio. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this.

Derrick Fields:
Yes, I’ve heard of this.

Maurice Cherry:
So a lot of what you’re talking about, it’s funny because this interview was literally about a year from now, a year ago from now. And what you’re saying mirrors a lot of what he also said in terms of working within the culture but also working to bridge that gap and tell these stories in a way that is not only, I would say, culturally relevant but also is appealing to customers. So that makes a lot of sense.

Derrick Fields:
I was just going to say hello to Arthell in a year ago. I wish we could cross paths, but I do. I love a lot of the work that he and his studio are doing.

Maurice Cherry:
So what do you think it is that people misunderstand when it comes to being a game designer?

Derrick Fields:
Sure. I think the term game design can be a little bit obfuscated. If you aren’t readily in school and learning about what the role might entail. It isn’t just thinking about all how one might want to create a cool thing and just enacting on it, it can become a lot more granular than that. And there has to be, and I can explain further, but there has to be a willingness to want to pursue getting very nitty gritty about details but also hoping to drive and create certain or, I should say, elicit certain experiences out of the audience that you intend to interact with your media.

Derrick Fields:
And so taking that to a game, let’s say, Mario or Final Fantasy, any of those things, everything that you do in that game that you don’t necessarily notice per se, the reason why the text, the font looks a certain way or the reason why when Mario jumps, a very specific height or just help conveniently placed that height and that distance from when you jump off a ledge and land on a platform is just so far away or just close enough that it creates ease or difficulty. Those types of things are thought about by somebody else and labored over constantly to make sure that you as the player can have ease of access or have experiences in difficulty but not difficulty that’s hard enough that turns you away from the game and makes you not want to play it.

Derrick Fields:
There has to be that balance in wanting to engineer an experience that maybe makes you feel just close enough to a reward that you are now driven to want to achieve it. I will say that that’s one component of game design. There are many ways to create experiences and engineer outcomes in a way that you are trying to impart that on somebody. I’ve been trying to stray away from falling into just spouting off nothing but buzzwords, but it really is. It really is that. You’re thinking about the player. You’re thinking about what type of experience you would like to give them while also wanting to share entertainment and fun and cool things happening.

Derrick Fields:
And maybe it’s swords, maybe it’s horses, or fairies or robots, but also wanting to make sure that your vision for it all is concise among those components that you’re trying to sort out.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like there’s a lot of testing that has to happen with game design. It’s not just as a simple as Mario Maker or something like that. But even that, I think also, I love how Nintendo has really abstracted a big part of the game design process when it comes to a game like Mario Maker or this new game that they have called like Game Garage or something like that. They make it seemed pretty easy because you’re just dragging and dropping sprites onto a canvas, but there’s so much logic and testing that has to go behind that to make sure that it’s playable, it’s enjoyable, hopefully that you’re guiding the player along and you’re making sure that they’re having an enjoyable experience as well.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely. And what I really love about both of those software is that they create accessibility to individuals who may otherwise not have the background in programming or have the background in 3D modeling or 2D art or everything else that comes along with creating a game. There’s so many resources there that they can, as you said, drag and drop and immediately get a reaction on whether or not it works. And I think those types of systems are great because it allows burgeoning creators and players to be able to explore those limitations and hopefully build something out of them and test, test, test away.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, this might be a bit of a easy questions. I think anyone that’s grown up in the United States in the past 30+ years has been exposed to videogames, but tell me about your history with games. Were you always into design in videogames? Tell me about that?

Derrick Fields:
Yeah. My experience in games has definitely been lifelong. I grew up with Nintendo and Sega and Sega Dreamcast and etcetera, leading all the way up to now, but wanting to contribute to games wasn’t always a component that … It wasn’t always something that I had considered. There was a disconnect. You bought games or you receive games as a gift. You loaded them up, you played them to the end of the credits and then you look for the next one. But I, for a long time, never really bridged the gap that somebody else was behind a computer, somebody had labored over this to give the experience that I’m now having in my bedroom or on the couch.

Derrick Fields:
When that happened, I think that’s when things really, really shifted for me and wanting to envision, creating worlds that I could interact and that other people could interact and what that might be like. Prior to that, my background has always been in drawing and illustration. And so I used to always want to create comic books and create cartoons. And so I spent a lot of time drawing and imagining worlds and imagining characters. Getting into high school, I think that’s when things started to transition and I understood that there was a pathway to being able to create these games that I was playing on PlayStation 1 and 2 at the time. And then I started to reengage with these worlds and imagine them as virtual spaces and seek out opportunities as we start getting into university in how I might be able to achieve that.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember, like you said, growing up in Nintendo and Sega, especially if you were a child of the ’80s. I would say even like a child of the early ’90s. It was inescapable. I don’t even know if it’s really so much now because kids have the internet to contend with and social media and stuff. But it’s hard to really understate just how much of a vice grip Nintendo had over your childhood. If you were like a child of the ’80s or the early ’90s, there was television, there were videogames, there was breakfast cereal, there was clothes. You really could not escape it.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say Nintendo probably more so, I’d say probably more so than Sega, but even still, as both of those systems grew in popularity, you really could not avoid the Console Wars, I should say. You really had to be in one camp or another. And games often would come out for one and then come out for the other one later. And it’s just amazing how much of that really is, because of course, the foundation for what we see now in gaming, but also what it’s done is it’s helped to create a whole new generation now of game designers and people that want to work in games and comics and similar fields like that.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely. And I got to ask, you mentioned the Console War, which side did you find yourself on, whether intentional or unintentional growing up?

Maurice Cherry:
So definitely Team Nintendo 100%. I had a Gameboy I had a regular. I remember when the NDS came out in ’80, I think it came out in ’85, I think, ’85, ’86 and I got it me and my brother. I have an older brother, we got it. And the cartridge was like the combination of Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, so you put it in and then you choose which one you wanted to play and whatever. It was Nintendo for a long time. My cousin, I have a first cousin named Jeff and he had a Genesis. And so I got to go over his house and play a little bit of Sega. I always thought the three button controller was really weird. I didn’t quite understand that like, “I’m going to go back to Nintendo where the buttons have an even amount of numbers. That makes more sense to me.” I’ve been trying to do that. But yeah, mostly Nintendo. I think I’ve had every Nintendo System except the 64 and the Virtual Boy. I don’t think anyone really had the Virtual Boy.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember when the Virtual Boy came out because it was around, I want to say ’94, ’95. And the Walmart in our town had one as a display. So I did get to play it, but I’ve never had one. But yeah, I was firmly, firmly Team Nintendo until probably around college and then I diverted to Dreamcast. Although, well, someone of my friends’ floors had a 64 and we just play GoldenEye all the time.

Derrick Fields:
You got to play GoldenEye. Absolutely. My upbringing did find itself seeded in the Sega route and it was a bit of the opposite for me where my first cousin was the one who had the Super Nintendo and …

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Derrick Fields:
… the Virtual Boy. And I will not spend any time just discussing how VR has been an exploratory tangent to videogames for so long with something like the Virtual Boy and seeing where it is now to a device like the Oculus. But Sega led me to Sega Dreamcast and all of those, unfortunately short-lived experiences on a very cool system. I headed down the path of PlayStation and I got to say it I probably never looked back. I’ve loved PlayStation ever since.

Maurice Cherry:
What was the game that hooked you into gaming?

Derrick Fields:
Final Fantasy IX. I definitely played plenty of games prior to that, but Final Fantasy IX and just the PlayStation 1 console in general, I think, is bookmarked as a significant part of my life. I think I played tons and tons of games on the PlayStation. And there were so many when you think of the time period, this is why I love PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 especially, but when you think of the time period of both of these consoles, there’s so much development and exploration on both of the consoles from the beginning of their release to the end of their cycle when the next generation of that platform is coming out.

Derrick Fields:
And so looking at it a title that released on the beginning of PlayStation and looking at a title that released at the end of PlayStation 1’s time period is significant. There’s really vast differences. You find games that explored with voiceover and games that have walls and walls of text, games with sprites, games with Final Fantasy stuff, blocky 3D bodies and everything else. So it was a time. It was a time that all these different companies were trying out new things. They’re always trying new things. There’s always iteration and development, but something felt really cool about that transition to 3D and everybody trying to figure that out at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
The game that hooked me into gaming, there’s a few. I think if I think about what was on the regular Nintendo, the game that probably hooked me was, it’s a very rare choice, there was this board game on NES called Anticipation. Have you heard of it?

Derrick Fields:
No, I haven’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Look up Anticipation NES on YouTube. I’m sure there’s probably videos of it, but I remember I would check that game out from what we had a Blockbuster adventure, but we had back home this little place called Movie Gallery. And I would check out Anticipation or I get my mom to check out Anticipation, let me correct that, to check out Anticipation every two weeks or so and keep playing it. And it’s essentially like a, I don’t know, Pictionary-style game …

Derrick Fields:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
… where it’s like for players. You’re either a trumpet, an ice cream cone, a pair of pink high-heeled shoes or teddy bear.

Derrick Fields:
I see that now.

Maurice Cherry:
And there’s these different board configurations. And you roll the die and you land on a certain color. And then there’s like this pencil that just starts drawing and you have to guess what it is that it’s drawing. And usually like at the beginning levels, they’ll give you some sort of hints like the number of letters or something. So you get a sense of it or the category, I should say, that’s drawing. But then as you go up to the higher boards, there’s no clues, no category. It just starts drawing and you have to figure it out and you have to get four of the different colors to proceed to the next round. And I loved that game. I think my brother hated it, but I loved that game. And that game sort of hooked me into like, “Oh, this is cool. This is like a board game, but it’s on videogames.” That blew my mind.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I’d say also, was this NES or SNES? So this is SNES. The SNES game that hooked me was also a Final Fantasy title. It’s Final Fantasy II which is Final Fantasy IV in the Japanese line of games. But that game, it’s sunk its fangs into me deep.

Derrick Fields:
Great.

Maurice Cherry:
And it is to this day, I don’t know if it’s my favorite Final Fantasy title, it’s top two. It’s top two definitely. I love that game like no other. Because that game aside from just the story aspect of it and you had the double-crossing character and all this sort of stuff. Also it’s my foray into music. I really liked the music and tried to learn how to play the music. I have little keyboard or whatever. And I would record it on my little tape recorder and then go back and try to play it on my keyboard and stuff like that. But Final Fantasy II and Anticipation. Those were the two games that got me into games, just like, “Oh, man, this is such a great, great medium to tell stories in.” Because Final Fantasy II, I had never run across a story like that before.

Derrick Fields:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s like on this thing and you play as these people, it’s like, “What is this?” It was my first role-playing game too. It was great. Absolutely great.

Derrick Fields:
That’s a really great story in it. I think that’s why Final Fantasy IX sits with me so well. And again, there were plenty of games that I definitely interacted with. Leading up to that, I fondly remember playing Rocket Knight on Sega which was a really cool side scrolling, incredibly difficult game. Wow. I think a lot of us have memories with titles like Aladdin and The Lion King and Animaniacs on that system as well, but it wasn’t until PlayStation and Final Fantasy IX that, again similar to what you said about for the character, the story, the very imaginative world that is being set in front of you. And it just raises the bar on, “Oh, this is what fantasy can be when …” Prior to this, it’s just been Dungeons and Dragons and medieval shows and medieval fantasy, but that presented an entirely new world.

Maurice Cherry:
Or you’re like Mario or Sonic, you’re just playing this linear left to right, up and down sort of thing. And Final Fantasy really came along and just like, I don’t even want to say it shattered expectations, it certainly shattered my perception of what can be done now with the medium. And my God, that was 1992 I think. Wow. It’s amazing what they were able to accomplish with so little back then, just in terms of the technology that tells us the vast story and with such few elements. I think now with computers and with software and everything, there’s no telling what you can create, even just on your own without having to do it through a big studio.

Derrick Fields:
We have so many possibilities now. And I think developers AAA all the way to indie, we continue to share and show reinvention within this space. And I love marveling at it. Every time there’s a new game trailer or game event that is coming with a handful of announcements, I cannot help but tune in because I know it’s going to come up with some indie game or some other studio that’s revealing an experience that you just didn’t imagine could happen with a controller in your hand or with something like an Oculus VR headset.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m trying to get more into Oculus. I got one fairly recently. And I’ve been just playing around with it, sitting on the couch or playing around the living room, but I need to get more into the VR experiences because I know there’s probably some really great stuff there.

Derrick Fields:
I’m trying. I’m trying as well. And I think right now felt like a time that was okay to leap in because the space is starting to hit its stride and starting … It’s hit its stride and it’s definitely developing and creating all these cool experiences now that the devices have so much fidelity to them which was always limitation leading up to what we have nowadays. Now, there’s three, four different pieces of hardware that you can acquire and create that experience for yourself and dedicate an entire room to VR if you wanted to. So I too have an Oculus and I’m dabbling on the store. I got to say, I’m very interested in a title called Demeo, I believe is the name where you are … Essentially, my favorite part of D&D where you have the D&D dungeon, you have your character sheet, but you have a miniature representation of your D&D dungeon in front of you and you’re playing through this campaign with little figurines that are an indication of your character and your party members.

Derrick Fields:
Well, there’s a VR version of that now and I got to say the way I’m passively just recruiting people to want to play that game, some handful of time from now is my side mission, but it looks very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you went to school for design. You went to Columbus College of Art and Design. You eventually graduated from Kent State. When you think back on your education studying design, how much of that has really helped you out now, as a game designer?

Derrick Fields:
I think some of it came from not getting the experience that I was hoping to have and some of it came from gaining way more than I even thought could come of it. Getting into university at that time, the discoverability of spaces that were teaching games was still new. There was, I think, a lot of advertisements around this time for the art institute and going to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh or whichever state [inaudible 00:36:35] that it had and trying to explore, “Where am I going to get that? Where am I going to get the experience? At the risk of loans and everything else, where will I find my seat in all of that?” And so it’s bizarre. I remember going to the Art Institute of Chicago or sorry the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for a preview. They invited … You could register for a summer preview camp and stay there for, I think it was like three days or three or four days or something like that.

Derrick Fields:
But the idea was it was to introduce students to the campus, their experience, get them hands-on experience and playing around with game engines and tantalizing or giving the movie preview of what game development might be. Instead, what that experience for me was connecting with a bunch of very cool students, but ultimately never getting that experience. I remember distinctly we went into this game lab and the teacher who was supposed to be providing preview of education on Unreal Engine was absent. They were just gone and nobody knew where they were.

Derrick Fields:
And so the entire class just played Unreal Tournament. And that’s what we did. I remember thinking, “This is cool, but this isn’t what I came here for.” So I was so frustrated because I thought I came in, the veil was yanked away in what I was supposed to expect when I got there. So yeah, I ultimately went to Columbus College of Art and Design. I pursued illustration. I said to myself that I’m going to find entry into games, doing concept art. I still was feeling really keen about 3D modeling and wanting to do something with that. And so I remember asking my advisor if I could switch to 3D modeling because I wanted to pursue game development. And they said, “Well, we only have 3D animation. We don’t support game development here.”

Derrick Fields:
And I thought it was another moment that was disillusioned and I’m going, “Oh, man, am I thinking about this wrong? There’s got to be other spaces where people are really driving for this outcome that they too want to create games, that they too want to 3D model and rig characters for videogames. I love Pixar films, but that’s not where I’m trying to land.” And so I transferred to Shawnee State University. That is where I was introduced to this really amazing game development program that was still in its earliest stages, but the community of teachers and students really brought an experience together that continues to thrive today.

Derrick Fields:
I think, if you go to their website, they’re doing all sorts of really cool in-university events to support their students and give them that experience that I think a lot of us were going for at that time. So shout outs to them. I ultimately ended up transferring yet another time and graduating out of Kent State University with a degree and I don’t remember the name, but I graduated there and here we are with some gaps and other stories in between there.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say though, what you’ve mentioned though is actually, at least from my experience with talking with others on this show, it’s pretty common because the technology in the industry changes so quickly that schools aren’t really able to keep up and be able to have curriculum and stuff like that. And then, as you say, because it’s so new, different schools are going to have different just types of programs. It’s not really standardized. You can go to any college in the country and learn English, but you can’t go to any college in the country and learn game design. Different programs are definitely going to be just better suited to what’s currently in the industry. They might have a better alumni program. There could be a whole bunch of other things. There’s a guy I had on the show. This was, I don’t know, maybe 2017 or so. His name is Michael Hollander. Do you remember the ’90s show, VR Troopers?

Derrick Fields:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
He was the Black guy on VR Troopers.

Derrick Fields:
Oh, cool.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s a game designer now.

Derrick Fields:
Oh, wow. What a track record. That show is amazing. And there’s a side note, but the genre of tokusatsu, VR Troopers, Power Rangers, Kamen Rider, all of that stuff, there’s a really cool story, I think I saw it on Netflix, just the whole process of how that gets localized and arrives to us and then this relationship that we have with, I think it’s the … I forgot the company that licensed Power Rangers here, but they have a specific relationship with the original source that they are allowed to take the fight scenes and reedit it to add in actors from the US and-

Maurice Cherry:
That’s Haim Saban, right?

Derrick Fields:
Yes, that’s the one. Thank you. If you end up watching shows like VR Troopers, shows like Kamen Rider or Power Rangers, the original content has a completely different story, but the battles will be the same in a lot of ways or they’ll be … You’ll recognize certain battles or certain confrontations, experience in the US version. And so cool thing there, but that’s amazing. What a life to live to go from VR Troopers to game designer.

Maurice Cherry:
But a lot of what I remember him saying from that interview was about how he had to jump from place to place to really almost cobble together the skills that he knew he was going to need once he got on in the industry because one school maybe didn’t have this or another school had it. So it’s that process of transferring. And for him, it sounded like he just learned more working in the field as opposed to going to school to prepare to be a designer.

Derrick Fields:
I relate to that in a lot of ways that I think in that time period, when you said that there were a lot of universities trying to figure out how to do it correctly, I think similar to who you just mentioned … I’m sorry, what was the name again?

Maurice Cherry:
Michael Hollander.

Derrick Fields:
Michael. Thank you. Similar to Michael’s experience, we weren’t the only ones knowing that. I think we could see that universities were also trying to figure this out and we’re trying to figure out where can we get the best education with limited resources as far as research goes. It’s not like there’s a university out here just being championed by others in the industry saying, “I graduated from here and this is the space that taught me the best.” Everybody was flying by the seat of their pants. Unfortunately, for some people who are seeking education in that space, you flew by the seat at the risk of your wallet, so there’s that aspect there and you landed somewhere and you said, “This is close. So maybe this is the one that I’ll go with because I don’t want to go through registration again.”

Maurice Cherry:
He said the same thing. It can get expensive doing all that transferring from school to school, especially because it’s such a specialized field.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
So you freelanced for a few companies after you graduated from Kent State. And it looked like your first big long-term game design gig, you’re at William Chyr Studio, is that right?

Derrick Fields:
That’s right. And touching back to what we were just talking about, after graduating, it was still trying to find placement in the industry, trying to figure out what to do with my portfolio and learning how it stood up against other candidates that were getting positions in 3D modeling and so on. And so that process led me to having to, again, reevaluate where I was and pursue continued learning, taking to YouTube and books and everything else to continue to make sure that I’m developing content that was on par with what the industry was asking for.

Derrick Fields:
I had a lot of difficulty trying to find career placement. And so this is where I began to seek dabbling in creating my own world, playing around with engines like Unity, but constantly going to events and networking with other individuals whom were already in there and already creating and developing projects, sharing my portfolio and ultimately landing freelance gigs from time to time.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you remember most about working at that studio?

Derrick Fields:
With William Chyr and the other team members, everything was fun and it was great. We mostly communicated digitally because people were across time zones and different locations in the US. It was very just casual, “Hey, can you model this or animate this thing.” And I had a lot of fun being able to contribute to manifold garden, which was the title that ended up releasing. And so my primary role there was creating a lot of environment objects. There are a lot of doors that I did the animations for and some other objects that are throughout that space.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I know we’re recording this right now at the time when there’s a lot of news actually in the videogame industry, particularly around certain company known as Activision Blizzard which people may know from some of the big games that they put out like … Oh, God, I’m blanking. Like Crash Bandicoot and things of that nature. I’m curious, as a Black man that’s in this industry, have you ever been privy to any discrimination just working at studios or showing your portfolio or things like that? What sort of things were you surprised about when you really started to get out in the industry?

Derrick Fields:
I think most of all, that came down to finding an entry level position, trying to weigh the quality of my work against other potential candidates for positions that I was applying for. And as an outcome to that, not finding a lot of opportunities where I felt like I was good enough to apply to a lot of spaces. I received no a lot, a lot when I was at the beginning of trying to become a 3D artist. And I would oftentimes turn to other portfolio websites, spaces like Art Station, what we have today, to look at the quality of my work and again weigh that against what other people were doing, other people in roles that I was trying to apply to.

Derrick Fields:
It just never made sense to me why I wasn’t even getting past the interview phase. I tried going to job fairs and sharing portfolio and receiving very poker-faced feedback on the content that I was sharing. And then would watch peers and other people who had also exited university game positions. And it wasn’t fair to myself or to them to want to go, “Well, now I got to look at their portfolio and see what did they do and what did I not do.” It’s never fun to have to draw those types of comparisons, but I couldn’t help it at that time because I wanted so badly to be able to be in this space and really, really had this dream that I can …

Derrick Fields:
The veil has very, very much been lifted to since then, but I used to dream so much of sitting next to a colleague in a game studio and working on 3D models and discussing which piece of armor should this character have or stuff like that. Back then, it was the labor of videogames, was something that was romanticized. I, not only has that but the space in general, continue to receive their scrutiny that it should to redefine what it means to work within that space, that creating games and creating experiences should not come at the sacrifice of your time in a way that is a detriment to you by way of how individuals used to romanticize overworking themselves in videogames.

Derrick Fields:
And that is still a narrative that we’re trying to separate from and relating to what you said with Activision Blizzard. The constant harassment that women and other marginalized folks experienced within these industries are other things that continue to need the scrutiny that they are receiving in order to hopefully get the change that we’re all asking for.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if this is a good follow up for this, but I’ll just throw it out there. Do you think that that is why we’re starting to see so many indie developers and games out there because they’re just not meshing with this AAA title, big game studio kind of culture, they’re just striking out on their own and doing their own thing?

Derrick Fields:
Yeah, I think there’s many layers to why indie developers create the games that they do. One is absolutely they themselves could not find placement within the industry. One is, we’re not ever fairly represented within the industry. One is the experiences that were being set on store shelves, weren’t the experiences that they wanted to have and that, just the word experience can mean so many different things in terms of gameplay or narrative or style and aesthetic. I think all of those things motivate indie developers to create their own games. And I think, just as you said, that’s absolutely why there’s so many of us out here now creating cool things.

Derrick Fields:
And now there’s so many more avenues to be able to access the experiences that they are delivering with platforms like itch.io for people who just want to create something small or fairly sizable and distribute that out to their own audience. We now have publishers and platforms that vocalize their support for indies and now have a much more visible pipeline for indie developers to be able to release games on spaces like the Switch and so on. So I hope and I always had my fingers crossed that that will continue to grow in the way that it has and that more indie developers will be able to receive the support that they want.

Maurice Cherry:
What games are you currently playing right now?

Derrick Fields:
I was revisiting Final Fantasy VII Remake after purchasing it when it came out and then not touching it for a long, long time. The announcement of the, I think, it’s called Intergrade DLC, was enough for me that it sparked motivation to want to return to the game and I said, “You know what? We’re going to finish this.” So yes, I’ve been casually pursuing that and I think I’m about three quarters of the way complete with it finally. But aside from that, I spend a little bit of my time streaming on Twitch various stealthy games. It’s another genre of games that I just really, really take to and enjoy playing. So titles like Thief … One of my favorite games is Thief Deadly Shadows which is this older medieval fantasy stealth game replays this thief called Garrett. I almost said the main character of The Witcher, Geralt. I mixed them up there, but great game.

Derrick Fields:
Immersive sims is the genre, so other games like Hitman or Dishonored, any of those things where you’re presented with a level and you have to decide how you are going to solve the level and get from point A to point B are some of my favorite types of games to play. So I’ll dabble with one main game and then pursue other ones in the background. And so that’s what I’ve been doing. How about yourself?

Maurice Cherry:
What am I playing now? That’s a good question because, and I said this before we record it, I am really big on buying games and then never playing them. I’m more of a collector at this point. So the games I’m currently playing now? So on PS4, I don’t know, I guess about halfway through Persona 5 Royal, I think. I think I’m halfway through. I’m in July because the game starts out in April and then it like goes to I think January or something, but Royal has a third semester. So I think I’m about maybe not half, I’m probably about a third of the way through that when I think about it because I’m in the summer. So I’m playing Persona 5 Royal.

Maurice Cherry:
And then on my Switch, I have Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I feel like I’m just tending to that, I don’t know, neglected child. I’ve gotten my island to a point where I’m not going to change anything. My villagers are at a point where they’re not moving out. So my island is just in stasis, and because Nintendo’s not really rolling out a whole bunch of new content for it, I just log in every day, speak to people, dig up fossils at the islands. I just bought The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, which I look forward to getting into that this weekend.

Derrick Fields:
Great. I’ve been looking forward to that one.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking to get into that pretty soon. And that’s what I have now. I’m a big fan of puzzle games, so I also just recently bought I think it’s Picross S5 I think is the latest one in the series. So I bought that. I haven’t played it yet, but I know eventually I will. Picross is just one of those games you just, I don’t know, you play it in the airport. You play it while you’re waiting for the train or something like that. It’s one of those games you can easily pick up and put down because it’s a puzzle game. Have you heard of Picross before?

Derrick Fields:
I have. I’ve not played it. Honestly, most puzzles I usually keep to something that’s like haptic, though I’m not opposed to them. They’re usually not my go to, but yeah, I’ve heard of Picross, but I didn’t know that they released a new iteration.

Maurice Cherry:
Jupiter cranks these games out every three months.

Derrick Fields:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
And they always have 150 puzzles or more. At least 150 to 200 puzzles, they just crank them out regularly. It’s insane. I think they just recently announced there’s going to be a Picross with, I think Sega and Master Collection. So it’s going to have Sonic sprites and things of that nature, Puyo Puyo, that kind of thing. I saw it and I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to buy that,” because also the games are like 10 bucks. So they’re like really cheap, they have a ton of replay value and they’re long games. Each puzzle is maybe anywhere from like a few seconds to maybe an hour, depending on the size of it and putting it all together, but that’s what I’m playing right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking forward to … What did I preorder? I preordered Metroid Dread. I think I pre ordered No More Heroes III. And I also pre ordered Advance Wars 1 and 2, the remakes that are coming out because I love some Advance Wars. I recently bought, not that I’m showing my age here, but I recently bought a, there’s this guy on Instagram that does these custom Gameboy Advance builds.

Derrick Fields:
That’s very cool.

Maurice Cherry:
They are pristine. I’m not going to say how much I paid for it. I paid too much for it, but they are pristine. And I bought one of those and I bought some games off eBay because I was like, “I love the form factor of it, plus I just love those old games. And now that Advance Wars 1 and 2 is coming out on the Switch, I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m getting that. Absolutely. No questions asked.” There’s a couple of games that I don’t even have to think about it. My credit card’s already out like magic. I don’t even have to think about it like, “Oh, yeah. I’m getting that.” That’s what I’m playing right now.

Derrick Fields:
Cool. Cool. Those are definitely some exciting things to look forward to. No More Heroes, especially, is one that I am a big fan of that. I’m trying to think if there’s anything that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. It is on the tip of my tongue. Elden Ring, From Software, so the new From Software title has been one that is definitely on my list, definitely looking forward to that. And then Deathloop from Arkane Studios which again talking about how as a fan of immersive sims and games that include the option of stealth. The creators of Dishonored are releasing a new title and this one looks like a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Derrick Fields:
So I’ll be getting that one right away.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course, you’re creating your own game, Onsen Master, but what videogame would you love to see developed one day?

Derrick Fields:
When it comes to the games that we experienced now, I’m just touching on the arc of indie games and how there are so many developers who have taken to their own to create experiences that they aren’t seeing. I would love, love to see a game that centers just like an Afro fantasy or Black fantasy or like Afro futurist game that is at the scale of a Square Enix title. If I could play a game that feels like Final Fantasy XV or any of those titles with that sort of fidelity and story and amount of hours dedicated to creating an original world and high-fantasy narrative, but it centers on Black people and the genre of Afro futurism. I think it would be phenomenal that I would preorder that before.

Derrick Fields:
I would somehow hear about it before the studio made formal announcement and be sitting at their front door just saying, “I’m ready. Just hand me the disc whenever you’re done.”

Maurice Cherry:
Now, say someone’s listening to this, they’re hearing your story and everything and they want to become a game designer themselves. What resources or things would you tell them to check out to try to start that journey?

Derrick Fields:
So we briefly talked about things like Mario Maker and the Nintendo’s, I believe it’s the garage, I don’t remember the full name of it, but resources like that, going back to PlayStation 1, there are games like RPG Maker and stuff like that. There are avenues to be able to create games and use systems that are available now. You may not be able to completely realize the version of the game that you are seeking, but I think it’s important to remember that vision, that lofty vision that we all have for the game we dream of creating is an iterative process. We have to create the small games and the other experiences to get ourselves there. And so use these platforms, use these systems.

Derrick Fields:
Dreams is another one from Media Molecule, creators of Little Big Planet, where you can now create your own assets, your own experiences using their platform. That might be one avenue. Another one is the Unity Engine that we use for Onsen Master is free. And there are a lot of resources not only on YouTube, which I affectionately call YouTube University, but Unity itself offers courses that are available for free for individuals who have no background in either programming or creating or 3D modeling, an avenue to be able to get access to those. One of the most important things that I want to acknowledge in saying all of that is the availability of resources is not equal. It’s not across the board for everybody and not everybody has the computer or the game hardware to be able to leap right into creating those things.

Derrick Fields:
I imagine that if they do, a lot of the times, they’re already exploring those possibilities already, taking to Google and figuring out which one of these might be the application or software for them. And so if pencil and paper are what is available for you, creating tabletop games and board games is game design. And I always think to myself that if it works on paper, it’s going to work digitally, but we just have to trade some of those paper systems for code and some of those cards or drawn assets for 3D models or 2D pictures and etcetera, but practice game design, creating board games between yourself and your family, creating card games.

Derrick Fields:
These are ways that still lead you to becoming a game designer because you’re creating experiences that you’re trying to elicit that from somebody else and have these sorts of fun moments with other people and design those fun moments. Use that. Use that as a platform. And so those are the things that I would say for individuals who are looking to explore game design, looking to leap into it, take one of those things and just try a little bit every day because those moments that you spend in it in doing it, that you’re just getting closer and closer to it every moment and it’s going to take time.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look at the work that you’re doing now and you look back at your career and you think back to a young Derrick who was getting into Final Fantasy IX and was really starting to learn about game design and everything, are you where you want it to be at this stage in your life?

Derrick Fields:
I am. This is like one of those things that a … Very recently, I was all sorts of emotional about it and stuff because I was talking to my mom, whom … She is my number one hero and she has helped create an environment that has allowed me to thrive creatively and watched me evolve into the person that I am now and have the hardships and the hiccups that have led through to that. When it comes to creating games and what I would like to be doing in this space with Onsen Master on the way out and seeking to fund, our next project and most recently stepping into Northwestern University, I’d say I think I hit everything on young Derrick’s checklist.

Derrick Fields:
And so the only other thing left is to make sure that everything that I’ve earned sustains and that I can extend it to another young Derrick or a young individual out there who has their own checklist brewing.

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

Derrick Fields:
I want to stay in education. I want to be able to continue contributing to Northwestern and hopefully help build a space that is comprehensive. Right now, I’m just one individual within the department who will be providing games education. And I would love to find ways to collaborate with other faculty and student across like interdisciplinary opportunities for faculty and students to be able to share experiences. I’ll be in like the radio, TV, film department. So there’s a lot of creativity that’s across these spaces, but the other thing is wanting to bring in other faculty or hopefully be able to advocate for bringing in other faculty to touch on other experiences and facets of game development.

Derrick Fields:
There’s music, there’s narrative, there’s so many other components to be considered and I think developing a space that feels conducive for all of those is really important to highlight for burgeoning creators or writers or musicians. As far as Waking Oni Games goes, Onsen Master is not the only title that I want to build and I want to develop a studio that can create games and create them sustainably. And when I say sustainably, I mean support every individual at their choice of part time or full time and not have to burden anybody with a decision of balancing life in a part-time job and a freelance gig on top of that.

Derrick Fields:
I hope that this game studio can be a space that somebody can, not only lean on for support, but feel as though they are contributing to the type of games that they want to see represented as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and your studio and your game and everything? Where can they find that online?

Derrick Fields:
So for the games, that is like waking up in the morning, wakingonigames.com. I can be found as WakingOni on Twitter and those are primarily the two main spaces that you can find us interacting between. There’s a Waking Oni Games Twitter as well. And I mentioned earlier that I stream on Twitch, sharing not only gameplay, but game development from time to time under the name Waking Oni.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Derrick Fields, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, one, sharing the work that you’re already doing through your studio and the game that you’re creating. I just have a soft spot in my heart for indie game designers. I just think it’s so cool that you all get to do this kind of stuff. And even just the Black community around gaming is so good to see. There’s developers, there’s designers, there’s musicians, there’s artists, game artists, voiceover, etcetera. It’s just so good to see all of that, but then also to really hear about your story of getting into it and the type of games that you want to see out there in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope that this interview is a way to introduce what you’re doing to our audience, so more people can discover what it is that you do and hopefully can help support your work. So thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to be here.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

Did I mention it’s free?

Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills… all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Catt Small has been one of our most requested guests over the past few years, so we’re starting off August by bringing her back on the show!

Our conversation began with her talking about her day to day work as a product designer at Etsy, and then she spoke about her projects: Good for PoC and the 2017 Game Devs of Color Expo through her game development company Brooklyn Gamery. Catt and I also discussed the state of the gaming community for people of color, the importance of funding (including the pitfalls of crowdfunding), and we chatted about her public speaking and what she wants to accomplish for the remainder of 2017. It’s amazing to see how far Catt has come, and I bet we’re going to see a lot more from her in the future!

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This special interview with game developer Olivier Madiba was a real treat. Olivier is the founder and CEO of Kiro’o Games, the first video game studio in central Africa (Cameroon, to be exact)! We recorded this interview during their Kickstarter campaign to raise money for their first title — African-fantasy RPG Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan — and I’m happy to report that the game is now fully funded!

Our interview talks about how Olivier first came up with the idea for the game, how he managed to garner support for building a game company in Cameroon, the next steps of growth for the company, and about the challenges of game development in Africa. It’s a short interview, but I’m so glad for the chance to talk with Olivier and share his story and his work. I’m really excited to see what else Olivier and Kiro’o Games has in store!




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Revision Path is also sponsored by Hover. Visit hover.com/revisionpath and save 10% off your first purchase! Big thanks to Hover!
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Revision Path is brought to you by MailChimp. Huge thanks to them for their support of the show! Visit them today and say thanks!
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