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Today marks the highly anticipated release of the standalone title Protodroid Delta, a 3D action platformer from solo developer Adam Kareem.
Game development is never an easy task to begin with, but Kareem got through it the hard way, as a hobbyist developer having to balance his dream project with a full-time job and raising children.
“I’m a bit of a poser, you could say, because I don’t formally have gaming experience,” Kareem smiles. “I was studying mechanical engineering in school and I work full time in technology, doing hardware engineering type things, but I took up gaming as a hobby, just because I watched games like Sonic Adventure, Mega Man X, things that I loved. Like child
“I always felt like there would be some cool ways to improve them. So, I decided as a hobby to play with, ‘Hey, maybe I can make a Sonic that controls really well in 3D,’ because I felt like Sonic. The adventure wasn’t really doing all that”.
Kareem also says that he “always expected Mega Man to make the jump to 3D,” which is what led him to develop fan games for a couple of years starting in early 2018, during his winter break.
“A friend of mine told me about game engines, what Unreal was, and that’s when I started taking classes online and dove right into YouTube. Let me tell you, not just because I work at Google, YouTube is great,” said. he laughs, referring to his day job as a product design engineer at the tech giant.
“It’s as easy as that, I took advantage of that. Really great YouTube channels like Matthew Wadstein’s channel, Virtus Learning Hub and Ryan Laley… Just people out of the goodness of their hearts saying ‘I’ am going to teach some game development stuff.’ You dig with that long enough, while making games that you can learn while you’re doing it, and then eventually I built this proficiency in games.
“But I felt that what I brought to the table was always just a design[-centric] thinking, fundamentally, why doesn’t this work as a mechanic? Why is this aesthetic of a character attractive or not? That’s my identity.”
Kareem gave a GDC talk earlier this year about his background and inspirations, titled “Finding Inspiration and Planning for Luck: A Story of a Solo Developer-Daddy of Color.”
He still works full time and “still a hobbyist, technically,” he smiles. We talked about that balance, recalling a quote from Strange Scaffold’s Xalavier Nelson Jr. about “operating from a place of stability” when you’re a developer and destigmatizing the idea of holding down a day job.
“That’s also a very insightful perspective, because I felt so liberated in terms of the creative choices that I could make, in terms of the timeline that the game was going to be, because I wasn’t depending on it for my well-being, for my livelihood. .”, Kareem says.
“Since I had a compensating job and was taking care of myself and my family, it gave me peace of mind that I can play with this mechanic for a week, two weeks, whatever, and I’m not pressured by schedules, deadlines. It’s not going to be like, ‘Sorry folks, I can’t pay you guys next month,’ and have that kind of consideration. I think normalizing that would be really cool. I’d caution you though, if you’re doing that, make smaller games. I wish I had known how big this would be when I got into it. But it’s definitely very hard to do both.”
Kareem began work in earnest on what would become Protodroid Delta in late 2019 after releasing a handful of fan games based on Sonic and Mega Man, some of which were very well received. But he had hit a barrier: no matter how good the titles were, he couldn’t go anywhere with them because he obviously didn’t own the IPs.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m spending hours, really putting so much of myself into this, that I should at least remove the barrier of wanting to commercialize it, and really, really make it my own.’ And so, that’s where Protodroid came from. It was like, ‘ Okay, what are some ways I can take inspiration from Mega Man?’
“It all came out of that fan game. And I was confident that that was the path to [take], because I put it on Itch.io, I put it on Game Jolt, and it got a few thousand views, and people kept saying, ‘This is fun! Oh this is what [Mega Man] X7 should have been ‘. I have these test points. I was like, ‘Okay, all the fan games you make, take this one and now create a world of your own that you can then do whatever you want with.'”
The project was picked up by Humble Games as part of its first Black Game Developer Fund in 2020. In fact, it will be the first title from the fund to be published under the Humble Games banner.
“I felt so liberated in terms of the creative choices I could make, because I wasn’t depending on it for my livelihood”
But before that, Kareem ran a Kickstarter campaign that raised almost triple the amount he initially expected (over 1,600 backers pledged almost $60,000 with an initial goal of $20,000). When asked about the challenges he’s faced with crowdfunding, he laughs: “How much time do you have?”
“Kickstarters are super tough,” he continues. “Why are they hard? Because it’s so helpful if you can hire a marketing team or a studio to run that. What people don’t know about Kickstarters is that the successful ones put out ads. Now, A/B testing, try to find the best ads to post, [and] Managing all of that is a full-time job in itself, on top of the three or four months it took me to build the Kickstarter page.
“So I would say the biggest challenge with Kickstarter is how to run your ads successfully, or basically how to successfully get the word out on an ongoing basis, because that’s what funnels the funding.”
But the successful Kickstarter also helped attract Humble’s attention.
“The Black Game Developer Fund was amazing, because it’s something they created in response to the Black Lives Matter uprising and social movement, and they put their money where their mouth was,” says Kareem. “They really said, ‘We want to make an effective change,’ and what better way to do that than to highlight the people who are already in this space and creating?”
Financial aid came “without strings attached,” Kareem adds.
“It wasn’t like, ‘And once you’re done, we have the IP’ or ‘once you’re done, we have first publishing rights.’ It was like, ‘Do whatever you want with it.'” We just hope to see some kind of vertical cut, just some kind of progress.” Just ‘Go, be happy. Do your thing.’
“It all came out of that fan game. And I was confident that that was the path to [take]”
“The added benefit of that was that they connected me with an industry veteran in Justin Woodward, and he’s amazing. And he’s been, in many ways, a champion and advocate for my project, connecting me with the right people along the way. along the journey. And that was the Trojan horse of gifts. He was just hoping for the money, but he was a big part of all the things that came out of it.”
Woodward is one of two strategic advisors to the Black Game Developers Fund, appointed by Humble in October 2020, along with Sithe Ncube. We spoke with them last year about the company’s steps toward independence.
In a fun turn of events, Humble ended up signing a publishing deal for Protodroid Delta, despite Kareem initially wanting to go it alone, wanting to maintain full control over his dream project.
“I initially wanted to go with self-publishing because given my work commitments, I always appreciated the complete freedom I had, that I can release this game whenever I want. I can add or remove features whenever I want. And I really appreciate that complete autonomy. This would just ship to PC, and I didn’t have to push it to other consoles and stuff. But Humble was such an amazing partner. I was concerned about the terms that come with it. They were very transparent and then offered support for publishing.”
That helped Kareem further develop the game he really wanted to make, this 3D platformer with a distinct personality, character design being a particularly important aspect to him.
“[The characters] they deliberately look different from the rest of the gaming industry for the most part,” he says. “And that is very important to me. You watch so many games [and] the characters are all fairly homogeneous. They are depicted as white or lighter skinned.
“You look at Smash Bros for example, the base roster is 64 selectable characters, how many have the darkest skin? You’ve lost 40 right there, because none of them do. How many are non-animals? You lost 22 more. And all you’re left with is Ganondorf and Mr Game and Watch. So you have little kids like me, going, “Which character looks like me? The one who is the incarnation of evil or Mr Game and Watch”.
“I wanted to be very deliberate with my character design to create characters for people you rarely see in games.”
“So I wanted to be very deliberate with my character design to create characters for people who rarely see themselves in games, and try out different cultures. One of the neighborhoods I used to grow up in was a mix of black and Latinos, and those are two communities that often aren’t featured primarily within games. I wanted to create a space and a game where that is the case, so that it becomes less ‘abnormal’ the next time it happens.”
A fairer representation of women was also an important aspect for Kareem, who notes that they are rarely the main character in games, often relegated to being a supporting character, love interest, or plot device.
“I wanted to reverse that and instead make a game that is predominantly female, [where] the central narrative conflict is between two women, and the heroes are women. And I think people resonated with that, seeing a game that’s being deliberate about it. It’s a major fingerprint on the game.”
We talked about the lack of representation in games, with Kareem pointing to major franchises like Final Fantasy, which has a predominantly white cast.
“Once you take it back a bit, you realize we’re making deliberate choices to exclude certain groups and cultural expressions.”
“They’re making deliberate choices about what cultures people find desirable or interesting, and it’s a very defined space of what a fantasy setting can look like and what these things can be,” Kareem says. “It’s an interesting question, but once you dig into it a bit, you realize we’re making deliberate decisions to exclude certain groups and certain communities and cultural expressions, and making deliberate decisions to highlight others.”
Looking ahead, Kareem acknowledges that his position, working full time and developing a great game on his own on the side, might not be sustainable in the long term.
“Something has to give. So, I’m interested to see what kind of smaller fan stuff I could get into. Or depending on how this game works out, maybe that changes my luck, and I’m like, ‘Yo! I’m rich, I can do whatever you want! That’s the dream,” he laughs.
“But realistically, that’s highly unlikely. So, I know doing this for three years comes at a cost, I spent less time with my kids, I spent less time with my wife. And mentally, I haven’t slept in three years. And so Those things, I wouldn’t want to relive them, so I would have to problem solve or think seriously and creatively, to see what are some ways around that.”
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