Suhail Habib is the sole game designer of 87, creating games for mobile, web, and desktop. Having worked with few resources and mostly solo, they noted that it’s a challenge to reach a level where you get success and recognition, but it’s worth it.
“My most successful game to date was a webgame I released in mid-2015, titled Drink Beer, Neglect Family. It went on to be played by several hundred thousand people, and was highly rated. When I think about what set it apart from other games I’ve created which did not go on to be successes, one thing jumps to mind above everything else: its personality,” said Suhail. “I feel that, for a game to be successful, it needs to be brimming with personality. This can manifest in either a quirky premise, striking visuals, or an interesting mechanic that is explored. This is the way small-time developers can set themselves apart from bigger studios, which are more averse to doing something that’s off the beaten path, and in turn garner some coverage as well.”
“I was inspired by a combination of elements. I was always into games and into programming, so my becoming a game developer was sort of inevitable. But here is what actually struck the spark:
I used to be a lurker on the java-gaming.org forums, where Notch was a frequent poster. That was before he created Minecraft, so he wasn’t very well-known. He participated in Ludum Dare on one occasion, which is one of the biggest game jams, and created a game called Breaking the Tower. He posted a timelapse video of him coding the game from scratch in 48 hours, which I found to be very inspirational,” they continued. “After spending a while toying with different frameworks, I happened upon flashgamelicense.com, where you could sell a sponsorship for even the smallest of flash games. So I looked around for a free flash game library, found one called ‘flixel’, made a small game, and sold it. And I’ve been making games ever since.”
The way Suhail sees it, founding a studio was predicated by a need to express themselves creatively. “I view game development as a largely creative field that encompasses a lot of technical disciplines as well. So in my head, I can’t help but view this question as: ‘Why start a music band?’ or ‘Why write a novel?’. And the answer is that every game designer is a unique person. As such every game they will design will be unique. Maybe it will be inspired by their life experiences. So I feel like there is a place for anyone and everyone in this industry, because above all it is a mode of self-expression,” describes Suhail. “Regarding the second part of the question… I sometimes make very derivative games with a very unique spin that I want to explore. I sometimes make games that are very different and strange. So in a way I feel like what I can offer is that uniqueness that is born of my identity, and more importantly from the collection of varied experiences that I’ve had in my life.”
Drawing on Life for Games
Inspiration for Suhail comes from everywhere. What Suhail says is vital, along with good subject matter, is making sure you have a mechanic that compliments it.
“In the past I’ve made games centered on current affairs, including a game about the Israeli elections, a game about Trump and Mexico, and two games about Syrian refugees. I’ve done games based on songs, social issues, and so on. But I rarely go ahead and make a game about something like that if I don’t manage to come up with satisfying mechanics to complement the topic,” Suhail describes. “For example, I’ve thought to make a game about Trump in February. But it was only in May that I remembered a game called Gaurodan, by indie developer Locomalito, and thought ‘Hey, Gaurodan’s core mechanics would go very well with the Trump subject matter!’ and actually made a game exploring said mechanics with said topic.”
Suhail detailed that their creative flow goes from being inspired, working up game mechanics, writing a design document and then starting to write code. Suhail does everything as a solo developer.
“Normally I get the core mechanics out of the way first, to see if they ‘feel’ good and if they are worth iterating on and expanding. I also draw the game graphics while writing the code; for a while now I don’t use much placeholder art. After that I add all the elements that make the game a game: levels or procedural generation, UI elements, scoring scheme, and so on. The last thing I work on is creating sound effects and selecting background music. I was never any good at making my own music, so I normally buy a package of background tunes and use them in my games,” said Suhail. “The tools I use to create my games are HaxeFlixel for game library, FlashDevelop for IDE, paint.net for graphic editor, sfxr for sound effects. All of them are available for free.”
In respect to this, Suhail says that creating games in a short amount of time reflect personal trials and tribulations. Suhail suspects that this might be a focus on more immediate concerns, which manifest because of the short development period. “These themes will likely not manifest in very direct ways – the game will not explicitly discuss me or my experiences – but more subtly,” detailed Suhail. “As such some of these games tend to be another interpretation of a struggle or experience I am going through. For example, I’ve never made a game about a breakup, but one of the games I’ve made about a very different topic discussed themes of rejection and loneliness that were heavily influenced by a recent breakup I had experienced.
“Regarding how much of a personal experience it is acceptable to have in a game planned for release – it depends on two things. One, the personal experience itself, and two, what type of game it is. This is why I sometimes steer clear of making games about certain topics/experiences – I just can’t think of good mechanics that would fit and enhance the topic. I dislike making a generic game and just ‘taping’ an experience/topic to it.”
“So, let’s say that, for example, a developer wants to make a game about a time in their life where they were ‘trapped’ in a physically abusive relationship,” Suhail posited. “A good game about that topic would be a game that translates the struggles into actual game mechanics. The developer being unable to leave the relationship can manifest in the player character being physically trapped in a prison shaped like their partner. The physical abuse can manifest in unavoidable obstacles that knock the player back in a way that signals to the player ‘no matter what I did, I couldn’t avoid being beaten sometimes’. A bad game about that topic would be a game that shoves the experience down the player’s throat through dialogue/cutscenes alone, while the gameplay itself wouldn’t evoke the struggle/feelings through its use of mechanics and imagery. So, the game can be a 1 to 1 representation of a personal experience – as long as it is a good, engaging game, and treats the core material with the respect it deserves.
“One of the most genius moments in game design, for me, happens at the end of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Spoilers! Throughout the game the player controls two brothers. They can move, and each has an ‘action’ button. Some of the actions, the younger brother cannot physically perform, and vice versa. Early in the game, there is a section where they have to swim across water. The player has to use the big brother’s ‘action’ button to carry the younger brother across the water. At the end of the game, the older brother dies, and the younger brother needs to cross another body of water. If you press the ‘action’ button of the younger brother, nothing happens and he begins to drown. It is at that moment that most players instinctively press the action button of the deceased older brother, and suddenly the younger brother is motivated by his memory and manages to swim across. Moments like these are crucial to games about personal experiences – tying mechanics with a struggle or a feeling.”
Try Not to Trigger
From the title of Drink Beer, Neglect Family, it’s clear that Suhail isn’t afraid to push some boundaries when it comes to the subject matter of his games. Not too surprisingly, Suhail doesn’t really think about how people will react to their creations.
“To be honest, I don’t really think about reactions to the content of the game,” said Suhail. “If the game is about something horrible/shocking or a real issue that can be triggering for someone, I mean, I’ve made games about alcohol abuse and about suicide… I don’t think it’s really possible to avoid offending or triggering everyone. That said, I normally try to keep my games clean where it’s possible. In the aforementioned Drink Beer, Neglect Family, there is a stark contrast between the subject matter and visuals/sounds. Profanity is never used, even though certain horrible events are described.”
“My general rule of thumb is ‘don’t be an asshole’. As in, I will not do something for the sole reason of getting someone angry or offended. I try to keep my games focused on the point I’m trying to make, without indulging in shock for the sake of shock,” Suhail continued. “But it’s impossible to guarantee no one will be offended or triggered by a game, at least in my opinion.”
When asked why Drink Beer, Neglect Family was a success, Suhail responded, “It’s title, subject matter, and the fact that it was just pure bite-sized fun. It was a very unique game: I hadn’t played anything quite like it. In combination with being featured for about a month on the frontpage of Newgrounds, this guaranteed that it went on to be played by a lot of people.”
Not surprisingly given the status of Drink Beer, Neglect Family on Newgrounds, Suhail could name several funny moments from the game. “At one stage, the player’s daughter begins living with a pimp. If the player downs another beer the player’s son is said to have been frequenting brothels. The fact that those two ‘plot developments’ are close to each other is not a coincidence. Most players will think nothing of the connection or just assume it’s coincidental, but the insinuation here is that there may be terrible, terrible incest going on,” Suhail detailed. “I don’t know why I made it like this at the time, but I think I wanted to get people to feel subconsciously uncomfortable, if that makes any sense. Like, if the player hasn’t already grasped the fact that this is a very grim game, despite the art and the cheerful soundtrack, then this moment could be a very disturbing one, way more that having only one of those occurrences happen.
“Another point in DB,NF that I really thought came out witty was the end-boss. The only reason I say it’s witty is because it uses Chekhov’s Gun (the theatrical technique), that states that ‘a gun that appears on stage in the first act must go off in the third’. Throughout the game, there is a big picture of the entire player character’s family on the top left corner. For most of the game, it’s there as decoration. Now, the enemies in the game are portraits of the player’s family members, and when they have all appeared, the game stops gaining difficulty… until the player downs the 30th beer, and suddenly this family picture that was there as decoration the whole time, starts moving and descending upon the player.”
Perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian Gaming Scene
Suhail in particular has a unique perspective on regional game development, being a member of the Palestinian minority inside Israel. Suhail notes that there isn’t much of a Palestinian game developer community, adding that they know of only one successful Palestinian publisher/developer.
“I think that the political situation is affecting the Palestinians more adversely, since the gamedev scene inside Israel seems to be steadily flourishing,” Suhail says. “The general tech scene has often seen people coming from the West Bank and attending hackathons and events inside Israel, mostly before the summer of 2014. So I imagine that when the gamedev industry there gains some momentum, we can see something similar happening for game-related events. Maybe there will be a joint Israeli and Palestinian site for Global Game Jam in a few years? One can hope.
“Of course, since 2014 fewer and fewer Palestinians are allowed inside the green line to attend the aforementioned hackathons, so as long as the situation is strained and the peace process is stagnant, this does not seem very likely, at least during the next few years.”
Suhail thinks that game development is advancing in Israel and other neighboring countries, including Jordan. While the industry is not as developed as other similarly developed countries, (Suhail cites Poland and the Netherlands as an example), but feels it is headed in the right direction.
“There are a lot of events and conferences about or related to game development, and there are several companies like Plarium and Playtika who are global leaders in certain markets. I’m really excited to see what the future brings for the regional industry, and I hope that in a few years the Palestinian scene in the West Bank and Gaza would have also grown enough to support a yearly conference for example,” says Suhail. “I think I would really love seeing Palestinians attending the conferences held here, and conducting their own conferences which Israelis can then attend, I would also love to see a joint Israeli-Palestinian studio appear on the scene.”
“I think the main challenges in Israel are that most studios are naturally focused on generating as much revenue as possible, so a lot of the games we are seeing lack some innovation in my opinion. The most successful Israeli studios make games that are either social casino games, or social co-op/pvp games, which are, to me personally, not very interesting as far as core gaming experiences go. The bigger studios are understandably playing it safe with games that are a masterclass in monetization design, and I can only hope that we can soon see games that are also a masterclass in game design,” Suhail continued. “The studios that seem to be picking up the gauntlet are smaller indie studios. For example I am looking forward to things like Judgment: Apocalypse Survival Simulation coming out of EA on steam. In addition the recent Mushroom 11, which is a joint Israeli effort, was a wonderful game, and I can only hope we see more things in that vein.
“I think the Jewish community is becoming gradually very accepting of gamedev as a business. Like I said, the scene here seems to be flourishing, many people and many new studios are creating interesting games, and there are a few market leaders that started or are based in Israel. I don’t feel like it is completely accepted in the mainstream and you will always find people who will ridicule game development as a job/business, especially if you are not generating revenue right off the bat, but the situation is relatively very good in my opinion.”
“My personal community, that of the Palestinian minority inside Israel, is less accepting at the time being,” Suhail commented. “I often struggle to explain to people that making games is not the same as playing because people really don’t know the difference sometimes, and that the amount of code I write for one of my games in the span of a weekend is larger than what I would write at my previous corporate job in the span of an entire month. As a minority, job-security and a guaranteed paycheck are understandably valued more highly, and game development is treated in many ways as a hobby. But I feel that is gradually changing for the better, albeit very slowly. There are very few Arab game developers inside of Israel to the point where I could probably count them on two hands, and it’s very understandable. Why take a huge risk and start your own studio, investing your own money and likely not generating enough revenue for the first few months, when you can work as an engineer/developer for any large software company, earn a good paycheck, and work on your games in your spare time? It may be the jaded in me that says this, but it’s pretty easy to see the ‘adult’ point of view in this regard. All that said, the same can be said of any start-up, and we are seeing a lot of Arab/Palestinian start-ups springing up inside Israel, so who know, maybe in a few years the situation will be similar for gamedev as well.”
Being a Scrappy Indie
When developing games, Suhail wants to make them accessible to as large of a population of gamers as possible. This has meant that Suhail has focused on webgames and (later) games for Android.
“The game development framework that I use, HaxeFlixel, has the added benefit of allowing me to select which platform I want to build the game for, so I can get the game out for both platforms with very little added effort,” said Suhail. “In terms of genres, I feel like my forte is 2D action games in general, and 2D action platformers in particular. They are genres I grew up with as a kid, and some of my favorite games are 2D sidescrollers and platformers. It’s no wonder that I mostly use pixel art as well.”
Commenting on pixel art, Suhail said that playing games in the ’90s led to a love of low-res pixel art, reflected in what they produce today. “I come from a programming background (B.Sc in Computer Science), so the coding was the easy part for me in many ways, and I always viewed art as an afterthought or something that I hated to do but had to,” noted Suhail. “The result was very ugly graphics for most of my early games. Eventually I grew decent at pixel art, so I play around with various pixel art styles. I’ve made games utilizing 16 colors, and then some games that use the classic Game Boy 4-color palette. It varies between games normally, but the common thread is that it is low-res pixel art with a mostly small sprite sizes.”
Getting money for the sorts of games Suhail makes can be a challenge, though they try to get sponsorships for webgames, ads for mobile games and perhaps micro-transactions for cosmetic items in the future. “All that said, my goal currently is to get my games played by the largest number of people, so paid games are currently out of the question for me, as they significantly cut down the potential audience,” said Suhail.
While it might seem like the nature of these games would be relatively easy to test, Suhail noted that it’s actually quite complicated. “Since I am a solo developer creating games of relatively small scope, I have found it vital to test every detail I implement as soon as I implement it,” said Suhail. “It’s very effective because I am never in fear of building upon a shaky foundation, and also because it is highly motivating to get to play the game you are working on and getting a glimpse of how it will eventually play.”
“For larger games I’ve created, I tend to send a version to a few friends who are into games, to see how they react to it. What’s good about this is that there are sometimes elements I am not aware of, or things that seem intuitive to me but are not to others, so doing this allows me to fine tune the game better before I release it. On the flip side, I sometimes get demotivated if these people don’t unanimously like the game. I recall occurrences in the past where I’ve downright dropped a month or two’s worth of work just because I stopped believing in the project (largely due to a mixed response).
Even with some of the larger or high concept games that Suhail has made, they warned against other indies trying to replicate AAA games or making run-of-the-mill games. “The way I see it, the strength of being an indie developer is the freedom to make games about any topic, and that utilize interesting mechanics. So it would be a shame to not to use our greatest strength and settle into a pattern of making things that can be found everywhere else,” Suhail detailed. “Mind you, I don’t think every game we make has to be completely radical and innovative; that is simply not possible, and inspiration is normally a scarcer resource that I would like it to be (in my case, at any rate). But the games indie developers make need to stand out, in one way or another. If they don’t, then why play them over the myriad other games that are likely way larger in scope and much more polished?”
Keep it Fresh, Offer Something Unique Every Time
Assuming Suhail is successful, the scope of 87’s games may expand. If that was the case, Suhail could foresee making something like a medieval management simulator. “You get to play a character in fictional, feudal world. You start off as the leader of a mercenary company, and need to hire and equip your soldiers. Battles play out via a simulation, without your direct interference; you can give commands and drill your troops in various tactics. Every person in your company has detailed stats that govern their behavior and prowess at different tasks,” said Suhail. “Eventually you can be promoted and go on to rule lands. Then you will have to assign different people to different household tasks, engage in diplomacy, and so on. The key element about it would be that there are no ‘anonymous’ soldiers. Every single character in the game would have a name, personality, agenda, and varying stats. And we’d be talking about a world including tens if not hundreds of thousands of characters, most of whom are procedurally generated.”
At the end of the day, Suhail just wants to make fun games. “I once heard/read, and I don’t remember where, something in the spirit of, ‘The people who will play your game are giving you their time, which is their most precious resource. In return, you must offer them an experience they will not get anywhere else.’ I sort of agree with this, even though sometimes people want ‘more of the same’. So my goal is to make enjoyable games. I don’t want people to play my games and think ‘this is a waste of my time’. My games are inspired by my past gaming habits and the genres I enjoyed most, but I still try to keep them fresh and offer something new and unique every time,” Suhail concluded.
David Radd is a staff writer for GameSauce.biz. David loves playing video games about as much as he enjoys writing about them, martial arts and composing his own novels.