Game developer Shawn Allen grew up as a biracial black kid raised by a white mom in a mostly Latin neighborhood in Manhattan. Now, as an adult, most people assume he's black, Middle Eastern or Hispanic, while others squint and ask, "Where are you from?" Diana, his wife, is Puerto Rican, and their friend, Manny, is Sicilian and chief of his Taino tribe.
Together, they're aiming to bust down the barriers to video game diversity with a retro-styled brawler, Treachery in Beatdown City. It features RPG elements and a turn-based combat system, and it features a cast of minority characters. The star of Beatdown City is Lisa, a Puerto Rican woman designed by Diana to counteract the "spicy Latina" stereotype in popular media, Allen tells me.
"Lisa was made to be a strong character first, who can also be a positive Latin woman in games," he says. "She is, if not the only, one of the few leading Puerto Rican women in games."
Beatdown City isn't an activist game – it spawns from the team's love of brawlers, and they've worked to make it different (turn-based combat will do that) while still recalling classics such as Double Dragon and Streets of Rage. But if Allen and his friends are going to make a game with human characters, they're going to be as diverse as the developers themselves, Allen says:
"When Manny and I started making the game, we wanted to make iconic, memorable characters like brawlers of old did. But we infused them with backgrounds based on our culture, the culture around us and of people that we know. The more we thought about it, the details flowed very easily."
Beatdown City features three playable protagonists: Lisa, Brad and Bruce. Brad is a light-skinned Spanish-Mexican man born in Texas and who specializes in wrestling, and that skill set stems from a distinct, real-life example of backward identification.
"He is based, in many ways, on the ignorance of just what a person with a Mexican background should look like," Allen says. "We live in a world where people chant 'USA' for a Canadian wrestler to trounce Eddie Guerrero, a man born and raised in Texas."
Bruce, the third playable character, is of Jamaican descent and he has a love of Asian culture and martial arts. He's based on a handful of Allen's friends in New York.
The Beatdown City team has a sense of humor about its push for inclusion, and Allen isn't above poking fun at himself.
"As a group that has dealt with the myriad of things that come up because of our ethnicities, we have a thick skin as well as some humor about it, so we are also adding that in to dialogue that plays out around the city," he says.
The mechanics of the game are just as important as its message about diversity, and Beatdown City plays with the classic brawler format by adding RPG elements and a three-move, turn-based combat system. When players reach an enemy, they choose up to three attacks from a list of moves, including stuns, buffs, and slow-down attacks.
Allen calls the combat system the "core" of the game. It's a way to provide players with a wide variety of moves without asking them to remember a ton of different inputs, he says.
"After months of prototyping we had the basic system down, and we found it was fun, which wasn't always the case [with other mechanics]," he says. "When we get people to play the game, as we did for much of last year, they absolutely love it for the most part, so that also vindicated our decision."
The mechanics may have changed along the development cycle, but the characters are definitely staying diverse. Allen isn't trying to force a message on anyone, and he knows that developing games with minority and underrepresented characters is tricky for the wider industry. Plus, asking developers with broad ethnic backgrounds to create games based solely on those traits can be a shallow request.
In art school, Diana was one of a few Latin women in class, and instructors would tell her to create projects based on her background, even if she wanted to make something separate from that aspect of her life. This approach to diversity is "dangerous," Allen says. He provides an example: Global Game Jam 2014 included a site in Puerto Rico for the first time, and those games starred a myriad of characters.
"Diversity in games is still a very niche thing, both in who is creating them and who is starring in them, and I don't know if we are going to see much progress at the top end of things for a long time," Allen says. "I'm not even sure if indie games is where we will see more diversity come from, but I am trying to encourage that diversity, both by making games with different characters and encouraging people to enter the scene, and evaluate just who their characters should be."
Treachery in Beatdown City is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign, with just over one week to raise more than $30,000 and meet the goal of $50,000 for PC and Mac versions. If Kickstarter doesn't pan out, Allen and co. will continue working on the game, and the team will be at GDC and PAX East this year.
"After that, I think the game development process will probably go a bit slower, as we'll have to start taking on part-time/full-time gigs to get back to being able to pay the bills," Allen says. "We're going to keep showing the game and trying to get feedback, and we'll probably hit up the PayPal route that many campaigns have done as well. We've been working on this project for so long, and we won't abandon it, it's too important to us."