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Amazon Games Partners with Black Voices in Gaming at D.I.C.E. Summit 2024

23 Feb, 2024

At the 2024 D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, Amazon Games partnered with Black Voices in Gaming to provide sponsorships to underrepresented game devs and entrepreneurs, allowing them to attend the event and connect with some of the biggest names in the business.

Black Voices in Gaming, a nonprofit based out of Oakland, California, was co-founded by Justin Woodward and Alfanso Hooker with the purpose of increasing Black representation and making space for opportunities within the games industry. This sponsorship for a trip to the D.I.C.E. Summit is important because it allows Black games industry professionals to network and connect with the industry’s most influential people.

Justin Woodward, Black Voices in Gaming

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“It's who you talk to and the relationships you build,” Woodward explained. “Once you're in the business and you do some good things or make good games, that money opens up. It's a weird phenomenon.”

For Woodward, it’s all about getting Black entrepreneurs in the same room with those who understand and know how to make things happen in gaming.

“Some people are privileged to have those opportunities,” Woodward said. Some people have those opportunities earlier because of their parents or because they went to the right school. And Black folks don't have that. We're not in the conversation. We're not in the room. Sure, there are a few, but not enough.”

Shawn Alexander Allen, NuChallenger

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Fellow game developer Shawn Alexander Allen, who has worked for AAA studios like Rockstar Games, is another instrumental figure in the Black Voices in Gaming organization. While getting to the D.I.C.E. Summit is a massive step for any developer, having an idea of what you need as a games professional is also beneficial before stepping onto the convention floor.

“If you're not in that mindset of ‘how am I going to execute?’ or ‘how am I already executing on an idea or specific game?’ then I don't think D.I.C.E. is for you,” Allen said. “D.I.C.E. is for people who have an idea of, 'I want to do a thing.’ And that makes it very special. That’s what we aim to bring is people that have that drive to make something happen. We spend a lot of time in our Discord trying to give people all the info we can to help them be successful. But Discord can only go so far, hence going to D.I.C.E.”

The talented young game developers we spoke to all have that drive and mindset that Allen spoke of to make it in the industry.

Neil Jones, aka Aerial_Knight

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Hailing from Detroit, Michigan, Neil Jones went straight from college to develop his own video games. Since he was a kid, playing titles on the Sega Genesis alongside his beloved grandmother, Jones has always loved gaming and creating new and fascinating worlds.

His first big title is Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield, an action-packed narrative runner set in Jones’ hometown of Detroit. Here, you play as Wally, a man trying to escape with his family’s stolen treasure that gives him unique abilities.

Jones compares Never Yield to something similar to Sonic the Hedgehog, “but with my own style and flare to it,” Jones explained. “My take on those types of mechanics. So, the first game took a lot of running mechanics from those classic runners where you just play on your phone, and I gave that an upgrade. And I wanted to do the same thing with this gameplay.”

Meeting friends and colleagues he’s only ever chatted with online before coming to D.I.C.E. has been one of the highlights of Jones’ trip, saying, “It’s more networking than I’ve ever done.” While there are plenty of attendees from both the indie and AAA space at the conference, Jones says that he, at least for the moment, enjoys working on his own indie titles away from the larger corporations.

“I like my indie space, where I can be as creative as I want,” Jones said. “I can have my own little corner of this industry where, for better or worse, I get left alone. And I can have that creative freedom, which I don't think exists as much on those higher levels.”

Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield is available on Steam, Xbox, PlayStation, Epic Games, Switch, and the Apple App Store.

Tomas Gomez, Pancake Game Studios

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Three years ago, Tomas Gomez made a monumental move by leaving the AAA gaming community and starting his own company, Pancake Game Studios. Here, he’s developing a co-op action RPG, Slime Heroes, where players can customize their slime characters and explore an imaginative and colorful open world.

“We're building worlds that are welcoming and inclusive and colorful and places where you want to stay,” Gomez said. “I am into action games, so it's an action RPG, top-down camera. As the name of the game says, the main character is a slime, but you and a friend can play each of your slimes; it's very much an RPG where you get to customize your slime the way you want it to look, and you can put different hats on it and make it whatever color.”

Even though Gomez had over 15 years in the AAA space developing titles for some of the largest studios in the industry, he quickly realized that there was so much to learn about networking and developing indie games in general. For him, D.I.C.E. has been a key aspect in his growth as a studio head and game developer.

“D.I.C.E. is a very eye-opening experience. I've been a developer all my career, so I've focused most of my attention on making the games, not thinking too much about how to grow a business and where the money comes from. Being around all these people and all the talks happening here, the round tables, the networking events, the cocktail parties has been valuable.”

Gomez advises young developers looking to start in the industry to focus on a specific area or skill set while building a strong portfolio.

“If you have time and you're trying to build a portfolio or build your skill set to where you're enticing a studio to hire you,” Gomez said. “Hopefully, you can build your portfolio or skill set in a way that gets you to that studio that would be a better match for you. Ideally, you want to be happy with what you're doing. So you should ask those questions early, and hopefully, that steers how you build your portfolio and skill set.”

Slime Heroes will release on Steam and Xbox, with plans for other platforms in the future.

Jaye Watts, Coexist Gaming

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To say that Jaye Watts wears many hats is a severe understatement. With a background in electrical engineering, a Grammy nomination, a sommelier certification, and over four years of experience in the gaming and tech industry, Watts is a pioneer in the true sense of the word.

Watts founded Coexist Gaming, which aims to bring music, gaming, and technology together. The company focuses on scaling development through incubation and education. Watts started the company in her Brooklyn duplex in 2019 and has since built a community of gamers and creators. Coexist Gaming offers a membership-based gaming and content creation club, providing a welcoming space for gamers to connect and collaborate.

“I've been playing video games since I was 4. I've been singing and playing instruments since I was 5,” Watts said. “Music and math were always my worlds, so the goal was to bring music, gaming, and tech and enable it to coexist. Gaming just happens to be one of those industries that is as creative as it is technical, and I wanted to not just live in these siloed societal boxes, artists over here, the engineers over here, the gamers over here.”

While diversity is a major part of Coexist Gaming, it’s not something Watts set out to accomplish intentionally. It just happened.

“I don't think there are accidents,” Watts said, adding, “I think people gravitate to authentic representation. It's very hard for a woman of color not to have people of color drawn to what she's building because we go to the things we feel represented in. That's it. It wasn't intentional. It was automatic. At least from my perspective, I never needed to think about having a diverse community. I already know the gaming community is diverse, and I wanted to create opportunities for the greater community, especially the marginalized worlds within it.”

Check out Coexists Gaming at its New York City location, featuring three floors of immersive gaming, meeting rooms, private lounges, and good food and drink.

Ryan Huggins, Weathered Sweater

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An ambitious young developer out of Vermont, Ryan Huggins has already co-founded two studios, Weathered Sweater and Sundae Month. He’s also developed several indie games, including Skator Gator, Dad Quest, Pupperazzi, Dot’s Home, and Boatventure.

This was Huggins’ first trip to D.I.C.E., which directly resulted from the scholarship offered to these young developers through the partnership between Black Voices in Gaming and Amazon Games.

“Coming to D.I.C.E. is the first step in doing something I've never done before,” Huggins said. “I've never even considered coming to D.I.C.E. because it's expensive, so the fact that I was able to come here and see what it's all about, see what the value-add is, how I can work this into the new version of me that I want to be moving forward, someone who has a lot of connections with people, feels connected to the greater games industry, that's important to me because I love games. I love making games. Specifically, I love indie game developers. I've always been a storyteller who wants to subvert expectations and make interesting experiences. And because Vermont has such a small industry, it's always limited who I can work with, at least in person.”

Huggins became aware of a need for more diversity in gaming during his time in Vermont. Still, the idea of a welcoming space like Black Voices in Gaming didn’t even occur to him until he connected with Shawn Alexander Allen and Justin Woodward.

“The diversity problem in the industry is something I see in Vermont. I realized I had no black mentors when I met Justin and Shawn. I didn't have any black or indie game developers I knew about or looked up to. I didn't have anybody like that, and it sat poorly with me.”

Huggins is developing a new title called Driftwood, a turn-based survival game similar to Don’t Starve and Raft, but without all the real-time pressures in those games.

“People like me get stressed out playing games like that,” Huggins said. “We have enough stress and enough real-time pressure in our real lives. I do want to make those creative strategic decisions. That tactical stuff is just really fun. But having to do that when you're on a four-minute timer, and every action you take is a micro-movement that could ruin your run by the end of the timer, it ends up just being a lot. You can never stop. You can never pause. You can never take a deep breath. And lately, I've been more interested in cozier, chiller games, but without lacking in that same tactical depth. I feel that I've done a good job with this game.”

Dani Lalonders, Veritable Joy Studios

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For someone so new to the industry, Dani Lalonders has accomplished quite a bit throughout her four-year journey in the gaming industry. In that short period of time, Lalonders has already developed a game of her own, titled ValiDate: Struggling Singles in Your Area. Set in the Jersey City area, ValiDate is a visual novel about 13 struggling singles navigating the harsh realities of love and life. For Lalonders, black representation has always been paramount.

“I came into this industry because I did not like how there weren't enough Black women as playable characters,” Lalonders explained. “That's kind of my whole philosophy. Any interview you'll see of me is just me talking about how I want more Black women. I want more Black women as playable characters. I want to see Black women represented in a way that we're not side characters. We're not put to the side. We are the main focus. We are everything.”

This is Lalonders’ second year at D.I.C.E., which she finds valuable because of the face-to-face interactions she’s able to have with people from all parts of the industry.

“D.I.C.E. changed my life because online, I'm not taken seriously as much as in-person. It feels more personal and more real. From these connections, people have followed up. I've gotten opportunities. I've gotten sponsorships. I've gotten a lot of help to get where I need to be in terms of development for ValiDate, furthering my career and people taking me more seriously. As a younger Black woman in this industry it's already impossible for me, but now it feels like people care now.”

One of those valuable connections Lalonders made while attending the D.I.C.E. Summit landed her a job at Electronic Arts and Cliffhanger Games as an associate narrative designer on an upcoming Black Panther game. While that massive project is taking up most of her time, Lalonders also hopes to expand ValiDate’s story with new titles and even an adult TV show akin to Issa Rae’s Emmy-winning series, Insecure.

“We're working on a sequel right now, looking for funding and a publisher,” Lalonders said. “ValiDate is such a perfect IP that we can do so much with it. We can make more games. We can do expansions of the other characters. We can also make it into an adult TV show, which is my ultimate goal.”

And with that, we say congratulations to this year’s D.I.C.E. Summit scholarship recipients. We wish them well as they continue to grow and create amazing games and opportunities in the years ahead.