Game Dev Spotlight: Khenan Newton
Recently, I wrote about how I’ve been participating in my first ever game jams this year. The experience has been really fulfilling, not just because it’s fun to apply my skills and actually see a more or less finished product (albeit a rough one) come together, but also because of the amazing people I’ve had the opportunity to meet throughout the experience. Khenan Newton is one of those amazing people.
Khenan (pronounced kay-nin) is 25 years old, but he leads projects like he’s been doing it his whole life and then some. His passion is clear in how engaged he is, both in his own programming work and the time and attention he puts into guiding his teammates. He regularly encourages those working with him to branch out and try new strategies and is always available to answer questions and willing to walk folks through things as often as is needed. During our work together, Khenan would regularly stay up late figuring out bugs and reworking systems, and he says game development is the only thing that can keep him engaged and happily devoted for so many hours on end. His love for making games is apparent in his work and leadership in a way that really struck me, so I decided to learn a bit more about Khenan and where that passion comes from.
The original gamer in Khenan's family was his aunt. She got his grandmother into gaming as well, and Khenan spent his childhood playing on his grandmother’s GameCube whenever he got the chance. Pokémon and Legend of Zelda were some of his favorites, and he played Super Smash Bros competitively, but Khenan told me that gaming wasn’t just something fun to do in the off hours of his day; it went deeper than that. Khenan says he grew up in a house with six women and no male role models. He was cared for in that he was clothed and didn’t go hungry, but felt isolated and without a lot of the support, stimulation, or guidance from his family that he felt he needed as a young boy. He says he knows he “still got more than a lot of people,” but even so, he found himself immersed in gameplay on his grandmother’s console again and again as an avenue to enter worlds that, simply put, weren’t this one—and he couldn’t get enough of it.
I, too, relate to games serving as a childhood escape and refuge from an at-times difficult existence. For Khenan, games were the place he “learned to connect and rely on the support of others,” because it was with other gamers that he built himself a different kind of family and found community that he fit into and felt supported by in a way that outshone what he had at home.
Perhaps this sort of experience is what makes Khenan his own kind of role model now. Clear, organized, supportive, communicative, and understanding, Khenan is exactly the sort of person you feel lucky to have leading your project. When you’re not sure where you fit or are looking for support to branch out and be guided through new techniques and strategies, someone like him, a person who is excited to act as a mentor and reach new goals together with you, can be an absolute blessing. I don’t know that this is a conscious choice by Khenan, to be such a kind, almost older brother sort of presence in the teams he leads—part peer, part authority figure, but someone you generally trust and feel comfortable with—but he executes it flawlessly. “My philosophy for achieving fulfillment,” says Khenan, “is having people in your life that you can rely on, and they can rely on you. When you have that, there’s never a dull moment or a challenge that’s too daunting.” And indeed, the projects Khenan leads are often ambitious and experimental, but he supports his team throughout and generally gets impressive results.
Screenshot from Cell Shocked, on which Khenan worked as Project Lead and Lead Programmer
It’s clear that a sense of community is important to Khenan, and he and I bonded over our mutual respect for the fellowship and camaraderie games can bring to anyone and everyone who picks up a controller (or positions their fingers over the WASD keys, or gets ready to tap their touch screen) and dives in. Khenan and I agree that games are an avenue through which real connections can be forged and maintained. “Games are not just a source of entertainment,” says Khenan. “Games are an experience. Games are invokers of emotion [and they] provide the platform to share those emotions with others and connect people.” I agree wholeheartedly that games are more than a mindless way to pass time; they can create lifetime memories, establish lifelong bonds, and have a life-changing impact. That’s why people like me and Khenan (and so many others) love games in a way that’s beyond simply enjoying the gameplay itself; we assign deep value to the experience of playing and the connections we form between the folks with whom we play.
It's clear Khenan wants to take that value and add to it, using his career as an opportunity to give back to a form of media that feels like part of what shaped him. “I always knew I wanted to be involved in with game development. Games and the people surrounding them were the only things in my life that provided what my family didn’t,” says Khenan. At 23, he learned he loved programming game mechanics, reveling in the opportunity it afforded to revisit the emotions games invoked in him when he was younger. “The laughs, the happiness, the sadness, the fear,“ Khenan said, “were reproducible with a few lines of code and some cool features.” And through that work, he explains, Khenan strives to share those emotions and connect with others like himself.
Screenshot from Alma of the Forest, on which Khenan worked as Project Lead and Lead Programmer
In fact, Khenan has created his own studio, Plot Armor Studios, which he hopes will facilitate his mission to bring gamers together. His goal is to create things that satisfy those folks “who long for that game they can play with their friends for hours and hours on end and meet other gamers like them in the process.” Khenan’s dream is to “make it so they never have to stop or give up on that process,” because that’s how important of a role he feels games can play in people’s lives.
Two of the game jams I participated in had Khenan at the head as project lead, and I’ve seen firsthand how he brings his passion to the development process. He has also been working on his own solo project, Fantasy of the Last Originals, which I played a demo of last year at the Indie Arcade at Colorspace Labs before Khenan and I had officially met. Now he has his sights set on something even bigger. “My most ambitious goal,” Khenan says, “is to build an MMO that pays its playerbase just to play the game.” My mind whirs with the possibilities associated with Khenan's idea. “I’ll have to build a play-to-earn model, likely by building a system that facilitates a free market economy powered by the supply and demand environment of the game,” he explains. If this sounds far-fetched, remind yourself of all the other innovations games have brought to the forefront that we once thought of as odd or unachievable. I talk all the time about Achaea. Did you know that back in the 90s, that game was one of the first (if not the first) to implement microtransactions? Now think of how ubiquitous that model is today. For better or for worse, someone had to conceive of it and take the risk of trying to make it work within a game before we could get to where we are now, where free-to-play (or, if you're being less kind, pay-to-win) is just a way of gaming life and something we rarely give a second thought today. “Games are kind of like a bounce board for risky technology,” Khenan says, citing how the chances the gaming world is willing to take with innovative ideas often then clue in more cautious companies and major investors to what’s worth putting their resources into. “Video games proved to the world that people are interested in using VR,” Khenan says, “and video games will continue to improve the use cases for it, and thus even further encourage investment and innovation in other sectors.”
Khenan's game Fantasy of the Last Originals
And while games are very much about innovating, they're also about humanity and how the world works, even when the action takes place in exotic and fantastic locales. Shoot, we all know about The Corrupted Blood Incident, in World of Warcraft by now, right? That’s old news in one way, but in another it's still incredibly relevant, especially since the advents of COVID-19. Games and the communities within them continue to operate more and more like the real world (albeit often set in surreal and extraordinary environments) every day, holding a mirror—often allegorical but nearly literal at times as well—to the lives of the players who enjoy them. Games have been a place to spend money for decades. It’s only a matter of time before games become a place to earn money as well, right? Someone just has to make it work, and Khenan thinks that someone could be him.
I’ve said before that, if writing a novel is like giving a lecture to your audience, then game development is like having a conversation with them, and if that’s so, then Khenan seems eager to “talk.” The thing about a conversation in the world of game development started by a person like Khenan is that anyone who loves games and joins in on that dialog is going to be better off for it in the end. So long as developers continue to be as passionate as Khenan is, games are going to continue to be an even deeper and more impactful version of that wonderful escape so many of us look for while simultaneously serving as one of our easiest ways to connect, forge friendships, build families, and know that no matter where we are in life, we never, ever have to go it alone.
If you'd like to keep up with Khenan's new projects, you can find him on Linkedin, or check out what he's been working on here.
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