The Strange Story of the Video Game That’s ‘GTA with Dogs’
When Iranian pro basketball player Behdad Sami busted his shin in 2011, he chased another unlikely dream: to release his own video game.
I get a lot of emails. You probably do, too. A great percentage of mine come from people asking if I'll look at this game, that game, some game. Comes with the territory. But this email was completely unique.
"My name is Behdad Sami, and I wanted to tell you a little about myself, and my game, in the hope that you could write about it."
OK, so far, so ordinary. It's not unusual for me to open my inbox of a morning and find a message or two from independent developers running the whole show themselves, making the game and reaching out for coverage. But then, an unprecedented twist:
"I was the world's first professional Iranian basketball player to ever play in the USA. I have been a pro basketball player since 2008, and I have played all over the world. In 2011, I broke my shin, and had to go through a lot of rehab and have a couple of operations. In my down time, I figured I would tackle another dream of mine, and that was to create a video game."
Being the thorough journalist I am, I immediately got onto Google to check out the man behind the missive. Sure enough, Behdad Sami has played in the ABA in the US, for the Georgia Grizzlies and the San Diego Surf. Not quite the NBA, but who am I to talk? I can't throw a basketball in a straight line, let alone play a whole match at point guard. Sami's also turned out for professional teams in Portugal, Qatar and Iran. He didn't play for two years after damaging his shin playing for Guifoes Sport Club in Portugal's ProLiga in 2011, at which point his attention shifted to more digital pursuits. Checks out.
So what's this game about, then? A sports title, probably; almost certainly involving balls. Right? Yeah, no. Not quite.
"During my season in Portugal, I had this idea for a dog video game..."
A dog video game?
"My game will be a first of its kind. There's literally nothing like it. I wanted to make something that not only is different, but something that doesn't exist that all ages would love. My game is an open-world 3D cel-shaded third-person game for mobile, about vigilante crime fighting dogs that have their friend stolen by the city's most ruthless gangster. They come together to not only take down Don Vino, but also go from a gang of vigilantes to an official police K9 unit dog.
"I made my game inspired by Need for Speed and Grand Theft Auto. I love how in Need for Speed you can choose from a few cars, and as you accomplish missions and sub-missions, you get more money to purchase different cars and pimp them out. In my game, you can start by picking one of three dogs, and as you win, you unlock more dogs, accessories, and powers."
A dog video game. I asked for screenshots, and you can see from what I received, published here: a dog video game. A game called Get 'Em, to be precise. Which Sami isn't just the ideas man behind – he's gone out and learned whatever he's needed to in order to make his dream a reality.
"I have done everything for this game. I've written the game from scratch, produced, directed, and even designed the entire world. I had never used game engines before, and we used Unity for this game. I made the entire world, from all the terrain, to laying each street tile and so on. Since my (two, hired) developers have their hands full, I figured I would learn world-building and spent three weeks pretty much sleeping about ten hours total to put together everything, which I am very proud of.
"It's taken me over three years to get to where I am. My goal is to make history with this game. I want the world to know that a guy who jumped into a polar-opposite industry, with no experience, can make an indie game that looks, feels, and plays like something EA or other big-time companies would release."
Sami wrote a whole lot more in his initial email, about the size of the game (1.5 square miles at launch), plans for environment expansion, and the various abilities of the selectable dog characters. The release plan right now is a free download with optional in-app purchases—"I see the future of gaming as being strictly mobile," he writes. But it's the hardship that Sami's been through that leapt off the screen at me, that made me want to highlight Get 'Em here—a game I haven't played and that doesn't immediately appeal on a personal level, but one that has such an unusual story behind it.
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Sami took his idea to Jimmy Smith, the father of a friend who's also one of the best-known advertising executives in the States having worked with Motorola, Gatorade and Nike. Smith set him up a meeting with EA, who—so Sami says—loved it, but things did not work out. Sami lost a lot of money: "I was around a year in, I'd lost $30k, and still had nothing to show for my game. I was beyond depressed."
Further failed collaborations followed, before a breakthrough. Sami got in touch with Oregon studio SuperGenius, a team whose art has been seen in Marvel: Contest of Champions, Broken Age, Skylanders: Trap Team, and a whole bunch of Telltale Games releases—no doubt you can see the stylistic similarities between those adventures and the screens on this page.
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"I decided that I would stay in Oregon until I put a team together. I couldn't afford to spend any money from my budget, so for the next two months I lived in my car. Literally. I would shower at 24 Hour Fitness, eat samples from grocery stores, watch movies on my phone, and lay my back seats down to sleep in my car every night." SuperGenius set Sami up with some contacts and he was ultimately able to test out a couple of student coders: "The amount they made in a week surpassed what other freelancers had achieved in over a year. I hired both guys, rented an apartment in Portland, bought two iMacs, and for the last year and half I have been finishing my game here.
"I don't believe anything is impossible, and right now I'm only a couple months away from release."
I wish Sami the best with his game. He's clearly an incredibly determined person, and when Get 'Em does come out, even if it's not the most fantastic time you'll ever have with your hands on a smartphone, it's certainly come from a place that no other title of its kind, of any kind, has. I hope he emailed some other people, too, and that word spreads about this strange story of the Iranian basketball player who busted his leg and became a game developer instead, just because that's the direction his dreams decided to go in.
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