Fresh Dope Games’ Craig Tinsley on the intersection of gaming and black culture

The Fresh Dope Games logo
Image: Fresh Dope Games

Craig Tinsley is the founder of Fresh Dope Games, the studio behind Rap Quest and Rap Quest 2. The RPGs infuse the iconic genre with the colorful world of Hip-Hop, catering to a unique audience. We spoke with him to learn more about Fresh Dope Games, the parallels between popular culture and black culture, and the future of Rap Quest.

  • LoopBreak: The Rap Quest games blend hip-hop culture with RPG elements. Can you talk about your love for the two and the process of combining them?

Tinsley: I came into contact with these two loves of mine simultaneously in the late 80s, when home consoles were starting to become a thing, and Hip-Hop was taking the proverbial training wheels off, commercially. I think falling in love with different mediums at the same time created a multi-faceted perspective on how to pursue passion and maintain diversity in expression. I also fell in love with animation in cartoon form, which made it so strange to see such a dearth of crossover content during the 80s and 90s including both simultaneously in any deep and impactful ways.

Gaming was getting a bad rep around the same time that Hip-Hop was, in the early 1990s. For folks growing up in that era, the most outspoken and influential rappers were many of our heroes because they illuminated our lives to the rest of the world. I remember hearing Biggie’s verse on ‘Juicy’ about Super Nintendo & Sega Genesis, and as a gamer at the time I appreciated that somebody of his fame was even bringing it up at all, let alone alluding to him dreaming to have access to it. Sometimes I think about how 2Pac fans would have responded if he made even a brief statement in one of his famous interviews about how important it would be for Black people to get into game-making to help us understand how to make those changes he never saw.

For me, combining these two forms of media was all about looking at what many people gravitate towards when we get into video games: Arcade Action, RPG Elements, and a few Puzzles here and there. The spirit of Hip-Hop is about mixing, blending, sampling, and self-referential nods to those in the know. I wanted to make sure that Rap Quest strikes a delicate balance between being submerged in the culture while still being a playable narrative with goals and level-ups.

  • LoopBreak: With over 10,000 downloads, how has the player response been to Rap Quest 2? Has feedback been factored into quality-of-life and content updates?

Tinsley: It’s been a long haul with this game. At this point, there are about 30K+ downloads each on iOS & Android (they don’t report the next milestone until you hit 50K) and I’m so grateful for all of the Rap Quest heads out there! I set out to build this series to prove my hunch that there is an audience for this type of game, just waiting for the right opportunity to come out of the woodwork. It’s important to have those feedback mechanisms in any endeavor you share with the world, and I think the feedback has been mainly positive and encouraging.

Many of the RQ2 reviewers appreciate the game for what it’s attempting to create; even the tough criticisms come from a place of wanting to see the game at its peak fitness, which I totally can relate to. I think being a solo developer makes it extra challenging when you can’t immediately give people what they want because they’re asking for AAA-level features and content update schedules. When Fresh Dope Games is fully-funded, this game will really be pumping out high-quality Hip-Hop-saturated content frequently.

I’m really looking for partners, co-founders, game devs, and creatives to help me build this whole operation out into a proper game studio. That way I can more rapidly execute on what I have always seen this game series being at its evolved state, but that funding piece is trick-aaay (shout to Run DMC). I definitely took on a hefty project, considering all of the intricacies in building a Rap career IRL (writing, producing, recording, performing, touring, marketing, publishing, etc.) and what that even looks like in a mobile game format. But to me, this game had to be made to establish a framework, and the players and fans have shown up and made themselves heard.

  • LoopBreak: As a black game developer, what has your experience been like when it comes to promotion, networking, and accessing resources?

Tinsley: With the several upon several challenges I’ve faced just trying to get this game out the door and keep it updated, promotion (which doing solo, requires a whole different muscle from the creation part) kinda took a back seat. I’ve definitely opened up a Twitch channel so people could watch me do the game dev, but I really need to be on a more frequent, tighter schedule with that. Once I can lock that down, I think clipping out content and posting more of it on socials is not too hard. It’s just something I would prefer to alley-oop to somebody more passionate about that specific role.

I am a member of Black In Gaming, an organization that seeks to infuse the gaming industry with more Black game creators and professionals. I’ve found that org as a valuable resource for how my career is merging back into game dev from previously being waaaay off track (don’t ask, lol). But the hard conversation about “where is the funding & support for Black game devs?” has not had any definitive conclusions in all the many different networking circles I’ve been a part of. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely initiatives out there, even from some of the bigger corporations in and adjacent to the game industry. My thing is, I really wish there were more ‘rappers & ball players’ that got into investment in this industry considering how much they consume it. I have a whole mastermind idea around that too, but…mixed company, nahmean?

  • LoopBreak: I know that you have confirmed Rap Quest 3 is in development. What are some of your biggest goals/aspirations with that game? Do you have any desire to do something totally different down the road?

Tinsley: Rap Quest 3 is a dream at the moment. It was planned out from the point that I decided to do RQ2 back in 2015, because the vision is to eventually step my way to a final version (RQ4 or later) that fully realizes the initial scope of my idea, complete with MMO networking, mocap cutscenes with celebrity voice acting, seasonal events, and the whole shebang. I tried multiple times to get a project started for RQ3, most recently in 2022, using Unity rather than Construct, but pulling people together without proper funding proved impossibly difficult when you don’t have all of your bases covered from a staffing perspective.

So yeah, that’s on ice for now, but I definitely have several other non-Rap game properties that I want to get past the prototype phase. Hopefully one day you’ll hear about Missed The Bus, Block Lords, and more titles from Fresh Dope Games. My current intention is to give a final push to Rap Quest 2 to tie up some loose ends and upgrade the audiovisuals, and then get to some of those other 2D game ideas. Then, after graduating to greater levels of experience, I’ll be circling back around to bring the Rap Quest series back to the public in a much more thorough delivery.

Rap Quest and Rap Quest 2 are both available now on the Google Play Store. We look forward to seeing what Fresh Dope Games cooks up in the future! For more insightful interviews with black video game developers, LoopBreak is your place!