E3 and the Art of Video Game Design: An Interview with Shahid Ahmad
Yesterday marked the start of the Electronic Gaming Expo (E3), one of the biggest (if not the biggest) gaming events of the year. Gamers around the world are tuned into their favorite video game website or blog for updates from the show and salivating over the new trailers, release dates and hardware being announced. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Shahid Ahmad, a video game programmer and designer, and someone who played an integral part in PlayStation Mobile project that was announced by Sony last night.
E3 and the Art of Game Design
Can you give our readers a bit of background? Where did you grow up, educational background, etc.?
I was born in central London, and have never really moved too far away. Today, I work a stone’s throw from where I was born, where I grew up and where my father worked for most of his life. I love London and I don’t think I could live anywhere else.
I was an exceptionally bright pupil at primary school, but dumbed down to fit in at a secondary school where the main motivation was not study, but to survive. Racism was rife in those days. Although a minority of students managed to thrive towards the end, I didn’t, and part of the reason was that a friend gave me a colour leaflet at the end of the school year in 1982 promoting the forthcoming ZX Spectrum. It’s not often we can categorically point to a moment of clarity in our lives and say “that was the moment that changed everything, forever”, but that was it.
How did you get into video game design?
I’m not sure I ever became a designer, I’m just glad I never knew it at the time, or it would have got in the way of me just making games, That leaflet pushed me to pester my mother to buy me an Atari 400, which seemed to be by far the most advanced computer of its time. The graphics were jaw-droppingly good, but the system was expensive. My mum didn’t have an awful lot of money, and to this day I am still surprised that she went out on a limb and spent what to our family was a fortune to feed my passion. Inspired by the likes of Greg Christensen, who wrote the Atari APX award-winning Caverns of Mars, I taught myself assembler and started to make demos and small games. I got published by Artic Computing. http://chimera2010.com/arctic-computing-letter-from-chris-turner/ The game I made was awful, but it was a start. Much like the iOS programmers of today, once the game was out, it worked as a calling card and eventually I got onto other platforms, including the Commodore 64 and Spectrum and had Software Projects convince me to make Jet Set Willy on the Commodore 64. My hubris led me to believe I could create that in a month. I was right, but it was not easy.
One of your early successes was Chimera and you recently embarked on a project to remake the game. Can you describe the project for us? How is this project going? What inspired you to remake it?
My career path is only a path when you look back at it. I made few conscious decisions, much of what I’ve ended up doing was dictated by opportunity and circumstance. The decisions I did make were to move from programming to production, then from production to publishing, then to funding and after a brief stint as a web consultant, to get back to video games by joining Sony. The best challenges, the ones that pushed me hardest mentally and creatively were iin the programming of video games. The feeling I enjoyed in the early days has remained vivid in my mind and the resurgence of that ecosystem in the form of the modern independent video games development scene tempted me to start making a game again. Chimera was a turning point for me in the 1980s. There was a point where I almost quit, but the feeling of getting Chimera accepted by Telecomsoft has never left me, and the buzz I felt making all of those versions back in those heady days is always there. I wanted to remake the game using all that I’ve learned since its original release. There were things I would have done differently had I done a sequel, and Pandora was originally going to be a sequel to that game. It took a different path. The remake of Chimera is an attempt to recapture the feeling of the end of Chimera where I was on top of the world and could do no wrong, but to take a different path to the one I eventually took with Pandora. Thus the subtitle “this time get it right”. It’s not just getting the game right, it’s getting my future right.
I wanted to design the game this time, and although the exercise has been one of a strange kind of vanity, the motive is to humbly reject all that and to actually design something that is going to be different, fun, engaging and successful, success being measured using any number of yardsticks.
My career and family have to take priority though, so development has been much slower than I would have liked, but I haven’t entirely stopped and would like to finish it and release it at some point. I’d love to give you an end-date, but that would be far easier to do if I was getting funded to do it. Not easy when my day job is so challenging, demanding and fun itself.
I think of programming as an art. Would you agree? What does (or doesn’t) make it “artistic?”
Programming is a craft. It can be an art of course, but it takes a special kind of genius to reach that level. I’d say Donald Knuth was an artist. I’d say Chris Crawford was an artist. There are others, but they are all interesting people outside of their trade. Art doesn’t get created in a vacuum, it is the embodiment of the material interface between an interesting person and a medium. I doubt I will ever reach that level, for me, my programming is a craft and one I’m just a tinkerer at. It’s more like woodworking for me. I can make tables and chairs, but I aspire to make an armoire or even a house.
Who are some of the game designers you admire? What are some of the games that you think represent excellent game design?
That’s a difficult question to answer and sadly, it will mean I leave games and people out who are hugely worthy, but let’s give it a try.
Matthew Smith, who despite saying some less than complimentary things about my version of Jet Set Willy (without understanding the circumstances) was a true genius.
The Stamper brothers, who I spent a lot of time talking to after making Nightshade on the C64 were truly inspirational. It was their Knight Lore and Alien 8 that inspired me to make Chimera, a shameless knock-off of their visual style.
Jeff Minter, who continues to make brilliant neon-tinged games today, despite being inspired by familiar arcade mechanics, always had a brilliant understanding of pacing, difficulty, control and overload that took you into an alpha state. Not many people remember Hellgate, but that was a game that took you into alpha state very quickly. If you didn’t comply, you were toast. Today, his iOS version of Gridrunner is perfect. He hasn’t lost that touch and continues to understand how to create a good control.
As well as being an excellent writer and technical genius, Chris Crawford taught me one of the most valuable lessons of all – if U-shaped lakes mess up your AI, just take the U-shaped lakes out. Today, my version of that is “you need a box of constraints in the first place before it makes sense to think outside the box”. Crawford understood constraints and had the lateral genius to escape them when it was important to do that.
Hideki Konno and Shigeru Miyamoto. No explanation necessary. I will say that Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo was probably the greatest accomplishment in the history of video games. The balance, the progression, the longevity, the frustration, the depth have never been matched. I played that game every day for two hours (at least) for two years and improved all the time.
Doug Neubauer for creating Star Raiders, one of the greatest space games ever made and in my opinion, unmatched even today for its diamond-like integrity. To think that this work of art fit into an 8K cartridge simply boggles the mind. I still dream of the sound.
Eugene Jarvis for Defender alone. A hard core game if ever there was one. Then he also made Robotron 2084, which has formed the design language for every twin-stick shooter created since.
David Jaffe for God of War, a game for which the word ‘epic’ is truly applicable. There is a majesty to God of War that no game before reached and few since have matched.
David Eastman, the designer of Conflict and Floor 13. He really did something different with those games and I have been begging him to make something ever since those halcyon days.
My apologies to all the greats I’ve missed. I mean no disrespect.
Do you use pencils in your day-to-day life? How about at work? What role (if any) does the pencil play in your creative process?
Ceaselessly and religiously since getting my first box of Palomino Blackwing 602s. Despite being a technology-embracing loon, despite OmniFocus, Simplenote, Notational Velocity, iA Writer, Writeroom, Scrivener and so forth inhabiting most of my machines, there is nothing that can replace the utterly transforming power of thought being transmuted into substance, giving rich audio, visual and tactile feedback on a material that will never be the same again after you alter it, despite the inclusion of an eraser. It is the immutability of that action that makes the transient thought time-bound and material. To bring tangibility to the intangible is the single greatest invention of the human being, is it not?
I think on paper. I can certainly use Penultimate and a Cosmonaut stylus, I even enjoy a whiteboard, but give me a Black n’ Red A5 spiralbound and a Palomino Blackwing 602 and I will create my life before me. This sacred combination is the difference between an idea being a storm of electrons in my isolate brain and something that exists in the world of human beings, that affects others, that affects me.
I carry a Blackwing with me always, and a tiny Moleskine, as well as the Black n’ Red at home for me to help capture the moment and to shape my future.
Do you use any other creative outlets? Writing, drawing, songwriting, etc.…
I write on several blogs, two of which were reasonably successful, but they took a lot out of me and it’s tough to sustain good quality writing, or anger against oppression without burning out completely. I’m writing several books, and the best place for them I’m sure most will agree is on my hard disk, but let’s see where that goes. I used to write songs and record them completely, and I used to make music for video games, which was an interesting creative challenge. I tried my hand at drawing once after reading the seminal “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. I was staggered at how much I improved in a short space of time, but there was a limit to how long I was prepared to draw upside down. Other people do this far better and I don’t really have the visual imagination that say my wife does, she is a legitimate artist of course. My daughters are also way better than I’ll ever be. So writing, music and video games is where my creative abilities end I think.
Who are some of your favorite artists, writers and musicians?
Again, I will be guilty of huge sins of omission here. I liked Picasso, but I’m visually illiterate and couldn’t tell you why.
As for writers, there are far too many to list, but they’d include Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera near the very top.
Musicians? David Bowie, The Police, Stevie Wonder, The Cure, Blur, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Joe Jackson, The Jam, Antoine DuFour, Squeeze, The The, Talk Talk, Elbow, Snow Patrol, Lemon Jelly, Pink Floyd how long have we got?
“Making games is like malaria. Once you get bitten by the bug, it’s there for life.” I love this quote, and I think a number of artists and writers can relate to this. Can you elaborate on it?
Art is not just about what you express. It’s what you go through when you’re expressing it. It’s that relationship between the process and the medium through the pain of the individual that creates the art. I miss the imprint of that process. That intensity of feeling, that serenity of the state of flow, that suffering and the absolute knowledge and conviction that you will get through it, all of that, it’s like malaria. It will always attack you at some point in your life. You cannot deny it, you cannot delete it, you cannot predict it, you cannot escape it. So I want the freedom to embrace it, to wrestle with it, to suffer through it and emerge through it again, stronger, lighter, leaner, with the pain behind me and the art before me. If I can get there, I think I will be happy, God willing.
I understand Sony made a pretty big announcement at E3 this last night that you were a part of. Can you tell us a little about that?
The PlayStation®Mobile announcement? I think that’s an enormously exciting initiative, not least because of the wide range of developers we’re working with who are going to be bringing new content to the platform, which is going to be running on a wide variety of Sony and HTC mobile devices. It’s been my privilege to source content for PlayStation®Mobile, mainly from the indie games development community. I can’t wait to see what these talented people produce on this very open platform. It excites me also because all the reports I’ve had from our partners is that the development environment is one of the easiest ways of making games out there. Not just from a console manufacturer’s perspective, but from any perspective. Right now you could download the SDK on your PC and be on your way to making games in minutes in C#. I just find that hugely exciting personally as well as professionally.
If you want to read more of Shahid’s thoughts, you can check out his blog here.