FAQ: Sony's Shahid Ahmad

FAQ: Sony's Shahid Ahmad
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

November 22nd 2013 at 3:00PM

We catch up with PlayStation's indie champion and head of strategic content

Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Shahid Kamal Ahmad, but people know me as @shahidkamal.

I work in Business Development at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, running a team called Strategic Content for Antony Clark. The name of the team is hopefully self-explanatory. Our team has been working closely with indies since March 2012, helping dozens of them bring their creativity, variety and excellence to PlayStation and doing what it takes to make that happen.

What are you working on right now?
It’s 9pm on a Sunday night and just before I started this, I was working on getting my email inbox down to zero. It’s been a weekend marathon project. Then I saw the email about this interview and realised I had promised to get it to you by Monday, and I don’t like to break promises.

More generally? We have a ton of new games for the Vita coming out over the quarter, and some new ones on PS4 to move forward, so that’s on my mind. Also getting more and more excited about Football Manager for the Vita every time I see it.

What was the first video game or product that you ever worked on in the industry?
The first “product” was Alien Attack. It was a crappy Atari 400 BASIC programme, but it had user-defined fonts. I “self published” that in the back of Popular Computing Weekly for a week. I sold zero copies at £5 on home recorded cassette. I’ve used that self-publishing joke twice in public now, so it’s only fair that I out it properly in print so I can be done with it. It’s true. I was self-publishing in 1982. It taught me a valuable lesson in marketing that I didn’t really forget.

My game entertainment before Pong was football in the car park dodging the racist neighbours. Video games indoors? Much better idea.

What was the first video game you ever played, and did you enjoy it?
The first game I played in the arcades was Space Invaders. It was utterly entrancing. This was the birth of a magical new form of entertainment. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was nothing else to distract us kids back then, so the impact was huge. Imagine the thrill of seeing a brand new console and magnify that a thousand times.

The first game I played at home was a rip-off of Pong. It was as great as they all say. You have to bear in mind that my game entertainment before that was football in the car park dodging the racist neighbours. Video games indoors? Much better idea.

What was the most recent video game you ever played, and did you enjoy it?
The most recent game I played on my Vita was Spelunky. It was totally awesome. I would love to spend more time playing it, but my life is filled with the shame of unplayed games, unread books and unwatched films. I want to finally get around to playing Killzone Mercenary on it next, then TxK and OlliOlli. On a related note my team's producer on Spelunky, TxK and OlliOlli was Spencer Low. The guy's a legend.

What is your favourite game ever, and for what reason?
You never forget your first love. Mine was Star Raiders on my Atari 400. I still think it remains unparalleled in so many ways, but mostly because Doug Nebauer managed to get so much into an 8K cartridge. I still remember the sound, the strategy, the little hacks, the slowdown with the explosions, the flashing screen, the warp, the battles won with a single functional photon torpedo, the drift during warp and being able to get Star Commander Class 1 without using shields.

How many hours a week do you spend playing video games?
Nowhere near enough. However, I get to spend more of the week than most ensuring independent developers get onto PlayStation and realise their ambitions. If that’s an excuse, I’ll take it.

There’s a feeling that anything could emerge from anywhere. The creative energy, the vibe in the indie space, the power of PS4, crowd-funding, physical things being made in less time than ever before – there’s so much to enjoy that I couldn’t possibly list it all.

What area of the industry needs more investment?
The industry needs more designers, true designers whose calling is to make videogames and nothing else. We need UI experts, and UX engineers. Tools are getting better. Game making is within the reach of more and more people. That’s great. I believe games can be so much more, do so much more, give so much more, move people so much more. And I think an area that could use more investment is actually outside the industry, and that’s education. I’m delighted with our PlayStation First initiative. We in Britain generally need to do better by our kids in so many ways. There is no better investment into the future than in education.

What do you enjoy about the video games industry today?
There’s a feeling that anything could emerge from anywhere. The creative energy, the vibe in the indie space, the power of PlayStation 4, my relationships with partners and potential partners-to-be, working with a great team at PlayStation, crowd-funding, physical things being made in less time than ever before – there’s so much to enjoy that I couldn’t possibly list it all.

What disappoints you about the video games industry today?
Although as an industry we’ve got a lot better, I’d like to see more women represented, particularly in development, and I’d like to see greater diversity, though that too has improved massively over the years. It doesn’t have to be women and minorities having more positive representation in games either, though that certainly wouldn’t hurt. What reassures me is that few work environments appear to actually be hostile to women and minorities any more. In the department I work in alone, the amount of diversity we have is breathtaking and wonderful. I love it.

The player can be educated too you know. People like positive role models and though at first there might be a section of the community that is not keen, sooner or later, acceptance through positive reinforcement is more or less inevitable. That’s just the way culture works. I really don’t blame the industry for this. It’s too complicated and issue to point fingers, but once again, education helps.

I’d like to see more women represented, particularly in development, and I’d like to see greater diversity. It doesn’t have to be women and minorities having more positive representation in games either, though that certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Of all the games you have worked on, which has been your favourite?
Chimera. It was my own. I was back in the game. It was exciting. I was trying to rip-off – I mean, pay homage to – Knight Lore, the greatest technical achievement I’d ever seen. Although earlier I did the C64 version of Jet Set Willy, the C64 version of Chimera was particularly good technically.

Later I was to do Nightshade on the C64 so in events that almost went full circle, Tim Stamper wanted me to do the C64 versions of Knight Lore and Alien 8. It didn’t happen. Chimera though, I was having the time of my life and doing four versions of that in quick succession catapulted me to heights I wouldn’t reach again for another, oh, almost 30 years. Last year I remastered Chimera on the bus and stuck it out for free. I’d like to do Chimera 2 at some point.

Of those that weren’t my own? Vlambeer’s Super Crate Box for PlayStation Mobile was a big turning point, and I know it was going to be a big turning point. Our outreach really gathered steam once that was agreed.

What game that you were not involved with would you most liked to have worked on?
From my development history, Knight Lore and Alien 8 on the C64. I came this close. It didn’t happen. It has taken me 27 years to get over it. More recently, I’d have loved to have been involved in The Last of Us. The game is an epic. Dictionary epic, not slang epic.

What other video games developer do you most admire?
There are so many greats. I will feel bad for omitting so many. Right now, if it has to be one unqualified pick, it has to be Naughty Dog, but I have the deepest admiration for the likes of Honeyslug, FuturLab, Jeff Minter, Derek Yu, Dennaton, Vlambeer, Team 17, Mike Bithell, Dakko Dakko, Phil Fish, Klei and too many others to mention. I feel ashamed for not including many more. In the past? Obviously Ultimate, Origin, Warren Spector, Chris Chrawford, Doug Nebauer to name but a few from an interminable list.

I’d have loved to have been involved in developing The Last of Us. The game is an epic. Dictionary epic, not slang epic.

What hobbies, collections or interests do you have that are completely unrelated to video games?
I play music. These days I enjoy my Dean fretless acoustic bass. I’m also learning the ukulele. I like writing. I like public speaking. I also founded “Beyond the Final Boss” with Byron Atkinson-Jones and Mike Bithell and still run the blog. I’ve started playing chess again. I think I might get hooked. Oh and I also love pipes and cigars. I read prodigiously and cannot stop myself from buying books. I love my PS3 and not just for games – it’s become my family’s central device for Netflix. I’m nuts about technology and design, and can’t help using and buying apps and gadgets. I’m a family man through and through.

What is your favourite book, movie, TV show and album of all time?
The Qur’an, American Beauty, The Professionals, Brilliant Trees.