Shahid Ahmad is one of PlayStation’s most valuable employees – he’s in charge of the Strategic Content team, who bear the responsibility of working with developers to bring their titles to PlayStation platforms. Ahmad is one of the industry’s hardest working, driven, passionate and compassionate individuals. Along with Shuhei Yoshida, Scott Rohde and Adam Boyes, Shahid Ahmad is one of PlayStation’s most recognized individuals, and for good reason.
Interview conducted December 19, 2014
How did you get into the games industry?
In 1982, a friend of mine at school gave me a leaflet for the ZX Spectrum, which had not yet been released. Up until that point, I had taken computer science classes at school, and worked on an old-fashioned Research Machines black and white computer, which was frankly not a lot of fun. When I saw this leaflet, it promised the most amazing power; a color screen and 48K of RAM for the top end model, which was a ridiculous amount at the time. It was an extraordinary promise, which excited me! I went into the summer holidays eager to look at computing again. I get very geeky about stuff – when I get into something, I really get into something. So I did all this research, looked at magazines, went to loads of shops, and I found a machine which made the Spectrum look tame. That was the Atari 400. I really wanted one, but I wasn’t able to get one. I begged my mother endlessly to get one, and one day, out of the blue, she took me to the shop and bought it! It was the most generous thing that she ever did for me. We didn’t have a lot of money, and this machine was several hundred pounds, it was extraordinary what she did. I took it home and my obsession began. I started to read up about the American scene at the time – I was very influenced by America. When I was younger, I was very influenced by BMX, and the only place that was happening was the West Coast. This young 16-year-old guy who made a game for the Atari and won the grand prize in a competition inspired me. I thought, ‘If he could do it, I could do it too!’ It was that naïve attitude you have when you first get into something – and I would spend 72 hours at a time teaching myself to program. After several months, I managed to finish a game, which I advertised in a newspaper. I sold 0 copies. That was my first lesson in marketing. Eventually, after sending a few attempts to publishers, I was accepted by one, and that’s how it started.
How did you get into the publishing end of the industry?
Well, my development journey lasted close to 12 years – and I learned almost all there was when it came to developing. One day I decided I wanted to set up a large developer of my own, and thought I would need to know all sides of the industry. So I joined a publishing company, Virgin Interactive, in 1997. From Virgin, I went to Hasbro, after which I created my own startup about finding new talent and bringing them to market. That carried on for a little while, and I joined Sony in 2005. I started in developer relations, before moving into business development. In business development, I started a team called Strategic Content, which is a team that widely got involved with independent developers. We’ve really made an attempt to shift the way Sony works with developers and be more open, and it’s had a ton of success!
How does it feel to work with developers in bringing their unannounced games to Playstation and not being able to talk about it?
It’s not frustrating at all. It’s a real pleasure. It makes sense when working with a developer that when a game is announced, there’s a real story to tell. Otherwise, people just get tired and bored. I’ve sometimes worked with developers who are very open with regards to announcing their games, and other times it makes sense to wait a while before it’s announced for maximum impact. A good example of that was No Man’s Sky. I’d been building a deal with Hello Games for many, many months before the announcement at E3. For Sean to step out on stage and announce the game for Playstation made for such a good story, it had such an impact. It wouldn’t have carried that impact otherwise.
How have the developers you’ve worked with influenced you in your own development?
I would say that I’m more of a hobbyist developer at this point, although I will be able to indulge in my development over the winter break. But my day job is such a joy and such a privilege. I get to work with developers close up who are working on games much more interesting and diverse than games I’d ever be able to make. One day, I’ll make games again, but they’ll only be the kinds of games that I make. Working with so many different developers, they all have different ideas; they’re all interesting people with their own approaches and techniques. It’s such a joy to work with them in bringing their games to Playstation. That’s what keeps me focused and motivated and excited. This is an industry that I care about very much, an industry that’s provided for my family and I and allowed us to thrive. I feel an obligation to give back, and it gives me a lot of pleasure and satisfaction to support developers in their dreams.
You’re often hailed as the “champion of the Vita!” Could you explain your love for the Vita and perhaps provide a number in terms of how many games for the platform you’re working on?
We’re working on over 50 games for the Vita. There’s a lot of great stuff to come! Of course, I work for Sony, so I’m biased, but the Vita is my personal favorite system. It’s like a toy box; there are so many inputs in the machine. You’ve got all these sensors, the analog sticks, and the stunning screen. It looks, sounds and feels beautiful. I thought, ‘independent developers should love developing for this system, but they don’t know about it.’ So I made it my goal to bring in as many independent developers as I could and get them to make games for this machine. That was in the beginning of 2012. And it worked! At that time, I made a prediction that by mid-2013, the Vita would become the go to place for independent developers. Everyone laughed at the idea. A year later, they were no longer laughing – it had become true! Loads of independent developers are choosing the Vita – leading to more and more cool games which we’ve supported Now we don’t have to do that as much, because the fans go to the developers and ask them to bring the game to Vita, and then the developers approach me to make it happen! That’s the most gratifying thing that could have happened!
Last year, when I was researching purchasing a Vita, so many people told me it was dead because there were no AAA exclusives. I told them I wanted indies, like Thomas Was Alone, which I know you were instrumental in bringing to Vita.
I have to say, I stalked Mike Bithell [the creator of Thomas Was Alone] to try to bring his game to the Vita. He must’ve thought I was crazy at the time. And now we’re bringing over Volume as an exclusive. I understand the viewpoint of people who want AAA games, and I understand their disappointment. The important point for me is, games are games are games. It’s going to be a great experience or it’s not. The games we have on Vita now are a great experience. My argument was, if, from a business perspective, its proving difficult for publishers to bring large AAA games to Vita, then we should at least have great games on Vita. And who’s good at making great games? Independent developers. They don’t just do the same things; they try new stuff, they create exciting, unique experiences.
Talk about the Playstation Experience, specifically the staggering number of Vita games announced.
It was a much more public event than we’ve ever done. And it was done at a time when the relationships with independent partners we have were greater than ever before. That led to the unique conditions of the Playstation Experience: a large number of developers face to face with a large number of fans. Not other industry members, as is often the cast at events like GDC or E3, but actual gamers and fans.
Something like 12 Vita games were announced at the event, which was wonderful! To see the culmination of our hard work light up the eyes of Vita gamers like yourself is why we do what we do. There are many, many more games coming to the Vita in 2015 – there’s no shortage of games on the machine.
You recently teased on Twitter that you’ve taken up a new position at Sony. What does this new position entail?
The new position is Director of Strategic Content. Previously Strategic Content was a business development team. It’s since become a much more formal and integral part of the Playstation business – essentially its own department. One could say that before, it was experimental, and the experiment worked, so now we’ve been given free reign to continue. If you thought things were big and exciting before, just wait! The plan is to continue bringing the gamers games that they enjoy!
Your LinkedIn says that you’re the founder of something called Beyond the Final Boss. What is that, exactly?
Beyond the Final Boss is a website I created where I ask people in the games industry who experienced bullying to answer a set of standard questions. The purpose of it is because bullying and self-harm and suicide in youngsters is one of the most tragic things that can happen. It’s personally affected me and it’s not something that should be happening in this day and age. What I was really upset about is that a lot of youngsters don’t have anything positive to look at. I thought that a lot of people in the games industry were victims of bullying in their younger days and are now enjoying a wonderful life. I thought it would be great if a youngster who had been bullied could look up to some of these examples, and think that, sure, life is hard, but it can become a joy. Sadly, it doesn’t become a joy for everybody, but at least this gives them some hope, a fighting chance. I asked a bunch of developers questions about their past and present, and the message was ‘hang in there! It will get better, there is always hope!’ It’s important for these youngsters to know that while there may be blackness now, it will go away. They can look at these people who went through such hard times, and are now successfully making games for a living. I want them to think that they can do that too. I’d like to make the website a bit better, which I’ll work on this holiday, and I have a number of profiles to post up. I’d really love it if people could support Beyond the Final Boss by having our logo on their sites or Facebook pages and if you click it, it takes you to the website. For me, it’d be great if some youngster who’s feeling down, having a bad life, could find our website and find a profile that inspires them, and think that everything could be okay. If we could help just one youngster, that would be enough for me.
Could you tell me the story of bringing No Man’s Sky to Playstation?
There are some things that, due to business confidentiality, I can’t talk about, but I’ll cover as much as I can. A few years ago, this new studio arranged to see me when I was in Developer Relations. Sean [Murray], with one of his colleagues, visited me at the Playstation offices in London. Within about ten minutes, I realized that this was a really special team. Sean impressed me immediately. He had ambition, focus, understanding, clarity; all the qualities of a developer that was going places. I then saw their concept for Joe Danger, and they wanted to know if there was any possibility to bring their game to Playstation. I referred them to the Pub Fund, and Joe Danger became a Pub-Funded game that came to Playstation first. Some years later when I’d moved to Strategic Content, I discussed with Sean the possibility of bringing Joe Danger 1 and 2 to Vita. We did that deal, and it was great! It was nice for me to be back in touch with Sean again. Before the first public reveal of No Man’s Sky, Sean shared the video with me privately and wanted to get my take on the video. As soon as I saw it, I went nuts. I sent him text after text after text. I said, ‘we need this on Playstation, and we need it now. What do you want, what do you need?’ And he didn’t reply. Of course, that’s because he was preparing for this big event and reveal at VGX. When he got back, we decided to have a conversation about it, and that’s when the business discussions began. It took months, because it had to be right for everybody. It was a really complex thing to create before E3, but we did it! That was one of the proudest moments of my career.
Did you also help orchestrate No Man’s Sky’s presence at PlayStation Experience?
Playstation is a HUGE company; a lot of people are going to be involved at every stage. If not for Adam Boyes, No Man’s Sky at E3 and PSX wouldn’t have happened. There’s a guy on my team called Ben Andac, the Producer on No Man’s Sky. He helps coordinate communications between Hello Games and PlayStation. It was Ben who was primarily involved with the internal coordination of No Man’s Sky at PlayStation Experience. Although PSX was an SCEA event, both SCEA and SCEE have a much closer relationship now than ever before. For instance, SCEA had a lot to do with our Vita initiative and are now knocking it out of the park with Gio Corsi’s team on Vita, having done so well for PS4 launch already.
What are you most passionate about outside of gaming?
I’m most passionate about the welfare and well-being and education of children. In terms of hobbies, I like music; I used to be in bands and so on. I play a fretless acoustic bass, which I still practice every now and then. I also have a 5-string electric bass, which I don’t play as often as I like. I’m setting up the ShaShed, so now that’s much more likely. I’m a voracious reader; I read all kinds of things. I study psychology, specifically the psychology of teamwork. I’m a confirmed tech-geek! I’m a football fan, I support Liverpool, “You’ll never walk alone!”
[I’m an Arsenal fan, and the day after this interview, Liverpool and Arsenal played, so we spoke about football for a bit before concluding the interview!]