Humility, passion, and indie games: Shahid Ahmad embodies the new face of PlayStation
For months now, Strategic Content wizard and PS Vita champion Shahid Kamal Ahmad has been spending almost every waking moment of his life courting developers and stocking his favorite platform with creative indie games. As Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's Senior Business Development Manager, Shahid is at least partially responsible for bringing more than two dozen games to PS Vita. Thomas Was Alone. Luftrausers. Hotline Miami. Super Crate Box. Lone Survivor.
To a handheld struggling at market, he's a bonafide PlayStation hero.
You wouldn't know it from talking to him, though. As we struggled to find a suitably quiet place for conversation amidst the bustle of the J.W. Marriott hotel lounge (a stone's throw from the Los Angeles Convention Center and E3 2013), I was taken aback by Shahid's air of humility. Here was a man whose actions were fundamentally changing the way Sony approaches indie developers and how the mainstream gaming public, in turn, views Sony. At no time since word of his outreach first reached the gaming public had the fruits of his labor been more apparent. Sony's stunning E3 press conference was on everybody's minds, and the morning air was abuzz with last-night excitement over "Sony's finest hour": a stylish shaming of its next-gen rival.
Much of the post-conference conversation revolved around the eight indie developers that Sony put onstage, front-and-center, to demonstrate its commitment to the little guy. Would that moment have been possible without the precedent set by Shahid and his Strategic Content team?
"What's happened is not so much that our approach has changed, it's that the developer community has changed," Shahid attests. "There's this incredible flowering of new life everywhere, new creativity everywhere, new developers everywhere . . . The goals behind the engagement haven't changed. A lot of it came about as a result of several discussions and meetings with developers we had at the beginning of 2012 to help this policy of engagement take place."
At first, I'm curious--even suspicious--of the indie push's origins. It's impossible to deny the impact that games like Bastion, Super Meat Boy, and Fez have had on gamer interests and the industry at large. These and other small-titles-turned-mega-hits flourished or even originated on Xbox 360. "Yesterday's indie is tomorrow's Minecraft," Shahid agrees. So, is Sony's recent push to attract indie developers a response to the competition? "Engagement with partners has always been something that we're really, really conscious of," he assures me. "What's happened is that the partner space has exploded. It's become much wider--there are many more players out there. So the way we engage with them has had to change to accommodate."
"It's not a response to anyone other than the new partner space."
I worry that Sony might be missing the proactive point, but Shahid understands what's at stake. Rest assured, Sony is taking notice of the big players in indie development and acting accordingly. "Independent developers are becoming more and more integral to the health and the general vibrance of any platform," he says. "Not just our platform, any platform." Much like the last several years, the next generation could be defined by indie mega-hits, and Shahid recognizes what's at stake for Sony: "I think that you're going to start to see some enormous hits come from this space. I think you're going to see future giants from this space as well."
Shahid is calm, cool, and confident as he says it, teasing an unspoken assurance that whatever blockbuster indies are making headlines two or three years from now, you'll find them on PlayStation platforms. Imagining what shape these giants might take is difficult with the blazing Los Angeles sun casting rays at my retinas, but I think back to an earlier answer that teased a PlayStation formula for successful games. I had asked what draws Sony's attention to new projects as potential targets for fostering development. Shahid countered: "What is it that makes a PlayStation game? What is it that uniquely identifies it? . . . What gives it the heritage?" His heartfelt passion for PlayStation, extremely evident from our earliest words, is positively burning at this point: "I think innovation is important. I think creativity is important. Passion, creativity--people who really want to do what they're doing, and who really believe in what they're doing, and are beginning to establish a fanbase."
If Sony's looking for burgeoning indie fanbases, they need not look far (FTL? Dear Esther? Kerbal Space Program? Among the Sleep?), but Shahid is keeping tight-lipped on potential partnerships. "If you have heard of the developer, if they are high-profile, there is a very strong likelihood that we are either talking to them or we've already spoken to them and some kind of decision has been made," he says. In both cases, "it's probably not right for us to talk about it. But there are no 'no-go' areas. We're very happy to engage . . . with as many of the top developers as we can."
"As far as I'm concerned, I'd like to work with all of them. I think they're all fantastic. They can all offer PlayStation something."
It all sounds like a corporate game of pub dealings and dark-corner handshakes, but anyone who follows Shahid on Twitter knows how open his outreach process really is--and how PlayStation fans can have an impact. Besides openly offering his email address and Skype name to gamers and developers alike, Shahid takes to the social network to gauge interest in new projects. "I put out a request to the community about which JRPGs they might be interested in," he recalls. "And I got about 250 trillion responses, which means that the community is very interested in this space."
Unfortunately, Shahid and other socially inclined faces of PlayStation can't always respond to fans how they'd like. "Have a look at the whole #PS4NoDRM campaign thing," he says, referencing current events and the palpable Sony buzz around us. "We couldn't say anything about that ahead of time. What can you say? That's the kind of thing you really can't talk about because there's too much at stake." In the same vein, there are games in the pipeline that aren't yet ready for the world to see. "There are titles that I'd love to speak about, but they're going to take time to cook," Shahid teases with a knowing smile. "And when they're ready, we'll talk about them."
In fact, Shahid estimates that over two dozen unannounced titles are currently in the works for PS Vita and, perhaps, PS4. "Obviously you're seeing the results of [our engagement] in the Vita space recently. We're also going to be looking at PS4 content as well," he confirms. "When I said that we are working on dozens of titles, I didn't mean 24. I meant a lot more than 24. On my radar currently, it's over 50 [released and unreleased] titles . . . And it's not stopping at 50, by the way. We're going on."
It's hard not to take the words of Shahid--a man who so clearly loves games--at face value, and at face value, they paint an exceedingly bright future for PS Vita. "We're committed to Vita. The Vita is here to stay," he says with conviction. "We've got a lot of fantastic news lined up, and not just in software terms as well. I'm looking forward to everything that happens in this space."
If you're a PS Vita owner, or a PlayStation fan, you should be too.
Kyle Prahl ran to his interview with Shahid Ahmad because the Los Angeles transit system was running late. He hopes his breathlessness didn't show. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook for game news and opinions from a college student with sights set on an industry career.----