Babar Ahmad is the CEO of Mindstorm Studios, a gaming start up in Lahore, Pakistan. Babar is focused on creating world-class gaming titles on the PC and console platforms from within Pakistan. Babar also has a passion for teaching and lectures at the Engineering Department at LUMS. Prior to that, he was working as a wireless applications engineer at Silicon Laboratories. Babar holds a Masters in Wireless Communication and Management Sciences from Stanford University and a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from University of Texas.
STEP: Tell us a little bit about Mindstorm Studios . How and when did it start, how big is the team, and what have you been doing (in addition to Cricket Revolution and all)?
Babar Ahmed: Mindstorm Studios was actually my brother’s brainchild. I was still in the US when he decided he wanted to make a cricket game. He was in Dubai back then; this is summer 2006. So he upped and came to Lahore, at about the same time that I decided to move to Pakistan. Neither of us had ever lived here before (been in UAE and USA all our lives); so it was an “interesting” experience to say the least. I’m referring to breaking red lights in reverse at midnight in my spanking new 2006 creaky Alto! Coming from a culture that tickets you on breaking a STOP sign, it was a change! I started teaching at LUMS shortly and helped my brother found Mindstorm.
We’ve been through a few phases over the past years and have dabbled in quite a few areas such as 3D short film animation, architectural visualization, creative advertisement, casual games, and 3D games. If you check out www.mindstormstudios.com you’ll see remnants of some of our portfolios up there. Currently, we’re focused on game development for the iOS platform (iPhone and iPad). We’ve launched about 5 titles on the platform so far, with another 4 coming out soon, and have over 3 million cumulative downloads of our games.
STEP: You went to graduate school at Stanford and then came to Pakistan to kick off your company. How was the experience of doing a start up without the necessary support structure that exists in the Silicon Valley? Is there a nascent start-up culture emerging in Pakistan?
BA: As counter-intuitive as it might sound, it’s a LOT easier to do a startup in Pakistan than it is in the Valley! Here’s the simple reason why: $10,000 might last a startup in Pakistan 6 months… you’d be lucky to make it past your first month in the US with that money! Sure, raising that $10k is hard, but its no walk in the park in the US either. Additionally, you can get a LOT of mileage from family/seed funding here unlike in the US, where you HAVE to go for Angel or VC funding very early in the company’s life cycle because costs are so high. Rent here is cheap, people typically have strong family support systems and you can work out of people’s basements (we all have those here), there’s VERY little red-tape in starting a company here. Picture this: 3 people, 3 laptops, a basement, a wimax connection, some pizza and coffee, and there you go! You have the next internet startup in Lahore!
In the US, man, its competitive! First off, you have visa issues: if you’re not working somewhere you can’t stay in the country. Gotta resolve those first! Then there’s the obnoxious cost of doing anything! Then, you have to convince people to LEAVE their $100k per year jobs and go out on a limb with you. Good luck doing that with a $10k budget! Moreover, if the people you’re trying to convince are good enough (and they SHOULD be), then you’ll have another 10 people like yourself with similar offers! And once you’ve managed all that, you have to get your idea in front of a VC who has another 1000 ideas or more sitting on his table waiting for his attention! And IFFFFFF all of that works out for you, you give up a big chunk of your stake in your company to make it happen.
See where I’m going with this? It’s the age of connectivity. The only thing stopping you from reaching a gazillion people is yourself. Doesn’t matter where you’re sitting. For example, we have 2.5 million downloads of our game Whacksy Taxi on the iPhone. How many of those people know that just a few guys created that game in 7 weeks out of a dusty room in Lahore? Of course, it also depends on the TYPE of startup you want to do, but I really feel there’s a LOT that can be done regardless of your physical location, and that makes Pakistan a very attractive environment for startups.
STEP: A game studio is different from the usual software development company. What unique opportunities and risks did you experience in establishing a game company in Pakistan?
BA: Doing a game startup was particularly hard for us; not having any experience in the space didn’t help much either! The issue with game development is, exactly as you put it, its not traditional software development. Its walking the middle line between the left brain and the right brain. Finding the right people and making them mesh together to deliver on a creative vision is no easy task. We faced loads of issues, from audio production to art direction to motion capture and physics engines and everything in between! One of the key issues in Pakistan is finding people with the right exposure; notice I didn’t say skill set. You get some pretty mean coders and artists here; however making a video game is like making a movie, or a song. You have to make something that’s cool and appeals and to your target market’s entertainment requirements, and for that you need to be exposed to what that market likes and doesn’t like. Also, given the maturity of tools these days, you don’t need an army of developers to make the next hit game; in fact, I’ve seen several 2 man teams that have been very successful in the mobile games business.
Pakistan posed its unique challenges, the least of which was electricity! Personally, the way the game development industry has rapidly transformed over the past 3 years, I don’t believe that physical locality impacts your ability to deliver entertainment any more. That might be the case if you’re trying to make a $50M production that rivals Halo. But you’re not! You no longer have to make Steven Spielberg-type movie productions; you just have to make the next YouTube hit and you’re home free. And trust me, you DON’T need a degree if film making to do that!
I’m not trying to trivialize making a startup or a successful company/product. It really IS hard! I’m just saying in this age of connectivity and information, it’s a lot less harder than it used to be. There are fewer and fewer business and trade secrets, there’s an abundance of knowledge and information, and there are several vehicles readily available to get your message/product in front of millions.
STEP: Let’s talk about Cricket Revolution. There is a flurry of start-up activity around iPhone and Android games. Mindstorm, like you said, is active on that front as well. What made you switch gears and target the classic PC gaming market?
BA: Well, it was actually the other way round for us. We started off as a classic PC game developer back in 2006 when touch interfaces still belonged in movies like Minority Report. And then Steve Jobs changed the world; 5 years later here we are with a strong iOS focus making games for the iPhone and the iPad. We still had to see our initial development through though, and managed to get Cricket Revolution out the door in late 2009.
STEP: How long did it take to develop Cricket Revolution? What were some of the biggest challenges in developing and marketing?
BA: Three and a half years. In hindsight, we could have done it a lot sooner, probably in two, but that’s if we had known then what we know now. During the course of development we thought our biggest challenge was animation and real-time multiplayer gameplay. How were we going to get 500 cricket animations into the game? We had to learn about motion capture, figure out that it was too expensive for us to afford, and then just figure out a hack-way of doing it ourselves at a fraction of the cost. Solving real-time multiplayer issues was a challenge – how were we going to get players across the globe to time their shot within a few milliseconds when the latency between them was over half a second to begin with? Well, we never DID solve that problem! So we had lots of online connectivity issues and what not. Other development issues were creating a custom physics engine, a custom animation engine, designing the game to hit that “sweet spot” which is very elusive to find (WHY is it that you like some songs and don’t like others? What’s the magic entertainment recipe?). But all that aside, we managed to plough through development and get the game out the door, a very tough 3 and a half years later.
It was only after that, that we realized we still had our biggest problem still ahead of us… and that was marketing! Hey, I’m an engineer, and that’s all I’ve been taught since high school. The only thing I had sold so far was virtual crops in Farmville! So, how in God’s name, were we going to get our product to sell millions of copies across multiple international markets? Well, that’s where the publisher comes in; unfortunately, we chose the wrong publisher and got burned. Our game didn’t do that well, and a lot of the selling was left on our shoulders. Alhamdulillah, we managed to overcome that challenge with a few well-timed deals with Pepsi in Pakistan and Valve’s digital distribution via Steam, but it was a VERY nerve wrecking few months getting those deals in place. It taught us a very important business lesson, and that is you have to begin your marketing activities from day 0, BEFORE production even begins. That’s a little hard to do given we’re an engineering driven company, but that’s the only thing that can convert a cool product into a successful business. No business, no product.
STEP: Has the game been a local success? Have you been successful in dealing with piracy in Pakistan (and many other cricket-loving nations)?
BA: Yes and no. I’ve actually sat at shops in Hafeez Center (Lahore) and watched people come in and purchase a pirated copy of our game for peanuts! It’s a fools wish to try and combat piracy in a country like Pakistan. We have a hard time enforcing Supreme Court laws on security, let alone international copyright laws on video games! So instead of fighting piracy in Pakistan, I decided to embrace it and give the game out for free instead. To do so, we brought Pepsi into the deal, sold the rights of the game to them in Pakistan, and had them distribute the game for free throughout the territory. Everyone wins. In India, the market is a little more mature and large enough for non-pirated content to make a mark. We had some successful deals there too with multiple retailers and distributors picking up our game and selling it through several outlet stores all over India. That, in addition to digital distribution via Steam, has resulted in a fairly wide adoption for our game, as far as independently produced PC games go.
STEP: Congratulations to you for Cricket Power becoming the official ICC World Cup game? How was the competition? What set Cricket Revolution apart from the rest?
BA: Thank you! I can’t speak for the competition; there are a few pretty good cricket games out there from the likes of EA and Codemasters. We pitched our game to a publisher, who then pitched it to the ICC; one thing led to another, ICC really liked our game, the publisher believed in our development capability, and lo and behold Cricket Power happened. The key was that we offered a complete 3D game served entirely in the browser, which was something that no one else had done in the past at the quality mark that we had. So we really had a product that stood out from the rest with a fairly small digital footprint in terms of download size. That, plus the fact that the game was redesigned for the casual audience in a pick up and play style gave it the boost it needed for selection. We’re really happy that we made it that far; hadn’t planned for it! But, alhamdulillah, the product shone through and here we are!
STEP: What’s next for Cricket Revolution and your company?
BA: We’re working hard on our next titles. We’re targeting the iOS primarily for now, so stay tuned for some releases soon! As far as Mindstorm goes, I really would like to see a game development industry grow in Pakistan by taking the lead from companies like ourselves and others who have gone down this path. I mean, game development is HUGE! Like, bigger than Hollywood HUGE! It’s not THAT hard to do, given the multitude of resources and tools available on the web. Pakistan is a low cost development center, you have everything you need on your laptop, and a single hit can make you good money! I would really like to see Pakistan come up on the global map for game development. A lot of countries are doing so, some with amazing government support (I believe Malaysia offers free electricity, office space, and 50% salary subsidy to game developers!!!!). I think if we can spawn a few startups in this space due to our efforts, and publicity that we’ve achieved, I would believe Mindstorm has truly done its job.
STEP: You also teach at LUMS. Do you think the Computer Science programs in our universities are adequately preparing students for a career in game development? If not, what needs to change?
BA: No, I don’t think they are. In my opinion, there are three aspects to this: a) Technical, b) Career, and c) Creativity. From a technical perspective, we’re more or less ok. Yes, we could do with a few courses targeted specifically to the game development pipeline to demystify the process for young minds. However, programming is just a small part of creating a game. Game design, production methods, audio production, quality assurance, and psychology are all equally important, to name a few. So, you CAN throw in game development courses into a CS curriculum, but unless a curriculum targets these other aspects that are equally important to game development, you’ll just end up with good programmers, which is good, sure, but only part of the equation. The second issue is a career perspective. Our professors and educators need to understand that game development is one of the hottest career choices on the planet right now, and will continue to be for some time. We have some serious cultural issues associated with games where the older generation believes that games are a total waste of time and not important. While they have a particular perspective, the world truly has changed. The average age of a gamer is now 35!! Everyone’s playing games! And unless our educators (and our families) treat this profession as a viable career choice, game development as a career just won’t get the adoption it deserves.
Lastly, the BIGGEST issue is creativity. Most curricula are designed to follow patterns; courses where there is a right answer and a wrong answer. The entire grading system is predicated on this one fact, and it has to be. This forces the mind to think along a certain line, a certain path, and move away from experimentation for fear of failure. This is a deeper psychological issue that can’t really be fixed just in a few courses. But I ask you, would you have guessed that a video like “Charlie Bit My Finger” would have 294 MILLION views on YouTube? Or do you think a game like “iFart” would make $100,000 in 2 weeks and be the #1 app on the App Store? I’m not saying that things like these always work. What I AM saying is that game developers need to think out of the box to truly define what entertainment value is, and it could be anything that our imagination allows it to be. I just don’t think our curricula are designed to grow that thought process and could do with a dash of imagination and fearless creativity.