Tech games: Decoding fun and games

15 Nov 2015

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Receiving the TIGA award for Best Arcade Game -Photos provided by the writer
Receiving the TIGA award for Best Arcade Game -Photos provided by the writer

Anyone who’s been obsessed with video games has fantasised about developing their own award winning title at some point in their lives. Yet a few Pakistanis with big dreams become a part of the billion dollar industry. This is partially because in Pakistan, many computer science programmes follow rigid teaching methods taught by professors stuck in a frustratingly archaic style, while the field of video game development itself is not taken as seriously as it should.

Hussain Sheikh, a young Pakistani has managed to decode this equation. As part of the UK based development studio responsible for bringing us the insanely addictive multiple award-winning shoot’em up, Velocity 2X, Hussain rubs shoulders with publishing giants such as Activision and Sony.  

Hussain’s love for s began at an early age. When he was around eight, his father brought home from Singapore the Nintendo handheld, Game & Watch, on which he played the classic platformer, Donkey Kong. Like many children, he decided to take his new gadget to show off at school, “Kids were not allowed to take toys to school. I had to hide it in my bag from my parents and teachers. At lunch time, I was the “Cool Kid” with the best toy in the class!”


Hussain is a game play developer whose love for action video games helped shape his future in more ways than one


Hussain upgraded to an Atari afterwards, home to favourites such as Contra and Pong. Later, his neighbour, Rafey Alam, who owned consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and the Sega Mega Drive, would invite Hussain over for gaming sessions, “I used to sneak out at night to his house, since you could literally jump from my home to his!”

Donkey Kong Game & Watch
Donkey Kong Game & Watch

With all the sneaking Sheikh did, he could have certainly had a good career as a rogue. Thankfully, it was the gaming bug that bit him the hardest, “The last phase of my gaming development was when we bought our first personal computer, which coincided with the rise of gaming arcades in Pakistan. I spent countless hours beating my brother at Street Fighter and Street Fighter II on every hardware / arcade machine available. I believe beating him with all the ‘Hadoukens’ and ‘Shoryukens’ cemented my love for gaming.”

Difficult to verify the one-sided claims of the supposed Street Fighter drubbing, but Sheikh’s love for the action game certainly helped shape his future in more ways than one. After completing his BS in Computer Science from NUST in Karachi, Sheikh graduated with a Masters in Games Development from the University of Hull. Soon after, he was contacted by James Marsden of FuturLab through a mutual friend to ‘join him as head of technology’, “The studio had just signed up the contract for Velocity Ultra with Sony, which was our first title on Play Station Vita. At first I declined [as] I was planning on setting up my own studio at that time. But James has the ability to relentlessly badger people until they cave in — and so did I. We met for lunch one day and instantly bonded over our love for Street Fighter. Over the last year the studio has acquired eight team members. We are still small fish in a big pond, but we are making a big splash!”

Velocity 2X, developed for the PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation Vita has earned several accolades from leading publications, “Since its launch the title has gone on to win multiple awards including TIGA’s best arcade game and official PlayStation magazine’s number one hall of fame title for PlayStation Vita. We are extremely proud of the game and franchise. We’ve literally put our hearts and souls into [its] development. It is an amazing feeling, not just the recognition in the press, but also the amount of fan mail that we receive. The love and kindness of the players has made the sometimes gruelling process of game development worth the effort.”


For young Pakistanis interested in entering the field, Sheikh cautions that it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, “It depends on what excites each individual. If being creative is your thing, then there is plenty to be excited about. But if you are after quick cash, then you are probably in the wrong industry.”


The process of video game development certainly is demanding. Many developers do not achieve financial success even after giving a significant portion of their lives to their dream, and burn-out is a regular side effect in the industry, “It requires a lot of effort and you have to obsess over every little detail and moment-to-moment interaction to make the whole experience flow smoothly. It has been the same for us; we’ve worked days, nights and weekends.”

Hussain Sheikh -Photos provided by the writer
Hussain Sheikh -Photos provided by the writer

In spite of these struggles, Hussain wouldn’t give up his job for anything, “We are doing what our 10-year-old selves aspired to do. In many ways we are living a dream professionally, so yes the effort is well worth it.”

Hussain doesn’t believe that he could have achieved his goals without the education he received, or the backing of his family, “Long story short, my dad was always supportive of my dreams and I was always intrigued by computer graphics. Education played a major role of, course, not only professionally but in my personal development too. That includes my education at home and my upbringing, not only what I learned in books.”

Initially, the vision for Sheikh was a little different, “The plan was to become a doctor — well, surgeon to be precise! Although that was my dadi ma’s (grandmother) dream rather than mine. May she rest in peace; she always used to say ‘We need a doctor in the family. And that’s you!’ But unfortunately, I had very little interest in medicine and more importantly I believe surgery is not for fainting types!”

While Sheikh insists his experience at FAST-NU was fantastic overall, he does wish the culture at one of Pakistan’s leading computer science universities fostered creativity, “I am not sure how things are these days at universities, but back when I was there, all the focus seemed to be geared towards implementation and understanding hardware and software. You need to have a good understanding of these things, but what we also need is to create a culture and environment where we cultivate creativity in our younger generation. There should be courses whose sole purpose is to ask students that given current problems, whether they are social, economic, entertainment or even in the field of space exploration, how would they tackle them. Without restrictions in terms of technical or mechanical possibilities, students are given the opportunity to dream!”

Presenting at EuroGamer conference with my partners in London -Photos provided by the writer
Presenting at EuroGamer conference with my partners in London -Photos provided by the writer

For young Pakistanis interested in entering the field, Sheikh cautions that it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, “It depends on what excites each individual. If being creative is your thing, then there is plenty to be excited about. But if you are after quick cash, then you are probably in the wrong industry.”

Sheikh ends with some final advice, “You don’t need permission from anyone else to make a game. The tools are available for free online, and there are communities of people sharing tips and techniques all over. That means anyone can begin making games, and whilst that means the competition can be fierce, it’s really only the people who have the drive and commitment to improve and learn who will become part of the industry — and you can do that on your own or in small groups.

Once you’ve made some little games, and proven to yourself that it’s what you really want to do, you should find it easy to get a job — because most people only talk about it — they don’t actually get on and make something. So ... make a game, a simple silly little game and don’t forget to have fun along the way!”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 15th, 2015