Fasahat Salim, Associate Producer at Crytek UK has worked on massive hits like Crysis 1 and Crysis 2. He has also worked for Electronic Arts in quality assurance. Spider speaks to Salim about working with such big names, his love for video games, and the gaming industry in general.
Q. How did you get into this field? And how was your decision to pursue game development taken by your friends and family?
A. Games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to the medium at a really young age and my interest has only grown from there. It wasn’t until I was about 12 years old that I knew I wanted to work in the games industry. My family has always been incredibly supportive of whatever I’ve chosen to do. At that time a lot of people often questioned a full-time career in games, and occasionally laughed when I told them I wanted to pursue it. I suppose this had something to do with the fact that many people considered games as something for children and not an entertainment medium that adults pursued, especially as a career. However, my parents never discouraged me from pursuing what I wanted and allowed me to go ahead and study game development. I cannot thank them enough for their constant support.
Q. What’s the major difference between the game development industry of Pakistan and the UK?
A. There is a substantial difference between the two and currently they are poles apart in all honesty. The UK industry has a massive head-start with some of the earliest and most influential game developers in the business. They are definitely at the forefront, along with Canada, America and Japan. These countries attract some of the best talent from around the world, and it shows in the scale and quality of games being produced in these regions.
The Pakistani industry is still in its infancy and is only just beginning to grow. It is only recently that we have seen more and more developers emerge, thanks to the mobile gaming market. It’s a fantastic thing, as it is finally providing Pakistanis a platform to showcase their skills on a global scale – something that has not been easily available to Pakistani developers before. I think the app market is by far the best thing that could have happened for the Pakistani gaming industry. All of a sudden, small indie teams can get together and take the initiative to make that game they always wanted to make, without worrying (too much) about funding and exposure. Mobile gaming is definitely the biggest thing out there at the moment, with most people having a smartphone in their pockets, gaming has never been more accessible than it is now.
Q. Game developer or a producer? What do you find more gratifying?
A. In the games industry, producers are also developers. At Crytek, we have a dedicated team of Project Managers, so this allows us Producers to focus on the creative direction of the game. On a daily basis I’m working very closely with the design, art and code teams, ensuring that they are focusing on the relevant aspects of the game and highlighting any changes that need to be made from a quality perspective.
I find being a Producer extremely gratifying because I get to contribute to all aspects of our game’s development, whilst also corresponding with our Publisher to keep them up-to-date on progress, and finally talk to game journalists and promote our titles as well when we get closer to release. This work is extremely fulfilling and fun.
Q. What was the last great artistic work that really inspired you – in or outside your discipline?
A. As far as games go, I would have to say an indie title by the name of Bastion. It is simply an amazing experience from start to finish, with many subtle yet powerful moments. It utilises audio in a very distinctive manner that enriches the whole experience in a way that has not been seen before. It also has one of the finest soundtracks out there.
I was also recently inspired by Charlie Brooker’s TV mini-series Black Mirror. I’ve always admired Charlie Brooker’s satirical style of writing and with this series he really dives into the dark side of society and the way social dynamics tend to play out in today’s world. Great stuff!
Q. The culture in indie game companies is more conducive to creativity as compared to that in large, commercial game development companies. What’s your take on this?
A. Larger game companies are usually working on big budget titles that are being funded by a publisher. With the budget of modern day ‘Triple A’ titles exceeding those of Hollywood blockbuster films, it is only natural that the publisher wants to ensure they get the most out of their investment. Therefore, the scope for experimentation and creativity usually sees a curb to some degree due to the tight deadlines and milestones that need to be met. However, I must say that creativity is never stifled in such environments; it is just that more people need to be convinced of an idea before it is pushed through. The publisher/developer relationship is always a hot topic; however, personally I feel that in order to build the epic blockbuster games we all love and want to play, you can’t have one without the other, unless you are a company like Valve!
There is no doubt that indie developers definitely have a lot more freedom when it comes to experimenting creatively, as they are usually a much smaller team, working with smaller budgets. This gives them the flexibility to make decisions quickly and with less pressure from external sources. Also, their scheduling is usually a lot more relaxed as compared to larger studios. All of these factors help contribute to a feeling of less restriction from a creative point of view.
Q. Do you see indie games challenging the business of established franchises in the long run?
A. I don’t consider the two to be separate entities at all; at the end of the day both types of games are helping the medium grow as a whole. Therefore, I don’t really see indie games as ever challenging big-budget titles. Instead I see them as growing alongside the established Triple A market – which is exactly what is happening these days.
Both are equally important in my eyes. The big-budget titles are always going to be around and successful, as we all love the huge scale and epic moments these games provide us with. There is no denying that the bigger titles tend to push our industry forward and into new territory from a technological point of view.
Indie games offer smaller, simpler and more controlled experiences that are rife with creativity and experimentation. Indie developers now have a huge global audience to tap into, thanks to the smartphone market. A successful indie game is definitely capable of competing with some of the bigger titles financially, just look at Angry Birds, it has taken over the world! Players can enjoy it in shorter bursts and not have to worry about investing 10 hours of their lives into completing it. Angry Birds has gone from a mobile app to a cross-platform blockbuster. It epitomises what indie games are capable of.
I love the indie scene but I also love big-budget titles, so I hope they both continue to bring us more amazing games for a long time to come.
Q. What is the biggest technological challenge that the gaming industry faces, and how is it dealt with?
A. Technology and games have always gone hand in hand. It is amazing to work on the bleeding edge of technology and see some of the spectacular things that the industry is capable of doing to enrich a player’s experience. However, these days many studios invest so much time and effort on their technology to ensure the game looks pretty, that they end up compromising on other aspects of their game, including the core gameplay. This is a very dangerous ploy that is all too common within the industry.
One such example of this for me is L.A Noire. That game had a lot going for it and they utilised some amazing facial scanning technology. However, the game grew tedious very quickly with the gameplay being on a constant repetitive loop. I can’t help but feel they spent so much time and energy in developing their technology (which was fantastic), that they neglected building a truly gratifying game.
For me this is a very real problem for game studios today. With the budgets of games growing each year, the pressures of attracting an audience tend to offset the actual game itself. If a studio isn’t large enough to have a dedicated tech team, this problem can grow into a nightmare very quickly. I have always believed that studios need to focus on their strengths and forget about their weaknesses. Good games do not require state-of-the-art technology to succeed; they just need to have something unique that captures a player’s attention, along with solid core gameplay to keep them there.
Q. Is a related degree important in order to have a successful career in game development?
A. Not at all. The games industry is very accepting of people with all sorts of skill sets and backgrounds. I studied games because I have a huge interest in the subject; however, I work with people that were previously architects, film-makers, writers and musicians. The one thing we all have in common is we have a strong passion for the medium we work in. It may sound slightly clichéd, but that is without a doubt the most important thing for a career in game development – you have to love games.
Q. How do you see job satisfaction in an industry where a project takes several months/years to complete, requires longer work hours, and has no guarantee of success?
A. Making big title games does take several years of hard work for sure. The longer work hours tend to come during the crunch period, which usually arrives in the six months leading up to release. However, if a project has been managed properly, the rough hours can definitely be minimised. In all honesty, almost all game developers are prepared to put in the extra hours to make the best game they possibly can. We are making games at the end of the day, so despite there being a lot of work, it is loads of fun.
Q. Video games are often engulfed in controversies related to racism, sexism, nudity, violence etcetera. In your opinion, does an “M rating” exempt a game development company from any resulting consequences?
A. I always find it amusing that games are picked on for touching on topics that film has been dabbling in for decades. I think age ratings are extremely important in portraying what kind of audience the content is meant for; this is followed for films, so there is no reason why it should not be followed for games. That said, game developers do indeed have a responsibility to ensure that whatever content they put into their games is relevant to the overall experience and not just there to incite people. However, it is interesting that some of the most controversial games have also been some of the best selling ever. Is this pure coincidence or just a touch of marketing genius? You can be the judge of that.
Q. What future do you foresee for the gaming industry? Any advice for aspiring game developers?
A. I don’t see the gaming industry slowing down any time soon. Every year the number of amazing games coming out is increasing tenfold and the quality is astounding. The industry is in a very good place at the moment, and it is exciting to be working right at the forefront of it. My advice to any aspiring game developer would be to get their hands dirty and actually make a game. There are plenty of free tools and game engines out there that allow you to put your ideas into practice without too much effort. Even better, try collaborating with other creative people and see what you can put together. Having a strong portfolio of work is great, but having made a game, no matter how simple, on top of that, will definitely get you noticed. Apart from that, play a lot of games and try to dissect each experience you have. This will allow you to better understand, analyse and comprehend what really makes a good game.