Shahid Ahmad’s battle for independents

For the past four years, PlayStation’s Shahid Ahmad has had one of the coolest jobs in the games industry.

As head of the firm’s Strategic Content division, it’s been his responsibility to bring the best indie games to the platform.

He signed the likes of Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone, FuturLab’s Velocity 2X, Roll7’s OlliOlli, Devolver Digital’s Hotline Miami as well Hello Games’ upcoming sci-fi title, No Man’s Sky.

But after ten years at PlayStation, Ahmad is departing to make a return to his first love, games development.

It’s been a deeply fulfilling decade, but particularly the last four years,” Ahmad tells MCV.

Picking out my proudest moments is so very hard, because there are so many of them – Gamescom 2013, where I announced a number of titles by independent developers on stage for both Vita and PlayStation 4 while my team were packing the show floor with tons of great PS Vita games; the launch of PlayStation 4 and my team’s role in support of that; the first reveal of No Man’s Sky at E3 2014; every developer we got on board from Vlambeer to Ninja Theory, from Mike Bithell to Jeff Minter, from Claire Rogers to Crytek.

I’m also really proud to have helped change the industry culture from one of ‘business as usual’ to one of developer advocacy. It was genuinely pleasing to see other players adopt our ideas and put them into practice. It’s good for developers, it’s good for players, it’s good for the industry.

But if I had to pick one moment, it would be the Develop Award for Publishing Hero my team received in 2014, simply because the people who voted for us were from the developer community, and my aim has always been to advocate for and support developers.

Ahmad has signed a huge number of critically acclaimed indie titles for PlayStation platforms.

It’s a move that took the company back to its roots. When Sony launched the first PlayStation in 1994/1995, the firm made a real effort to charm developers in order to bring them to the console.

Courting developers was a mission and I was filled with evangelical zeal, I guess everything I had learned had prepared me for this,” Ahmad explains.

We wanted to make PlayStation a cool partner for devs again and we were prepared to go the extra mile or ten to support that mission.

I had lunch with one of our partners recently and reminisced about how outlandish my claims seemed at the time; that I wanted the Vita to become a natural home for independent developers. People from across the board thought I was nuts, but I had complete confidence that if we gave it everything as a team and as a company, we could get the indie community on board. It seemed like a natural fit. More and more developers agreed with us.

All of that activity served as a natural springboard for developers to move to PS4. We hadn’t done that before for other platform launches since PS1 days, but it made sense that what had worked to rejuvenate the Vita would help add some sparkle and interest to the PS4 launch. So courting those developers became easier as time went on, so long as we kept delivering on our promises. I think we’ve looked after that community as well as it was possible to do. It remains central to everything we do from hereon in.”

In the beginning, Ahmad was invested in wooing these developers – but he had no idea how big a part they would play in PlayStation’s future.

I had some wild dreams, but what we ended up achieving together with developers was beyond all of those dreams,” he says. I still find it hard to believe, but there were a lot of people who worked incredibly hard to make it possible.”

But how would Ahmad assess the state of the indie market he helped to popularise?

For a couple of years now, I haven’t really used the term ‘indie’,” he explains.

This is a complex games market, and independent developers are part of that picture. We have all learned so much, and those who are willing to learn, adapt, implement, relearn and persist are going to be successful, no matter what their size or classification. Indie just meant freedom anyway.

What we’ve done at PlayStation is demonstrate to developers that even with a partner like us, who might a few years ago have seemed impenetrable, you can make games with us and you can be successful, however you want to define that success. I’m proud of how we continue to work with people like Rami and JW at Vlambeer and with Jeff Minter, as well as teams like Hello Games, Turbulenz and Rebellion. They can all enjoy success with us. We can all have a rewarding time in this beautiful business.”

Recently there have been rumblings in the games sector about the ‘indie apocalypse’, the notion that it’s never been harder for developers in the sector.

It’s never been easier to make games, but the marketplace can be a difficult environment at the best of times,” Ahmad insists. Now that the tools and tech are so good, we need to be more creative to stand out and appeal to players.”

Now Ahmad has played his part in making it easier for indie developers, he’s looking to make games himself.

I started as a developer in 1982,” he says. I left that in 1997 to learn about the rest of the business – publishing, acquisition, financing and platform advocacy. I took a decade longer than I expected, but then so did the industry in general. I needed reinvigoration. PlayStation reinvigorated and revitalised me.

I’ve accomplished more than I ever imagined. That’s totally down to my team, my former boss Tony Clark and the support of our executive management team, particularly Jim Ryan and Nainan Shah.”

He concludes: Now I want to go back to my first love, and I’ve never been so excited.”

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