Shahid Ahmad nearly passed out in the middle of one of the most important conversations of his professional life.
It was a Friday night in late 2011, around 7:30 p.m. Ahmad, the director of strategic content at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, was approaching his 12th hour of work, and he'd been on and off the phone all day, doing his part to save PlayStation.
In those days, Sony was in the midst of something approaching turmoil. The PlayStation 3 was winding down, and its successor was years away from being unveiled. Sony's second handheld, the PlayStation Vita, was due to launch late that year in Japan and early the following year in the Americas and Europe. Its first handheld, the PSP, was a moderate seller at a time when its direct, dual-screened competition at Nintendo was finding enormous sales success.
PlayStation needed a win. It needed something new, and Ahmad was part of the plan to deliver that. It would have to begin as an act of, if not desperation, then one born of a company that had seen better days. And if it worked, there was the possibility of an even bolder plan. And that secret new plan was his idea.
But that was for later. Today, Ahmad was on the phone because he'd recently switched roles inside of SCEE. His new job was all about convincing developers to create or bring their existing games to Sony's platforms using the nascent PlayStation Mobile proposal. His job was to convince game makers to join a program that would allow them to create games using a PlayStation framework. Gamers could then play the games they made (or ported) on certain Android phones and PlayStation Vita.
The goal's upsides were buttressed by a major problem, though: Selling PlayStation to developers, let alone on new initiatives and unproven platforms, wasn't as easy as it once was. Sony was trailing its competitors at Microsoft and Nintendo. And it had been for years.
Gone were the days of PlayStation 2, where Sony reigned supreme in the console market. Instead, Sony overshot with the PlayStation 3's high initial price and its newfangled and complex Cell processor hardware. As a result, Sony — which had once been a disrupting titan — had spent the previous few years catching up with competition that had beaten it to market and at the cash register.
Shahid Ahmad knew this, and his new job was an acknowledgment of that reality. In late 2011, his role was to convince developers that Sony and PlayStation were good investments worthy of the time and effort it would take to bring their games to these new platforms.
Ahmad and the strategic content team had about six months before the technology shipped, and went into "full-on sales mode," he says.
And then, on a Friday evening in late 2011, he connected with Rami Ismail of the independent development studio Vlambeer. If an indie developer can be a rock star, Ismail is one of the most famous front men. He is public, outspoken and well-known. And if Vlambeer agreed to port its popular games, Ahmad thought that could create valuable momentum in the budding PlayStation Mobile platform.
Alone in the office and on a monumentally important phone call with Ismail, Ahmad's Type 1 diabetes asserted itself with prejudice. He had what he calls a "full-on hypoglycemic attack."
"Like a fool," Ahmad tells Polygon, "I carried on talking, but I didn't know what I was saying. Because at this point, I started to feel like I was going to black out."
He struggles to remember what followed through the haze of a years and shock. He remembers the office refrigerator. He remembers an empty Coke that he doesn't remember drinking. And he remembers that Ismail didn't say anything out of the ordinary, which he thinks means that the attack went unnoticed.
Foolish or not, his force of will worked. A phone call that could have resulted in disaster instead ended in "the beginning of a beautiful relationship," he says. Vlambeer's Super Crate Box appeared as one of about 30 games when PlayStation Mobile launched roughly six months later.
"At this point, I started to feel like I was going to black out."
Since its release nearly four years ago, the PS Vita has been, like its predecessor, a mixed bag for Sony. It was never an overwhelming sales success, nor was it burdened with a long list of exclusive games. But it has survived with a fairly steady stream of releases to keep the handheld viable as a platform. It even gained a bit of new life with the release of the PlayStation 4 in late 2013. But its future — and even the future of handheld gaming at Sony — is less than assured.
Just last month, Shuhei Yoshida, the worldwide studios chief for Sony Computer Entertainment, told a panel that "the climate is not healthy" for a PS Vita successor. Blame Android and iOS. Then, a few days ago, a PlayStation executive said that Sony's first-party studios have "no titles in development for PS Vita."
Neither of those things sound good separately. Together, they paint a dreary picture for the handheld. At least right now, Sony's game makers have abandoned the PlayStation Vita. The handheld could be entering the final phases of its life without any viable offspring, as the company concentrates on its hit hardware, the PS4.
Whether that makes the PS Vita a failure is a separate issue. The handheld has been beleaguered from the start, and it never quite managed to establish itself as a platform for launching new, exclusive games. But in the years since the PS Vita's release, whatever success that Sony can brag about owes a lot to one man's ideas. And those ideas do not stop at the PS Vita.
In late 2011, Shahid Ahmad wasn't going to let Type 1 diabetes end his conversation with Rami Ismail any more than he was going to let PlayStation's problems stop his quest to reverse the course of Sony's slide. Sony needed games, which meant it needed developers. And he had a plan to get them. He just had to convince his bosses at Sony to let him do something kind of weird first.
Shahid Ahmad didn't set out to be an evangelist for a platform or a well-known developer's assistant. He set out to make games. He published his first for the Atari 400 in 1982. The young programmer made a cassette tape and advertised in magazines. He sold zero copies.
Thirty years later, that story holds a lesson that he inserts into his daily life: If nobody knows about what you make, that's a huge problem. It doesn't matter how hard you worked or how good it is if it disappears into the atmosphere.
"It was ahead of its time, in some ways, which means failure, of course."
Throughout the ensuing years, Ahmad kept making games and, eventually, started helping others make them. He worked as a developer for more than a decade, then moved into the publishing side at Virgin Publishing and Hasbro Interactive, where he helped reboot the Atari brand in the early 2000s.
Then he realized that there was another way he could make a contribution on his own, so he founded a company called Start Games.
The concept was straightforward: Start would help game makers with their pitches to publishers and console makers. These were the days before the independent developer revolution, when the walled gardens of consoles were much higher than they are today. Start would live in the middle, helping games get where their creators wanted them to go. When successful, Start receive some portion of the game's revenue.
Start had some success until its funding was unceremoniously pulled.
"It was ahead of its time, in some ways, which means failure, of course," Ahmad says with a laugh.
Tossed into turmoil, his company gone, Ahmad had what he calls a "life implosion." He had to figure out what was next. And the answer was consoles and Sony. He joined the company's developer relations division at just about the time that Sony and PlayStation's fortunes were shifting.
Many at Sony believed they would ride the high from the PS2 to the newest console, the PlayStation 3. They were wrong.
Sony poured its considerable might into its next-generation system, which it revealed in 2005. Its core was built around the Cell microprocessor. It was powerful and cutting edge, and Sony believed its benefits were self-evident. And not just in video game consoles. Its extensibility, Sony's thinking went, extended to common household appliances like refrigerators and even televisions. But before all that, there was the PlayStation 3, powered by the powerful new Cell technology.
Unfortunately for Sony, the Cell processor gained a reputation for being difficult to program for. That coupled with the rise in popularity of Microsoft's Xbox 360, which was released more than a year before the PS3, many developers used Microsoft's system as a lead and ported their games to PS3. Further, many multi-platform developers and publishers didn't see the benefit of spending inordinate amounts of time to make a multiplatform game look spectacular on system and not the other. Once they got comfortable with the PS3 they could make games that looked just as good on both.
By the time that Ahmad joined Sony, it was years into this difficult and unexpected period. Sony wasn't failing, exactly, but it couldn't be described as winning, either.
And Sony knew it. What might once have been described as arrogance born of the PS2's success became something like humility, as Sony recognized that developers didn't flock to the PS3. Instead, Sony had to convince many of them to join. And a sense of contrite humility wasn't going to be enough.
The polices that existed within Sony for dealing and negotiating with developers and publishers were designed when Sony was a powerful leader of the industry and based on a time when things worked differently. At this point, both were relics. In fact, many believed those policies were hurting Sony, though not everyone inside the company agreed.
Enter Ahmad, who used his experience and contacts to create a lineup for a company that was now unveiling a new way to play games — PlayStation Mobile — on new devices.
That would turn out to be something that he became very good at over the next few years.
When Sony unveiled the PlayStation Vita, the hardware made sense.
It was created in an era after the iPhone ushered in the mobile gaming revolution, and Sony's PSP successor incorporated much of the technology that underpinned Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. But it was more than that, too.
Sony surrounded the PS Vita's touchscreen with a rear touchpad and physical buttons and dual analog sticks. The message was clear: This new device was designed to capture the best of the console and smartphone worlds. Game makers could create console-like experiences for it, without forcing gamers to use their fingers to smudge their screens and wrestle with imprecise controls. The idea seemed to be, to crib a line from Field of Dreams, that if you built it, they would come.
They did. But not many.
"Established players weren't bringing content to Vita."
The problem, as Sony would soon find out, was that some of the biggest developers and publishers weren't convinced that the new device was worth the investment, in part because "the install base just wasn't there," Ahmad says. It's not that the Vita didn't have games or players. It just didn't have as many as Sony or game makers might have expected, and the "established players weren't bringing content to Vita."
It was, by now, an achingly familiar situation. Sony infused its new handheld with technology that made portable gaming popular, surrounded by the solid design that made console gaming popular. But just as the PS3 struggled to win developers, so did the PS Vita.
Things were going badly again, but this time, Sony didn't have to wait years to figure out what to do. Thanks to PlayStation Mobile, some of those inside of SCEE already proved they could establish relationships with games makers and convince them to spend their time and money on nascent platforms like PlayStation Mobile. And if Ahmad and his team could help with those, the thinking went, maybe they could help with the struggling handheld, too.
When Sony's PS Vita problems emerged, he acknowledged, for example, that the world had changed. At Sony, that meant acknowledging that console makers don't wield the power they once did — and that it had to change to reflect this new reality. Sony could blame the various app stores, the rise of digital distribution services like Steam, the ability for small, independent publishers to forgo consoles entirely if need be. It also needed to acknowledge that its attitude needed to change, too.
Like Jurassic Park's dinosaurs, consoles used to rule the world.
They were never alone, of course. PC gaming has been alive and well longer than consoles. But PC gaming has always been a bit more hardcore and required more investment. Tracing their way through Atari and the NES, consoles had long been the most mainstream way for most people to play video games. And, after a famously failed relationship with Nintendo, Sony got in on the action. Enormous success followed.
For the first few decades of video game consoles, platform creators were generally very picky about who and what ended up on their hardware, and that made console gaming an expensive proposition for developers. But the rise of services like Steam made PC gaming distribution easier. It streamlined and managed the complexities — and it made getting games on the platform easier for those who made games.
It wasn't that Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony were less popular by the second decade of the 21st century. Consoles were more popular than ever, at least in terms of sales figures. But competition made them less powerful, less able to demand strict terms from those who appeared on their platforms and less able to weigh their contracts heavily in favor of publisher rights. It wasn't enough to build the best hardware. Companies also had to build the best policies to attract developers to their ecosystems.
Now, Sony had a new platform in a new era, but its thinking was out of date, at least according to Ahmad. At first, Sony banked on the traditional method of attracting games to the PS Vita, but the games weren't coming, despite Sony's efforts.
"Commercially, would you want to do that?" he asks about big-name publishers bringing games to the handheld. "Why would you want to create content for a platform that's not going to support you commercially? And what I mean is, in terms of throwing millions and millions and millions of dollars at something, knowing that there's not the market there to recoup that."
Out of that understanding came a career-defining revelation: There is a group of game makers who don't suffer under those burdens or restrictions. They are the very content creators who took advantage of the plummeting costs of game development and thrived in app stores. If he was right, then Sony didn't have to give up on its old partners. But perhaps it could save the PS Vita by acknowledging that there was an opportunity to court new partners.
Shahid Ahmad had a plan. Now he just had to convince Sony to follow it.
"What I decided to do was pitch to executive management a plan to bring a whole bunch of independent developers to Vita," he says. "And the answer, surprisingly, was yes."
A couple of early wins showed that Ahmad's plan had merit. First was developer Sports Interactive's Football Manager Classic, a version of the long-running sports management simulator. As a harbinger of things to come, Ahmad took to Twitter and asked what players would like to see on Vita. The top answer was Namco's Tales Studio's Tales of Heart R. It wasn't an indie game or a small company, but it soon came to the system.
It wasn't all successes, but the plan was beginning to produce results. A couple of unanswered questions remained, though. Could Sony continue to court developers like these? And would doing so have an impact on the PlayStation Vita?
The early successes were promising, but there was no guarantee that Ahmad's strategy would last. This didn't not catch him unaware. In fact, he prepared for it under an aggressive plan to bring 55 games to the platform in about 18 months.
Ahmad wasn't just courting game makers by throwing around Sony's considerable might. He was changing how Sony thought about getting games on its systems and establishing what he hoped would be long-lasting, equitable relationships with the human beings who wanted their games on Sony's hardware and the human beings who wanted games to play on the systems they owned. That's why social media became such an integral part of his strategy.
"I caused people to freak out when I was on Twitter to begin with," he says. "And I can understand why. I hadn't sought anybody's permission for it — and I'll probably get shot for saying that. I certainly tried to be as careful as I could, but in order to display some congruence, it was very important for me to be reasonably open on Twitter. And that helped enormously. It made a really, really big difference."
For platform owners like Sony, there are always two distinct groups that demand satisfaction: the consumers who buy hardware and software and the developers and publishers who create and fund content for that hardware. The common denominator, Ahmad realized, is their humanity — a flowery term with practical implications.
In short, he believes that there's a danger in failing to acknowledge humanity, a danger that Sony and other platform owners once inadvertently courted. Ahmad's plan, in part, was to focus interaction with everyone on a personal level.
"People respect that openness," he says. "They see that you're a human being, that you're not just reciting a company mantra. But the important thing is, as long as you stay on track and in line with the company values, you're usually OK."
In short, when he courted developers, he was trying to solve a problem of perception, whether perceived rightly or wrongly, for both sides by injecting humanity in to the discussion. When applied to game makers, presenting what he calls a "company front," which is necessarily devoid of much humanity, sends a message that those you're talking to should also present their best company front. But when you approach them from a different angle — using the same company values, but treating your interactions differently — you stop fostering defensiveness.
"With people, that takes a lot less time," he says.
None of this is to say that Sony is suddenly all feelings and flowers and doesn't care about its interests or shareholder value. Those are still company values. They just don't have to be at the forefront of every discussion. Ahmad thought Sony could and should build relationships based not just on corporate interests or bottom lines but on their shared love of the industry and their desire to spread games far and wide. There's more than one way to court a developer, and he's out to prove it.
Ahmad made his pitch and received approval. Now his job was to back the theory up and bring games to the PlayStation Vita. He started by bending the rules.
"One of the things I asked for was carte blanche to ride roughshod over some of the existing policies," he says. "And executive management, to their immense credit, gave me the flexibility that I needed."
He and his team focused on being "extremely developer friendly," he said. Ahmad thinks his team's departure from longstanding policies must have frustrated some within Sony, but he believes many also understood that there was a higher purpose to being "really cool" with independent developers.
It wasn't a popularity contest, in other words. Competition was part of the equation, too.
"The way I put it to the team was really rather dramatic," he says. "I said, 'The patient's having a heart attack. We need to do open heart surgery now. We don't have time to sit around and discuss this for months on end.'
"I guess I was being a little bit rude by saying that. But actually, we just needed to make that decision very quickly, and to their immense credit, they gave the go-ahead."
The PS Vita was arguably failing, and that meant that Sony was more willing to listen to radical ideas. Ahmad's plan wasn't about courting established companies. It was about talking to people who'd never made anything for PlayStation before. That's why he thought he had to be so dramatic in his presentation: to impress upon them the necessity of this oddity.
It worked. Ahmad and his team went after cool games and cool developers. They built relationships. They asked fans what they wanted. They listened. They're like Sony's version of record industry A&R employees. They're out there listening to bands, trying to sign the best of them. And they continue to do so.
The first mission was to make sure that developers even knew that they could bring their games to Sony's systems, which wasn't a given. Ahmad wanted to change the perception and let developers know that they're welcome on systems like the PS Vita. And that goes back to establishing a personal relationship.
"People like to do business with people that they like," he says. "It's just easier. It's nicer. Why present a corporate front? Just be a human being."
At first, the central idea may have been mostly about getting games on the Vita, but over time, independent developer innovation became another benefit of the strategy. And that strategy wasn't bound to Sony's handheld. The benefits of becoming more developer friendly also applied to other hardware, like the PlayStation 4.
Now that the word is out and Sony doesn't have to spend so much time convincing developers to join its ecosystem, these days, instead of simply looking for developers and games, Ahmad is looking for innovation. It's no surprise that he counts Hello Games’ No Man's Sky as a recent win. The game will make its console debut on the PS4.
Of course, Sony wants big AAA developers on its platforms. That is an important part of the business. But it's no longer the only part of the business — or, perhaps, even the focal point. With the resounding success of the PS4 — the first piece of hardware Sony produced in quite a long time that became an immediate and unequivocal hit — Sony's job is becoming a bit easier.
Ahmad loves AAA games. He plays many of them. He doesn't believe that indie games are better than AAA games. "That would be absurd," he says. And he's not even saying that he blames AAA developers for being, on the whole, less innovative than their indie counterparts. Franchises pay salaries, and that's a totally understandable and valid way to satisfy players and sustain a business, something he thinks it's important to "honor and respect."
One way he sees as proof that his strategy worked is that it's not just about finding developers anymore. Developers now approach Sony.
He seems to have inspired a bit of humility in Sony, too. Of course, Sony offers incentives for exclusivity, but it doesn't "demand it," he says. "There's no formal requirement for you to launch your game on PlayStation first — or even at the same time." That's good for everyone involved, he maintains, because the onetime developer believes that game makers are the lifeblood of the industry. Making Sony's platforms more developer friendly helps everyone.
Ahmad's job is to convince players and games makers that people go to Sony devices to play games. Developers make games. Sony makes devices to play those games. If both sides sell their product — and Sony can help them do that by featuring their game in its digital storefronts — then everybody wins.
But even if everybody wins, that doesn't mean that everybody's happy. Even though Ahmad's boldness made the PlayStation Vita more valuable, the simple truth is that the handheld still isn't a resounding success. And Yoshida's recent comments are an acknowledgement of that reality. So is the recent news about no first-party titles being in development for the handheld.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Shuhei Yoshida told Polygon at E3 2015 that independant developers and third-party games are increasingly becoming the handheld's focus.
"It's very fortunate that the indie boom happened and they are providing lots of great content to Vita," Yoshida told Polygon in June. "Gameplay, game mechanic wise, people want to spend 10 minutes, 15 minutes getting in and out. On Vita, it's great with suspended functionality, so these indie games really great for that from a game design standpoint.
"Instead of watching big stories or cinematics, you can spend hours on Vita. So, I think that's actually the biggest star to help provide great content to Vita going forward. And we continue to make games cross-platform games, especially on digital side."
Shahid Ahmad may have breathed new life into the Vita and brought more software from more diverse developers, but its future remains uncertain. It could be that PlayStation 4 and its growing list of independent developers is the real beneficiary of Ahmad's radical humanity.
PlayStation is a business, once huge, once smaller, now huge again. Just as PlayStation Vita had to get small before it got bigger, so did PlayStation as a whole. And Ahmad is proud of the work he's done.
"We gave Vita another lease on life by giving it a different direction," he says. "It was effectively a reboot. And it worked."
People used to complain that Vita didn't have games. That's a harder argument to sustain these days. Though people aren't always happy what arrives on the handheld — it's often a lot of games that came out somewhere else first — you don't hear about the platform's dearth of games so much anymore.
The PlayStation Vita may not be the bastion for for AAA game developers or Japanese role-playing games that people want, but it was never likely to be. Instead, it has become a platform where newcomers thrive. The reboot that Ahmad and his team engineered transformed the struggling system into something more successful than it was when it began. And games like Fez, Spelunky, Hotline Miami, OlliOlli and others seem to have convinced owners that indie development is something to be embraced.
"I'm not saying everyone," Ahmad says. "There are still a lot of fans out there who want the AAA, but commercial realities make that pretty difficult."
The Vita's integration with the PS4 only increases its value, too. Destiny may not get a native Vita release, but you can play it on your handheld system under certain, not overly burdensome conditions.
Yes, these days in the popular consciousness and even at Sony, the PS4 has become the golden child. Whatever the PS Vita's future, its past and whatever degree of success it attained is inextricably linked with Ahmad.
Though systems may change, Ahmad's focus and strategy remain the same. He insists on meeting those he interacts with on a fundamentally personal level. It's good for business, he thinks. It's good for life, too.
"It's just good to be good," he says.
Of course, Ahmad wouldn't have been able to do any of this if his superiors at Sony hadn't been willing to change. And they would almost certainly have been less willing to do so if Sony had maintained its PS2-era momentum. Ultimately, Ahmad's story is an acknowledgement that the world had moved on and Sony had to adapt or settle. It chose to adapt.
All this talk of humanity makes it an easy target for cynicism, but to hear Shahid Ahmad discuss it, it sounds as logical as it does sincere. Sony runs a business with clients. Ahmad and Sony want to make clients happy. And his crazy, radical proposition was that he could do that on a more human level and work his socks off to make sure they remained happy.
Success, they figured, would follow. They weren't wrong.
"The world had changed," Shahid Ahmad says. "The important thing was, we had to change along with it."