Tell me about yourself before you started this nonlinear path of starting your own thing?
I’m a person built by passion and constant curiosity. In terms of passion – if I want to do something, I go all the way. I create the path and make sure to reach the end of it. In terms of curiosity – I’m always thinking of developing new concepts and its definitely outside the box, outside the norm and involving creative elements coming together to form a new idea.
I ventured into game development by taking a course at Bahrain Polytechnic taught by Dr. Christos Gatzoulis. The course was focused on game development and programming and my passion was ignited from there. Dr. Christos is the programme manager for the Bachelor of ICT at Bahrain Polytechnic. His interests include the general areas of game development and games in education. His research focuses on artificial intelligence and technical animation for games.
He was the one that encouraged students to develop games, pushed them to achieve their potential in this space, gave them challenges and always made us try something new. That process and the 4 years I’ve spent in Polytechnic were the best years of my life. I remember having group projects in class and dedicated 110% every single time, and sometimes I couldn’t stop working because I was driven by this fuel of passion.
Why did you decide to join the startup world and start something of your own? What triggered you to take that step into action?
My partner and I have been together ever since our first project and we worked together for Imagine Cup in 2015 – we realized that we were a perfect fit. I was a game developer and she handled the business planning aspects. Together we were part of several events and won 2 local competitions, 1 regional and were listed as the top 9 worldwide. We had gone to Seattle in August 2016. When we reached - people already knew about us and saw us as competition ! We showcased Apollo X to the judges and one of them was the Executive Producer of HALO and that was a big honor for us. The funny part is that we ran out of time because the judges were playing so much they forgot to ask questions! We got a lot of exposure – we were on the front page on the imagine cup.
“We showcased Apollo X to the judges and one of them was the Executive Producer of HALO and that was a big honor for us”
Tell us about your first official gaming project – Apollo X
It was an in house project during university – for a whole semester, you would create a whole project from start to finish. I wanted to create something unique and go beyond the norms of a basic game. At first I thought – let’s do VR because we just got a VR kit. The second element was injecting a bit of psychology and at the time, I was reading and learning about exposure therapy.
I wanted to create a horror game incorporating VR and the element of fear tied to your heart rate. I was looking into how to measure fear using your heart rate, and I thought what if we integrate a heart rate monitor? The game takes in your heart rate which gives a level of how afraid you are. There’s a lot of science and research that went behind this.
Apollo X is a Sci-Fi horror game that uses Virtual Reality, Biofeedback technology and a mobile phone. It is an adaptive type of game that changes according to the player's heart rate. The more scared the player is, the scarier and more difficult the game becomes. This allows the player to become more self-aware of their emotions and try to stay calm. The game features single player with an intriguing story line and creative gameplay. It also includes a multiplayer mode that allows a player on PC to cooperate with a player on mobile. The two players take the role of the two main characters and need to overcome the challenges brought before them using a unique way of cross-platform play.
You communicate by using a headset and it takes about 20 – 25 minutes to play. We got a record of a team finishing the game in 18 minutes.
The first time people tried Apollo X, how was it?
The first time we made people play Apollo X – they were screaming their hearts out and panicking because they didn’t know how to work together in a horror setting. It was funny to watch.
Where did you showcase Apollo X?
It was showcased at Polytechnic and everyone loved it! We also showcased it in IGN and Comic Con. People loved it and I remember we were dead tired at every single event. The line kept getting longer and that made us extremely happy. Later on, we started recording both players playing real time which was really fun and interesting.
Share with us some of your favorite games
Everything except sports games! Some of my favorite games include – Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts and my absolute favorite under the horror genre would be Silent Hill.
What are one of your favorite moments during this journey?
We had the Business Development Manager From Square Enix visit us – he didn’t know developers in Bahrain could do such a thing. It was nice to see him explore and having fun while recognizing our true potential. He tried our game and we were ecstatic and he kept referring to PT which is a first-person psychological horror video game developed by Kojima Productions, under the pseudonym "7780s Studio", and published by Konami. It made us so happy to hear that reference and see him actually trying out something that we’ve built!
Share some of your achievements with Apollo X
We entered a competition called Imagine Cup and there were 3 stages – The local Bahrain stage, Pan Arab regional stage and the World stage based in the USA. In 2015 – we won in the local Bahrain competition
As for the regional competition, we lost the first time. It was an eye opener and a great experience because we got good inputs and recommendations – that experience pushed us to do more. They thought the game was simplistic and the story wasn’t good enough. We then thought that we needed to add more to make it more appealing.
In 2016 – We were prepping Apollo X and had a better business plan as well because in these competitions, you needed two things. The ability to build a unique game and a proper business plan to market it. We had started working on that ever since our first experience and it paid off because we won two stages! We managed to win the local Bahrain competition and the competition held in Egypt at the time.
Are we missing some things here in the Bahrain gaming community?
The gaming community is so small in Bahrain. It’s almost nonexistent.
At IGN and Comic Con Bahrain – you only see a fragment of the gaming community- maybe 5% of the amount of people you’d meet and interact with outside Bahrain in other gaming events. In other regions, there’s a lot more traction and exposure.
Most people think Dubai for example has more potential, and they were extremely happy and surprised to find a gaming community in Bahrain with high caliber gaming talent. When you go to regional events like the Digital Games Conference in Dubai - you meet people from Kanami, Square Enix and various gaming companies. We make sure to spread awareness of the gaming talent in Bahrain to let people know that we have that community and that we have passionate people developing new ideas in the sector. We represent them wherever we go!
What projects are you working on now?
We are working on two main things right now:
We are working on a new narrative mobile game which we will share soon. Excited about that!
Another thing we are doing is focused on CSR. Apart of the Unreal Community Bahrain - We have created our own community “Unity Devs Syndicate” We started this community last month actually. The Unreal Community is focused on the Unreal Engine while Unity Devs Syndicate is focused on the Unity Game Engine. Unreal and Unity are the software we use to make games and when we contact the developers of these software, they help and support you. In addition, they teach you how to use it in Bahrain.
How do you reach out to these developers and get the support?
You reach out to them and basically show them that you exist, that there is an interest and that you have a meet up page where you meet once every quarter. The cool thing is that they handle the cost for the meet up as long as you actually meet up occasionally and they also send you cool goodies and share updated information within the industry.
For ex – we have an upcoming Game Jam event – The Unity Developers might know that we need a judge for the event so they cover the costs of his flight and accommodation as long as we host him for the event.
Who started Unity Devs Syndicate?
Noof and I started this alone under Regnum Studio. We started this because you need a bigger market with more people to create competition in the space. You need more involved to get them to come together and meet. We are around 100 people in Bahrain in the gaming industry but we need more, and we want to teach and recruit them to have qualified people. Unreal Community l and Unity Devs Syndicate are sister communities and the major difference is which engine we support!
Give an ULTIMATE REASON for your MISSION – To show off the talent of Bahrain in the global market. – There are talented Bahrainis that create high standard games and can compete globally. We exist and we can do it as good as everyone else!
How did you have the time while working full-time and wanting to make something concrete out of this experience?
It is cliché to say this but it is definitely the passion and also determination. I will get things done no matter the cost or time. When you love doing something, you find the time for it.
People at work actually support my venture and its funny because I work in a real estate company and I recall my 2nd interview with the CEO - he asked me one question “You have game development as a skill and how are you correlating this with your work?” I remember saying that my job will be a job I excel in and make sure to be a good employee but what I make from the job will go towards my passion and my projects. They liked my entrepreneurial mindset and passion and I think that’s why I was chosen out of many for the position when I applied.
What are the gaming communities here in Bahrain where you find other like-minded individuals?
Definitely the Unreal Community is one of them. It was the first community in terms of coming together and helping each other build, collaborate and also discuss some of the major issues, trends etc. You get to know in depth what people are working on and watch their journeys as well.
An older community was the Bahrain Game Developers group which started in 2012 but it was quite different in terms of community purposes. It was more for showcasing your product and sharing than getting together and connecting.
What 3 tips can you share with us and others who are taking this plunge?
Dedicate hours specifically for working on your project after work hours. I would say 3-4 hours and then STOP so you don’t pressure your brain to keep thinking which leads you to burn out and be constantly exhausted
Determination is key – get it done and don’t wait for others
Don’t be afraid because its always scary at first but once you do it - it all settles in and becomes a smooth process eventually
Were you scared at the start, and even now? Are you scared of failure?
Before starting, it felt like a terrifying process. Once you take the plunge and start doing your tasks and moving forward, it becomes easier and natural and you start to enjoy the process. There will always be bumps on the road but you’ll know how to handle them once you start involving yourself
“It’s scary when you’re not there and once you’re in, its much less than what you thought”
Do you have your own working space where you can bring this idea to life?
At the moment not yet – just going to different coffee shops and working!
Is there a bigger problem in this field, and how do you think people should tackle it?
A lot of people here are stopped by fear and uncertainty unless there’s one success story. A lot of the community members look up to us and we want to encourage them even if we face some bumps and issues. We might fail but 100 more might win and we want more to go forward with their passion with that idea in mind.
What do you need to help jumpstart your mission, or make it happen faster?
More funding for gamers in Bahrain because it is hard to convince investors to invest in a game. Investors see a higher risk in games than a regular application. We have looked around for investors and at the moment there are none here specialized into gaming. My advice however is to not rely andnd wait for that investor - we have been literally spending our own money and even if we don’t get an investor, we will go through it till the end.
Any competitors you would have to go up against?
At the moment, we don’t have a direct competitor since what we are doing is very niche in Bahrain right now.
“A lot of people here are stopped by fear and uncertainty unless there’s one success story. A lot of the community members look up to us and we want to encourage them even if we face some bumps and issues. We might fail but 100 more might win and we want more to go forward with their passion with that idea in mind”
What are your next 3 mini goals?
Definitely publish one game and at some point start selling!
Finish and improve Apollo X in terms of adding more content to the game
Show off bahrain and its pool of talent in the gaming development space
Thank you Mahmood for having coffee with us and we will make sure to follow your journey. We are sure it will be epic - KEEP GOING