Ahead of the Game: Qatar’s first console video game
Take one recent college graduate with a day job and one college student balancing the demands of schoolwork, and you’ve got the fresh-faced youths behind Infinite Madaa, the first Qatari video game development company to publish on a major console.
Salem Ghanim Al-Ghanim is the founder of the company, while Mohammed Ahmed Al-Emadi is the director of product. The two have a long history. They first met in high school, bonding over a shared passion for video games. “It was my life,” jokes Mohammed. “One console was not enough!”
The team made a splash at the recent Ajyal Youth Film Festival, where they debuted a demo of their latest project, Chromia. While the game is still in its early development, it is slated for release on both the PC and the PlayStation 4.
“I always wanted to make video games,” says Salem. Before mobile gaming, the only path to a career in video games was to work for a big game publishing company clustered in only a handful of countries. “When I told somebody close to me that [I wanted to make video games], they said ‘Don’t dream about it. This is a job you’ll never get because you have to be in Japan or the United States.’”
Undeterred, he ended up majoring in computer science at Qatar University. It was 2012—game developers no longer had to be physically located in North America or Japan. Mobile games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush had already become smash hits, and their European origins suggested that successful games could be developed anywhere on the globe. Even traditional console makers had developed their own digital distribution networks to take advantage of the sudden popularity of indie games, that is, games developed by small, independent production groups rather than the large, globally known development companies.
Within this more positive environment, Salem used coding skills picked up in the classroom to make his first few games. “[These] weren’t something I would publish, just something I would [do myself] to practice,” he emphasises. He filled in the gaps with online courses and tutorials.
Mohammed’s path into game development could not have been more different. He devoured magazine articles about the games industry. He keenly followed industry news behind the games themselves, and this information gave him insight into developing games from a marketing perspective—what works; what doesn’t; why certain games are successful and others flop.
So when Salem casually mentioned he was making a game, Mohammed immediately offered to write him a story. They planned to make the kind of game they enjoyed as teenagers—the two were both huge fans of Japanese-style role-playing games (JRPGs), especially those from the Final Fantasy series. JRPGs emphasise storytelling over gameplay and often feature a cast of colourful characters and a storyline progression that keeps players hooked.
Mohammed was in the enviable position of creating an imaginative story that would unfold on the screen—a far cry from his day job as an engineer. “In high school, we used to talk about these things,” he adds, “but as kind of a joke. [Now] it’s serious!”
Salem was the sole developer behind the first game produced by Infinite Madaa: Little Adventure on the Prairie. It’s a platform game, a style of game where characters must jump between platforms and over objects to traverse their environment—similar to Super Mario or Donkey Kong. Little Adventure on the Prairie features 12 levels of obstacles and enemies to blaze through. It’s available on iOS and Android mobile devices and on the Nintendo 3DS, making it the first Qatari-made game released on a console.
“I never thought [Nintendo] would even recognise us,” recalls Salem. He had contacted Nintendo about publishing Little Adventure on the Prairie on one of their platforms; and they responded by sending a welcome kit for indie developers that outlined how to publish the game on the 3DS.
Salem’s success with Nintendo helped give him the confidence to approach Sony about publishing on the PlayStation 4. It took more back and forth (four months worth, he says), but eventually they got permission to publish on Sony’s hardware.
Little Adventure on the Prairie took less than six months from conception to publishing, but their flagship project Chromia will be a gargantuan undertaking for the growing company.
Salem realised that to make a more complex game with Mohammed, he would have to change how he worked. The most significant adjustment was to start meticulously documenting his coding process so it would be easier for others to review.
Furthermore, Chromia’s JRPG-game style—which emphasizes storytelling and character development amidst dozens of hours of gameplay—will require exponentially more time to design and code. While Salem and Mohammed are at the heart of the project, they have a team of freelancers that handle everything from background music to concept artwork.
The boss battle
The pair were scheduled to present a demo of Chromia at Ajyal’s Youth Film Festival. It was a hectic moment. Ajyal fell right during Salem’s midterm exams. Not only did he have to prepare for the upcoming examinations, he also needed to get the demo finished before the festival. “I didn’t even finish it,” admits Salem. “The first day was too buggy, and I had to send another demo the next day!”
The demo featured a cave loaded with hidden treasure chests. Players explore the cave using the main character, with a “boss” battle (the final enemy that is typically the hardest to beat) at the end. This particular demo didn’t delve into the main story; rather, testers got to experience the gameplay. To use gaming parlance, it was merely a sidequest.
“It [will be] the first Qatari game on a PlayStation. It’s a big achievement, and the reception was better than expected,” says Mohammed.
“Exactly. We expected some nitpicking,” laughs Salem. They met attendees interested in joining their team, while others offered development and promotional support.
The next step, explains Mohammed, is to create a playable Chromia demo for the PlayStation 4. This will introduce elements of the gameplay and plot that will appear in the final version. While Mohammed is tight-lipped on plot details, he assures us that the medieval setting will have a few technological surprises, and will be more than just “fight the monsters, save the day.”
It’s still going to take another year or two for the game to be finished. Salem is wrapping up his final semester at Qatar University. Without a physical office, both Salem and Mohammed primarily communicate with their team of freelancers via a messaging service to make sure everyone keeps up with each phase of production.
“I didn’t think it would evolve to this [point] where I actually have a demo to showcase,” muses Salem. Though he is the programmer, the “puppet master” of the team, he says that you don’t actually need to be a computer programmer to be involved in the games industry—something Mohammed, as the director and conceptual mastermind, clearly demonstrates.
Infinite Madaa is part of a global trend of indie game development, but they are proud to be a Gulf-created company with local roots. Their creative team is Qatari, and as they are a young company, they have a lot of room to grow. For the moment, interested gamers can download Little Adventure on the Prairie or follow the company’s social media accounts for updates on Chromia, which will be released by early 2020. To those who are interested in joining the team, there’s still plenty of open spots, says Mohammed: “The more people we have, the faster we can get the game out!”