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Change the Game – MIT Alumnus Vatsal Ambastha’s Foray into Video Game Development

Not all ideas get made. The competition is so high, making a game and putting it out there doesn’t make you money anymore. You’ve got to design the game that hooks you onto it to keep you playing, or have in-game purchases. Even then, only about 3% of the audience will make a purchase. So essentially, you have to make a game good enough for this 3% to spend a lot of money on.

Years ago, Vatsal Ambastha was in a place we’re all too familiar with – standing outside the door of his engineering coaching as he wondered if it makes sense to go in. As he evaluated what could be the rest of his life, he saw the building’s fire exit. Needless to say, he took it – and never looked back.

The events of this day stayed with him in college, as he joined MIT’s Computer Science stream in 2012. In his second year, Vatsal founded Firexit Software – a startup that focuses on mobile game development. It’s important to mention here that Firexit released three games (Speed Street Tokyo, Xpro Rally, Blockalypse Now) that received global acclaim – as evidenced by the 3.5 million downloads. It’s safe to call time-of-death on the “Video games are a waste of time!” argument.

A self-taught Unity3D software engineer who now works at a company that seamlessly integrates gaming and advertising, Vatsal sees no end to what games can be.

One-on-One with Vatsal Ambastha

Screenshot from “Speed Street: Tokyo” developed by FireExit Software

Six years ago, mobile gaming wasn’t as popular or lucrative as it is today. In a time like that, how hard was it to find like-minded people to start a company?

The landscape was different from every perspective, in every way. Now-a-days, there are so many studios – even small ones comprising five people working in an office. It started as a hobby, to make some games that become a portfolio.  My end-goal was to join one of the bigger developer companies in India, like Ubisoft Pune or EA Hyderabad. I started working with my friends in school. But, as it turned out, we didn’t work well together. So I mostly worked alone.

What games are you inspired by? Which games make you feel like creating one of your own?

Prince of Persia was the first game I remember playing. When I first started thinking about making games, the Splinter Cell series and SWAT 4 were an amazing influence. My confidence levels were dictated by the Dunning-Kruger effect – I used to think I could make games like those all on my own, despite being a rookie developer at that point.

“Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands”, developed by Ubisoft

What skills would you recommend honing for someone who’s taking their first step into designing? Which programs or languages should they get proficient in?

I’d say that going with Unity is the best option, because it’s easy to learn. If you have a basic understanding of Java, it’s even easier because Unity used C# which is very similar. Unity used to be a bridge to other engines like Unreal, but that has ceased to be the case. You can buy sample projects made by Unity, look at the source code, and learn how things work.

Unity Software for Game Development

Do you have a creative process that you go through when you’re working on something? Walk us through it?

I never had a pragmatic approach when it came to making games. I used to play existing games similar to the idea I had in mind, and pick out features I liked to go along with what I came up with. This didn’t work out so well because not all ideas blend well together. What I do now is make prototypes of in-game models. They are essentially place-holders – like an L-shaped block for a gun or grey rectangles for buildings. The details are added at the end, once the functionality is optimized.

One of Vatsal Ambastha’s many Unity3D creations.

When being creative is such a crucial part of the job description, how do deal with those Off-days when you just can’t get any creative juices flowing? A designer’s block, if you will.

I had many a days like that. I found out that doing “traditionally creative” things like painting really helps me cope. I just get a canvas, some paints, watch a music video, and start painting something. I’m not a painter, so there’s no expectations. Writing or playing the guitar helps too.

What are some problems or pitfalls people might face when entering into the domain of game development? Are they different now from when you made the jump?

Funnily enough, I think too much optimism can become a problem. The prevalent mindset among developers is that just because they went through the effort of making a game, they are entitled to success and popularity. I used to be that naïve too. But at some point, you have to realize that making money off games – especially when you go against big companies – is very difficult. You have to stand out from the cornucopia of games that are out there. Right now, I’m exploring games with elements of satire or social commentary – games that do not stick to the regular formula.

Stiff Competition on App Stores Globally

Was there an idea you really believed in that no one else did? How did that pan out?

Mobile games now come with video ads you can watch to earn in-game bonuses. We once had the idea to profile the user-base to see how many people would watch ads over and over again, sometimes, or not at all. There’s no good way to say this but the idea was to track and sell this data from multiple apps to game companies, but the CEO of InMobi discouraged us from pursuing this. A few days later, we found out that another company raised $5 million doing just that.

Any advice for aspiring game developers?

Not all ideas get made. The competition is so high, making a game and putting it out there doesn’t make you money anymore. You’ve got to design the game that hooks you onto it to keep you playing, or have in-game purchases. Even then, only about 3% of the audience will make a purchase. So essentially, you have to make a game good enough for this 3% to spend a lot of money on.

Screenshot from Speed Street 2

 

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