We speak with Mozzy Ahmed about prototyping, and how he landed at Rovio.
With a decade of experience working in mobile games, Mohsin “Mozzy” Ahmed cut his teeth working for some of the top companies in the business, leading production on games for EA, MegaZebra, Zynga, and Glu. Mozzy came to Rovio in 2019, joining first as the game lead for Angry Birds Evolution, but is now heading prototyping in Rovio’s Stockholm Studio. The team operates with the goal of finding innovative new approaches to mobile games by creating and testing prototypes for new games and game mechanics. The focus is on fun, and the team is organized in a way that allows them to create playable prototypes from ideas very quickly, play testing internally, and performing market tests to gauge how an audience may receive the game before it enters full production.
Want to take a peek into the prototyping process? Mozzy breaks it all down in an episode of our Making Games from Home series.
Mozzy took a moment of his time to talk a bit about his background and his work with prototyping in Rovio Stockholm. Read the full interview below.
So let’s start at the beginning. Growing up, were you always into games? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do as a career?
Growing up, my first experiences with video games were on the Sega Megadrive and 32x. I never had a Commodore so I was always coming from a console background, but I used to play games and there was this childhood fantasy that it would be super awesome to work on games, but I never actually thought that I’d end up doing it.
How did you ultimately land in the games industry?
It was kind of happenstance. I was working in a consultancy, and one of my friends was working at EA. They said, hey I know how much you love games and there’s an opportunity available at EA, would you like to try it out? And I thought why not? It’s EA. They make FIFA and Need for Speed. So I thought sure. So I go to the interview in the morning and I leave the office later with an offer in my hand. It was so strange. I went back and told my parents what was happening, and my father was so surprised, “why would you leave a steady job for something so volatile that’s not even yet proven?” So from an Indian parent’s mentality, that’s like a big step for them to like accept that I’m going to do something that is so risky, which is games.
So you faced some opposition with your new career choice?
In India, it’s a bit difficult to pursue your dreams because there is this strong belief that you have to focus on what the rest of the world is doing –which is, you know, my mother’s friends and my father’s friends and their children. You should be doing what they’re doing. There’s a lot of that mentality there. If you’re going against the current, you’re being a rebel. So either you’re crushed by the peer pressure or you come out of it. So it’s challenging.
Still to this day I think not a lot of folks understand that working in games is a really good career choice. Compared to going into the traditional software industry where you have a stable job and you stick with the same company for 20-25 years and you retire with the same company, gaming is still considered very risky as a career choice. Now I think my family takes pride in what I do. I have given so many talks in different conventions, and now I’m working on Angry Birds with mobile games that have been downloaded millions of times in India alone. So when you say Angry Birds, people kind of get it. Their eyes light up.
Are there any particular games that inspired you to want to be in this industry?
I wouldn’t say there are any specific games, but the thing that really motivated me to make games was playing games with my brother and sister. It kind of brought the family together. I still have those memories so vividly of me and my brother fighting over something so stupid because I won and he didn’t, and when he won – I was a sore loser – I just disconnected the console. [laughs] So it’s a social thing, and that’s something that no other means of entertainment can do because you go to movies and you have to stay silent, but I think games evoke emotions that no other platform can. You can vent your aggression and excitement and feel the thrill of winning against someone who is sitting next to you. Now in this age where everything is in the cloud, I think games are doing a great job of bringing the world together virtually. You can literally play with anyone anywhere now. It’s not just siblings on the couch in the living room.
What was your first experience with Rovio and their games?
The first thing about Rovio that really stuck with me was the whole story about having tried 51 games before making Angry Birds. Rovio set the example that with mobile games, it’s not going to be an overnight success, but the success can be huge. I think that was my first experience with Rovio, that there is this physics based game that just in the first week of existing just blew all of the records out of the park in terms of downloads and in terms of reach. So that’s how I got to know about Angry Birds and Rovio, and that’s when I said this is one of those companies that you should definitely work for.
How long have you been at Rovio now? What are you working on now?
I’ve been with Rovio for a bit over a year now. I was the game lead on Angry Birds Evolution. Then I helped Angry Birds Legends go to technical soft launch.
The new RPG Angry Birds Legends developed by Rovio’s Stockholm Studio is now in soft launch in select regions.
Now I’m leading the studio’s prototyping work in close collaboration with different cross functional teams. Everything that we are doing is charting a course for anyone who wants to start prototyping. Every game we want to make in Rovio has to be initiated in the form of a prototype. You can’t put a team of people on it without having proven what the game is, or if it’s even fun. So the whole philosophy behind my team is to see what we can accomplish with limited resources, creating a process to prototype games efficiently, starting small and then sharing our learnings with the entire company.
The process starts by generating ideas. We might start with a certain genre in mind, or a gameplay mechanic. Then we further narrow it down by saying maybe, “ok, you would not have more than 10 people in your team. You would have 12 months to release the game, and you would also have to compete with A, B, and C competition”. So when you put it in that frame of reference, then the mindset kind of changes of how to make the most effective idea and how to get it to market as soon as possible.
My role in all of this is to perform market research to see what kinds of games have market potential or what are the upcoming features in this particular game and how are they trending. I also work with the craft leads, the art director and technical director to see what are the best ideas we can use to take an idea from a prototype level to then releasing it to real players, and then once we validate that, go to soft launch and global launch. So both process and the product are something I get involved in. At the same time, my whole intention is to stay as hands off as possible so that the team doesn’t feel that I’m leading them into something that they don’t want to do.
What is different about working at Rovio? Is there anything that surprised you?
I would say definitely the culture. The Nordic culture is so much different from the other companies where I have worked. I’ve worked mostly with American companies and this is my second european company.
Highlights from RovioCon 2018
One example of that culture is one of the first interactions I had with the company when I was invited to speak at RovioCon 2018, which in itself, I couldn’t believe at the time. I thought “is this spam? For real, is this happening?” [laughs]
It was real, and I landed in Helsinki and got to the venue. I see a bunch of CEOs and Nordic mobile games people, and they’re showing off their unreleased games. I’m looking at these games and thinking “why would you do that?” I was coming from a culture where everything is hush hush until it is out, but here I saw the community is so tight and so strong that they want to learn from each other. It’s ok if someone wants to take your idea and make it better, but the whole point was “hey what do you think about my idea? What can I do to make it better?” So that was a time when I thought this was a really good way of learning from each other. So that made me have a strong gravitational pull towards that culture of sharing that Rovio is a part of.
Outside of games and Rovio, what do you like to do with your spare time?
I play guitar as much as I can. I have a six year old daughter and I want her to have a lot of music in her life so she knows that whenever things aren’t going well, or if she’s down, she knows that music and playing an instrument can always help you bounce back.
One funny thing is, when I was learning to play, I was trying to find out what kind of music I wanted to play and my teacher at the time was like “you need to listen to classical music, it has a lot of theory and it gives you a lot of musical ideas”. So YouTube was there and I was looking up anything that was classical and most of them were piano pieces, orchestrated, symphonies. I said, this is not working out. This is too slow for me. At the time I was into Metallica, Iron Maiden, Megadeth. Stuff like that. But then I happened to come across this guitarist called Yngwie Malmsteen and I was like “wow who is this guy?” –and he actually played classical pieces on guitar. It would take years and years to reach that level on guitar, but I aspired to play like him. It’s funny now that I live in Sweden, where Yngwie is from. Coincidence? It’s very surreal from my perspective.
I also like to play competitive games and boardgames. I have a collection of over 100 board games. So I play with my friends and my wife. My wife was not into board games at first, but I started to induct her slowly starting with Ticket to Ride.
I think from a strategy perspective my favorite board game is Power Grid. It’s a game which can go to 3-4 hours. I also like Carcassonne and Munchkin. Munchkin is a nice party game. But if you want more of a casual game, there is a game called Camel Up. It’s very random. It’s a bunch of camels racing to the finish point. It’s so hilarious when you play it with friends. So it all comes back to that fun social experience that only games can deliver. There is nothing like playing games and racing camels with your friends. Just don’t be a sore loser.