Sixteen years ago, Rabah Shihab developed Babylonian Twins, a puzzle platform game for the Commodore Amiga, but wasn’t able to release it. At the time, he was an engineering student at the University of Baghdad, and Iraq was struggling with tough economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.
Now, Shihab is living in Burnaby and is the founder of Cosmos Interactive. The 38-year-old former Oracle software architect has ported Babylonian Twins to the iPad and iPhone. Since April, the iPad version has been available in the App Store for $4.99 and the iPhone version for $2.99.
Shihab hopes to bring Babylonian Twins to the Xbox 360 and Windows PC “very soon”. He also has plans to develop other games for the iPad and iPhone.
The Georgia Straight reached Shihab by phone in Redwood City, California, where he was trying to drum up funding for future games.
What led you to originally develop Babylonian Twins for the Commodore Amiga?
The development was because I like these types of games. And then the other reason I built the game was there’s so much history of Iraq. So, I was trying to showcase the history, and Iraq is more than war and killing and all of that. So, it was my take on this to show the world that there is history in this country—civilization....So, I thought maybe it would be interesting to build a game that gives a different perspective about things.
Did you originally hope to release the Amiga version of the game?
After I built the game, there were so many difficulties....The game was actually done, and I couldn’t release it because of the sanctions—the sanctions on Iraq. The other reason was that Commodore, the company, shut down. At that time, the game just remained on many hard drives and floppy disks, and I just copied them from computer to computer. 2007, my younger brother posted videos on YouTube.
What was it like living under economic sanctions in Iraq?
There are huge difficulties. I think number one is mostly social, because many people don’t have a source of income. People—especially students, university graduates—they were on the street trying just to get money to survive. So, they were selling cigarettes, lining up to build Saddam palaces at that time, on the street. There are so many things.
But the difficulties in that environment, trying to build a game, nobody has done it. People will laugh usually. “What are you doing? How will you build a game?” You usually buy games from outside the country. So, that was the main difficulty. But I was lucky. I got support from my father. He pushed me to finish the game. The team I had was great.
So, other difficulties, like logistic difficulties of power interruption, having only one computer, no memory expansion. You have 512 kilobytes of memory and no hard drive, so you use a floppy drive. Because there’s the power interruption, you have to save so many times on the disk, so you won’t lose your work. If there are many power interruptions, you can ruin the disk and the floppy drive, and you have to change the drive. So many issues. And I didn’t have a monitor. I had only one TV. I had to bring the graphic designer from his home to do the graphics.
The other thing was communication with the outside world was really difficult. So, you cannot easily e-mail or fax or even call outside the country and talk to a publisher. So, I had to wait for someone to travel and send him. I was trying to contact a publisher at that time, just to get a feel, like whether we can really publish the game or not. There was huge difficulties. I had to wait for someone who was travelling to Jordan, and who was willing also to take with him the floppy disk, which was not allowed. He cannot cross the border with a floppy disk, because you have to get it inspected, approved by the government, all of that.
How do you play the game on the iPad?
It has a D-pad, so the D-pad just emulates whatever the joystick does at that time on the Amiga. We use some touch elements. When you switch between characters, for example, you don’t need to touch a button or whatever. You just touch an area on the screen. Also when you open doors—all of that—you don’t need to click a button. So, you just click on the door. There are different elements. We tried as much as possible to utilize the touchscreen. But the core is the D-pad. It’s a D-pad-based game.
What makes the iPad version of the game different than the iPhone version?
It’s HD resolution. The graphics are really good. That’s the main difference. And it runs at 60 frames per second, which also is the same rate on the iPhone 3GS, but not iPhone 3G.
What’s next for Cosmos Interactive?
I plan to focus on the Xbox release first and then probably PlayStation Portable. We got many e-mails, especially from Europe, for a PlayStation version. So, we’ll see how it will go and maybe just plan for other platforms. I also have an engine which I used for the game—custom-built for this game—which I’ll try to reuse for other games. Smaller games—maybe not as big as this—for the App Store.
That’s why I’m partly here in the Bay Area, trying to sense how we can achieve that—use whatever assets we have and engineer that to launch more smaller projects with proper marketing. I didn’t have the budget for this game. I didn’t have a budget for marketing. I did all the marketing myself. For a successful launch, you usually spend some money on marketing. So, this was completely my own effort. So, I believe we need to do more.
Do you know if anyone in Iraq has played the game?
I have many fans from Iraq on the Facebook page. But, inside Iraq, I don’t know. Most Iraqis are outside Iraq now—at least the people I know. Inside Iraq, I’m not sure. I don’t think there’s an App Store where you can access that. There is no network there. So, I’m not sure whether someone from inside... But I notice in Jordan—many Iraqis are there—some good downloads there. So, probably people hear about it. But the story itself gets many, many people on the fan page, because it’s interesting. Nobody heard that someone was developing games during the sanctions in Baghdad, so it got some attention.
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.