Interview with Rabah Shihab

Around 1989, it was an Amiga 500, the first and only Amiga I owned.

I had interest in game programming since my old MSX days in the mid 80's. I actually had few small attempts to develop games on the MSX during high school. When the Amiga came to Iraq, its powerful hardware, creative games and demos inspired me to build a real commercial quality game.At that time I was studying computer engineering at college so the Amiga's hardware started to make more sense to me and I was curious to explore it using Assembly language. However, I think the most important factor that got me involved in Amiga games was the strong Amiga community in Baghdad at that time and the smart and creative friends I had who shared my interest and passion for developing Amiga games.

In 1993, during my third year of university.

I was always proud of and inspired by Iraq's rich history. Iraq is considered by many as the cradle of civilizations. I set the game theme to communicate this passion. However, I think my real dedication for this theme came during the early nineties after I saw a computer game in which you control a warplane with the goal of bombing Iraq. Putting the bombing aside (I was in Baghdad during the first gulf war and I saw the human suffering that resulted from the real bombing ), I didn't like the way they depicted Iraq in the game, as a primitive and uncivilized place. I wanted to build a game that counter that image, a game that shows the vibrant history of Mesopotamia. In Babylonian Twins, the game takes you to different historical places, from Babylon to Assyria. We relied on authentic history books to design many of the graphics in the game.

Yes, it was. Looking back at it now, I don't know how we managed it. We did this project during a very difficult period of economic sanctions. The economy was bad and people were suffering and striving to get their basic needs. The social, political and economical environments were just not suitable to build a computer game. We also had no budget for the game, we had one Amiga 500 with no hard drive, only 512KB of memory, and connected to a TV screen.

We also lacked the basic infrastructure and resources. We had almost daily power outages that were usually last many hours without a schedule. Aside from the direct consequence of not being able to work, the outages affected our progress in many other ways. For example, because we have only one Amiga machine, I used to bring Murtadha Salman, the graphic artist, to my house to do the graphics, however, many times we arrive home only to find out that there was no power. Also, the unpredictable power outages means we can risk loosing our work any time, therefore, we have to save our work every few minutes. However, because we only had a floppy drive, we have to swap disks many times, this is not only inconvenient but it was leading to corrupted disks and drives.

We also lacked technical resources like specialized books and magazines.

There were no events, conferences or classes to attend to learn game development. We relied on one book to develop the game, the Amiga Hardware Reference Manual.

In addition, communication with the outside world was very difficult which made it hard to promote our game and find a good publisher. We had no Internet access in Iraq and few people could use fax machines since they require government approval. Mail and fax correspondence were monitored and often blocked especially when in English. Items like floppy disks require special government approval to be sent via mail.

Most importantly, if we got lucky in delivering our message to publishers, the fact that Iraq was under an economic sanctions forced many publishers to refuse to deal with us. I actually still have the letters I received from various big Amiga publishers.

I coded the game in pure MC68000 assembly using Asm-One. We used Deluxe Paint for the graphics. I built a custom map editor to design the levels for this game and the other Mesopotamia game. Mahir Hisham, our musician used a sound digitizer and a mod tracker to compose the game music.

I was inspired by the smooth scrolling of Team17's Superfrog. I was glad to see that some of the feedback I received on the game's demo stated that Babylonian Twins' scrolling is better. The game design was inspired by one of my favorite MSX games: Konami's Knightmare 2 (or the Maze of Galious). My favorite Amiga games were different, I was addicted for a while to Kick Off and SpeedBall 2, I used to play with my brother and friends.

I like platform and puzzle games, in addition to Konami's Knightmare 2, I was a fan for Ascii's Castle and Castle Excellence games on the MSX. Also platform games with smooth multidimensional scrolling gave me some technical challenges that I wanted to work with on the Amiga. I was also a fan of side-scrolling shooters like Konami's Nemesis and racing games like F1 on the MSX. While developing Babylonian Twins's scrolling engine, I had some ideas of building such games in the future.

Honestly, I was really surprised, I never expected to see such active and vibrant Amiga community. I had thousands of unique visitors on from about 30 countries, all without doing any active promotion.

Yes I am, but not full-time. I am currently building a social game on Facebook and I have plans to port Babylonian Twins to Xbox Live soon. I believe that with the widespread of smart mobile devices and the proliferation of social networks we are going to see a stronger come back for fun and simple casual games. I am very excited about that.

I am definitely going to release the full Amiga version one day.

Babylonian Twins IS an Amiga game. However, I will do that after I successfully publish the game on a modern platform with a wider audience. Releasing it earlier than that could affect my dealings with potential publishers. I am planning to port it first on XBox live platform, it has a nice online distribution mechanism for classic and arcade games.

This is the other game that Mesopotamia team was working on. Auday Hussein was the team lead, Ali Aboud was the graphic artist and Mahir Hisham was our shared musician. The game has the same style as Shadow of the Beast with large but few stages. Unfortunately, Auday had to leave Iraq before finishing it.