Copyright 2001

[ November 27th 2001 ]

Kamar Shah loves playing games. More importantly, he knows why other people love playing games; he understands why a kid will go and blow all his birthday money on that one special game. Such empathy is pretty crucial when you're trying to convince the Dreamcast generation to play games on the tiny, greyscale screen of a mobile phone. But with a background rooted in games marketing, Shah is up for the challenge.

It's a long way from his role in the birth of Lara Croft to pushing text-based mobile quiz games, but Shah reckons the world is ready for wireless gaming. As head of gaming at Orange, he's one of the key driving forces behind the operator's vision of transforming itself from a mere pipe provider to a vendor of a complete lifestyle services package. In addition to building relationships with third-party content providers, Shah is leading the development of Orange's in-house games development division.

His original plan was to be a journalist. Having loved gaming since the days when "my mum was always pulling me out of arcades", it was obvious a gaming magazine would hold the greatest attraction, and Shah was already writing games stories for Future Publishing while still at college. Working the door of a bar - a Future watering hole - in Bath, Shah became even closer to the publishing house and ended up as editorial assistant on gaming magazine Ultimate Future Games.

"After six months I was really bored and started trying to convince people we should do covermounts, because no-one was really marketing games magazines then," he says. "I phoned every games company and filled the cellar with boxes of kit I'd blagged. We did the biggest ever give-away for Christmas and the issue flew out the door." Such enthusiasm meant Shah was already building a name for himself in the gaming industry. His next move proved "one of the biggest learning experiences of my life".

It was 1990 and Eidos had just launched. Shah had attracted the attention of marketing director Larry Sparks, who poached him as a marketing executive. He then had the good fortune to be promoted to project manager on a small game called Tomb Raider. The experience was "like a rocket", according to Shah. The unprecedented success of the game saw him gaining a wider industry role, raising his profile, presenting at Sony events and doing regular review slots on TV's Live and Kicking.

"It was a crazy time: 26 years old and running around everywhere," remembers Shah. "But I was always going back to Bath at the weekends to play rugby. My home is very important to me. I come from a very real background and that has always kept me grounded."

Some time later Eidos started going though a few changes that Shah wasn't too happy with, so he jumped at the chance to move to Microprose when approached by marketing manager Chris Meredith. Shah became a project manager on Team 17 games like Worms 2. "I remember turning up for meetings in a huge foam worm outfit and having to try and convince the shop manager that I really was the Eidos project manager," he laughs.

Here Shah picked up skills he's now finding vital in his efforts to build Orange's mobile gaming portfolio: "I learned how to build relationship skills. You have a developer and a publisher and both want to get the best from their products."

What he describes as a lack of real product saw Microprose get swallowed up by GT Interactive, at which time Shah decided he was ready for "something totally different". He left to set up a restaurant and catering marketing company called As You Like It. This is a time of his life that Shah is reluctant to talk about. Working with old friends, he quite fairly feels this was a very personal period, a time out from his more public exposure in the games industry.

The next step was another slight departure from his career norm: moving to games hardware manufacturer Saitek. "The company was moving to become a peripherals manufacturer, so I was able to bring my games knowledge to bear on the role," he says. "This was a useful time because it gave me good experience of hardware issues - obviously very important when you're working in mobile gaming."

When Shah was then approached by Orange to head its new gaming division, he was more than sceptical. "I was like, telecoms? That's definitely not for me. I'd come from the Playstation era, so it felt like moving back to Donkey Kong," he remembers. "When I saw Orange's vision of these lifeservices, however, I saw that the culture was there. It just needed people like me and Ian Henderson, who now heads up Orange's music division, to come in and make it work."


The toughest challenge Shah faced in his new role will be familiar to anyone involved in the mobile entertainment industry: ingrained scepticism. The debacle over the launch of WAP, for which Orange itself holds no small portion of the blame, meant that Shah was facing an uphill battle over the perceptions of both consumers and the industry as a whole.

"Everyone is still so sceptical, but WAP is here and it works and it delivers - as long as you can give people those killer apps," he says in frustration. "Colour TV didn't just come along and go bang! We had to put up with black-and-white Bush sets first."

Shah does get a bit fed up with the constant carping over WAP - no surprise given it's his job to evangelise the protocol for Orange. But his long experience in the games marketing industry has also given him the pragmatism that's so desperately needed to play the waiting game that the wireless entertainment industry entails, and to just concentrate on meeting the needs of consumers. "Throughout my career the one thing that's helped me most is being realistic," he says. "If little Billy only has GBP30 to spend on one game, what's going to make him pick up your product? You always need to concentrate on what Billy wants."

Refreshingly for someone at the cutting edge of the wireless entertainment industry, Shah virtually refuses to talk about the possibilities of 3G. Sure, he's thinking about it and he's got plenty of ideas. But his mantra is to deliver what's possible here and now. Such concentration on delivering a killer consumer experience with the tools to hand is surely one of the key attributes necessary for the development of the wireless entertainment industry. That and a love of gaming, of course

"I'm still a kid at heart," he says. "In fact, I'd rather be playing games than sitting here."

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