Human: Haider Choonawala
Country: Austin Tx, US
Domain: Game Development, Product Management , Player research and Economy Design
Job Profile: Senior Game Product Manager and Design lead
The world of gaming has a unique history. It is quite ironic that the first games were developed as an effect of the creation of the breakthrough mainframe computers that were used for codebreaking in the World War II era. As computers got more powerful and entered the arena of academic institutions, there were a lot more developments that happened in the field of creating computer games for recreation. The 1960s saw the creation of ‘Spacewar‘ by researchers over at MIT, and the following decade saw an increase in arcade games such as ‘Pongwars’ which became an instant hit and a pioneer in mass game development.
From arcade games to consoles to the much popular mobile games , the gaming industry has massively evolved over the years.
Behind these amazing graphics and great gameplay lies a team of developers, designers and testers who meticulously put in the hours to create a world of fantasy where you can slay demons and be the hero of your own story. It’s a fact that not many people get to say they have the coolest job in the world.
And one such person is this suave super-dad and magnetic human who has shown us what it means to follow your passion and turn your unconventional dreams into a reality. Born in the island nation of Hawaii and brought up in the US and India, he has been weaving magic into the game industry for more than a decade now. So here’s introducing our next human in the series, Haider Choonawala, an inspiring senior game product manager and lead designer extraordinaire who has been actively supporting diversity and inclusion in the gaming industry. He represents the amazing breed of developers and designers working relentlessly each day to make the gaming world more representative and usher in a new era of game development.
His formative years
Born in the Aloha state of Hawaii, Haider recalls growing up in different parts of the world. He was still a toddler when his parents came back to India.
He confesses, ‘I don’t have much significant memory of the place, but I have always felt drawn towards the ocean.’
He completed his high school in New Mexico in a prestigious private boarding school known as the United World College. And he went back to India and completed his computer science engineering at the Pune Institute of Computer Technology.
His early education had taught him to focus on logic rather than rote learning. In his Uni days, he recalls how his roommates and close friends, Parag and Harsh, would fill up his attendance while he would code through the day in his dorm. He did not feel like he would benefit from these classes that were giving more emphasis on theory rather than creating programs. He gleefully admits how most of his classmates would use his codes for their projects and assignments.
The first programming language he recalls learning was Java in a training school and the language he really excelled in was C/ C++. Creating algorithms was something that really intrigued him and made him dive deeper into the subject.
He would say, ‘Programming came naturally to me.’
Growing up in a predominantly business world, his dad studied in Hawaii and is an entrepreneur at heart. Hailing from an affluent business family, his mom had also managed the import and export aspect of her family business in the textile industry before her marriage. It was natural for Haider to follow in their footsteps but he was determined to choose his own path.
From day one, his parents have been pretty supportive of his inclination towards the tech world. There was enough freedom for him to follow his dream and their quiet affirmation to let him have a career of his choice is something Haider feels really grateful for. He mentions how his cousin Alifya Choonawala has been one of his biggest cheerleaders in the family.
‘She gets what I do.’ , he exclaims.
And this special bond he shares with his cousin has made the storyline of Baldur’s Gate II one of his recent favorites. The unique dynamic of a sibling relationship as its storyline has captivated millions of gamers and he wishes to see more such remarkable storylines in the future.
Growing up in Bombay
A significant part of his childhood was spent in Bombay. His paternal grandfather was among the carefully chosen C-suite executives in the Tata Group and he recalls a privileged upbringing in the posh South Bombay neighborhood.
Growing up in a large joint family, he recalls being one of the oldest grandchildren and having the responsibility to care for his younger cousins as well as getting the utmost love and attention from his grandparents.
He recounts, ‘I was always overfed as a kid.’
The extra affection he got particularly from his grand mom made him pack the pounds while growing up. And that’s how he found his passion for fitness when he signed up for the gym at fifteen. He animatedly details how working out has been an integral part of his life and has been trying out various fitness regimes and diets over the years.
Coming from a family of industrialists and businessmen, there were some hard times as well.
His dad, the senior Choonawala had lost a major fortune from his investments in a solar car project. He vividly remembers how his parents shielded their children from facing the brunt of their financial difficulties. They even had to shift base to the nearby city of Pune. But for him and his brother, it was a blessing in disguise. The reset in their lives had brought in more family time and his parents had finally found some time off in their busy schedules to focus on themselves.
He explains, ‘It meant we got more time together as a family and it is one of my happy memories.’
Having seen the ups and downs of the business world, he reveals how he realized early on the importance of finding out what makes you happy. It made his decision to follow his passion for game development stronger. He knew he wanted to have a career that made him happy to work each day.
‘Money doesn’t equate to happiness. We were happier when our family had to worry less about their businesses.’, he remarks.
He lightheartedly mentions how it was like being in his own version of the famous sitcom ‘Schitt’s Creek‘ and how it was a motivating factor to get into the video game industry. He knew head-on that he had to forge his own path.
The world of video games
He confesses how he didn’t have to think twice about what he wanted to do after his graduation. He had always been fascinated by video games for as long as he can remember.
‘When I got my first Nintendo , I knew I wanted to make video games.’ , he remarks.
The first game he ever played on his Nintendo was Mario. He recalls how his first job out of college was working as a quality assurance (QA) engineer for Ubisoft. And he gaily describes how he got a couple of opportunities to work with the creators of Mario and on Nintendo consoles.
Life had indeed come full circle for him.
He admits, ‘I had a quick growth. Within three years, I was promoted from QA to lead game designer.’
It was at his workplace where he met his mentor Pauline Jacquey, who taught him the ins and outs of the industry. His resilience and hard work paid off as he quickly climbed the ranks from a junior to senior game designer and then on to become a lead game designer for the company. He has shipped a couple of popular games over his span of years at Ubisoft, of which the Assassin’s Creed series and Prince of Persia stand out.
Having been an avid gamer himself, when an opportunity came to join Bioware , he would take it up in a heartbeat. The Canadian video game company is well known for its role-playing and multiplayer games, and some of its famous game franchises includes Baldur’s Gate, Star Wars, Mass Effect and Jade Empire to name a few.
He would say, ‘I have always been a Bioware fan my whole life.‘
He is currently involved in the team that is developing the next series in the popular Dragon Age franchise. Having been in the industry for more than a decade, he has indeed donned several hats in the world of game development. From being involved in player research to game economy design, he has seen it all.
He explains how in his nascent years in the industry he was focused on rewarding players with XP’s, loots, equipment, currencies and levels. And that has led to his renewed interest in playtesting and now leads a team for player research where they collaborate with different departments, from user research to consumer insights and analytics, to create the best products possible.
He explains, ‘The most intrinsic reward is to see how players react to our games.’
Being given the life to live out his dream and create products that he has always been fascinated by, this is one story of a brave heart who dodge all hurdles and broke barriers to turn his passion into a reality.
‘I am the happiest I have ever been. I make video games for a living.’ , he exclaims.
And that happiness is something he discovered with his first Nintendo and which now extends to the millions of gamers worldwide who feel the same aura of these video games.
Navigating the gaming industry
The first game he was involved in as a QA engineer decades ago was a collaboration with Nintendo DS called ‘Sweet 16‘ which was targeted at children under thirteen years. He acknowledges how his early projects taught him the importance of good game designs. He has come a long way from the early days to now leading teams involved in games played by millions across the world.
He recounts how one of his colleagues, who is a rocket scientist-turned-game developer, would admit how game development is sometimes harder than rocket science. His earliest memory of leading his first design team was for a compilation of board games for the first generation of iPhones called the iPhone 1. His inspiration behind some of those games stems from his childhood memories of playing Chess and Rummy with his grandparents.
He describes, ‘I remember reverse engineering the AI system in Chessmaster and simplifying it to be able to run it in mobile phones.‘
The ‘Master all Classics‘ game was Ubisoft’s most successful game on the iPhone in the early ’20s. And he recalls how implementing the 3C’s of game development – Character, Controls and Camera on a mobile platform was a challenging and rewarding task. Such games ushered in a new era of mobile game development that started out from the beloved good ol’ ‘Tetris‘ to the recent global phenomenon ‘PUBG’.
The gaming industry has come a long way.
His proudest moment as he recollects back has been on his work in the Assassin’s Creed Multiplayer which was until then a single-player gameplay and one of Ubisoft’s biggest AAA franchises. It was a small team of three who helmed the project. He remembers how they would playtest these games throughout the day for months and make changes based on the tester’s feedback.
All the hard work paid off when they found the perfect gameplay that enabled the popular franchise to transition to a multiplayer game.
He excitedly recalls, ‘The player’s facial expressions and reactions made us realize that this was the game we would ship on the console.’
That was a major success that he fondly looks back on.
His first stint in the gaming industry introduced him to the world of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). He recalls the initial RPGs on the market like ‘Might and Magic’ and it is a gaming concept that resonates close to his heart.
He wishes to see more RPGs (role-playing games) in the future where players can customize their characters and bring more representation to the gaming industry.
He laments, ‘A few years back all characters fit one narrative and players did not have the option to see themselves represented in the games they play.’
Diversity and inclusion have been something he feels passionate about being in the industry for so long. It was these options for character customizations that really appealed to him about Bioware.
‘I would like to see players feel like the Hero of their own storyline.’, he expresses.
‘Follow your passion and be the hero of your own story.’-Haider Choonawala, 2022
The way forward
He first met his wife at a cousin’s wedding in India and he recalls how they reconnected years later when he was nursing a broken heart.
He vividly recollects, ‘She was handing out sweets in a pink Indian dress at the wedding .’
She has held his hands through tough times. He fondly recollects when he knew she was the ‘one‘, he took her out to her favorite French restaurant and ask her to marry him. They have been together for a decade now.
Their world now revolves around their son.
With his own set of experiences growing up, he wants to change the lack of displaying love and affection associated with most parenting styles in Asian societies. He explains how his parents had not been able to be vocal about their emotions too.
He would say, ‘I want to change that narrative with my son. I celebrate all his small little achievements.’
Fatherhood has shown him a different side to life. He describes how his son likes to be outside around nature. So it was only natural that the doting father had recently taken a liking to kayak in still waters, thanks to his son’s love for the ‘duckies‘.
He divulges, ‘Our baby loves the outdoors and we spend a lot of holidays in parks and creeks…most days kayaking.’
The importance of work-life balance has dawned on him lately, and he acknowledges how having a child of his own has indeed changed his perspective on life.
His viewpoint on game design and storylines has evolved with the times as he explains how traditionally the early games were mostly based on romantic storylines of saving princesses and fulfilling destinies. Recent popular games like ‘God of War‘ have changed the stereotypical narrative and showed a father-son storyline.
He cheerfully remarks, ‘We can tell more stories with diverse relationships. It doesn’t have to be one narrative anymore.’
Drawing inspiration from his partner’s strength and resolve as a mother, he hopes to someday see games that can highlight the dynamics of a mother and child relationship.
It’s not every day that you get to meet your heroes and Haider has truly shown us what saving the world in your own way looks like.
‘Believe in your dreams‘ is the one mantra this super dad stands by. He reminds us of a powerful mage who once said –
We stand on the precipice of change.
The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss.
Watch for that moment, and when it comes do not hesitate to leap.
For it is when we fall, we learn whether we can fly.– Flemeth, Dragon Age II
So the next time we play one of these games, don’t forget to remember the countless mages who worked tirelessly behind the scenes each day, building us a virtual world of endless possibilities. And who have seamlessly shown us the power of believing in one’s dreams no matter how crazy they may be.
Somewhere in these games lie the codes and designs of amazing superheroes who have transformed our childhoods and our lives.
Nameless, faceless and often unknown.
This is a thank you to all the silent superheroes who have made us feel invincible .
And to the crazy ones who continue to take that leap.
Here’s for the win.
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