Gaming is no longer a boy’s club. Statistics have shown that women also make up a large portion of gamers, almost half to be exact. And that has also translated over to the games themselves. Muscle-bound male protagonists that used to dominate covers are now sharing the limelight with kick-ass, determined heroines — Horizon’s Aloy is just a recent example that embodies that.
Of course, this is thanks to the developers who breathe life into both the characters and the world, making for compelling games that players get attached to. And like the gaming demographic, the teams themselves are seeing a similar diversity, with more and more women helping craft some of our favourite video games.
I’ve had the massive pleasure to speak to one such person — Syarah Mahmood. You may not have heard her name, but you almost certainly can recognise some of the projects she’s been involved in. There’s Immortals Fenyx Rising as well as several titles in the famous Assassin’s Creed series like Assassin’s Creed Origins, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and the latest Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
Syarah works at Ubisoft Singapore, probably the biggest game development studio in the country currently. She works as a Lead Artist, bringing to life the beautiful game worlds that players find themselves in with her intricate and detailed art. So if you’ve ever set foot in the snow-scaped Snotinghamscire region in Northumbria during your playtime in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, it has Syarah’s mark.
You could even consider that her working on the newest Assassin’s Creed games is somewhat fate, given that the first title in the series was something that she credits with influencing her journey into the games industry.
“When I played Assassin’s Creed when it first came out, it’s pretty groundbreaking at the time — how immersive, how beautiful that was. So as I was playing, I was like, ah! You know, I’m so lost in the world climbing over everything, and I felt like hey, I want to do this, I want to do worlds like this so that other people can experience what I’m experiencing,” Syarah reminisces.
Gaming continues to be part of her life. Recently she’s been playing Machinarium (a quirky puzzle game from 2009) and Poppy Playtime (indie survival horror game). After watching streamers and videos on it, she’s also looking forward to trying her hands with the recently released Elden Ring, her first ‘souls-like’ game. “I figured because I’m looking at people playing, the environments are like, wow, oh my gosh! I feel like you know, this is something I need to experience firsthand as well,” she quips.
The journey to the games industry wasn’t a straightforward path though. She initially worked in the animation industry, specifically for a company dealing with TV animation. Her work included storyboarding and drawing the background environments, done in 2D form.
It was a routine that she felt that she had learned everything there is to learn from it. “I think it was at that point in my life where I was like, oh, you know, I think I’d like to do something more with what I have, push my skills a bit more,” says Syarah. She desired a new challenge, and with the experience of Assassin’s Creed in mind, the medium of games was an aspect that excited her — describing it to me as ‘technology meets art’.
But the games industry isn’t something you can simply jump ship to. The scene in Singapore is tiny compared to America, Japan and Europe, and it is competitive. So in that case, where does one start then? Well, back to school — which is where Syarah went. She enrolled into DigiPen Institute of Technology to get her degree in digital arts and was able to curate a portfolio specifically for the games industry, managing to garner a spot in the Dean’s Honor List along the way.
With her degree and portfolio in hand, she managed to secure a job at Ubisoft Singapore, where she remains to this day over six years later. Before she levelled up to the role of Lead Artist though, she was given the role of a Junior 3D Artist to start with.
Given that it was her maiden experience within the games industry, Syarah shared that the initial periods felt like a fish out of water experience. Although Ubisoft Singapore isn’t the primary development team for the Assassin’s Creed games, they serve as one of many support studios helping to create this single game, so there is a lot of staff working on it simultaneously. This isn’t just the nature of the Ubisoft conglomerate, but for AAA game production as a whole.
“Especially trying to make games at the scale that we’re making — AAA games — It’s a very challenging affair because it involves huge teams, like hundreds of people coming together to deliver this ambitious goal and get things right and get the best player experience.”
“We work with studios like Ubisoft Quebec, Montreal, Philippines, Chengdu…and I think that therein lies the challenge — working with different people from different cultures, different nationalities,” she elaborates. “It requires a lot of collaboration. Communication is super key in order to align a vision and make things work so yeah, that was my realisation. Okay, this game is a huge beast in itself to achieve”.
Not that the experience has seemed to have fazed her. Even though she notes that the team changes and production cycles differ from every game she has done, Syarah has continued in Ubisoft Singapore for another six years.
And so we arrive at the current situation; Syarah has worked her way up to become a Lead Artist within the studio. But what exactly does that role actually entail? She explains that the change now meant it was less about individuality, with her job now more about guiding and empowering her team to benefit the game creatively.
“My focus has kind of shifted from when I first started out. (Previously), I’m making environments and trying to make the level of quality for that environment amazing, but right now, my goal is to make sure that everyone on the team is able to do that. So that has changed,” That synergy is critical in a franchise like Assassin’s Creed, which prides itself on the historical accuracy needed to sell its world and tell its narrative.
“I guess in a typical day, there’s a lot of sync-ups, decision-making to tackle like art topics, and the art direction of the game, you know, because I think making a game is a complicated process that even today we face challenges all the time, even on different productions,” she says as she goes into the day-to-day routine.
That can seem a little tricky, particularly during a pandemic situation. Like most of Singapore, it has been a working-from-home routine for much of the last two years; Syarah herself got the role nearly a year ago, smacked in the middle of COVID-19 and just before the Singapore government announced the ‘Heightened Alert’ additional measures. Even during my remote video interview, I noted that she was at her home rather than the Ubisoft Singapore offices.
“We would previously have reviews in person, and we get to interact, but now because we work from home, that happens on MS teams, and it’s a different kind of dynamic from, let’s say, in-person in a room. Like I’m pretty sure in zoom calls, maybe you have experienced before, (there is) dead air, people are shy to speak up…” says Syarah, as she expands on the change in work dynamic.
But she was quick to also note that the team is still able to ship out great games despite the remote working environment. Syarah even points out that the arrangement has been a boon for the workflow when working directly with the company’s international partners — an aspect thrust upon her as part of being Lead Artist.
The statistics seem to agree. Last year, Ubisoft’s Chief Financial Officer Frederick Duguet proudly announced that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla had become the franchise’s biggest launch. Last month, Ubisoft’s recent financial report revealed that it is the series’ highest-grossing title after crossing $1 Billion in revenue. Remote working has not hindered the overall success of the games being worked on.
In fact, Syarah might even say that the current working arrangement is a highlight. The term ‘crunch’ has recently been a big talking point within the games industry, where developers cite getting overwork fatigue from doing overtime to meet a game’s planned production deadline. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case at Ubisoft Singapore. At the time I spoke to Syarah, she divulged that the current arrangement is up to the person, so they can ostensibly choose to fully work from home or onsite at the studio (subject to availability with the government’s 50% capacity rule).
“I think it’s also important to (the) work-life balance because as people grow (with the company), they have families — we want to have that kind of flexibility. And that’s what I like about Ubisoft; like we do have that flexibility in terms of working; whether you’re working from home or working from studio,”
But of course, when we speak about the working conditions, it is hard to ignore the elephant in the room. The studio has been dogged by reports of impropriety by various media, stemming from the experiences of employees working there.
When I asked Syarah whether she has experienced any bias, especially as a female working in a male-dominated industry, the answer fortunately did not follow the same narrative as those reports.
“I mean, this is my personal experience. I don’t speak for everyone. But when I first joined, I’m pretty much welcomed. I feel like I’ve been given the same opportunities to grow. I didn’t feel that there was a difference of whether I was being treated differently as well. The team was welcoming to anyone, as well as new people on board to the team we treat pretty much everyone the same,” says Syarah. She also notes that the ratio of female to male employees has also been more equal compared to when she started. but does concede that more can be done to, in her words, “try to dispel any notions of bias, stereotypes”.
Ubisoft Singapore itself has initiatives in place to support its female employees.“We have ‘Women at Ubisoft SG’, so it’s like an internal group where it’s a support group for women to come together. It’s a safe avenue for us to speak, provide feedback and improve studio initiatives and also organise meetups,” Syarah reveals.
“So I joined a session, and it’s like a networking session, and we all were like put in rooms and get to connect with people, especially new people that come in during the pandemic. So that was like a great experience to just talk to my fellow women devs in Ubisoft.”
And overall, Syarah credits Ubisoft Singapore as a place that has helped cultivate her circle of friends, both female and male — some of whom she would even consider being among her best friends. And even with the work from home arrangement, the team tries to maintain close bonds.
Indeed, Ubisoft Singapore is attempting to create an intimate atmosphere within its studio environment, but the fact remains that they are big fish in a small pond. Moreover, the competitive nature of it may even put off some people wanting to go into it, something I’m personally familiar with since I’ve studied and graduated with a game development related diploma myself.
But Syarah feels that the landscape will be better in the future. She pointed out that more companies are setting base in Singapore, such as with Riot Games’ recent studio opening here. From her side, she also relays that there are internship opportunities at Ubisoft Singapore, with the studio seeking talent. They also occasionally send people to polytechnics and universities for talks to inspire the next generation.
So, if you’re like Syarah and want to create the next set of captivating characters or worlds to engulf players as an artist, she leaves with some advice.
The first is to start catering a portfolio to what you want to do specifically. “There’s actually many opportunities for art in game development — from modelling characters you know, character artists, environment artists, technical art…it’s helpful to do that,” she explains. The second would be to hone your skills. She comments that we live in a lucky period with information readily available, so she advises to seek tutorials online to practice and sharpen your craft, noting that things like colour theory and composition are important in her line of work. Thirdly, be proactive in looking for opportunities as you never know what becomes available.
But as general advice, she urges people to discover what they love and do it. As she puts it succinctly, “do it anyway, despite what anyone will tell you, and focus on your craft.”
As a final antidote, she recalls a recent trip back to her university, this time to give a talk to her juniors as they look to make it within Singapore’s game industry. “I went back to Digipen to actually do a talk to share more about what it is like to be an artist, and it’s very heartening to see the students come up with all these questions, and I’m super excited to see the next generation of artists come in and what they have in store.”
Visuals courtesy of Syarah Mahmood and Ubisoft Singapore.