December 12, 2023

Waleed Bin Khalid (Lead Online Programmer)

Islamabad-based Lead Online Programmer, Waleed Bin Khalid, is just one more of the international group of devs at the studio working on GTRevival. We asked him about growing up with a dream, developing the online system for GTRevival, and … oh yes, what’s the deal with motorsport in Pakistan?

So, Waleed, a little intro?

I’m based in Islamabad, a calm, scenic city that also serves as one of the gateways to awe-inspiring northern Pakistan where you’ll find the iconic K2 as well as the Nanga Parbat.

At Straight4, I wear two hats, alternating between a Lead and an Engineer.

As a Lead, my role is navigating the online team where I always aim to set clear expectations and plans to steer us in the right direction. We gather for planning sessions often to plot our course and to ensure everything stays on track.

In the world of software development, it’s impossible to escape unforeseen tasks which in turn cause slight delays in the deliverables but I have learnt through the years that, if you put in the right effort and mindfully plan, the unexpected will happen a lot less frequently! The other key is to anticipate and learn to create opportunities from unforeseen issues. Make that a part of your journey and mindset, and you’ll reduce the chaos and turn it into manageable challenges.

As one of the engineers in the online team, my main responsibility is writing the server-side logic for online features and integrating it on the client's end, ensuring our architecture is not only robust but scalable enough to handle high demands.

I’m mildly (but don’t ask anyone who knows me about how mild!) obsessed with finding the best ways to write programs that not only function superbly but are also a joy to understand. For me, crafting code is like telling a compelling story. To achieve this, I think there are two key elements: The first is the art of architecting and structuring your code, and the second is the thrill of infusing it with core logic. When you approach these two keys separately and combine them later to make a program come alive—man, that’s truly an amazing feeling! (Did I say mildly obsessed?!)

I’m fond of design patterns and always up to exchanging ideas and discussing system design and code architectures with fellow engineers.

Does this explain why you got into game development?

I always wanted to be a game dev’, pretty much since childhood, but the question for a boy growing up in Pakistan was always "How?"

As a child, I had no idea how games were made or even that they were a subset of software engineering. I remember my cousin asking me back then: "What would you like to become when you're older?" and me replying, "I will make games!” I still remember his response to that: “So, Waleed, how are you gonna make money from making games?" and my innocent answer being, “I will copy the games onto CDs and sell them just like that game shop—’New Edge’—in our town.”

That's all I knew at that time. Sadly, “New Edge” shut down a decade ago because, you know, now we all mostly rely on online stores and buy digital copies of games instead.

Anyway, I was already a teen when I began thinking more critically about game development, and first dipped my toes into programming. As luck would have it, just a few years later, my curiosity and passion got me my first job ... as a Web Application Developer at a startup called Cloud Tech.

I learned a ton there and then moved on to DPL with a similar role but my eye was always on finding a way into gaming, and I finally managed to get my foot in the door with weRplay (back then, the parent of Playdew) who offered me a position as "Backend Engineer” but that title was irrelevant—I was now working in gaming!

I still remember that moment. I was ecstatic—seriously, it was truly a dream job at that time and there could not have been a more perfect opportunity!

I worked with some great minds out there on a bunch of interesting projects that shaped me into what I am today.

So looking back, what's the project that you're most proud of and why?

Oh, it's definitely the last one I worked on: Buntz: Race Royale. I’ve been a part of that project since the early prototype phase and now, as the team is approaching its first public announcement, and reflecting on our journey, I must admit to being really satisfied with what we created.

Buntz is a marble-racing-inspired multiplayer game where you control adorable ball-like creatures called “Buntz” with just two simple controls—brake and boost. Despite it having a low-skill ceiling, the competition gets intense with 24 other real players on the track. We were honored to be nominated for the Best Mobile/Tablet Game at Game Connection Europe in 2022 and our game was selected to showcase at Mobidictum 2022.

I took the lead in engineering the server-side and multiplayer aspects of the game during my time there. Being part of a small team, handling most of the multiplayer/server-side responsibilities solo was a challenging yet immensely rewarding experience.

I contributed significantly to various core elements that include multiplayer logic, multiple game modes, ghost races, bots system, guilds and team tournaments, events, friends system, leaderboards, synced profiles, authentication, and the gameplay foundation that provided a solid base for the gameplay team to incorporate a plethora of cool mechanics into multiplayer races.

And then you ended up at Straight4. What's been the most surprising thing about developing a sim racing title?

In the dynamic world of the gaming industry, passion for work is a common thread, but finding that shared enthusiasm throughout an entire team as it is here at S4 was an eye-opener for me. It’s been a unique experience. These guys live and breathe motorsports, you know? So, for them, it’s like bringing their love for racing alive, in the most authentic way possible.

Witnessing everyone not just working towards releasing a game but striving for the best version of it has been truly fascinating to see and, if I’m honest, a big learning experience. Detailing the smallest things, and the extensive brainstorming sessions on forum posts about stuff non-motorsport geeks wouldn’t even consider as important—and watching these guys doing dozens of posts trying to find the ideal solution for things most players probably wouldn’t even notice—it's something really special.

All of this has been an absolute pleasure, and it’s reignited my abandoned love for racing games.

Another surprise initially was the state of online features in sim racing. Coming from mobile world, sim racing felt a bit, how can I say it politely?—a little behind the times. So I was really excited when the decision was made to bring Henrique Alves on board. Henrique is a sim racing expert, sharp, and has quickly stamped his authority on the Online Team due to his enormous experience.

It's been enjoyable exchanging ideas with him that could potentially become part of the game and receiving feedback on how these ideas will be received by the community. The way we work at S4 is key because our assumptions are constantly being weighed by other teams, and because the studio is made up largely of the same fans who will eventually play GTRevival, that feedback loop has been enormously useful to me as a bit of an “outsider” to the community.

We are aiming to craft a few new features (as a stretch goal) that might not be so common in the sim-racing world. Yet we are mindful of the essentials that sim racers truly enjoy in online play—scheduled races, meaningful ratings and championships, and a smooth multiplayer race, and that’s our first goal: to deliver what sim racers love and then push the boundaries with some exciting additions that I think the sim racing community is going to embrace.  

What are the biggest challenges that you're confronted with when creating a system that works for the users?

So far, it's been about balancing the online modes and accurately estimating the tradeoffs you make. In other words, they need to work for the game and the community. You must make sure that they deliver a satisfying experience for the majority … and yet they don’t leave behind the minority. It's all about finding the right balance, and that, in general, requires constant polishing and discussion.

Also, we’re focused on bringing a smooth multiplayer experience that deals with bad connections and compensates for lag to a greater extent. We have an exceptional network engineer on that front, Alexander Taylor, who is passionate and experienced, and this is one of the core deliverables of our team.

Pakistan is not exactly known for motorsports! Where did the interest in racing come from?

Video games, where else!?

I remember my tireless childhood NFS sessions when I used to race for 6-8 hours straight. Those are some fabulous memories—I can still recall those years, spending tons of time in the game's garage to satisfy myself with the look and feel of my car collection, playing bounty races in Undercover, and Carbon 1v1 challenges down the hill in night. Damn, that was fun!

When I was approached about the possibility of working on a sim racing title at S4, I was instantly reminded of those fun years as a kid, you know? My interest in racing games was always there but there isn’t that much here to keep the spark alive—I mean real motorsport—and I must confess that, since I joined the studio, I’m spending a lot of time racing (it’s part of my job!), and that’s pretty much where that kid spending countless hours on NFS could only have dreamed of getting to fifteen years later.

As for actual racing, we only have one actual track out here in Islamabad, and it’s actually a kart track!

It’s quite fun though—it's an official SWS (SODIWSERIES) track with SODI RX7, R250, and similar karts on it.

I am definitely not the best, but I like to consider myself above average. It has two tracks, a “full length" and "a stripped one" which takes out the last banked turn. The best lap without banked turn is at around 1:02 and I’m lapping around the 1:07 mark. Slightly above average on both routes.

So what gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you motivated to work in gaming, with all its pressures and stress (even if you come across as the most unstressed guy in game dev!)

GTRevival is the most exciting project of my career, and every second that I spend working on it means a lot to me. This is something that doesn’t just get me out of bed but gets me behind my PC with a lot of passion.

My daily spark is that I am working on something that I can again play all weekend just as I used to do on the NFS games, FIFA and Clash Royale. Okay, those games aren’t the same thing, because sim racing has its own unique challenges to master, but ultimately, we’re making something that is going to be fun to play as well, and this is really motivating for me: so much to learn, and at a studio like S4, the way the team works, I feel as if I have a lot to contribute. We’re a small studio, and that means we share so much, there’s little in the way of “silos”, so you get to see the project from a unique vantage point.

As for stress—as I said earlier, and I mean this honestly, the words “pressure” and “stress” mean “challenges” and "crafting carefully" to me.

I’ve also been very lucky in that I started in this industry so young: I was mentored by some amazing people along the way. I’ve been around so many good people, and they were never short of finding ways to motivate. These experiences will always be a good reference point for my work and for building teams and products.

So yes, it’s stressful, but at the end of the day, my job is to create something fun for people, you know? To build games—I mean, that was my dream as a boy, and I’m living that. What’s a little stress when you’re doing that!?

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