Tariq Saifullah: From cartoonist to international game artist

June 11, 2024

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Fueled by his childhood passion for drawing, Muhammad Tariq Saifullah transformed from an avid sketcher of 90s cartoons into a renowned game artist, with aspirations to create immersive, nostalgia-evoking games that captivate players worldwide.

“Why don’t you take the Fine Arts entrance exam?”

This suggestion from cartoonist Ahsan Habib turned Muhammad Tariq Saifullah’s life around. From Robin Hood to ThunderCats to Woody Woodpecker, he never imagined that the holiday cartoons he loved would become intertwined with his life and livelihood. Although he nurtured the heart of an artist since childhood, he never considered it a career path. He used to sketch the cartoons he watched, filling his notebooks with quick pencil drawings.

Saifullah, who started with cartoons, is now known as a game artist. He secured an opportunity to work in a gaming studio in Las Vegas while still in Bangladesh.

Skilling Up with Cartoons

The various cartoons aired on Bangladeshi television in the 90s are a nostalgic part of the childhood or adolescence of many from that era. Titles like Woody Woodpecker, Samurai X, Jumanji, Robin Hood, and Thunder Cats were especially influential. Tariq was enamoured with them. It was during this time that he began drawing cartoons. Without any formal training in the field, he drew purely out of passion.

Tariq frequently visited the library, where he tried to imitate the styles of comics like Tintin and Disney cartoons. His primary inspiration was Narayan Debnath, the creator of iconic Bangla comic characters such as Nonte Fonte, Batul the Great, and Handa-Bhonda.

In class 10, Tariq met Ahsan Habib, the publisher and editor of the cartoon magazine Unmad. Encouraged by Habib, Tariq took the Fine Arts entrance exam and was admitted to the Drawing and Painting department. He continued to draw cartoons for various daily newspapers.

Despite his madrasa-centric education up to high school, Tariq’s passion for cartoons was steadfast. His family, though initially hesitant, supported him once he was admitted to the Fine Arts institution at Dhaka University.

Transitioning to Digital Art

While drawing cartoons for newspapers, Tariq’s interest in digital art began to grow around 2003-2004. With the internet not being widely available, he frequented cyber cafes to learn about different art software.

“I used to explore software related to art. Besides, I had some knowledge about 3D, though not completely. While learning one subject, I found that I learned ten more subjects,” Tariq said.

“There were no YouTube tutorials or high-speed internet then. I used to buy books from Neelkhet or print tutorials from the internet at cyber cafes and practice at home.”

Arcade gaming shops became popular at the start of the 21st century.

These neighbourhood arcade machine shops offered a wide variety of games for a few coins.

Friends would often visit these shops together. It was during these outings that ‘cartoonist’ Tariq became interested in making games himself, sparking a new journey in his career.

One day he and his friends thought “Why not make a game for ourselves?”

2D arts for mobile game by Tariq Saifullah

From cartoon to game

Tariq’s goal was clear from the start: to start a new career by making mobile games. From casual to hyper-casual to multi-platform games, Tariq has explored all arenas, with a particular passion for casual games.

Casual games keep players glued to their mobile screens. The rules of these games are relatively simple, making them highly popular. On the other hand, multi-platform games can be played across browsers, mobiles, and computers, offering more versatility.

Tariq Saifullah worked as a game artist on the popular game ‘Muktikamp,’ based on the Liberation War. This tactical game depicts the fight of Bangali freedom fighters against the Pakistanis. Its attractive graphics quickly resonated with a broad audience.

At the start of ‘Muktikamp,’ Bangali freedom fighters are shown building a camp in an abandoned village on the Bangladesh border. In the camp, villagers are trained for war, and supplies such as food and medicine are stocked. The game portrays how ordinary people were trained to defeat the Pakistani army.

Another favourite project developed by Tariq is Jito.online, a hyper-casual game platform established under Rise Up Labs. This game has gained significant popularity.

Tariq has had many interesting experiences while working on games. Reflecting on one such moment, he recalls a friend who was also involved in gaming.

“Around 2015, a game called Fruit Ninja was very popular. Fruits would fall on the screen, and you had to slice them with your fingers. The more you sliced, the higher your score. A friend of mine was so addicted that once, when I visited his house, I found him trying to cut a watermelon with his fingers instead of a knife!” said Tariq with a smile.

From Bangladesh to Las Vegas

According to Tariq, the gaming industry in Bangladesh is relatively new, with most clients being foreigners. Since 2008, Tariq has had the opportunity to work with international clients.

A 2D art for mobile game by Tariq Saifullah

“When I started working on games, we didn’t have a culture where any company would make games. It started a few years ago. Some might have tried from Bangladesh. I used to contact foreign clients from different freelancing sites. From there I would fulfil their needs,” he said.

Tariq began his career as a computer graphics artist (CG artist) at the Swedish company Funrock Media in 2009, where he worked for about two years. During this time, he focused on creating browser games. “There was a trend of games on Facebook, like Surfing and Candy Crush. They were called browser games,” he explained.

Through his career, Tariq has gained experience working with many foreign companies. In 2021, he joined ‘Riseup Labs’ as a Senior Game Artist. Riseup Lab is one of the few companies in Bangladesh that have managed to establish themselves in the gaming industry. Over the past 13 years, they have collaborated with various international organisations, including UNICEF Bangladesh, BBC Media Action, UNDP, USAID, and WHO. While at Riseup Labs, Tariq had the opportunity to work with a gaming studio in Las Vegas.

Tariq shared, “When I started working with Riseup Labs, they were under contract with some of the biggest mobile game companies in the world. First, I worked with Murka Games, a Russian company. We’ve been collaborating with them on casual games for a long time. Then we signed up with The Sands Group in Las Vegas. I’m currently working with the Las Vegas branch of The Sands Group.”

From 2D Animation to 3D Animation

Tariq always enjoys working outside his comfort zone, believing that exploring new areas enhances learning and knowledge. However, adopting new techniques hasn’t been without its challenges, he shares, as he recounts his journey from traditional 2D animation to 3D animation.

“2D and 3D platforms are completely different. 2D animation can be done from the pictures we draw on paper and is more art-based. On the other hand, 3D animation is more technical and requires working on a computer. But even in 3D, you still have to draw to create the character,” Tariq explained.

“We worked on the 2D platform for a long time. Then, as mobile devices, browsers, and computers started to improve, the 3D medium became associated with gaming. I had to put in a lot of work during the transition from 2D to 3D. Mindfisher Games Inc. helped me get off the ground during this transition.”

While working with them, he created the game ‘Mukticamp.’ He learned 3D well through this project. The game ‘Mukticamp’ created a lot of buzz at the time.

Tariq believes that the gaming industry in Bangladesh hasn’t fully established itself as an industry yet.

“Only big companies take the risk to venture into game development, as it is like gambling. You never know whether a game becomes a hit or not; whether people will even play it or not largely depends on luck,” he remarked.

He cited the example of Angry Birds, developed by Rovio Entertainment. “Angry Birds was their 31st game. They faced failures until that point. It was only after the success of Angry Birds that their company gained significant traction,” he added.

Tariq attributes the lack of investor interest as a major hurdle in establishing the gaming industry in Bangladesh. “In Bangladesh, it’s challenging to secure funding from banks or institutions based solely on an idea, unlike in industries like garments where investments yield tangible products and returns. The gaming industry operates differently, which hampers its growth in our country,” he explained.

“Surviving solely on game development here is tough. Many have tried and failed due to the lack of investor support. It requires immense patience, and investments are hard to come by. However, a few companies have managed to weather the storm and thrive,” Tariq said.

Tariq’s dream is to create games that reflect his own vision and evoke the nostalgia of childhood. “I aim to develop games that truly captivate players, bringing back the joy of childhood memories,” he shared. “While the initial blueprint is in place, there’s still much to be done to realise this dream.”

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