17 Sep 2016 13:13 IST

Hatching a Pokémon-like egg in India

Indian game development companies are nowhere close to delivering a home-grown mega-blockbuster

One wrong move and you sink. You have to use all your wits to keep sailing in Sea of Thieves, an action-adventure video game. You are a dreadful pirate lurching through the high seas in a small ship. But you are not alone. A clan of gamers from anywhere in the world can join in as your crew in this social multiplayer game, and together you will be hunting treasures, battling monsters, getting drunk on grog and lustily singing sea shanties.

Set to be released in 2017, this imaginative survival saga on the seas — developed by Rare and published by Microsoft Studios for Xbox One — has just won an award at Gamecon and wowed critics, who called it “a luscious offbeat adventure game”. And guess what? A lot of the artwork was made in India. Gurgaon-based Lakshya Digital created its character costumes, props, settings and wildlife creatures.

Walk into Lakshya Digital’s studio and you enter another world. Half-bird, half-reptilian scaly creatures lumber around menacingly, grotesque faceless figures clad in Gothic robes swish swords with a puny hero carrying a suitcase — all on the computers of the artists and animators creating them. Even as these youngsters fashion these monstrous villains (or Final Boss in gaming lexicon) with devilish glee, others in the room are playing games with a goofy look on their faces. “It’s part of their job,” says an indulgent Manvendra Shukul, the CEO and founder. Set up way back in 2004, his game development company has attracted investments from an Irish studio.

As this summer’s hit Pokémon Go holds the world in thrall, and Super Mario stages a coup at Rio with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appearing disguised as the Nintendo character, gaming fever and talk have gripped people everywhere. Even India — widely regarded as a gaming backwater — has not been immune to the frenzy.

Just four months ago, an online gaming aggregator, NovaPlay, was set up by advertising and marketing professional Amitesh Rao. “Gaming is on the cusp of explosion in India,” says Rao. His platform will address the challenges (low speeds, payment mechanism) confronting casual and pro-gamers in India.

Rao is trying to nudge more action in India by holding roadshows. In July he flagged off a gaming extravaganza in Bengaluru. It will travel with its gaming contests, comedy acts and other entertainment to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai over the next 12 months. A prize money of ₹5 lakh has been earmarked for each city’s winner. The winners of the city leagues will play off in the finals. Rao sees the tour as the coming-of-age of gaming in India.

His optimism is counter-balanced by Shukul, who says the Indian market is where the US was 40 years ago. Parents still frown on kids playing video games. In the US, on the other hand, e-sports tournaments such as DOTA2 International 2016 have a prize money pool of nearly $19 million.

In India, the Gurgaon-based Nodwin has, for three years, conducted e-sports for professional gamers — a small community even today. There is also the gaming platform IndiaVideoGamer.com, but NovaPlay hopes to hook casual gamers to bolster the numbers.The gaming market in India is reckoned to be around five million PC gamers and 150 million mobile phone gamers. Rao wants to attract more PC gamers by making available blockbuster titles like CounterStrike and DOTA2 at a pocket-friendly Indian price.

Action stations

Gaming as a sport may be nascent in India, but there’s a lot of action in the development business. There has been a flurry of new entrants in recent times, with the most glamorous of them all being Bollywood actor Shilpa Shetty and her husband Raj Kundra. The latter’s Viaan Studios, launched in August, is targeting mobile games to begin with, before moving to console gaming and cracking the global league. The worldwide gaming market — already reckoned to be bigger than Hollywood and expected o reach $99.6 billion this year — is a mouth-watering space to be in.

Many of the country’s more than 200 game development companies are doing work for big publishers in the West like Sega, Ubisoft, Sony and Microsoft, or their developers. There are also several bootstrapped Indie developers unaffiliated to big studios who are crafting engrossing original storylines and characters in the quest for a mega blockbuster. Has Pokémon Go’s phenomenal success added velocity to their dreams?

Mission possible

Rajesh Rao, who is in many ways the father of game development in India — he set up its first game company, Dhruva Interactive, in 1997 — points out that way before Pokémon Go, it was Angry Birds and Temple Run that really triggered interest. “The fact that three guys in a bootstrapped company could come up with a global sensation that saw three billion downloads spurred a lot of interest,” he says

His own introduction to the gaming business was accidental. His multimedia firm had a visitor, James Vaughan from Intel, who “showed us the mad bad world of gaming and got us hooked,” laughs Rao.

The newly launched Dhruva took a year to build the game engine. Thanks to the good offices of Intel, they got international contacts and took a plane out and showed their capabilities. In November 1998, Rao got a call from a French company asking if Dhruva could make the PC version of Mission Impossible. Off to a great start, his company blazed a trail for others to follow.

In 1999, IndiaGames was started by Vishal Gondal — yes, he of the GOQii fitness app fame. Disney bought IndiaGames for around ₹390 crore in 2011 from UTV, to whom Gondal had sold stakes. In 2000, there were a total of three gaming companies in India, with the launch of Paradox Studios (later bought by Reliance). After that there was a lull for 10 years, though a few great games like Yoddha The Warrior did come out of the IndiaGames studios. Till 2010, there were barely 20-25 game development companies here. And then Angry Birds happened. The story of this Finnish firm that had 51 flop titles and was on the verge of winding down before it struck gold with the 52nd, captured everyone’s imagination.

Rajesh Rao points out that the app economy’s take-off around that time also made it easier for game development in India. Unlike console games that cost $20-80 million each to make, or even the expensive PC games, a mobile game can be made cheaply. Rohit Bhatt of 99 Games, which has some 15 titles under its belt, including the profitable Star Chef, says really simple games can be developed for just ₹10 lakh.

There were other leg-ups too for game development. Rao, whose Dhruva is the biggest game development firm in India, heads Nasscom’s gaming forum, which runs contests for schoolkids, holds conferences for developers and so on. The school contest has been up for three years running, in six cities. “It just blows our mind away to see all-girl teams developing games with their teachers standing behind proudly, supporting them,” says Rao of the changing mindset.

Two years ago, he also started Game Tantra, an incubator for game development start-ups. “Unlike in the West, where industry professionals with huge experience step out of big studios to start out on their own, in India people are starting up game development firms straight out of college,” he says, adding they need a lot of mentoring.

The shifting screen preference of gamers and developers is sweet news to many. Says Ninad Chhaya, who co-founded IndiaGames and was till recently the vice-president for games and entertainment at Robosoft Technologies, “Various reports indicate mobile games will soon overtake console and PC gaming in terms of revenues.”

He reckons this is largely due to the bigger user base. Pokémon Go, of course, has fired up developers’ imagination. As Shukul says, “Expect to see a lot more games that use AR (augmented reality) and/or are location-based. What Pokémon Go has accomplished is creating a user experience where the gamer is part of the real world.”

Whither an Indian blockbuster?

There is pessimism yet. Rajesh Rao says there have been no mega hits from India because we are still creating a market for gaming.

And it’s a challenging business for the developers because, although Indians are logging billions of minutes playing games (it’s the No 3 activity on smartphones), not enough are paying yet.

Also, as Chhaya points out, Pokémon Go’s success is certainly not an overnight one. The Pokémon franchise is 20 years old. John Hanke, the creator of Pokémon Go and the founder of Niantic, had been chiselling away at the game for two decades and improving it across various forms.

Says Parikshit Madishetty, founder and managing director of Hyderabad-based Grid Logic Software, which has created games like Taj Rummy, “Any gaming company has to put in a lot of experience. The game is an outcome of many trials.” He points out that only one in 10,000 games hit the super-league like Pokémon Go did.

Interestingly, the veteran developers Dhruva (which gave us the game version of TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati) as well as Lakshya Digital (which had a great title in Rage Warriors) have consciously stopped working on original titles, preferring to do outsourced work for others.

But Rajesh Rao remains confident that Indian developers have the capability and the motivation to come up with a winner. He says, “My bet is that the blockbuster from here will be something with a uniquely Indian flavour.”

(The article was first published in BLInk.)

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