Curated by Karthik Subramaniam | Featured image courtesy Raji: An Ancient Epic
Understanding the Context
Along with a string of Chinese-backed games, the exit of PUBG has left a massive void in India’s mobile gaming industry. Party to the standoff with Beijing and in keeping with the NDA’s call for an Aatmanirbhar Bharat, PM Modi has urged companies to develop and support computer and mobile games made on and based in India.
Our country has so many ideas, so many concepts; our history has been very rich. Can we make games based on that? I call upon the young talent of the country — make games in India and make games based on India too. It is said let the game begin! So, let us start the game
— PM Modi in a Mann ki Baat address in August
Fau-G jibes aside, there is some credence to the cause. India hosts the second-largest smartphone market (behind China) and 93% of these users in urban areas access the internet. The BharatNet project is also in its second phase of providing broadband connectivity to 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats. Whatever fruits these combined efforts bear should have tech investors and game developers licking their lips in India.
With a nascent pay-to-play market, India’s gaming industry is at a tipping point. The next few years could make or break its prospects for harnessing technologies over the decade. As game-enthusiast and aspiring designer Ragin writes, developing a high-quality indie game requires patient investors and professionals with a niche set of skills. Game design teacher Rahul Sehgal sees a generation being moulded that consists of Indian game developers who were born into gaming culture. It’s a long road to victory, but how can games be made in India profitably?
Click on a quote to read the opinion
“The vernacular audience is where the potential lies, and we are clueless about how to tap into it. It is not that people do not want to play games and spend their money. There are just no good games out there that makes them want to. Ask the Japanese. They can tell you a thing or two about how you leverage your indigenous culture, tradition and mythology”
— Rahul Sehgal
“The Indian gaming ecosystem is starved of resources. It is nearly impossible to make high-budget games, and the lack of a pay-to-play gaming culture undermines the scale of investment required to make a quality video game. Video games made in India need to at least match, if not better, the quality of other games in what is a global and competitive market”
— Ragin Ramesh
I had a classmate when I was studying Game Design at Vancouver Film School in 2008-09. Let us call him David.
David had taken a bank loan to pay for the course and was not exactly swimming in money. While most others would go out to cafes and restaurants, he would bring a packed lunch to school. When the class went out one Friday every month to our regular bar, my friend would nurse one beer all evening. That was all he could afford.
For all his frugality, David would buy every new game console the very week it was released. There wasn’t a game he liked which David would forego purchasing. Some months, he would save on bus fare by walking for an hour or hitching a ride to school just so that he could save up to buy the game he wanted. While this behaviour was strange to me, it was unremarkable for most North Americans.
I would not encourage anyone to eat Mac & Cheese for months together to be able to save up for a Nintendo console, but David’s commitment showed me something that I had not seen or experienced ever before — “Game Culture”.
Children, parents, and even grandparents would get together to play co-op (cooperative) games on the console after dinner. Friends would play late into the night. All of this was quite surprising to me. At the time, I had never met an Indian residing in India who played video games beyond his 20s.
All of this is to say that if I had to pinpoint one reason why the Indian video game industry seems to be stuck in perpetual adolescence, it would be the lack of game culture.
How can game culture catalyze mobile game developing in India?
The lack of game culture means that most movers, shakers and decision-makers (the corporate executives, investors and senior managers) in the game industry have a pretty weak grasp of the art and culture of video games. They now play Clash of Clans on their smartphones that are worth a lakh, but all of this is merely the “Games Business” for them.
Emotionally speaking, they have no skin in the game and do not genuinely understand how the average (Indian or otherwise) player thinks or what they expect. This leads to a rather narrow risk-spectrum that they are willing to engage with, leading to the unremarkable offerings from Indian developers available today.
That being said, there are exceptions to the rule.
The game industry in India is by-and-large mobile-centric, with a few notable exceptions such as Ogre Head Studios and Nodding Head Games. Most teenagers who play AAA games on PC and console have very little chances of being able to make games anywhere close to the kinds that they play. That leads to an understandable drop in enthusiasm about a career in making games.
It is also a myth that Indian players are unwilling to pay to play games; PUBG settled that debate once and for all when it raked in millions of dollars from a most unlikely target market of 14 to 24-year-old males.
The vernacular audience is where the potential lies, and we are clueless about how to tap into it. It is not that people do not want to play games and spend their money. There are just no good games out there that makes them want to.
Ask the Japanese. They can tell you a thing or two about how you leverage your indigenous culture, tradition and mythology to build a thriving creative universe that not just the locals, but the entire world flocks to.
Make in India, But With What?
A significant feature that restrains the Indian game industry today is the lack of high-quality creatives in the form of game designers, artists, music and game musicians. Indian parents were disapproving of their kids exploring anything outside the B.Tech/MBA/MBBS tracks, and that has given the Indian market disproportionately more programmers than designers, artists and games musicians.
As of now, creatives get paid at least as much as programmers (often more, because of the demand-supply imbalance), but there just aren’t enough high-quality professionals in the Indian games industry to go around. This is a fatal shortcoming in an industry that can only be driven forward by cutting-edge creativity, unbounded imagination and the confidence to take creative risks.
अपनी संस्कृति व लोक कथाओं से प्रेरित गेम विकसित करें: मोदी। pic.twitter.com/7Rz4RhsL3o
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) August 23, 2020
There have been a few games made over the years by Indian developers that leverage ‘Indian Mythology and Culture’. Unfortunately, they are targeted at a primarily western audience and haven’t engaged in any depth with the culture that they represent, thereby using standard game genre templates with shallow ‘Indian’ skins. One could play through the entire game and still know as much about ‘Indian Mythology and Culture’ as they would if they skimmed through the associated Wikipedia pages in a few minutes.
Cultivating talent for developing quality gaming
But it isn’t all doom and gloom, and there is a solid silver lining to all of this. Besides making games at studios, I’ve been teaching design and mentoring students and their projects at game colleges in India for ten years now and have witnessed a new generation of Indian game developers being moulded. They were born into gaming culture; video games were a feature of their childhood and they are equal to their counterparts anywhere in the world. Strikingly creative, highly skilled and multi-talented, they are showing up to work in studios and establishing their own Indie outfits.
There is one final obstacle for these prospects to clear: the scarcity of good quality game-developer education and mentoring.
Game schools (and courses) are hard to come by in India, and high-quality ones even harder. Not everyone has access to $50,000 for game development programs overseas and quality mentoring from experienced industry professionals, both of which are hugely helpful.
To this end, I established up-yourgame.com, a portal dedicated to helping these future stars of the Indian game industry find a surer footing. In conclusion, the challenges to make in India are many, but there is a bright future for the mobile game industry in India on the horizon.
The gaming industry in India looks promising. Game development companies seem to be sprouting across the country, even more so within mobile gaming than PC or console gaming. Raji by Nodding Head Heads and Asura by Ogre Head Studio are some games that were made in India and have been in the news over the past few years.
There are actually quite a few mobile games hitting the market that are being made in India, but these are mostly restricted to casual and hyper-casual mobile games.
The user base in India is a young one, in terms of age and experience; few are willing to pay big bucks for average mobile games. That no Indian developer has managed to crack the AAA market for (high-quality) mobile games is testament to this.
Developing a game isn’t child’s play
Until people value the complexity that goes into creating a game, the pay-to-play market for Indian games will remain nascent.
Developing a good game requires a team of individuals with a wide set of specific skills. Development begins with an idea or a design. But any idea needs to be made playable. That is, it needs to be able to physically interact with a user. Think of the tap-to-jump concept in Super Mario Bros, where a player interacts with a character navigating obstacles.
Once this playability has been conceptualized, the development begins. For this, you require a game engine, with which the gameplay can be simplified. It provides the base for developers to build upon.
The artistic aspect of any game cannot be underplayed, for which skilled artists and 3D modellers are required. Depending on the scale of the game, its modelling, rigging and animations are dealt with by one, or a team of 3D artists. Developing the three-dimensional world is actually one of the lengthier parts of this process. Designers give life an idea and ensure the experience is an engaging one.
You also require a producer who oversees the development of the video game. They are there right from the beginning, setting timelines, managing artists, helping with ideation and signing contracts. Producers hold the team and the development of the game together.
Lastly, video games are like any other product in the marketplace. To make it big, they require strong marketing teams with a solid strategy. Recreating a PUBG movement means you have to study your market, identify your target audience, hold focus groups where needed, create trailers with animators, and only then pitch to sell the game.
Gaming conferences are a promising feature of this movement. They provide a platform for developers to showcase indie games and network with other creatives.
Every part of this process is resource-heavy, requiring time, personnel and money. Technically speaking, even one person can make and sell a game, but the bigger the game gets, the larger the team that you need. And only big games make money. Grand Theft Auto 5 employed a team of almost 1500 people, including actors and voice-overs. It was produced over six years.
Making in India Needs Money
The Indian gaming ecosystem is starved of resources. It is nearly impossible to make high-budget games, and the lack of a pay-to-play gaming culture simply undermines the scale of investment required to make a quality video game.
Video games made in India need to at least match, if not better, the quality of other games in what is a global and competitive market. The problem is that most investors and game developers look at making quick money with games. For perspective, Raji took the developers around six years to make, while Asura took two developers around four years. The developers behind Raji had to look at different sources of funding like Kickstarter and even received a chunk of their investment from Epic Games, which is an American game development company.
Investors prefer games that have a development time of around six months or less, which results in the creation of sub-standard casual games that are often rip-offs of other successful games. This stagnates innovation and dims the perception of the gaming industry as one where people can learn, work, and enjoy themselves while earning a living.
A parting thought to keep in mind, and one of the larger issues with developing “Indian” games is the general sensitivity from religious groups and political actors. Beyond Dead and Evil 2 was a game that Ubisoft had planned on releasing a few years ago, but the trailer drew ire from certain sections when it came out in 2017 because of the overt use of Hindu deities in its gameplay. Creating games with mythological connections is a very risky business for developers.
That being said, the team producing Raji seems to have done its homework and executed efficiently, showing that the Indian gaming industry is slowly chugging in the right direction. Ours is a chicken-and-egg question because we have an audience that needs to appreciate well-curated games but also investors who need to set aside the resources necessary for creating quality mobile games.