Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: A History of Video Game Development in India and Rise of the Independent Developers. By Shubhank Mauria
The Romanticism of Creation
I am not a pious man. I don’t support the romanticism of creation but cannot neglect a man’s obsession with it. From near-complete fabrications of our lives based on fears and hopes for the future, to structures and contraptions in an attempt to not admit weakness; we are idealists, romantics, and contemptuous. Since the dawn of time, we have insisted on being dragged down into chasing pipe dreams as a means of escapism and to fulfill a desire to be worthy. We love to get rewarded, and palpitate in its anticipation. We are blessed with curiosity, and an active imagination. We love to play as a means of distraction and competition. The consummation of our desires to create and revel results in an exquisite process of ideation matched with the intensity of vehement anticipation of reconciliation between two estranged lovers. Creation is always preceded by a thought, a spark of idea that is shaped in an object of convenience. It does not magically metamorphoses. It’s a complicated and organic process of design that considers the purpose of the product and the in-
tention of the creator. The design makes an object or product accessible to the user.
The Art of Game Design
Fundamentally, game design is all about its rules, or mechanics - as some call it. With regards to traditional and modern board games; primarily, the impetus is to get the balance right, essentially fine tune the game such that it delivers an enjoyable experience to all participants. Of course there are external variables that may affect this experience but in ideal conditions, a well balanced game system should be as simple as rock-paper-scissors. The advent of video games and the plethora of systems available to common people have added further complexity to the art of design. There are new facets that include the interface design, the learning phase (tutorial), artificial intelligence, inclusion of scripted sequences to include uncertainty in fights and many more. Some would argue that scripted events lead to manipulation, pretty much the anathema of a truly emergent experience, but that is a debate for another day.
This industry is no longer an infant. We understand mechanics and with a plethora of genres and mashups available across all possible gaming systems, it’s fairly easy to understand the best practices and implement those. One does not need access to a pool of expensive talent and nearly endless resources to build a game from scratch, only a few survive. My Beginnings in The Indian Video Gaming Industry When I started working in the industry, roughly 6 years back, somebody I immensely respect and admire told me that as a designer I am expected to know a lot about everything. Not just academic knowledge but articulation, observance and other passive skills and etiquettes. He also said, with a certain precedence over the previous advice, “prepare for the biggest cultural shock of your life; this jolt is like no other.” He wasn’t wrong. India has a rich past when it comes to traditional games. We are believed to be the creators of Chess, the precursor to most strategy games. Not to mention the countless minimalist board games that are still played across the country. The Indian videogame industry, however, is fairly new and although
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
the stalwarts are happy with the numbers and its growth, my perception of it is fundamentally different.
The Early Days of Video Game Development in India
Before I get to the opinions, we need to go back to the beginning or an important part of it, the conception of one of the largest studios in the country, Indiagames. While writing this piece, I had a chance to interact with some people who are inextricable with the history of Indian video games industry. One of them is Ninad Chhaya, who cofounded Indiagames with his friend Vishal Gondal, arguably the most well known person from the industry. Started more than a decade back, when the founders were still in their early 20s Indiagames initially released 2 games based on the armed conflict between India and Pakistan that took place in the year 1999 - the Kargil War. The 2 games, I Love India and Operation Vijay (Vijay is a direct translation of the word ‘Victory’ in Hindi), were essentially created overnight and propelled Indiagames and the founders higher rung in the ladder of fame. This basically changed the face of Indiagames, as Ninad puts it, “till then,
Figure 2: Segment wise evolution of the gaming industry
games were more of an interactive value addition that we incorporated in all the corporate projects we executed but the success of 2 games changed all that and on 1st September 1999, we launched indiagames. com, a gaming portal focused on games based on Indianized themes.” In the present day, many developers, particularly some from the independent community, have criticized the patronisation of games based on Indianized themes, something that most large studios continue to live by. Indiagames have established themselves as a premier Indian developer on the mobile platform; not just the smartphones but they continue to churn content on certain legacy feature phones that are, still, extremely popular in
the country. One of the oldest employees at Indiagames and the current director of IG Studios, Hrishi Oberoi, had this to say about their choice of platform, “As far as gaming is concerned, the acceptance by the masses is a matter of adoption of a medium. Since the mobile phone was the most adopted medium of gaming, so that became the gaming of the masses in India.” It’s an impartial statement and one has to be foolish not to believe in the notion, more of an ideal, that innovation is independent of modernity, in this case the various systems and consoles available to develop for. The question, however, is how important is design to the bigger studios in the country? It’s difficult to shy away from the fact that a lot of the best selling games are
Figure 1: Growth of the Indian gaming industry
based on existing intellectual properties and sport licenses, in this case Bollywood (the Hindi film industry) and cricket - which constitute the majority of Indian audience specific content. Many studios, including Indiagames, do work on global IPs too and they take the design seriously. As Hrishi puts it, “For our designs to be effective, they must be able to use the best of what the property has to offer, and merge it with the best of what would be suited for that game.” He further adds about their experience on working for a game based on the American TV series ‘The Office’, “we really got into that show and we watched every episode of the show which had aired till the time of making of the game to really understand the characters and understand what makes the show tick.” Working on existing IPs is one way of deriving sustenance, but with the creative control does hold back on certain viable design choices. Not to mention the bulk of the industry still relies on work for hire jobs that are outsourced in the country. It does not inspire development of original content. Of course,
innovation and profit have to be mutually exclusive to encourage it further and it’s not easy to divert resources into, well, an idea that probabilistically has a chance to not yield profit. Hrishi puts it straightforward, “when you have external investors in the company and employees salaries to pay, this is not an option. Once we started making mobile games and it reached some commercial success, it was clear that this was the way to go” - an imperative decision when a company begins sizing up.
Rise of the Indian Indie
During the Game Developers’ Conference, organised by NASSCOM (The National Association of Software and Services Companies) earlier this year in the city of Pune; I met some folks from the mushrooming independent developers community in India resulting in several discussions we termed as creative flatulence. The independent community is a small but a very valuable arm of the industry. They seem to have a fundamentally different approach towards develop-
ing games and most of them seem to live by a purpose of developing globally competitive games. The choice of platform, for the majority, still remains the mobile. It’s cheaper to develop for it but the saturation and the general awareness of best practices make it a brutally unpredictable market. Most of the founders have worked in the industry prior to setting up. Shailesh Prabhu, of the Mumbai based Yellow Monkey Studios, shared the brief history and the reasons of venturing into a gaming startup business. “Me and a couple of friends had been toying with the idea of a studio for a few years and around 2006 I had made up my mind that something had to be done or every last creative grey cell would die of creative starvation. In 2007, I quit my job and formed Yellow Monkey. We wanted creative freedom. We wanted to target the global market. We wanted to make games, and show that India is not just a place for services but for innovation in games too.” Overwhelmingly, most independent studios share a similar tale. Kinshuk Sunil, of Delhi based Hash-
Figure 3: Gaming industry structure by business models
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Note of Thanks People (In alphabetical order) • Aravind Raja Yadav; Lead Programmer, Pyrodactyl Studios • Hrishi Oberoi; Director, IG Studios • Kinshuk Sunil; Designer and Co-founder, Hashstash Studios • Ninad Chaaya; COO Playcaso • Shailesh Prabhu; Founder and CEO, Yellow Monkey Studios • Shruti Verma; Deputy Manager, Initiatives & Forums, NASSCOM (The National Association of Software and Services Companies) • Yadu Rajiv; Co-founder, Hashstash Studios Organisations (In alphabetical order) • Indie GameDev India (http://ingd.in/) • Local Indie Game Developers Forum (https://www.facebook.com/groups/LIGDevs/) • NASSCOM Gaming Forum (https://www.facebook.com/groups/nasscomgamingforum/) • NASSCOM; Report on the Animation and Gaming Industry in India for the year 2009 - By Ernst & Young. stash, set up his studio with friend Yadu Rajiv after being seduced by creative independence and having no desire of running or working in an assembly line. Of course it comes at a heavy price. Securing quality talent could be expensive and approaching an investor is intimidating. While finding talent could be difficult but not impossible with the number of of enterprising and like minded people increasing, getting funded is a daunting task. As per Shailesh, the big investors are looking to invest in services, products with recurring revenues (MMOs) or games based on IPs that can de-risk the investment. And about angels, “Angels! You have as much chance of meeting a real Angel. I decided the only way to reliably do this was on your own and stopped looking since, but I am happy with that as it still allows me full creative freedom.” His experience with investors is not so different from the others. As Kinshuk puts it, “they look at gaming as a very lucrative market for the outsourcing industry and are yet not open to the idea of a small studio building a game that can have huge consequences in the global marketplace.” It’s a dire situation because the bodies primarily responsible for attracting investors position the industry as as a work for hire ground. There is a dearth of local publishers but some of the veterans have been
working to fill the gap. Ninad, the co-founder of Indiagames, recently set up a publishing house, Playcaso. He feels that companies with potential to create good products lose focus while trying to find a balance between developing original content and work for hire. As a publisher, they hope to help independent developers leverage their strengths in creating original IPs.
A Tale of Two Ideals
I’ve heard the phrase ‘like a petulant child’, and others with similar effect, being used to describe the indie community more than once. One can choose to nod in acknowledgement or shun it with strong dissent, but cannot ignore the onset of change it promises for the industry. A conjecture can be made that they certainly seem observant
and understanding about game design and very much focussed to what they want to achieve. However, the question remains, how long can they sustain with the spirit of an idealist? After all most of the bigger companies, at one point, were helmed by purists. The Indian videogame industry is young. Like a teenager, in its mind it assumes to have risen from a forgetful childhood and heads towards an uncertain future while balancing two personalities; one with rational, pragmatic and hard boiled thoughts while other with an insistent determination towards converting ideas of illuminating potential into a product. It’s no different from the rest of the world. The two personalities cannot survive without each other, without a conflict the tryst is meaningless; if one falls the other will be paralysed into passivity.
Shubhank Mauria Shubhank Mauria is a video game designer and a freelance writer working in a studio based in Mumbai, India. He’s been designing games for close to 6 years now and writing about them since more than a decade, with occasional hiatus periods. During this time he has written dozens of features, reviews and interviews. He has participated in panel discussions and has talked about state of the industry and game design. Recently he helmed a research project on the influence of Japanese Pop Culture in India, which was funded by the Japan Foundation.