Every game developer in India is dreaming of coming up with their own Angry Birds, the blockbuster video game from Rovio Entertainment that crossed a billion downloads and is headed for an IPO. But while developing games is the easy part, getting to monetise the games is getting harder. And, Indian gaming companies are having to work that extra bit to keep the cash registers ringing so that they can develop winning games.
Rajesh Rao, founder and CEO of Dhruva Interactive, a 15-year-old gaming company, and chairperson of the NASSCOM Gaming Forum, says there was an eight-fold increase in casual gamers in India last year, and thanks to the growing popularity of smart phones, the access to gaming is growing. So gaming studios are springing up across the country. NASSCOM now has seven city chapters for gamers while their Facebook group has 2,100 members with 15-30 members joining in every week, says Rao. Last year there were 130 gaming companies, up from 25 companies in 2008, and there are many more companies working in stealth mode or in small two to three people teams which are not included in the list, says Rao. The surge on the development side will mean there will be lots of Made in India games, says Rao. There is also a lot of funding available with six to seven gaming companies getting funded last year.
While the opportunity is clearly there, confusion also persists about what route to take. Should they develop games for the Indian market, which is still at its nascent stage, or should they develop games for the developed global markets to build revenues rather than risking it out in the Indian market
The game developers community in India has to deal with the disruption caused by the emergence of social gaming as well as mobile gaming, which are challenging existing console-and-computer video games. Should they develop games for PCs and gaming consoles or stick to mobile games
These challenges were reflected at the NASSCOM Game Developers Conference held in Pune recently, with gaming veterans and young guns mulling on what is the best way ahead for the Indian gaming industry. The event had a record one thousand registrations with twenty somethings thronging the event with downloads and dollar dreams in their eyes.
Vishal Gondal of DisneyUTV Digital MD and founder of Indiagames, which got acquired, says there is no better time to be in the gaming industry in India and he is sure that mobile gaming is the way ahead, what with the Indian smartphone base growing and 200 million plus downloads happening in India. His company alone is seeing a million downloads a day. So his target remains the emerging Indian gaming market.
But the major challenge that remains in India is how to monetise, especially with operators taking 50-60% and giving developers very little, which calls for the game developer to have deeper pockets. Gondal says mobile services company Vodafone has just announced that they would share 70% of the revenues with gaming companies, which is a big change. Gondal hopes that other telecom operators would follow suit and the tables will turn. We are going to see companies from Jhumri Telaiya who will be the next big developer. Their time has come, says Gondal.
He feels that even if the Indian market is not as big as it is in the US, their strategy is to focus on Ramu and not the Rambos, especially with the way the Indian consumer is adapting to smartphones. Majority of people who download games on their mobiles are not in the big metros, but in smaller cities and they do not even know what a console game is as they experience gaming only on their mobiles, says Gondal.
However, Reliance Entertainment Digital's CEO Manish Agarwal says it is the global market that his company would make a play for and they are not wasting their time on dealing with carriers in the Indian market. This is Reliance Digitals second innings in the game and they are focusing on the huge opportunity in the global market space.
But at the same time he concedes: Developing and publishing quality games is not the preserve of companies in the US or Canada. Someone sitting in Pune can build games and fight the big daddies of gaming. His company has its gaming studio in Pune and they are focused on the high end part of the gaming spectrum. Giving the example of a gaming company in Bhubaneshwar, BitRhymes, which developed the game Bingo Bash, a social game among the top on US iPad app store, which is earning revenues of $40 million a year, he says, It is a game for anyone.
His perspective hinges on the fact that despite all the sound and fury about gaming in India, the country accounts for less than 1% of the downloads. Manvendra Shukul, CEO of Lakshya Digital, is following the same path and his company continues to bet on the high-value console gaming for global markets. Most people are developing casual games and it is easy to do that and thousands of developers are doing it, but there are very few doing games in the high-end segment, says Shukul. He believes handhelds and consoles will compete against each other.
Rajat Ojha, MD of The Awesome Games Studio, too, believes in core gaming and has been developing games for consoles, Rajat is not enamoured with the social gaming phenomenon. We are not big fans of people doing exclusive games for Facebook as we understand that gaming is for entertainment and not a forced mechanism, says Rajat. The Awesome Studio founders created the first PS3 game from India which got a worldwide release and their major focus continues on console game development while also doing mobile games.
While it is easier for big companies such as Reliance Digital and DisneyUTV with their deep pockets to invest and chart out their future courses, it is a different world out there for small independent studios, or Indie game studios, as they are called. Such studios are coming up across the country. Shailesh Prabhu of Yellow Monkey Studios, an Indie studio, says there is a surge in new studios and gaming start-ups and studios like his are publishing games globally. Yellow Monkey has a three-member team and has survived the tough market by doing project work in between developing their own game titles. Prabhu says there is an Indie online community with 384 members and a lot of people in the group are interested in going independent soon. For the Indie gaming studio, this is not about chasing market and money, but about the craft and passion of gaming.
The competition in the global market is huge with thousands of hopeful companies uploading their games on to online stores and trying to attract buyers. Cutting through this clutter is not easy and getting discovered by gamers is proving to be difficult for smaller gaming companies. Lakshya Digitals Shukul wonders how the small independent studios will sustain without making money, but he is sure the bigger ones are making money.
While the jury is still out on the best way ahead for Indian gaming companies, there is unanimous opinion about the fact that gamers are becoming more and more demanding. They now want a seamless experience as they hop from one device to the other and from one platform to the other and continue their gaming on the move. That is the way gaming all over the world is headed in the future. So game development is going to get more complex, have a larger development cycle which necessitates bigger teams and budgets. If Indian companies can crack this one, the day is not far when an Angry Birds emerges out of a studio in Jhumri Telaiya.