Meet the game-changers

Meet the game-changers

By Keith Armando Gomes | | 18 February, 2017
smartphone, videogame designers, Chirag Chopra, NASSCOM, complex games, Circulets, Heurons and Ludo Live
Illustration: Ajay Negi
The community of independent videogame designers in India is slowly beginning to make its presence felt, with numerous homegrown startups creating professional-grade and highly complex games for PCs as well as for smartphones, writes Keith A. Gomes.
On the smartphone screen, I see two-dimensional toy blocks, pink in colour, against a cerulean background, and I hear the comforting notes of a xylophone playing. The gameplay, despite all its simplicity, cages me with a challenge — I must memorise the outlines of a shape, which shows on the screen for a few moments before the blocks appear. I put them all together successfully and am impelled to continue by a green tick mark and a short encouraging message.

I was playing Stay,Mum, a game developed by a team of Indian independent game developers, called Lucid Labs. The game was the “Editor’s Pick” on Apple’s App Store for a while, and drew attention for its sober use of colors, minimalistic art and an endearing storyline of a boy trying to understand his relationship with his mother, who is distanced from him due to her job.

Chirag Chopra, the founder and creative director at Lucid Labs, in a conversation with Guardian 20, shares with enthusiasm the story of the making of the game. “As far as I can recall,” he says, “we took about five to six months to make this game, right from the idea to the point where the game was on the App Store. It was a core team of three guys: a coder, a writer and an artist, excluding the person who worked on the sound.”

The global gaming Industry, up until 2016, was worth $99.6 billion, and its Indian share, as per NASSCOM reports, was worth around $1.6 billion in the second quarter of 2016. The evaluation has almost doubled over a span of a quarter. NASSCOM also predicts that by 2020 the Indian gaming industry shall be worth $5.4 billion.

The market for videogames in India is massive, especially with rise in the number of mobile device users. This also leads to the next point of note: How far has India come as a producer in the industry?

Kinshuk Sunil is the founder, CEO and game designer at Hashstash. His team has developed six games for mobile devices in the past two years; some of them are titled Circulets, Heurons and Ludo Live. He shares his knowledge of what the market is like as far as game development goes. “India has some game publishers in the form of Reliance Games, Games2Win, Nazara, and 99 Games,” he says. “But most of the games developed in India are usually self-published. A strong publisher ecosystem, as well as publishers whose key strength and focus area is only publishing, is still, sort of, missing in India. But the aforementioned companies are poised to grow into that role and fill in that gap if they choose to.”

Each gamer is bound to experience that moment full of awe when they enter the gameplay. Beholding the very interface, the design, the plot and the immersive sound effects always creates an effect of entrancement and curiosity. How is the universe within that virtual space actually created, we find ourselves wondering.

Abhishek Chaturvedi, the co-founder and lead writer at Ninja Chip Studios Pvt. Ltd., was representing his team — designers of Acorns Above: A World Gone Nuts! — at the Indian gaming Show 2017, which took place at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan recently. He, quite congenially, made the effort of explaining the various aspects of videogame design. “To begin with,” he says, “we have the project leader who co-ordinates all the various members of the team. Then, on the gaming side of things, there are designers, programmers, the art director, UI designer, 2D-art and 3D-model animators. The concept art requires significant amount of attention — divided into environment and character art.  And there is always the sound engineer.”

Any game which has ever been created starts out as an idea, which means that there is also a process via which developers decide whether the idea is worthy of the months of effort needed to actualise it. 

Acorns Above: A World Gone Nuts! developed by Ninja Chip Studios Pvt. Ltd.

At Ninja Chip studios, in the case of Acorns Above, the team settled on the concept and created a prototype. This prototype was then tested internally by the team and also externally in order to determine the quality of the gameplay and how viable it would be as a product. Chaturvedi remarks, “We wouldn’t continue beyond the prototype of a game which we wouldn’t have enjoyed playing ourselves.”

On the other hand, Hashstash did about the same thing for its games, along with assessing the budgeting of the game, where they understood the cost which production would incur. And then they determined the risks in terms of the investment returns and what the market would be like down the line.

Furthermore, the market for independent game developers in India has not really settled for any particular platform — whether it be consoles, personal computers or mobile devices. But seeing that the masses have in the past few years shown a great interest in mobile gaming, many developers producing games here have scrambled to tap into this particular market segment. Yet, this does not mean there has been an outright negation of other platforms. Vivek Jha, game developer at Hashstash, very aptly puts it, “We are a platform agnostic company.”

Aeon: Elysium in the stages of devlopment at Ninja Chip Studios.

Game developers are focused on determining which platform can provide the best gameplay experience to users, while being economically viable.

“The availability of tools and tech solutions for game development has never been a problem in India. What’s less common is a full understanding of how to use a lot of this tech.”

To this, one must also add the fact that there is no determinable genre of gaming which is preferred by a majority. In case of mobile devices, gambling games like Teen Patti and Rummy, and casual unending games like Candy Crush and Subway Surfer top the charts. For game developers like Ninja Chip Studios and Hashstash, the gaming genres do not depend on the users’ point-of-view, but on what the developers wish to explore. While Ninja Chip plans to work on their new game Aeon: Elysium, which is a first-person adventure for PCs, Hashtash is interested in moving into strategy and arcade games.

In India specifically, the interesting question is whether we have the technological gear required for producing the quality of games which can engage not just an Indian but also an International consumer base. And contrary to what you might expect, Chaturvedi and Sunil point out in their interaction that India does not really lag behind the West, as far as the technology and tools go.

Chaturvedi says, “The availability of tools and tech solutions for development has never been a problem in India. What’s less common is a full understanding of how to use a lot of this tech (beyond simply understanding its functions), and a lack of interest in what people did before easy solutions were available.”

On the same subject, Sunil, of Hashstash, remarks, “In some cases, though, for example VR, not all tools and devices are present in India owing to business and licensing reasons. That’s one domain we should make some progress in as a nation by developing a consumer market as well as a developer ecosystem.”

Currently, a wide range of software, which is easily accessible, is being used to create games by these developers. “We use Unity3d, Cocos2dX and Game Maker to make our games,” Vivek Jha of Hashtash adds. “All the art is done in software like Photoshop and Blender. Design is mostly done with Excel, Visio and PowerPoint. For project management we use Gitlab and Git. For development environments, we use Sublime Text, Visual Studio and XCode.”

It is also interesting to learn that most of these game developers don’t really come from the conventionally expected computer science backgrounds. This partially reflects the issue of the dearth of quality education and training in the field. People working in these teams come from engineering and fine-arts backgrounds. One of the co-founders of Hashstash graduated in English Literature. What counts more than college degrees is the ability and desire to learn in the process of creating games.

At the heart of the entire industry rests the fact that at the end of the day, it is a market and these developers are producers who are making commodities which go up for sale. The making of games incurs costs which have to be met — these include people being paid for doing the job and investments being made for things like office space, computers, other hardware necessities and even aspects which enable better visibility and sales of the games. Ninja Chip Studios, Hashstash and Lucid Labs are all bootstrapped enterprises, they are completely self-funded and utilise all the revenues that they generate in order to clear their bills and put the rest back into the production of their newer projects.

Stay,Mum released by Lucid Labs on Apple’s App Store.

“One of the things you need to do in order to put your game up for sale on a store is to purchase a developer’s profile along with a license.” says Chopra from Lucid Labs. “On Apple’s App Store, a profile costs $100 per month, which is quite expensive, whereas on Google’s Play Store you can purchase a developer’s profile for $25 per year. It’s evident which one’s a cheaper solution. But then both markets offer their own advantages.”

He also shares how Apple conducts a review process for each app that is uploaded onto their store, and how earlier, the reviews, even though generic and not too in-depth, would take 10-15 days, but are now done within 48 hours of the submission.

Lucid Labs had perhaps rubbed the belly of the right laughing Buddha or developed a game that really stood out and made it as the “Editor’s Pick”, but this is not always the case. Thus, the primary issue of sales is a complete variable. Revenue is generated through sales over online application stores. The game can either be a purchasable one or the game can carry in-app purchases. In case of platforms like PC, games are put up online on portals like Steam and GOG.com. To this, the developers add the efforts of online publicity. In case of Stay,Mum, Lucid Labs had started publicising the game and giving beta runs to gamers three months before the game was officially released.

And to top it all, there’s also the issue of piracy. Kinshuk Sunil of Hashstash says, “On the Android platform, for these games, piracy is a huge issue largely due to the existence of alternate stores and the ability to ‘sideload’ apps. Circulets, for example, was downloaded over 900,000 times on Android devices, out of which only 385 were legal purchases. As a small studio, such numbers make us financially non-feasible and it is a struggle to survive and keep making games. I know of many studios that keeled over because they could not hit their revenue targets and piracy did play a role there. However, as a game developer, I, personally, don’t mind piracy. I think it helps smaller studios like ours get the reach that we otherwise couldn’t afford.”

The indie game developers of India account for nearly 25% of the gaming industry in India. And they don’t consider the influx of foreign games as competition or challenge; they have actually been collaborating with designers and teams from other countries. For this community, then, games are not really about where they are coming from or which publisher or developer launches them. The bottom line is that a game is meant to be fun — and if it can fulfill that primary quality, then it is bound to sell at some point or another.  

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