It was on this very day a year ago that Gameloft unceremoniously shut down its Hyderabad studio, leaving over 200 developers jobless overnight. Amid the outpouring of support from the game development community, a handful of developers saw the dire situation as the perfect opportunity to start out on their own.
A year later, Nautilus Mobile is already close to releasing its second game, having tasted immediate success with its debut title, Song of Swords. The mobile RPG won the People's Choice Award in the indie games category at the NASSCOM Gaming Forum Awards in November.
Nautilus is aiming even higher with its next game – Real Cricket 14, a cricket simulation for mobile platforms that it plans to grow into a franchise. We caught up with managing director Nicolas Beuvin and CEO Anuj Mankar to talk about the studio's roots at Gameloft, the challenges of starting from scratch, and a whole lot more.
Since Nautilus is comprised of ex-Gameloft developers, can you first talk a bit about the Gameloft studio closure - how it affected you guys and your decision to set up Nautilus?
Nicolas Beuvin: Gameloft left India for the same reason a lot of foreign companies are leaving the country since 2008 - because they believe that Indian workers are just good enough for cheap tasks, and that they can find cheaper people for these tasks nowadays. This is why they left and went to Vietnam.
I am here since three years, and I believe the outside world is wrong about India. I believe India has the talent to create masterpieces that will move and touch the souls of players all around the world. I believe that India's 8,000 years of culture can inspire the new generation of video games artists, designers, developers and musicians. I believe that the Indian culture can export, sell, and shine worldwide.
After these few lines, I know most of the readers must be thinking I'm crazy, and to these people I want to say this: Look at China. Until recently, everybody on earth was convinced that Chinese people were only good enough to do cheap work that nobody else wanted to do. China proved that everybody was wrong about it. China is now the leading country for foreign direct investment, and India is attracting ten times (yes, ten times) less. China is now the world leader for patents and innovative technologies, before the US, before Europe, before Japan, before anyone else.
I believe now is the time for India to follow its own dream; for the young generation of this country to wake up, and make India roar. I believe now is the time for India to shake the world.
Anuj Mankar: When we came back from NASSCOM [Game Developer Conference 2013] with the Indie Game of the Year, People Choice Award for Song of Swords, it validated the fact that we are among the very best in India. This is a good start, but this is not why we have started Nautilus. We're here to show that we could be among the very best in the world. We will pursue that dream in 2014, and we are ready to do whatever it takes to make this happen.
For the benefit of those who, like you guys, have worked at larger studios and have indie ambitions, can you tell us a bit about how you went about setting up Nautilus - the composition of the team, and a bit about your business plan?
Beuvin: We were determined to get the best of the work force to work with us at Nautilus. The team we have is not large in number, but excels in quality and that's what the plan should be for every start-up. The openness to discuss, plan and execute is at its best in a start-up, which gives a decent share of exposure to the guys in the team, which is something missing in the larger set ups.
Do you take on contract projects or work on non-gaming apps as well?
Mankar: Since Song of Swords has been awarded, a lot of companies are asking us to develop games for them. They are proposing a lot of investment, and we feel honoured about that, but I believe we should continue what we started, and craft our own creations.
For your first game, you chose to create an RPG, one of the more complex genres on mobile. What prompted that decision?
Beuvin: We needed a technology showcase for our studio; a game that could objectively demonstrate our capabilities to our potential partners. Song of Swords fits this need perfectly.
Mankar: When we first approached Indian investors and told them we were about to start a video game studio in India, and that our first game would be an RPG, they all told us it was impossible. They all came to us with examples of companies that tried to be innovative in India, and failed. Everybody tried to convince us to start with something less ambitious, but I am glad we did not listen to them, and went ahead with our plan.
Blackberry is widely seen as a platform in decline. What prompted you to launch Song of Swords first on Blackberry?
Mankar: We were initially working on a turn-based RPG for IOS. Blackberry saw our prototype, they liked it, but they wanted something more dynamic and casual for the Z30 launch. Since they seemed really interested, we took a bold step - we put four months of work in the trash, and we started from scratch. Since we had spent almost all of our savings when we took this decision, we choose the name the game Song of Swords; the acronym reads SoS, because this was our last shot.
Song of Swords
How did the game fare commercially on Blackberry and how does that compare to its performance on iOS, which came later?
Mankar: SoS was fitting Blackberry's needs; they did not have any good action RPG on their platform, and they were happy with our game. So as soon as we went live on Blackberry, we were pushed like crazy by the HQ in Canada. We were featured everywhere, in every country, for a whole month! Without that help from Blackberry, we would have never been able to make such a hit.
Then we were featured on IOS for a week on the iTunes home page under ‘best new games' in 151 countries. So here as well, the reception was pretty good. We are currently featured on Windows Phone, but we are not well placed. I hope Microsoft will give SoS a better chance to be noticed by RPG fans.
Are you still planning an Android version of the game?
Mankar: We will work on the Android platform soon. We hope to have the Android version live by end of February.
Do you plan to self-publish all your games, or are you open to tying up with publishers? Can you share your views on both approaches?
Mankar: SoS was self-published, and we have not handled this part very well. We have been featured by Blackberry, we have been on the iTunes home page for a week, and we are currently featured by Windows, but I know we have been lucky here. I think we should explore the possibilities of finding a publisher for our future titles. When you develop a game, you think it is your baby, and you are naturally reluctant to give it to someone else, but we have to face the facts: publishing a game is a complex and exhausting task. We have already been approached by major publishers who are eager to work with us in the future, and we are discussing regularly with them.
Song of Swords is available as a free download on iOS, but was initially planned as a premium game ($2.99). What promoted that change?
Beuvin: When we started designing the game, premium games were in decline, but we were not sure if it was marginal or not. When we objectively and deeply looked at what was happening in 2013, it was clear that we would have to release a freemium version. 2013 simply showed the end of premium games on mobile, for now at least. A lot of masterpieces have been released recently using the premium model, and most, if not all, of them went completely unnoticed.
In general, are you leaning towards a particular monetisation model for your games, or is it something you'll decide on a case-by-case basis?
Beuvin: The industry changes and we have to adapt our strategy and foresee the trends. This is what we are doing.
Real Cricket 14
What is your take on the notion that, in order to succeed in India, you need to create a game specifically with the Indian audience in mind? Moreover, do you think the Indian market is lucrative enough to warrant that concentrated effort?
Mankar: It is funny that you ask that because our next game will be a cricket game! I can't say much about Real Cricket 14, but we are working on an innovative and realistic simulation, and we are implementing several never-seen-before features. Our art style will be once again a one-of-a-kind.
We are regularly posting details of the development, and asking our fanbase for feedback. If more people want to join the discussion, you can find everything on Planet Cricket.
Beuvin: Anuj brought me to my first cricket match when I arrived in India three years ago. I immediately thought ‘cricket is more than just a sport; cricket is an art, just like boxing'. But when I had a look at the cricket games that were available, I realised that none of them were actually reflecting this. None of them had been able to capture the spirit of this amazing game.
Vaibhav, our lead artist, spent almost six months looking for an art-style that would be able to capture the soul of this game, and we came up with something that has never been done - our game looks like a living painting; this is fantastic! I am convinced that we are the first to capture the essence of cricket. The real cricket fans will be crazy about our game, I can bet my life on that
I can already announce that we will be in contention again in 2014 for the NASSCOM People's Choice Award that we won for Song of Swords in 2013.
Sign up for the free MCV India newsletterhere.