INTERVIEW: Manish Agarwal, Reliance Entertainment Digital

Reliance’s Entertainment Digital division, which also includes the company’s on-demand movie service and social networking endeavours, is home to two gaming businesses – Jump Games and Zapak.

The company’s gaming operations have received a bit of an shake-up of late, with Zapak inparticular witnessing a major shift in focus.

We spoke with Manish Agarwal, CEO of Reliance Entertainment Digital, about the company’s gaming operations, the recent overhaul at Zapak, and more.

MCV: There have been quite a few changes of late in Reliance’s gaming businesses of late. What is your current focus as far as gaming is concerned?

Manish Agarwal: Our focus now is completely on mobile. The devices are becoming more affordable and cloud is playing a major role too. These devices are also now capable of handling high-quality games, which we’re already seeing in the global markets. The payment models are changing too, from fully paid games to freemium. So we’ve taken a conscious decision, given the state of internet in this country, to focus on the international market from a Jump Games point of view. We focus on developing high-end games out of our Pune studio.

We also decided that given the clutter on the app stores, we would go the IP licensing route. So we take recognised brands and create mobile games based on them. Being under the Reliance umbrella helps us to get access to Hollywood studios. We started a couple of years ago, developing games solely on iOS and we hadn’t quite gauged how big Android would be. We then realised that a developer worth its salt had to – one, be on Unity, and two, move towards a freemium model.

MCV: Are you anywhere close to achieving those targets?

Agarwal: The problem with moving to freemium was that there was a lack of quality game designers in India. We aren’t quite there yet. On a scale of 10, I’d say we’re still at 3 or 4. That said, we’re miles ahead of any other studio in India in terms of creating freemium high-end games. Our confidence is high. Real Steel has been a big success; it was a $2.5 million game in itself. Formula One has also been great for us, crossing $1 million in revenues.

We believe in spending a good amount of time on polish. As an Indian, I’m sorry to say that studios here don’t pay enough attention to polishing games. Our philosophy is that once you think the game is ready, spend two or three months more months polishing it up.

"We’re miles ahead of any other studio in India in terms of creating freemium high-end games."

MCV: Are you happy with the level of polish in Jump’s recent games? The reviews haven’t been very positive.

Agarwal: Game development is no longer a hit-or-miss business. If something doesn’t work, you can listen to customers, go back and update it. For example, we still provide updates for Real Steel, which launched in August 2011. So as a developer, you shouldn’t get too disheartened if things don’t go as planned at first. Total Recall got very bad reviews initially. So we’ve taken that up, we’re going to rework it entirely, and we should be able to come back with something new in November.

We’re still not at the point where we can create a game that rakes in $5 million a month, like what Zynga does or CSR Racing did. That’s where we want to be. My continuous focus is to find a way to bring quality talent to Pune.

MCV: How do you plan to achieve that given the lack of experienced game developers in India?

Agarwal: A lot of talent injection is going to happen at Jump Games – executive producers, game designers, art directors. We’re also looking at expanding abroad. We’re clear that we need to have a studio outside India. We’re looking at exploring the talent pool in either Singapore or Canada by opening a studio there because it’s going to take time for the local talent to develop.

Ideally, I’d like there to be collaboration and knowledge sharing between our Pune and international studios. One option is to just have the intellectual staff – game design, art leads and senior producers – sitting there, and the engineering being done here. The new studio will be set up before the end of the current financial year. Another option is to find a small, 6-7 member team that is already into servicing or publishing and absorbing it. With game development being creative work, there needs to be chemistry within the team. So if we can get a team that already has that chemistry, then that would accelerate the whole process.

MCV: What about developing games for the Indian market?

Agarwal: India is still a feature phone market. Android is growing too, but that’s a fragmented platform. So we’re looking at Java feature phone games and Java-based games for Android. We’re clear that the future lies in app stores, so we’re working closely with OEM app stores. The carrier (mobile phone operator) business is still the bread and butter, but we expect a slow shift towards app stores. We also believe that freemium and free-to-play are the future for the Indian market, and we’re preparing to position ourselves for that. Nokia has now got in-app purchases enabled on its store, which can help us increase the shelf life of our games.

From a content point of view, localisation is the key, but just getting big international brands doesn’t work. We’ve got the license for Chhota Bheem, and we’ve also worked on Shaktimaan, which is our own property. We do games based on Bollywood and regional movies too. We’ve also created our own IP with games like Border Wars, Indian Warriors and Agent Smith. These are all on feature phones now, but we plan to release Android versions within six months.

"Localisation is the key, but just getting big international brands doesn’t work."

MCV: A major shake-up has taken place at Zapak over the last year. Why the drastic overhaul, and what is Zapak’s focus now?

Agarwal: The difference between Jump and Zapak has always been that Jump is a development studio, while Zapak is a platform. But in Zapak too we have moved our focus towards mobile; is our free gaming destination. We’re working on turning this into a complete developer platform for both Android and Java. Zapak is the largest online gaming destination, and we now want to make it the largest free-to-play mobile gaming destination independent of operators and app stores. We’ve already got 3 million unique visitors coming to our mobile destination. Java games are live already, and we’ll be introducing Android titles in a couple of months. So we’re basically aiming to turn Zapak into the complete mobile gaming destination for developers and consumers.

Within Zapak, we used earlier have an online business, a licensing and merchandising division, an MMO team, social games on Facebook, games on DTH, as well as a game on demand service. We decided to reduce our focus to purely a free-to-play gaming destination. The web portal continues to be our flagship service, but there is no further investment going into it. The PC-driven games on demand business continues, but there is going to be no further investment there either. As for distribution, we already have Reliance Home Video and Games, which now handles that. We’ve shut down our game caf, social gaming and MMO businesses. Gaming cafs were not taking off, and the MMOs largely relied on gaming cafs for footfalls. Social gaming requires very strong development capabilities, which Zapak doesn’t have, as well as an amazing amount of marketing dollars. So we decided to focus on our strengths and get out of the other businesses.

At Zapak, aside from mobile, we’re also focussing more on advergaming. Another avenue we’re pushing hard is gamification, which essentially turns any internal or external corporate engagement from a chore to fun. So we could go to an e-commerce company and help them increase the number of repeat customers, to an IT firm and help improve employee engagement on the intranet, or to a bank and help increase usage of its online services. It’s taking something that already has users and encouraging them to use it more or in different ways by making it fun.

That’s a part of it. From an overall perspective, our focus with both Jump Games and Zapak is going to primarily on mobile gaming. That’s where the future lies.

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