It was in 2011 that I first met Yasuhiro Fukushima and his team from Japan. The venue was the food court at a mall in suburban Mumbai; not the sort of place I'd have expected to meet the honorary chairman of Square Enix, but he was on a tight schedule.
The Square Enix team had been visiting game companies all over India and I was one of its last appointments on this trip. Mr Fukushima showed me a long list of Indian studios they had put together and subsequently visited, including several I hadn't even heard of. There were numbers written alongside each of them, from 3 to over 300. They represented the number of employees at each of those companies as claimed by them. The research was thorough and meticulous, and yet Mr Fukushima sat across the table bemused.
Everywhere he went, he asked people about the Indian industry – how many studios there were, how much the industry was worth, what the growth areas were, what the popular platforms were, and what sort of content attracts the Indian gamer. Everywhere he went, he got a different answer, and so at the end of all this exhaustive research, Square Enix was no closer to understanding what it was getting into. The company eventually set up its India office earlier this year, but it's hard to tell how much of the decision was influenced by that research and how much is blind faith.
That is pretty much what any international game company looking to enter India has to deal with – ideas of limitless potential, but no real numbers on the ground. So whoever does come here does so on little more than blind faith; in the hopes that if even a small fraction of India's billion-plus population takes to gaming, there's a massive market for them to tap in to. It's why specialist games media like IGN, Gamespot, and even MCV for that matter, are focussing on the India market – there's potential. But beyond a point, that potential is going to have to be fulfilled and the Indian games industry is going to have to come up with real facts and hard numbers.
Those are nowhere to be found, however, so all we have to go on is expansive media and animation industry reports from the likes of KPMG and Deloitte, where gaming is relegated to a few back pages. Those reports do give numbers and make predictions, but the research that goes into it, at least as far as gaming goes, is far from scientific.
Take the FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2013 for example. It tells you how much the games industry grew and it predicts how much it will grow in the coming years, but read the footnotes and it all amounts to nothing because the numbers are based purely on industry discussions”. These discussions are conducted with select games industry executives (KPMG doesn't reveal which ones), who all have vested interests and could well show their respective segments in a better light, while putting down others. Vishal Gondal might tell you that mobile is where it's at, while Jayont R Sharma might say consoles bring in the most revenue, and they both may be right, but that's no basis for predicting the future of an entire industry, let alone putting a number to it.
Those numbers, those facts, and therefore the ability to accurately value and make predictions on a complex industry like gaming can only come when India has an independent, government-recognised trade body whose purpose is the monitoring, regulation and promotion of the Indian gaming industry. And such a body will have to encompass every segment of gaming. The NASSCOM Gaming Forum has been around for a while and it's growing in size and prominence each year, but it has its limitations. For one, it is part of a larger IT body and so realistically, gaming will never receive priority; and two, it focuses solely on game development. Then there's FICCI; the less said about its gaming efforts, the better.
Covering all bases
A country of one billion people has the potential for a massive consumer market for games, and yet there isn't a single organisation working towards growing this market or regulating the growing market that already exists. Indian game developers are fortunate that we live in a time when they can instantly make their games available to a worldwide audience, but there will come a time – Square Enix clearly believes it's already here – when addressing the domestic market can be beneficial and profitable. For the Indian gaming industry to grow, the market for games here has to get bigger.
A gaming body must oversee every aspect of the market as well – from publishing, to distribution, to retail. Ask anyone who's been following the Indian console/PC market for a while and they'll tell you that it's a dirty game. Distributors are constantly at each other's throats and retailers undercut each other to the point where no one makes any real money. Look at the preorder freebies being regularly offered by many retailers and it's clear that the term copyright infringement” is alien to them, or that in the absence of any enforcement authority, they feel comfortable in openly flouting universally accepted copyright laws. On the mobile side, the way some companies push their games to users under the guise of VAS bundles and without explicit user consent is downright illegal. Then, of course, there's the thriving grey market and rampant piracy. Having a dedicated gaming organisation with the ability to influence legislation can help iron out many of these problems.
Head to the PlayStation India or Xbox 360 India Facebook pages and you'll find no shortage of ready consumers eager to jump in, but they're held back by prices that they simply cannot afford to pay. Gaming is an expensive hobby – on consoles and PC at least - and that might never go away entirely, but many of the factors that dictate (and inflate) prices in India are government-imposed (import duties, customs duties, etc) and haven't been seriously revisited in years. Without an organisation to represent this segment, the authorities won't ever be compelled to do so either.
Development is one of the fastest growing segments of the Indian industry and so it's even more vital for a unified body to monitor and encourage it. Better quality education in game development within India; incentivising established foreign studios to set up base here; getting the government to recognise game development as an industry on its own rather than clubbing it with IT or animation. These can all be achieved with a central, government-recognised body. Had such an entity already existed, Gameloft might not have got away with aborting its India operations and unceremonious laying off its entire work force overnight. Game developers desperately need this safety net to feel secure in their jobs. They need an organisation that can ensure that studios treat their employees right.
How significant (or insignificant) the Indian games industry is right now depends purely on whom you ask. That needs to change, and it can only happen when there's a single, authoritative entity that can truly represent every facet of the Indian games industry. It can't be government-run or controlled by it in any way; it can only serve its purpose if it is comprised of people from within the industry, with each of its segments well represented. Yet, for it to be able to achieve these objectives, it will need to be government-recognised and in a position to influence legislation.
This needs to happen.
Over the coming weeks, I'll be talking to and offering insights from several prominent individuals from the Indian industry on whether they feel the need for such a gaming body and if so, how it can come about. We'll be covering all bases – development, outsourcing, publishing, distribution, retail, and media.
If you'd like to jump into the debate yourself, you can do so in the comments section here. You can also tweet