Region Focus: Is India's games industry finally coming good? - MCV

Region Focus: Is India's games industry finally coming good?

Will Freeman visits the city of Pune to find out more about this emerging market
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Bring up India’s games industry, and you’ll likely garner two reactions.

After all, its association with off-shoring and outsourcing has long been pronounced, and its status as an emerging market long-promised as the next big thing is renowned. 

In recent years, however, those two clichés have lost a little of what credibility they had. Certainly, India’s games industry owes much to its heritage as an outsourcing destination, and one could reasonably argue the nation’s anticipated blossoming from emergence to fully-fledged games industry was called a little early by some observers.

Looking at the numbers, however, it’s clear that the games making business – and the market that supports it – is growing exponentially in India. As the closing moments of 2015 drew near, Nasscom, the technology and IT trade body for India, published a report that painted a striking portrait of the region’s momentum where games are concerned.

Back in 1997, Rajesh Rao set up Dhruva Interactive – generally accepted to be India’s first games studio. Some eight years later, the country counted just five studios across its vast geography – rather few in a place home to 1.3 billion people. As time went on, Rao, who also stands as the chair of Nasscom’s Games Forum group, saw change come, but at a rate much slower than he had hoped for.

“I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for this market to open, for a very long time,” confirms Rao, speaking at the Nasscom Game Developer Conference, to an assembled crowd of local and European press. “Finally, the smartphone revolution is making that happen. The PC never really penetrated to the same level here.”

As Rao explains, PCs and consoles were rarely seen in Indian homes at the very time they were booming in the West and, as such, the vast majority of consumers, government and the tech industries had little experience of gaming. It was barely a blip on the radar. According to Rao, much of the negative associations games attract in the West reached India’s shores; perceptions of violence and puerility became persuasive. Playing games, as he puts it, “was frowned upon”.

And then the smartphone came to prominence across India. 

A SMART MOVE

As smartphones arrived in India, more people played games and got a taste of the modern mobile experience. That, Rao believes, changed the viewpoint of an important cultural hegemony in India.

“Women started playing games – and they are influencers here in India; women and mothers are huge influencers. Once they realised that games are not that bad after all […] we saw a change in mindset.”

The result, says Rao, saw attitudes to games change at a government level and in schools. By 2014 there were 140 million smartphones in India. Today, there are believed to be over 200 million, up to a quarter of which are used to play games. Very quickly, things changed in India, and making games already plays an important part in many schools. Walk the floor of Nasscom Game Developer Conference, held late in 2015 in the city of Pune, and it’s remarkable how many booths play host to teams making games at school.

India's games industry is growing as fast as it possibly can, because the global demand for our services is very big.

Rajesh Rao, Dhruva Interactive

“On the development ecosystem side, we ran a program last year among schools, just to see what attitudes were,” explains Rao. “We were completely blown away by the amount of interest in game development at the school level.”

But before getting too ahead of things, it’s worth looking back.

BUILDING SPEED

Come 2010, India’s games industry had grown by relative standards. The five studios of 2005 were now 25 in number. Global outfits had set up bases there, with the likes of Zynga and Ubisoft quick to take advantage of booming numbers of tech-literate youngsters. Youth, absolutely, is one of India’s strengths; two-thirds of its immense populace are under 35.

At this point, the first indies emerged, and VCs started to circle. Things were moving faster. Casting a lens over India’s games industry today, that acceleration continues. Today, 200 games companies call India home, 57 per cent of which are start-up and small teams employing less than 10 staff. India, absolutely, knows what it is to host indies.

For Rao, outsourcing is anything but a dirty secret. Far from it: in fact, it remains the foundation of this thriving development community.

“In terms of revenues, [outsourcing] is not as important as it used to be, because the local market has taken off in a very big way,” explains the Dhruva founder, speaking to Develop. “I think off-shoring and outsourcing business as a revenue number today would be dwarfed by our growing consumer market. But having said that, that [outsourcing and off-shoring] business is growing as well. India’s games industry is growing as fast as it possibly can, because the global demand for our services is very big.

“Make no mistake; outsourcing and off-shoring has bought a lot of knowledge and experience to our developers.“ 

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE

That success is all well and good, but what does it mean outside of India?

One studio that knows the answer is UK outfit Sumo Digital, based in Sheffield. A specialist in collaborating on high-profile gaming brands such as Disney Infinity, LittleBigPlanet, Forza and Crackdown, by 2007 Sumo had to take a careful look at its future. Triple-A games were getting bigger, and putting more financial pressure on all who made them at the time.

“Looking at costs around 2007 or 2008, we started to realise that if we didn’t manage our cost profile, then we’d need to run things very differently,” confirms Sumo co-founder and CEO Carl Cavers. “So through a combination of outsourcing and needing to manage costs, we started to look at other locations and geographies, including Argentina and Brazil. We thought about South Africa. We looked at Taiwan and Malaysia.”

Ultimately, though, Sumo settled on India, impressed by the emerging industry. Not that Sumo’s debut in India’s tech and education hub city Pune was entirely without challenge.

“When we first came to India, trying to identify the right staff was difficult, because most people came from a background where they had done artwork for video games, but they were used to just doing a very small, specific part of it,” says Cavers. “They were used to doing some texturing, a bit of modeling maybe. But we wanted to have people work as an extension of our team in the UK. We wanted matching skills, and people that offered the full package.”

India's been ahead of the rest of the world in terms of visual content for a long time – a lot of people don't recognise that.

Carl Cavers, Sumo Digital

That process took Sumo some 18 months, meaning that, initially, the creativity was very much lead by Sheffield.

“Over time, that has changed, and a lot of the creative steering actually comes out of the India studio now,” states Cavers.

According to Stewart Neal, the cross-studio development manager for Sumo, increasingly the India office has a greater part to play in many of Sumo’s projects.

“Previously, they were doing a lot of asset optimisation, polishing and general artwork,” he says. “Now, they contribute far more to the full production cycle, from pre-production to finishing the game. The contribution is a fully-rounded one. They’re definitely an extension of the UK team. It’s by no means a separate entity, and it’s really about integrated development.” 

CINEMATIC IMPACT

Sumo’s India operation is absolutely growing. Its headcount has now cleared 50, and as the region’s dev talent ramps up in standard, so does what the Sheffield company can achieve in Pune.

Visiting Sumo India, it’s a place entirely comparable to typical mid-to-large size triple-A developers in Europe or America. A large spacious office is filled with artists and engineers deep in the creative process. The only real difference is outside the window, where huge birds of prey hang in the air, replaced as dusk falls by huge numbers of giant fruit bats. This is game development as you know it, in a place full of distinction and variety.

India stands as a destination rich in optimism. Cavers, for one, is impressed by the advances in the local industry ecosystem, to the point he has hopes that soon Sumo India will not just be collaborating with the Sheffield team, but tackling entire development projects near-autonomously.

Cavers is quick, too, to remind observers that India is no stranger to creative industries and visual arts. After all, Pune and its neighbouring city Mumbai are home to one of the globe’s most successful, established film industries.

“Today, finding talent here is a much easier ask,” he asserts. “More and more people have got involved in the industry, and more and more people here recognise video games as a valid career option.”

In the early days that wasn’t the case, adds Cavers, but Sumo owes much to the influence of Bollywood cinema – a pioneering force in crafting the moving image and an early trailblazer in realms including green- and blue-screening and, to an extent, CG work.

“India’s been ahead of the rest of the world in terms of visual content for a long time, and I think a lot of people don’t recognise that,” Cavers muses.

Even if a small portion of young people decide to make games as a career, just imagine the pipeline of talent that is coming to India's games industry.

Rajesh Rao, Dhruva Interactive

EDUCATED PERSPECTIVES

The last word goes to Rao who, in some ways, stands as a founding father of a youthful games industry in a youthful country. His mind is currently on India’s game dev educators – when he’s not tending to the new Dhruva base in the foothills of the Himalayas.

India’s schools and universities, many of the best of which have a home in Pune, are increasingly making games part of their curriculums, and that has Rao very optimistic.

“These are people are being exposed to this at a very young age,” he says, back at the Nasscom press conference. “Even if a small portion of these people decide to make games as a career, just imagine the pipeline of talent that is coming to [India’s games] industry.”

Games as an industry and creative and commercial force may still be emerging in India, and outsourcing still has a role to play, but clearly, things have come a long way in a short few years in this vast and ambitious country.

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