Breaking Into the Indian Games Market

Breaking Into the Indian Games Market

Gaming hasn’t quite taken off in India the way one would expect. It’s one of those hard-to-crack territories like Korea or China where the industry isn’t sure what would and wouldn’t work.

Gaming In India

The difference is publishers have been able to make certain advances in both those countries. Free-to-play transaction based online games are popular in the Chinese republic, while Activision Blizzard’s World of WarCraft is enjoying moderate success in the country as well.

Similarly, Korea is known for its countless MMORPG publishers, the most well known being Gravity Corp, the publisher behind Ragnarok Online, a game that is distributed and promoted by Level-Up in India. Activision Blizzard’s StarCraft franchise also enjoys a dedicated following in the country, while Nintendo’s Wii and DS have managed to make comparatively reasonable strides as well. In fact, just the fact that a “Nintendo of Korea” exists says quite a lot.

Piracy is just as much of an issue in Korea and China as it is in India. So what makes India in particular such a tough nut to crack?

Part of it is the culture. Indians weren’t brought up on games. You could count the number of game franchises the average Indian joe is familiar with on two hands: Mario, Tetris, Street Fighter, Tomb Raider, Road Rash, Need for Speed, Contra, Command & Conquer, Counterstrike.

To anyone trying to make to make sense of that broad range of genres, don’t. It’s not as though they all have something in common, some sort of a magic ingredient, that makes them resonate with India’s youth.

Mario and Contra are popular because a fairly large number of people owned NESes and SNESes in India during the early 90s. Pirated cartridges loaded with several different games were, and still are in places, common, and were how a lot of Indian gamers were introduced to gaming in the first place. Just like everywhere else, the games you play at a young age tend to leave the biggest impression. Tetris falls under the same category.

Street Fighter is popular because arcades enjoyed relative success in India for some time. I personally remember spending hours with a Marvel vs Capcom arcade machine in South India when I was in my teens. The SNES version of Street Fighter II is also something a lot of people remember.

Once the PC gaming movement kicked off in India in the 90s though, more technologically advanced games started to catch on quickly.

Tomb Raider was among the first graphically and technologically impressive 3D PC games that allowed freedom of movement and a strategic, personalized approach to combat. Need for Speed and Road Rash were both the first popular 3D racing games and had an almost synergetic effect together. In fact, I would argue that Electronic Arts is probably the most well known game publisher in India.

Command & Conquer was the first strategy game to enjoy widespread popularity in the country, while Counterstrike was an instant hit thanks to its competitive nature. When it received a 3D reboot during the PS2 era, GTA was admired for letting you drive around anywhere you wanted and blow things up. As you can see, every game on the list was popular for different reasons.

Sometimes, it was for the same reasons that people enjoyed them in the U.S. Other times it was because people simply didn’t know better games existed. For instance, while Tomb Raider took off in a big way, Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver never did.

Keep in mind that this popularity didn’t necessarily translate into big sales. Piracy has always been an issue in India, and will be for the foreseeable future. Kids at school are very used to borrowing games from one another and burning copies for themselves. Similarly, office workers are in the habit of downloading ISOs off torrents and loading them onto external hard drives to take home. Even retailers are used to selling pirated goods, and only in recent times has an active campaign against piracy,ineffective as you would imagine, though sprung up via advertisements and public messages during the break at movie theatres.

As far as PC gamers, who comprise the majority of Indian gaming population, are concerned, games while a fun, entertaining distraction aren’t worth spending money on. That money is better spent on devices like iPods or PSPs… or cool mobile phones.

The situation today is slightly different from the way it was back in the 90s. In fact, it’s almost like a step backwards. Despite the fact that today, enthusiast gamers in India are more educated about the games industry in general than they were back in the 90s (and certainly more educated than your “casual office worker gamer”), tastes have narrowed. Although IGN and Gamespot receive frequent visitors from India, most of them are hoping to learn about the next graphically impressive game with big explosions that will make their video cards beg for mercy.

And that’s precisely the problem.

If you want to determine what the next popular game and again, this doesn’t translate to “financially successful”, will be in India, simply pick out the top three upcoming most visually impressive games, and you’ll have your answer. Add two points if they are first-person shooters.

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry 2. Crysis from EA. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. These were all big hits last year. Final Fantasy XIII, too, is popular thanks to how stunning it looks, but by virtue of being a console game and an RPG, it won’t get a second thought from the majority of the Indian gaming population whenever it finally releases. Even though it’s technically available to them for free.

My last job was at a videogame art outsource studio in Noida, UP. For two whole years, I worked alongside people that helped develop art for a wide variety of games under the supervision of an equally large gamut of publishers. While I can’t name specific titles, I will say that some of them are among the most anticipated games over 2010 and 2011. Despite this, whenever a conversation about interesting games came up, the same names were repeated by my colleagues: GTAIV, Modern Warfare, Far Cry 2 and so on.

As I said, tastes have narrowed.

RPGs are considered a waste of time because they require too much thinking and customization. Strategy games, while they suffer from the same “flaws”, are forgiven on the basis of being competitive. No one likes adventure games because all you do is walk around and click on things.

I mentioned earlier that the games you played as a child are the ones that stay with you. Ironically, while this is true in India as well, nostalgia doesn’t hold a candle to the appeal of high-tech, visually impressive titles. For instance, no one cares about the Nintendo DS, even though they’ve all heard of New Super Mario Bros. It just isn’t “cool” enough anymore.

Instead, they all want PSPs. When you ask them what games they plan to buy for it, you’re likely to hear the same thing as on the PC side of things. GTA and maybe God of War. Now, keep in mind that it’s far easier to pirate games on the DS at this point than it is on the PSP. But for once, that isn’t a factor in the decision-making process (although, the fact that you can pirate games on the PSP is).

No, even people in India have “standards.” The DS can’t do big explosions, flashy visual effects and it doesn’t have a widescreen. Therefore it sucks and probably doesn’t have any good games on it either. End of story.

This one time, I showed a colleague at work Call of Duty: World at War on the DS. I enjoy portable shooters immensely, and the fact that this one had online, a big step-up from Modern Warfare, was a huge plus. I showed him how to control it, even got him to take it for a spin online where he fought it out with a couple other people. At the end of it all, I asked him what he thought of it.

“Is this on PSP also?” he inquired.

“No, you wouldn’t have the touchscreen controls, so what you just did would be harder to pull off on PSP…”

“Damn. It’s OK, I guess. The screen is too small. And there’s no blood.”

“Oh, I thought you were enjoying it…”

“Yeah, it’s all right. If it was on PSP, you’d be able to see the blood and the explosions.”

And that was that. World at War on DS didn’t get a second look. I tried showing New Super Mario Bros. to another colleague of mine later in the week.

“Is this on PSP also?” he inquired.

“No, Nintendo doesn’t develop games for Sony. They’re competitors.”

“Damn. This would have looked nicer on PSP.”

And that was it for New Super Mario Bros., too! You can imagine my frustration, given the kind of games I usually write about. Unfortunately, I’ve long since given up trying to convince the majority of the game playing audience in India that there is a whole world outside of their FPSes waiting to be explored.

For publishers, the major problem is not only that tastes have narrowed but that your average enthusiast gamer in India doesn’t mind spending hours or even days, figuring out how to bypass piracy protection. They’ll even download three different builds of a 4 gigabyte game, despite the fact that high speed Internet in homes is quite uncommon. Whatever it takes, just as long as it isn’t money.

Console games are starting to catch on to an extent. While the Playstation 2 was popular because of how easy it was to “chip” it, the Xbox 360 and PS3 are viewed as viable alternatives for people that can’t afford to upgrade their PCs to keep up with new games. However, even the Xbox 360 suffers from rampant piracy. To put things in perspective, this means that Xbox Live isn’t a good enough incentive to keep things legal and legit.

So how do you, as a publisher, try to break into the Indian games market?

I would say the first logical step to countering piracy or trade-in is the same as it is everywhere else: offer incentives for buying the game. A comic, an art-book. A poster. Whatever you think would work.

Also, take a good look at what distributors in India are doing. Strip out the manual, strip out the big cardboard box, and sell stuff at a lower price point whenever possible. A good deal is everything to the average Indian consumer. The concept of splurging on non-essential items doesn’t exist here. They can always look up information on how to play the game online, or figure it out by themselves. Besides, ingame tutorials are all the rage nowadays anyway.

My third suggestion would be, don’t bother with getting Indian game development studios to create games that you believe are “suited to Indian culture.” As I said earlier, people want the best graphics, the best technology, the best visual effects, often a competitive multiplayer component… a game that delivers none of those doesn’t stand a chance. Not only do Indian game development studios not have the experience to compete with Western or Japanese releases, they also don’t know the first thing about marketing and PR. Take it from someone that has worked in the industry here.

Good PR, of course, is as essential in India as it is everywhere else. Having a representative in India to speak on behalf of your organization and its games and interact with the gaming community to educate them about what it is you do would be beneficial.

People argue that cultural differences, namely the popularity of Bollywood culture, pose a problem. While I agree that cultural differences are certainly a factor that hinders the progression of the games industry in India, I will have to say that they aren’t the biggest factor. After all, just like every other Asian country, India is prone to westernization and is undergoing it at a rapid pace. What’s so “Indian” about a World War II shooter?

It feels like the biggest reason games haven’t taken off here is because publishers haven’t put in the effort required of them to talk to and educate the consumer. If you’re willing to take that step, you are likely to make progress in the long run, even though it might take a while to get there.

    By Ishaan Sahdev