A demon sprints through a labyrinth of corridors and rooms, hacking away at waves of enemies. One enemy gets lucky and gets a killing blow – bringing the demon down. Or does it?
The demon reincarnates, this time with a whole new set of skills, ready to take down the next set of enemies.
You’d think this is one of the many stories from India’s rich mythology, but nope, this is actually Asura – a video game by the Indian game development studio, Ogre Head Studios.
It has received positive reviews and generated a fair amount of buzz, receiving a ‘Very Positive’ rating on the widely used online marketplace Steam, where 85% of the reviewers rated the game favourably.
As a gamer, I was instantly attracted to Asura for its interesting game systems. But more importantly, for its setting and characters. It’s rare for games to be set in India. Rarer still for them to come from Indian development studios.
Not that India doesn’t have a gaming scene. Games like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive still remain quite popular and there is a growing market for e-sports. Yet, gaming still hasn’t found its way into the mainstream consciousness. Which means, for those who want to make games, the idea of developing games in India can be quite daunting.
But that didn’t stop 27-year-old Zainuddin Fahad, designer at Ogre Head Studios, from pursuing it. For him, it was all about passion: “I used to play a lot of games as a kid and [gaming] was a big part of my life,” he says, “and that’s how I ended up as a part of the games industry.” It was this love that drove him to quit his job at an art services company and establish his own studio. Easy accessibility to new software also made things easier.
Passion has been a common denominator for others too, with many describing a childhood spent playing video games as becoming a later push for their dreams. “One day, I was playing Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time and it just blew my mind,” says Vidhvat Madan, game developer at another Indian studio, QUICKTEQUILA. “I remember pointing at the screen, looking up at my dad holding the controller, I said, ‘I want to make that’.” He would later go on to become part of the team that made Lovely Planet, another Indian game that was received well internationally.
For game designer Arvind Raja Yadav, of Pyrodactyl Studios (which made Unrest), the motivation was even simpler: “I started to make games I wanted to play.”
As much as game development studios remain a niche in India, so does India within games as well. I still remember the excitement when I discovered a tiny bit of India in any of the video games I played – from the mythological figures in the Persona series to Arbaaz Mir, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed: India. It was an excitement that was only marked by how rarely it actually happened.
Despite the abundance of games made in and about Asia, India and Indian culture/mythology rarely featured as a part of them. Gamers will remember the level in Hitman that was set in Amritsar and what looked uncannily like the Golden Temple (which was not without its fair share of controversy), or the depiction of Indian mythological figures such as Kali in Smite (again, controversial). But India isn’t a sum total of its gods and goddesses. What about everything else?
“When we started [our] game, one of our mantras was that we have to put India on the map,” explains Avichal Singh. He, along with Shruti Ghosh and Ian Maude, formed Nodding Head Studios which is currently working on Raji: An Ancient Epic. Their game is now one of the first Indian games to be supported by Square Enix Collective, an initiative which helps promising independent developers promote their products. It’s a sign of recognition for Raji and hopefully, for Indian game development as well.
But making games in India still remains a difficult task, what with the exorbitant costs. Video game budgets have swollen over time and can often vary wildly. In 2014, gaming website Kotaku reported the cost of developing a big video game to be anywhere between $20 to $50 million and the 2014 sci-fi shooter Destiny made headlines for its supposed budget of $500 million dollars.
Finding a good team to pull together is also a difficult task. From art to game design to storytelling, a video game occupies that unique spot where it needs people from wildly different fields. As Avichal explains: “Our team has [members from] traditional arts background, graphic design and more…” And while Nodding Head Studios was lucky putting together a team which was equal parts talented and passionate about their project, most Indian developers aren’t so lucky.
Then, there is the larger concern of the viability of running a gaming enterprise. Says Diptoman Mukherjee from Zombies Indie House and Piranha Games, “Is the market Indian? I don’t think so, we don’t have a good track record of buying games. So the west is the market – where our mythology doesn’t have the advantage of familiarity, so it’s going to be a niche thing, unless the game and marketing backing it up is absolutely spectacular.”
Apart from expense and accessibility, there is a trickier thing for developers to handle. What about censorship?
In the past, well-known games like Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and Dragon Age: Inquisition had pre-emptively chosen to not release in India, citing ‘cultural sensitivities’ and ‘breach of local laws’. While none of these was banned by the Indian government, it showed a sense of caution from the sides of the publishers’, a caution not unfounded if you remember the reactions to the depiction of Kali in Smite.
It’s possible that this (and more) is why Arvind Raja Yadav strikes a cautious note, when he says that, “Art works in an environment that is supportive. The current environment doesn’t support art.”
Avichal Singh is aware of what happened with Smite and more recently, with the popular online shooter Overwatch (which depicted Indian character Symmetra dressed as Kali.) “It’s quite unfortunate… Smite had made Kali how she is. A garland of skeletons, a leopard skin skirt… that’s Kali to me. I don’t think anyone should dictate… who gets to define what is what.” he said.
Which is not to say that this isn’t a worry for the Raji team; as Avichal puts it, “We do take this as a concern. We’re not planning to have a beheading of gods or any sort of thing because we know it will start a controversy which is not required for the game.”
Zainuddin Fahad shares Avichal’s concern, “We released a poster for our new expansion…and there were people contacting us and asking, ‘will this hurt sentiments?’” He, however, adds that it’s not something he sees as a major issue. “I have not seen anyone getting hurt because of Asura. It has not been a problem.”
Which is actually great to hear, especially since censorship has been the watchword of the hour this past year.
Despite these very daunting obstacles, India is seeing a boom in mobile gaming, on account of being the world’s second-largest smartphone market (with 220 million users!). Mobile games are the go-to-plan for most Indian studios, especially as a chance for easy money and success.
This has been a major gripe for Mukherjee as well, as he explains: “While the big foreign studios (EA, Ubisoft, Zynga etc.) use Indian offices for mainly support work, our desi big studios just keep on making casino and social games. So the onus for good, original content falls on the indies – who often lack the resources.”
Avichal Singh agrees, adding that while “there has been a lot of trend following, when it comes to the mobile games”, the Indian game development scene has matured, so that there are people who “are really making an effort to put a game better than their last game.”
Vidhvat Madan breaks it down further: “If we want the world to see our games, we need to be making good games.” Video games often have a big impact on their home countries (unbelievable as it sounds). For example, The Witcher 3 is treated akin to a national treasure in Poland. With a culture as rich and deep as India’s, is it so unthinkable that something similar could happen here?
With more and more Indian developers gaining international recognition, it doesn’t seem that impossible anymore. Here’s to a brighter future for the Indian game developers (and gamers!) out there!