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India's new export: video games

By Reena Jana, BusinessWeek
December 28, 2005 08:44 IST
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With multiple limbs and each hand wielding a different weapon, the fearsome Indian warrior-goddess Kali is a natural video-game character. And next year, Kali will be coming to game consoles, PCs, and mobile phones around the globe.

Indiagames, a Mumbai-based company, is currently working the goddess into the first original, Indian-themed game for international audiences.

Kali is appearing in the forthcoming Emperor Ashoka (pronounced 'Ah-shoke,' with the 'a' silent), which recreates battles from the life of a legendary Indian king who lived in the third century B.C. The game allows players to engage in bloody historic battles based in ancient temples and other antique environments.

Some mythical creatures are also thrown in -- in addition to Kali, there are gargoyle-like interpretations of the voluptuous female statues that adorn sacred buildings in India, who come alive and fight. "We wanted to have an edge," says Indiagames CEO Vishal Gondal. "It's a storyline that hasn't been seen before."

Founded in 1999, Indiagames has been making a name for itself creating games for mobile phones based on Hollywood-tested characters like Spider-man, Predator, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Recently, the company, which is partially owned by China's TOM Online, Cisco, and Macromedia, signed a licensing agreement with Electronic Arts to distribute the EA's mobile games to Indian consumers across multiple carriers.

And Indiagames still handles some technical work for American clients. "We tried outsourcing. Now we see ourselves as an entertainment company," says Gondal.

Other contenders

With 270 employees, Indiagames is the largest of a wave of Indian companies that are just beginning develop games from scratch, at a fraction of the cost of development at American studios like EA.

According to India's National Association of Software & Service Companies (NASSCOM), a PC game that would cost $6 million and $7 million to develop in the U.S. could be produced for only $500,000 to $3 million in India, thanks to lower salaries.

Indiagames isn't alone in trying to grow beyond the outsourcing model. Milestone Interactive Studios and Paradox Studios, both based in Mumbai, and Bangalore's Dhruva Interactive are all working on original content. Dhruva has developed Pool on the Net, an online 3-D billiards game targeted to an Indian audience, and Milestone is planning on rolling out its combat-racing game Road-Rebels -- which features a level based in Mumbai, among other locales around the world. Paradox is working on a few original, international titles for PCs and consoles but says it's too early to disclose details.

Looking abroad

While these companies are engaging in fully independent game development, from conception to art production to programming, the content of their current projects isn't solely 'South Asian' in flavor. Instead, they're truly thinking global.

Anyone who has spent time in India will find the content of Emperor Ashoka familiar.Ashoka ruled over a period of 40 years, from 273-232 BC, uniting a vast area of South Asia that corresponds to today's India. A fierce warrior, his most brutal battle was fought at Kalinga, where his armies are said to have killed more than 100,000 people.

Hrishi Oberoi, a designer at Indiagames, says the company began its development process for the game, perhaps ironically, by outsourcing the initial scene and character concept sketch work to a British game-design company, Cambridge-based Short Fuze. This, says Oberoi, was "to ensure that the game would appeal to Western players."

Mining history

Indiagames flew designers from Short Fuze to India, where they toured classical temples such as those at Khajuraho -- iconic sacred buildings dating back to the 11th century AD and known for their spectacular architecture and erotic sculptures.

They also visited Indian museums and libraries to study statues from a variety of time periods and historical texts related to Emperor Ashoka's life.

Short Fuze drew the prototypes that Oberoi and the staff of about 50 in-house designers at Indiagames then turned into 3-D computer-generated characters.

When asked if he thinks international audiences will buy Emperor Ashoka, Gondal responds, "It's difficult to say which game will be a hit or flop." He adds, "We're not looking for Emperor Ashoka to be Halo or Quake 3." But Gondal cites the popular Prince of Persia series as evidence that international audiences are open to PC and console games with 'non-Western' themes and characters.

Platform jumper

The first incarnation of Prince of Persia, set in medieval Babylon and featuring turbaned figures wielding swords, was released in the late 1980s by Broderbund. Later, Ubisoft brought the title back in a slicker franchise. The most recent sequel, released December 1, sold 2 million copies in less than 2 weeks. Total sales of all three of Ubisoft's Prince of Persia titles is 7 million units across multiple platforms.

The mobile version of Ashoka will be released in June, 2006, says Oberoi, followed by a console game in late 2006. This strategy reflects the fact that Indian companies are already established in the mobile-gaming arena.

According to NASSCOM, India currently accounts for about $100 million of the $2.2 billion global revenues generated by mobile games, compared to the $50 million NASSCOM predicts India will generate from PC and console games in 2005.

Gondal says Indiagames is working on creating a version of Emperor Ashoka that can be saved across multiple platforms, scores and all. That way gamers could start a game at home on their PC, keep playing on their phone as they ride the subway, and then pick up again later on their console. Gondal hopes this will distinguish Indiagames from its competitors and draw lucrative licensing deals.

Global blend

But P J McNealy, a game-industry analyst with San Francisco-based American Technology Research, says there's a reason why major American developers aren't working on a similar approach. "The platform-to-platform model doesn't provide a big opportunity for most U.S. developers in the next 12 months," McNealy observes.

The unusual trio of Indiagames investors illustrates their confidence in its potential for worldwide appeal. China'sTOM Online owns 62.4%, and Cisco and Macromedia share a combined stake of 18.2%. The original Indiagames owners, including Gondal, retain a 19.4% stake.

If audiences also buy into the original graphics and premise of Emperor Ashoka, Indiagames could very well morph from Electronic Arts' Indian partner to India's own Electronic Arts.

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Reena Jana, BusinessWeek

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