For all the talk around how the gaming industry has been booming in India as others crumbled during the Covid pandemic, some of the biggest developments in the Indian gaming industry actually occurred in August, just as the lockdown began to ease. The biggest of these was no doubt Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public endorsement of game development in India. Even though it came as part of a larger focus on growing India’s toy industry, it was the first time that gaming had become part of the national conversation. Then there was the news that sent shockwaves through India’s fledgling gaming scene, the banning of PUBG Mobile as part of a large wave of bans affecting Chinese-developed games and apps.
But amid these headline-grabbing events was another significant bit of news that slipped under the mainstream media radar. Nodding Heads Games, a small Pune-based indie studio, became the first-ever Indian game studio to launch a game on a Nintendo platform. Its significance lies not only in the fact that Nintendo is a revered gaming institution and home to some of gaming’s most iconic franchises, but also in that the game itself, Raji: An Ancient Epic, is deeply rooted in Indian mythology, a theme rarely explored in games.
Raji was widely praised in the international press for bringing Indian stories and aesthetics to the world through the universal medium of gaming, and its reception took the small team at Nodding Heads by surprise. “We had Indian gamers telling us how much they enjoyed playing Raji with their parents. We had Indians in the US telling us how this game reminded them of India. The western media also highlighted the importance of representing Indian themes and brown protagonists in games,” says Avichal Singh, founder and game designer at Nodding Heads, which had almost shut shop during the development of the game after struggling to land funding and a publisher.
Larger gaming companies are also looking at Indian development talent more seriously. The Indian studios of French game developer-publisher Ubisoft had, until now, been resigned to support work for the company’s other games. Now, however, it is leading the development of a game for the first time, the latest release from the iconic Prince of Persia franchise.
While Raji’s success was mostly overseas, the domestic gaming market has also grown by leaps and bounds, particularly since the lockdown confined the entire country to their homes. While Raji has been developed for PC and game consoles, it is mobile games that see the most traction in India thanks to lower device and data cost. Few success stories can match that of Ludo King. Developed by Mumbai-based Gametion, the interactive board game became an overnight sensation in India, drawing casual gamers, families and celebrities. Games like Ludo King have also drawn more women to the gaming scene, which, like the gaming industry, remains an overwhelmingly male preserve. A recent FICCI report states that, on average, women now spend as much time on gaming apps as men do. With 50 million daily active users, Ludo King consistently ranks among the top games on the Android and iOS app stores.
What Ludo King did for casual gaming in India, PUBG Mobile did for the country’s competitive gaming scene. The popular PC ‘battle royale’ game was brought to mobile by Chinese gaming powerhouse Tencent. The game’s ability to deliver engaging online multiplayer action on even the most basic smartphone made it an instant success, amassing a 50 million player base. It also managed to spawn an entire ecosystem around it. India now has numerous YouTubers with over a million subscribers each, all built around PUBG content. Similarly, global esports organisations like Fnatic, TSM and Vitality have also set up shop in India alongside homegrown companies with their own PUBG teams. All this came to a screeching halt with the ban.
PUBG Corp, owner of the franchise, has begun to distance itself from the mobile game’s Chinese roots, and is actively looking for Indian partners to relaunch the game, but the game’s absence has left a gaping hole in the Indian gaming industry. Rivals Free Fire and Call of Duty Mobile offer alternatives, and Bengaluru-based nCore was quick to announce Fau-G soon after the ban on PUBG Mobile, riding the wave of nationalism with a celebrity endorsement from Akshay Kumar. All this, even though, by the developer’s own admission, Fau-G, a single-player game, bears little similarity to PUBG. The ban of PUBG Mobile has laid bare the shortcomings of relying on one game to sustain the country’s esports and gaming influencer businesses.
PUBG Mobile’s loss, however, has been a big gain for India’s emerging real-money gaming segment, with big players like MPL, Winzo and Dream 11 drawing millions of players with the lure of winning real money through playing games. The segment has come under scrutiny lately, with the Paytm app being removed from Google’s Play Store for including gambling elements through its Paytm First Games titles. Companies within this space position their games as games of skill or as esports titles to distance themselves from gambling or games of chance. It’s a grey area and has introduced an element of confusion in a space that is often misunderstood. But there’s no question that gaming is going to keep on growing.