Ready, player one billion

By Gulal Salil and Zainab Kantawala
 @TGSWeekly

The gaming world has evolved through many stages since it’s inception. These budding game designers amd developers walk us through their journey of falling in love with programming

In a list of “Ten things you didn’t know about mobile gaming” published by the Microsoft Devices Team, there is a factoid that will inspire almost universal nostalgia. The nineties saw the rise of possibly the most popular mobile game before Angry Birds hit the scene in 2012. This game was called Snake, and it was released in 1997 on the Nokia 5110. Now, while a few ardent lovers of Snake and Nokia 5110s may be aware of this, it may come as a revelation to most that Snake could be played in real-time across phones. The Nokia 6110 (a higher-end business version) used infrared technology to enable multiplayer mode in the game. Back then, phones were almost entirely used for voice and text, so this didn’t exactly catch on.

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The Millennials
 It was not till the middle-class nineties generation started playing Space Impact on their uncle’s Nokia, that India saw the ballooning of a real mobile gaming culture; a culture which had already bowled-over the rest of the first world. The cassette vaale video games or Nintendo knock-offs were the only affordable gaming devices available before the phone. The internet really hit the mainstream in the new millennium and real-time multiplayer gaming became a reality. For so many Indians just like mobile internet access mobile gaming is the only form of gaming. Casual, cheap and accessible, you’ll see them being played across socio-economic stratas, age groups and any other segments you can think of. Mobile game design is where the money is shifting to. So is it a bleak future for PC and consoles? Can the phone ever replace the mouse and the gamepad? Will our flitting thumbs kill the careful hand-eye coordination of traditional video games? We spoke with five developer outfits to find out.

DSK Green Ice Games (DGIG) is one of the leading studios based out of Hadapsar and funded by DSKSupinfocom, as the name suggests. DGIG recently set up a mobile game design department, but its vision since 2014 has been to create high-quality PC and console games. They have recently launched their first mobile title, Core: Seekers of life for iOS and Android but their first title was for the PC and console called Devil God University which won a FICCI Baf award.
 Then there is the indie undercurrent, with globally recognised Dropout Games which operates out of a house in Viman Nagar. This company lives to experiment, and ultimately wants to makes PC and console games. It was founded by dropouts from DSKSupinfocom, Ankush Madad, Sujeet Kumar, Saurabh Bhavsar, and Siddesh Khatri (the only non-dropout). They have released two mobile titles, Unwynd and Blyss for the App Store, which in a rare feat have been consecutively featured as Editor’s Choice titles. There’s June Software, also based in Viman Nagar, which is one of the top five mobile game design companies in India. June was incorporated in 2008 and they are a full-fledged team dedicated to only mobile game design. Their game Th!nk, released for the Windows, Android and iPhone marketplace has received exceptional fame and popularity amongst players.

Pranav Pahari

Pranav Pahari

There is Game Designer Pranav Pahari who has designed six titles. One of the six: Song of Swords under the company Nautilus Games, won the People’s Choice of the Year award at the NASSCOM Game Developer Conference, 2013. His game Chota Bheem Ladoo Runner has been downloaded one million times and garnered mammoth popularity among kids. “I have loved games since childhood. I grew up playing all retro art games like Mario, Contra, Doom. By teenage I got a hold on Counter Strike. My college years were filled with late night gaming sessions in the hostel. After my graduation, I decided to turn my passion of playing games into making them,” says Pranav.
 Finally, we spoke with Sreeram Gollangi, game design sophomore at DSK. Sreeram is currently working on his end-of-year project with five of his mates. He has worked on Farmville 2 as an intern at Zynga and he was responsible for designing a lot of new features in the game. ” I was inclined towards gaming just like every other kid is. Even with limited access to video games, I did all I could to get my hands on them. But the decision to work in the gaming industry is a different story. I graduated as an Architect in 2014, after which I wanted to continue my education and go for a post-graduation. As a student of design, I wanted to explore other disciplines of design. My love for both design and gaming made me consider Video Games as a career choice,” he shares.

Behind The scenes

Veerdhawal Khanvilkar and Shantesh Patil

Veerdhawal Khanvilkar and Shantesh Patil

A game usually needs many iterations before it gives you engaging experience says Pranav. The process involves making lot of play test models with a variety of game play elements. “To make sure its exciting you have to find out unique ways to keep the players mind absorbed. You give it to people (general play testers, your target audience, groups of about 10–20 players) and then observe and document the player experience. Based on that we make final changes. It takes a lot of time and effort to execute this activity in perfection,” he says. A game production process has three stages; in pre- production you work on building the high level concepts with a working prototype. In Production the game is expanded with lot of content and puzzle systems with a team of designers, artists, sound engineers and writers working on the game. “Initially high level concept of the game gets ready. After that a detailed game design document is made by designer, where each rule and situation possible in game is explained briefly. Then a team of engineers work on the framework, building game systems and the rest of the team can integrate the content into the game. Designers makes lot of iterations on the systems once its balanced, its sent for testing and packaging,” he further explains.
 As for Sreeram Gollangi, coming up with ideas for any game starts with a set of requirements that one wants to fulfill. “Requirements like, what platform will the game run on, who’s my target audience or what kind of game genre do I want to explore. Answering these questions sets a framework for the ideation process. This helps us get a sense of direction with a solid framework to work within,” he says. This is followed by brainstorming sessions, taking notes, making sketches, throwing balls of paper in the dustbin, sleepless nights, endless discussions, arguments and gallons of coffee — all, an integral part of coming up with a game idea.
 He believes play testing to be an integral part of game development. He has worked on a story driven game, but one of the interesting trends that he has noticed in the gaming industry, is giving players narrative choices which have consequences.
 Sometimes, games being so visual with their approach, can tell stories without dialogues or a definitive story lines. “In games like Dishonored, the developers tried to tell small stories with the environment art. In a particular level, the player comes across an abandoned room where there a tiny little shoes placed near a pair of big shoes and with some other gruesome details, which clearly shows that something bad has happened to the residents of the house, one of which was a little child,” he says. These little details sometimes add a lot to the fiction of a game for people who notice.

There is an evolution taking place
 “No, it will never happen. The genre may keep changing, games may evolve, but PCs and consoles will always live on and strong”, says Anirrudha Jowadekar, Project Manager and Game Designer at DGIG.
 For the present, mobile games are designed as short-lived experiences, played to pass time. The shelf life of a title, as Senior Game Designer Virdhawal of June Software puts it, “depends completely on connectivity, and the fact that features are constantly churned out.” His coworker Shantesh Patil believes that “a mobile game is not just a game anymore, it is a service.” So for instance, June’s latest game called Mask Gun essentially Counterstrike for mobile will keep introducing new features such as skins, guns and power upgrades to retain customers. As is primal to phone gaming, all their games have real-time connectivity through social media, and a gamer can always invite a friend to a battle. Mask Gun is set to release in India in a week, and as the game picks up, June will also introduce clan culture in it, just like Counterstrike.
 However, there is no full-bodied dedication in mobile gaming, which is where the difference lies between an immersive medium like a PC or console and a phone. Apart from the screen size, a game like DOTA cannot be played over the phone for various reasons. “Phones don’t have great battery life, PC like graphic quality on them is unavailable and mobile connectivity is not always present”, says Pranay Patwardhan, lead artist at DGIG. The usage of only two thumbs for a game as intense as DOTA is again an obstacle in the immersive quality of the experience.

Sreeram Gollang

Sreeram Gollang

But are technical limitations the only things that define the quality of a game on a certain medium? Isn’t it possible to create a great gameplay on any given platform? Who decides this?
 Benchmarks continue to change. The benchmark for the videogamer born in the 80s and 90s is the screen size of a TV and a computer. Aniruddha argues that “by the time the generation which currently ranges from the ages of 12 to 18 grows up and starts earning money, hardcore games would have shifted to mobile devices. This is because their benchmark has been mobiles; they have grown up on that.” Already, companies like Nintendo and Games Workshop have started making hardcore titles for phones and tablets. However, “The fact that PCs are always upgradeable unlike consoles a hardcore gamer will still play PC games”, says Shashank, Technical Art Leader at DGIG.

But where does India stand in this evolution?
 According to Ankush, Business head at Dropout Games, it is near-impossible for just about any aspirant to make console games in India. PC and console game development require much more time, finance and manpower than mobile game design. But the obstacle is not the size of the company.
 Console giants like Sony and Microsoft sell development kits for game designers to purchase. These devkits are essentially a set of software development tools added to the console and provided to developers. Barring certain clauses that come with buying a devkit, these are available all over the globe to those who want to make games. However, these are unavailable for purchase here.
 For DGIG, getting a kit is tough, but not impossible. There is a process to go about it. But then, DGIG is also a globally-affiliated company. Even then, the kits that DGIG gets are on lease, with a clause that the games made using it ought to be launched within a certain timeframe. This kind of a contract can only be entrusted to those who have established themselves. This closed network clearly doesn’t help independent developers.
 Dropout games, which has brought critical acclaim to the mobile game design industry of India, envisions making computer and console titles in the future. “We released our games in the global market because of the currency value. Blyss is for $2 at the App Store and because it got featured, we have enough money to keep going for the next two years from now,” Ankush says. He mentions “We have nothing to lose, really. We made two good games, and now we are looking to work on a PC title. The idea is to experiment as we don’t want to go through any publisher.”
 The process of publishing has largely been democratised by various app stores. For the PC, the world changed in 2003 with the rise of Steam an online game distribution platform by Vlve Software. The monopoly of large publishers deciding the fate of games is a thing of the past. Steam has a portal they call ‘Greenlight’, which enables developers to put up information, videos and screenshots of their games for the Steam community to see. It enables discussion around the title and if it gets enough support, Steam takes the game in for distribution. Dropout Games is banking on this.
 Investors have started taking an interest in India, which shows potential as an industry for game design. Legendary game company Ubisoft, creator of the popular Assassin’s Creed titles, has set up shop in Pune. However, “PC and console game design in India will still take a really long time to materialise. I think about 20 years,” he says.

Ankush Madad, Sujeet Kumar and Siddhesh Khatri

Ankush Madad, Sujeet Kumar and Siddhesh Khatri

Final round
 Game development fundamentally comes from the understanding of the medium it will be played on. Sreeram Gollangi observes design for mobile and says, “it could also be reinventing a game like Match Three. Take a game like Tetris for example it’s a game with no story or characters. Or a game like Candy Crush, where there is a subtle fictional touch for people who notice it.” Pranav Pahari’s take on the importance of a story in a game is that “the narration has to be in such a way that player gets immersed in the experience. Every twist and turn in the story leaves an impact on the player to retain its excitement.”
 Describing how developers often tell stories through environmental art, Sreeram says, “In a particular level in games like Dishonored, the player comes across an abandoned room where there are tiny little shoes placed near a pair of big shoes and some other gruesome details, which clearly shows that something bad has happened to the residents of the house, one of which was a little child.” This kind of implicit detail loses definition in mobile gaming.
 But then, at least at the moment, mobile gaming is not about detail. It is about a different immersive experience that takes place only in short intervals broken up by real life. Pokemon GO is a complete example of this. Augmented reality saw its moment in the sun with the mobile game. The cellphone has revolutionised gaming as much as access to information. Gaming has moved out of the rich kid’s bedroom into the hands of near-everyone. By sheer numbers, mobile games now dominate the landscape. So will our flitting thumbs kill the ancient boxes in living rooms? As long as everybody’s having fun, does it matter?

tgs.feedback@goldensparrow.com

Originally published on The Golden Sparrow

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