Indie game studios are riding India’s mobile game boom into the spotlight.
Each morning, the recently married game developer Chirag Chopra drives to work at 10 a.m., braving New Delhi, India’s suffocating smog. After an 11-hour shift, he divides the remaining few hours of night between his indie side project and his new bride.
“All my friends said that getting married would end my career as an indie game developer,” said Chopra, a 26-year-old developer who founded the independent game studio Lucid Labs. “But I think it adds a new twist. Now I’m a responsible person.”
Chopra and his team are currently hard at work on their fourth game, Possessions, a stylish puzzle game where the player restores order to a messy apartment, but instead of dragging each household item to its proper place, the room rotates to create order. It’s like spinning a house around to rearrange the bedroom — or entering the world of organizing guru Marie Kondo by way of New Delhi.
Chopra is part of a new generation of Indian indie developers creating high-quality games in studios across India, from Mumbai to Bangalore to Pune.
Indian indie creators are making waves, from upcoming releases like Possessions to Raji: An Ancient Epic created by Nodding Heads Games of Pune. Even rookie games like Alter Army are impressing reviewers, awed by teenage developers Mridul Pancholi and Mridul Bansalm who formed Jaipur-based studio Vague Pixels to work on the game.
A Growing Gaming Industry
Widespread broadband and adoption of mobile phones have given rise to a fledgling game industry, with revenue expected to leap from $500 million to $800 million by 2021, according to Darryl Zuzarte, regional lead of India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM).
“We’re still a nascent industry,” said Zuzarte, “but we’re growing, and we’re seeing more indie studios joining in.”
The only problem is local audiences don’t support indie games.
According to Zuzarte, Indians mostly play free mobile games like Chhota Bheem Jungle Run, a formulaic endless runner promoting a popular children’s cartoon. These types of games are a far cry from the content independent developers dream of creating.
Ogre Head Studio, for example, released Asura last year, a dungeon crawler featuring a demon who bullies his way through a bone-crushing quest for godlike status. It won instant praise from Kotaku and other game outlets for its authentic handling of Hindu mythology, and managed to turn a profit in under two weeks — though very few sales came from India.
“The game is for the global audience. India doesn’t come into the picture. It’s the least, actually. India is very, very minute. It’s just a fraction of sales,” said Zain Fahadh, the studio’s founder.
Wanted: Gaming Supporters
Although Indian-made games are finding success with foreign audiences, starting an indie studio in India is very much a labor of love. In other places, governments sponsor projects, game jams are plentiful, and indie game festivals like IndieCade and Brazil’s Independent Games Festival (BIG) exist. But not in India.
Like other indie developers in his country, Chopra funds his Lucid Lab projects by working in the country’s booming mobile games industry. He creates his indie offerings in his spare time, holing himself up in his bedroom at his family’s place. He rarely emerges except for food and water.
“My parents are cool with me making games for a living. They’ve seen it pays well,” said Chopra. “But they would rather me to settle with my day job and not bother with indie games.”
Because the concept of indie games is foreign, Chopra had trouble finding local Delhiites to collaborate on his games. Instead, he works remotely over the internet with a programmer from Kashmir and an artist based in Brazil. His wife Gunjan, from Spain, helps translate the games into Spanish. Their target audience is as international as the team.
“I’m not sure Indians will ever start liking the games we make. It’s not even possible for them to go mad for artsy, abstract stuff. They aren’t that kind of people,” said Chopra. “I’m more inclined toward Europe. I was there a year back. I feel like Europeans truly understand abstract art.”
Despite the obstacles, indie creators are slowly beginning to cultivate a community in India. Over 200 Indian universities now offer degrees in game studies, populating the scene with young talents who grew up playing indie games like Super Crate Box, Spelunky and Fez.
The annual NASSCOM Game Developer Conference provides indies with a venue to gain exposure and press. In addition, Ogre Head Studio’s Fahadh said he hopes to coordinate several other meetups by year’s end.
“Right now, we don’t have a serious community. It would be much better for us to come together and learn from each other’s mistakes. That doesn’t happen yet,” said Fahadh. “But I’m sure it will in the future.”
As its young stars grow in maturity, India may yet become known for indie games.