What if the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation didn’t die out, but moved to another galaxy, where they are waiting to be rediscovered?
That’s the theme of Indus, a homegrown battle-royale shooter game due for release by the end of the year. Being developed by Pune-based SuperGaming, Indus is targeting players of Fortnite and Battlegrounds Mobile India; it has had three million preregistrations so far.
Elsewhere, Mayanagari, by Bengaluru’s Hypernova Interactive, aims to offer a homegrown alternative to Grand Theft Auto. Players must complete missions, fight rival gangs, and stay out of jail, while earning the trust of locals, to grow in power. The game is set in a fictional city recognisable as an amalgam of Mumbai and Goa.
Mumbai Gullies, by GameEon Studios, also an open-world adventure game, has a similar plot. It is set in a very recognisable Mumbai. Players get around using local trains and black-and-yellow taxis, interact with vada-pav and pani-puri vendors. There’s a virtual in-game currency and side activities involve saving up enough to invest in the Bombay Stock Exchange. Both Mayanagari (early access) and Mumbai Gullies are scheduled for release next year.
Meanwhile, in Hyderabad, two studios are drawing on Indian mythology in different ways. Ogre Head Studio has announced Yodha, a single-player, deck-building strategy videogame in which players are Indian warriors who must craft a unique deck of cards which can be used as astras or weapons against demons. And Occult Chambers by BornMonkie is an action-horror videogame where players follow the protagonist through the Himalayas, solving puzzles in a quest to find his father while learning about ancient occult practices and rituals.
In a country where mobile games still make up 94% of the leisure gaming market, these games are being created for the laptop / desktop and console, in a shift that could be viewed as a sign of a maturing market.
PC and console games are more complex and expensive, providing a stable revenue model for studios. India as a market is primed for this shift. The country currently has 507 million gamers, of which 120 million are paying users, according to a 2022 report by the gaming investment company Lumikai. As the gaming market booms (at an estimated compound annual growth rate of 27%), per capita expenditure is expected to grow too.
Currently, according to a 2021 report by consultancy KPMG, average revenue per user in India stands at about $1 to $3 for PC and console games. By comparison, this figure stands at $200 to $220 in the US and South Korea, which are considered mature markets because PC and console players also account for a significant majority (70% to 80%) of the playing population.
The hope, say gaming studio heads in India, is that lushly produced Indian games with unusual settings and storylines will find paying customers in India, and will find takers abroad too.
“Almost half our preregistrations are from the US, Europe and Latin American countries, which indicates that there is considerable interest in such content in the West,” says Roby John, co-founder and CEO of SuperGaming.
The overseas interest did prove crucial for India’s biggest home-grown videogame success so far: the PC and console game Raji: An Ancient Epic. Released in 2020 by Pune-based Nodding Heads, it offers players a unique and richly detailed world that won it a Best Debut Indie Game nomination at the prestigious global Game Awards that year.
“We are grateful that Raji became profitable in the first five months of release, because the number of takers for PC and console games in India is very minute. However, it is now steadily growing,” says Avichal Singh, co-founder and game director of Nodding Games.
The effort now is to replicate that level of success. Indus, Mayanagari and Mumbai Gullies have all been in production since 2020.
India’s gaming studios have traditionally serviced AAA titles (videogames with large budgets, distributed by major publishers) such as Elden Ring, State of Decay 2, Just Cause 3, providing art, animation and visual effects support. Now is the time for the next step, says Nikhil Malankar, founder and CEO of GameEon.
“More people took to gaming seriously in the pandemic. Growing investment opportunities over the last couple of years indicate the scope for growth in this field,” he adds.
SuperGaming raised $5.5 million in a first round of funding in 2021, and is hoping to raise over $15 million in a second round. GameEon received an investment of $25,000 through the MegaGrant program run by American videogame developer and publisher Epic Games.
But money can only go so far. Building a good game takes skilled experts in graphics and immersive audio, seamless gameplay and game design, sound engineering, software engineering and animation.
Quietly, a young India had been preparing for this. “We get at least 60 applications a week from game designers, compared to about 20 applications a month when we set up shop in 2019,” says VK Samhith, founder of BornMonkie. “Experience doesn’t matter to us, as much as one’s portfolio. It’s the burning passion for videogames that we are on the lookout for.”
Mumbai Gullies has over 55 people working on the development of its in-game environments and narratives. Mayanagari has collaborated with rappers and musicians Dopeadelicz and Rapper Big Deal to create two unique tracks so far, with two more planned.
“We’re essentially creating a grand universe like Bollywood films do but as a videogame — a story like KGF that you can play,” says Mayur Bhimjiyani, co-founder of Hypernova Interactive. A game that’s like a movie with exciting Indian stories will be ideal for cross-border cultural exchange, he adds.
Indus, meanwhile, is set in an Indo-futuristic world of tall monuments shaped like mythical creatures such as the demigod Jatayu. Players can climb these and use them as vantage points. There are interstellar travellers; mercenaries called Mythwalkers; and a strange new planet rich in an immensely valuable time- and space-altering substance called Cosmium. “The process has felt akin to planning a real city,” says John.
We are still a few years away from making AAA games in India, says K Narayanan, who writes on film and gaming.
“What is important now is to focus on the passion and intent to create innovative games in the country,” he adds, pointing out that the popular Stardew Valley (2016) was created by a single person — American Eric Barone — over four-and-a-half years. “Dedicated post-release support would help, since that’s something that AAA companies don’t always prioritise.”
A massive market is swirling into shape in India, adds John of SuperGaming. “What’s the point of being one of the world’s biggest consumers of games if we aren’t able to develop our own?”