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What mobile games would India be playing in 2015

Games, IIM, Media & Entertainment, Zeitgeist

Through much of 2014, Indians continued to endorse international biggies like Candy Crush Saga, Subway Surfers, and Temple Run 2 on their smartphones. Of the two Indian games that witnessed meaningful traction, one was based on a Bollywood blockbuster (Dhoom:3 by 99Games) and the other was based on India’s most popular offline card game (3-Teen Patti by Octro).

And therein lies the blueprint for what we are likely to see in 2015 as well.

Fountainhead Bollywood

We have to acknowledge that movies sit at the apex of the entertainment value-chain; not only in India, but also in the aspirational market we look up to — the US. This manifests itself in various perspectives — monetization, distribution, talent, content derivatives, franchises, news, buzz etc.

In the last few years film-makers film-marketeers have been using gaming as a logical medium to engage with their relevant audience. However, most of the efforts have been geared towards (and measured by) buzz creation leading to the movies’ theatrical release and a few weeks after that.

In most such cases, the development of the games starts only when the movies are well into post-production; and in some cases a last-minute line item in their marketing mix.

This, therefore, defines the kind of time, resources and returns that get associated with such dalliances. Mostly, next to nothing. Especially when seen in comparison to the ‘hundreds of crores’ budgets & earnings associated with movies.

This however, is changing. 

The core driver for this change is the fantastic proliferation of connected mobile devices. The numbers being quoted by industry sources may vary, but when these are in the 100-200 million range, and growing rapidly, it is already a sizable number.

Games like Krrish and Dhoom-3 crossing the 10million user milestone is significant. I’ll come to the economics flowing from this in a while — but see it as 1 crore people having downloaded each of these games. Now assume, each of them were to pay the equivalent of a cinema ticket (say, Rs.100), the number we’re hitting is the *100 crore* sweet spot!

Of course, the stage at which various pieces of the gaming ecosystem currently are, even if we were able to do just 10% of these numbers we would be delivering serious value.

What the industry needs to do is:

  1. Innovate in production
  2. Innovate in distribution
  3. Innovate in monetization

How? I’ll touch upon this briefly a little later, and maybe in detail in a subsequent post.

Local Game Formats

When we had launched ibibo TeenPatti in 2009 at the height of the web social games cycle, it was a runaway hit. The best part being that we did not have to either invent the game-play algorithm, or spend effort in telling users how to play that. All we had to do was create a stable online instance of the teen patti game, and inform users about our existence. Everything else fell in to place.

When we’d made the Android version of the same game, it climbed to the top of the charts without any extra effort, competing once in a while with Zynga Poker for the top spot. For the next couple of years, while the rest of the ibibo business was getting re-aligned, ibibo TeenPatti app continued to be at the top.

Full credit to Octro for having seen the opportunity and moving in with the right kind of user acquisition spends. The Sequoia investment of $15million followed. And this spawned dozens of more teen patti games on the app stores. Collectively, the various teen patti game apps would have done ~20 million downloads. This is comparable to what the global big three (Candy Crush, Subway Surfers and Temple Run) would have individually done in India. One could say the ‘teen patti genre’ is India’s current answer to Candy Crush.

Teen patti of course was the lowest hanging fruit. There will be card games like rummy, bluff, sweep and apps based on physical board games like carrom that developers are, and should be making. Similarly, Bingo, (or its popular Indian party format — Tambola) hasn’t been seriously pursued yet.

In 2015, we may see at least one break-through ‘Indian’ game. I would say tambola has a better chance, than carrom, which would face a challenge in recreating a high quality physics-based visual experience. Teen patti needs no physics. Pool and carrom do. (I’ve had the experience of launching an online Pool game that had been developed by an ace international team; and when we showed that to people who’d previously played low quality online pool games, we witnessed 100% conversion and very high retention. So, production quality would matter there.)

ALSO, there’s a caveat.

Not all local games would work. It is important that the *really hot target group* should have some real-life reference point for these native games. Teen patti works because you’re creating an online/mobile instance of an already popular game. Same was the case with online pool some 5-6 years ago; because offline pool was the aspirational hangout experience for youth across many cities in India.

I’m not so sure about carrom. I think carrom mattered to those who went to college in the 80s and 90s, and spent hours playing carrom in college canteens. But I’ll be pleasantly surprised if the young mobile game players of today still endorse it without the physical world reference.

International Game Formats

Like in other media, we need to keep an eye on globally emerging mobile game formats, and make a judgment call on what could work in India as well.

Movie-making started in India around the same time it did globally; but film makers (and film marketeers) in India have a long tradition of looking westward for inspiration.

Most of the television business we see around us is modelled on the American television business. This is true for both fiction & non-fiction based television. The entire concept of daily soap operas, game shows, reality shows, news programming, sports programming, stand-up comedy shows etc. is made on blueprints coming out of the US. Yes, they’ve been ‘Indian-ized’ to suit the respective audiences of our TV channels — but the core formats are global.

This is what gaming needs to do in the right earnest.

Many of the leading Indian internet businesses have already done it: Think Flipkart, MakeMyTrip, InMobiZomato, Quikr, Olacabs. They’ve all been pretty successful in their own right — but have they ‘invented’ the format of the business they’re running? No, they haven’t. And they don’t need to either. They needed to adapt & innovate, and that they’ve done pretty well.

Interestingly, we’ve got two different global ecosystems to look up to: US and east Asia.

I’d done something like this while launching ibibo Farms game in 2009. We’d licensed the game from a developer in China, added the requisite localization layers on top, and given it some innovative marketing and distribution pushes. The game became quite popular, and was earning money too. In my estimates, ibibo Farms would have been earning more money out of India than Zynga’s Farmville!  (Funny anecdote: Some poorly informed ‘tech’ blogger, who hadn’t played either — said, we’d copied Farmville ‘screen by screen’. What the poor guy didn’t know was that Farmville wasn’t even the first farm game in the world, and that there were dozens of farm games from developers in China that were doing fairly well globally, and most of them preceded Farmville!)

One of the global formats that has great potential in India is quizzing. Of course QuizUp has seen great traction globally, and that should act as a spur for game developers in India, rather than burdening them with the unwanted comparison: “There’s already QuizUp in this space, you should try something else.” Bollocks!

Challenges?

  • Talent will continue to be a challenge. But a key investment here would be to focus on acquiring story-tellers into the fold, rather than only focusing on developers and visual artists. The latter are available in plenty, given the BPO past of the gaming industry. It’s the former that need to be mentored, nurtured and weaned away from other disciplines like films, television, and advertising.
  • Monetization isn’t as big an issue as it is made out to be. Given the right kind of games, with the right kind of hooks to get people to pay, monetization will happen.
  • Distribution is a bigger challenge, as we seem to be stuck between the existing levers Google Play Store on the one hand, and device embeds on the other. Both of these are running sub-optimally. Sadly, given the very bad history of telcos in curating content ecosystems, one can’t even look towards them.
  • User acquisition through these existing channels is becoming more and more un-viable, when you are competing for visibility with ecommerce players, FMCGs, global gaming giants among others. Acquisition costs through Facebook have grown more than 500% in one year, with game ads on Facebook performing even worse than dating ads!
  • Very low self-belief in creating their own ‘characters’. The gaming industry doesn’t yet believe that they should be creating their own Chhota Bheems and Kid Krrishes. While we keep lamenting the bad monetization scenarios with app stores and ad-networks, investments in building franchise-able characters aren’t happening either, which could pay-off handsomely in the long run.

—-

There is one game I would like to highlight as perhaps the only example of an organically successful game in India. It’s a game that was launched as a mere line item in the events line up for IIM-Indore’s festival in 2006 — a browser game called KlueLess. Initially based on the international puzzle game Notpron, KlueLess is an example of an ‘adapted format’ that became very popular, and has kept on growing every year. From being yet another online event in a college fest — it has become THE event that everyone looks forward to playing. And it will be into it’s 9th season in 2015!

Let me close this post with this quote:

It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.

— Jean-Luc Godard

Bing Translator Goof-ups in Twitter

Humour, Language

This post is a compilation of one particular quirk that keeps showing up with unfailing regularity in the Twitter app on Nokia Lumia 720 whereby the ‘translated from’ language is often shown erroneously.  A stray translation mistake here or there is understandable, and maybe, even acceptable. As it is, the translation volunteered by the system in most cases isn’t even unnecessary. But over time this has turned into an amusing exercise to get surprised with  what random ‘translated from’ language gets thrown up next. —-

#1: POLISH             #2: ESTONIAN

pol est2

#3: DANISH               #4: HAITIAN-CREOLE

dan    hait2

#5: MALAY                #6: SLOVENIAN

malay  slov

#7: INDONESIAN       #8: DUTCH

indo   dutc

#9: FRENCH              #10: PORTUGEUSE

fre   port

And yes finally, it identified HINDI correctly!

hin

BUT whether it translated that correctly… well, that’s a subject we may take up some other time.

—- Disclaimer: I have great respect for Microsoft, its products, its employees and also its users (I am one of them!) —-

2005-01-02 23.21.02

And this is what I re-tweeted in 2014

Uncategorized

Politicians, Pakistan, and TV channels

Politics

I’d written this piece in 2008, but somehow never came around to posting it, and it remained as a draft for 6 years, till I stumbled upon it yesterday. Still quite relevant!

————————————————————-

The Mumbai terror attacks of November 26-28, left a few more villains in their aftermath: politiciansPakistan, and TV channels.

Sadly, the way I see it, these are nothing but temporary targets for people to vent out their (predominantly verbal) anger. In each of these cases, the public is being either extremely hypocritical or extremely naive — both of which we’ve come to expect from our brethren in the world’s most populous democracy!

Extremely naive? Because we believe that SMS forwards and ‘NO-to-terrorism’ groups on social networking sites and 15 people with 15 seconds of vox pop time on TV channels have the trappings of a revolution-in-the-making! Candle light vigils, black arm bands, two-minutes of silence etc. are significant gestures in stable and evolved societies where even subtle symbolism translates into a loud enough message. Sorry to say, but we are nowhere close to being that society. Take this simple analogy. Honking while driving — considered a breach of driving etiquette in such societies — is taken as a matter of right and machismo in our metropolitan cities — leave alone the smaller ones. Wear black arm bands against these cacaophonists and see how much of a difference does it make. None — to them at least!

Extremely hypocritical? Because till yesterday, and from tomorrow again, we would go back to bagging personal favours from politicians (and the political system) and clamouring for the TV channels to dish out in a different context, what we found so objectionable in the current context!

So over the remainder of this article, let me play devil’s advocate to the three villains mentioned above.

Politicians
If the number of new entrants into a profession is any indicator of its popularity — the record number of people appearing for CAT every year being an example — then politics is by far the single-most attractive career avenue in India! Ironically, this when politicians are also perhaps the most vilified among public personalities in India. The earliest people to be lampooned in the press were politicians. In cinema, politicians have been the generic villains for quite some time now — having replaced zamindars, dacoits, or smugglers of the three-four decades prior. Things have come to a stage where even politicans themselves start their speeches by cracking self-deprecating jokes to cut ice with their audience!

However, to say that we ‘now’ hate them because of what they did (or allegedly did not do) in the Mumbai terror attacks is perhaps not entirely well placed. No other group of people, except those trained for it, could have responded to the unprecedented terror attacks any better.

So if it takes a terrorist attack for you to start hating your politician —  then sorry buddy, we are not on the same page. It’s like saying, we started hating Adolf Hitler because Boris Becker defeated Vijay Amritraj in tennis! We’ve definitely missed the wood for the trees.

We had already lost our right to assail the politician when we covered that extra bit of open area in our respective houses, and wailed when an exasperated Delhi High Court ordered the government to demolish such illegal constructions, and rejoiced when the government passed a law to legalize all such blatantly illegal constructions. When we paid that kickback to secure a lucrative contract or got a government policy changed to suit our business, we lost that right further. Not to mention the fact that when we evaded paying taxes on our incomes from such businesses, we’d given in completely.

No wonder, after we so easily came around to accepting corruption and criminality as tolerable traits in our politicians, we called them to our campuses to give us lessons in management. We also called the media to our campuses to cover the event. And then we lamented that electives on Ethics were not finding too many takers! Some fodder for thought.

Pakistan
If you ever feared that a strong Pakistan would give sleepless nights to India — please be warned, an unstable Pakistan is perhaps India’s worst nightmare. Somewhere we have to acknowledge the fact that Pakistan has been, and continues to be, a crucial buffer between India — a great nation, that has embraced and managed umpteen civilizations and contradictions over thousands of years — and those areas of Asia that have known just one medieval world-view and are still living by it. Two of the most powerful nations in the world, USA and the erstwhile USSR, used Pakistan and Afghanistan as surrogate fronts to shadow-fight each other. Ironical that — the super powers never ever went to war themselves, but left behind an eco-system where medieval games are now being fought with space-age toys. It is not an exaggeration when people say that the north-west of Pakistan makes the ‘wild West’ of American history look like a fairytale set in Disneyland!

Of course, Pakistan psychologically carries a huge India hang-up, which would always find an outlet somehow, somewhere. However, what compounds the matter for us is the fact that there are now too many groups controlling various facets of Pakistani society, and we can never be sure of how any or every one of these groups manifests its India hang-up.  A lot of smart people seem to be clamouring for bombing Pakistan. What would we achieve by doing so? Apart from satisfying a craving for nationalistic adrenaline rush — nothing! We would only end up spawning hundreds of fragments of these Pakistani groups — each with its own India hang-up. Something that the US is now realizing in Iraq. The days of clinical, conventional warfare are over. The repercussions far outlive and outweigh the immediate gains.

So what do we do? First, stop blaming it on Pakistan — the nation. Lay the blame on specific individuals or groups about whom we have definite information. Then go after them. Eliminate them. That should be our statement — not, “Pakistan is responsible for this”, kind of statement.

TV Channels
I had raised this question at a media panel discussion a little after the terror attacks on Akshardham Temple in 2002, where the TV channels were relaying the movements of the NSG commandos from their Manesar base, on the Jaipur-Delhi NH-8 all the way to Delhi airport through traffic jams! This we had then attributed to the low IQ of the reporter-anchor combine.

The same thing happened in Mumbai again. The footage of NSG commandoes being air-dropped onto the terrace of the Nariman House, was rivetting, and would no doubt hold those covering it live in thrall. Not many realized immediately that there was something abnormal in the reporters counting the number of NSG commandoes being air dropped. This was a surprise bonus for the terrorists — who, it now emerges, had been planning for the attack over a year, but wouldn’t have included on-the-spot stupidity of over-zealous news reporters as part of their annual terror plans!

But for a couple of instances where they could have shown some discretion, the TV channels did a reasonable job of bringing home vividly the enormity of the attack and making the rest of us sensitized to the destruction caused. Some of them rose to the ocassion better and higher than others, but that’s to be expected in any sphere of life. NDTV 24×7 for instance did not carry any ads during the coverage whist most others continued with their regular commercial commitments. So what would cause greater revulsion — a reporter fumbling while giving a narrative on visuals of terror attacks, or, funny ads for Dostana (the recent Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham movie) every 10 minutes during the three day coverage while you wonder if a friend of yours is still trapped inside?

So, where is it that we fail?
We fail every time we look for easy solutions to complex problems. We fail every time we look for easy targets to lay the blame on. Corollary: We also fail each time we make easy heroes out of our cricketers to live out our fantasies for us. No wonder we change our stances also so quickly.

We will get back to life-as-usual with our acceptance of corrupt and criminal politicians; watch our TV channels fall over each other in bringing to us the next sensational breaking news; and as for Pakistan, we’ll look forward to the next cricket match with them. After all, this is the life we’ve got comfortable with. And in continuing with it like this, we are saying to the terrorists — you  failed.

Excuse me, who failed?

The origin of Sidhuisms

Media & Entertainment, Sports

In the early years that SONY Entertainment Television (SET) India (now Multi Screen Media) forayed into cricket broadcasting, among the first few series they acquired the rights for was from the Board of Cricket Control in Sri Lanka (now called Sri Lanka Cricket).

When the Indian cricket team toured Sri Lanka in July-August 2001 the matches were broadcast on MAX, the newly launched movies & cricket channel of SET India.

Apart from being a significant ‘first’ for the channel (which later broadcast many of ICC’s flagship tournaments, and the IPL), that Sri Lanka series also heralded another significant ‘first': The debut of Navjyot Singh Sidhu – as a cricket commentator! A couple of matches into the series, and Sidhu had made his mark with telling effect!

Early Sidhuisms included:

If ifs and buts were pots and pans, there would be no tinkers.

And:

The Sri Lankan score is running like an Indian taxi meter.

A few of us within the channel (most notably my colleague Pavan Chawla) realized there was more we could do and overnight we set up http://www.sidhuisms.com (sadly, no longer in use).

Sidhuisms on setindia.com

Archived screenshot of the original Sidhuisms website on setindia.com

(Archive link to the original Sidhuisms website. More archived links: Herehere, and here)

The realization that Sidhuisms would acquire a life of their own had started dawning on everyone.

Commendation letter from CEO for Sidhuisms

Commendation letter from CEO for Sidhuisms

I even received a commendation letter from the then  CEO Kunal Das Gupta.

 —
While the world at large was reacting with incredulity to Sidhu’s facility with words and his sense of dramatic enunciation, I recalled a hitherto unconnected comment from Ravi Shastri some years ago, where he’d shared that Sherry (the nickname Sidhu was called by) was the most entertaining cricketer in the dressing room.
Small detour here:

Contrary to his current critics’ labeling of him as a cliche-spewing commentator – Shastri during his active cricket days, was considered one of the shrewder tacticians in the game. Exemplified by the fact that in spite of possessing moderate talents with the bat, the ball, and in the field, he went on to become the original ‘Champion of Champions’ in ODI cricket, and for long shared the record for hitting 6 sixes in an over with the great Sir Garfield Sobers.

He had also been slated to become the India captain. However, some run-ins with the cricket authorities put paid to that. For the record, Shastri did captain India in a single Test match. The Chennai Test against the West Indies in 1988, which India won thanks to an explosive debut by Narendra Hirwani who took 8 wickets in each innings with his leg-spin bowling.

So when Ravi Shastri made that revelation about Sidhu being an entertainer — that remained stuck in my mind for a long time. And now it all came back to fall in place in August 2001.

Buoyed by the success of his Sidhuisms, Sidhu went on to making a full-blown career in entertainment and politics. I hear he’s recently also launched his official website http://www.sherryontop.com.

So yeah, we’ll take some credit/blame for having started it all in 2001! :-)