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.
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:
- Innovate in production
- Innovate in distribution
- 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, InMobi, Zomato, 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!
- 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