Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Next Gen Gaming Technology: Indiagames.com

Life is a never-ending game

Last year, Indiagames, the Mumbai -based gaming company, hit the jackpot when China's Tom Online acquired 80 per cent stake in a multi-million dollar buyout.

Coming soon from Indiagames are the legendary adventures of Emperor Ashoka and an exciting game-based movie on the Jurassic Park.

Meet India's 28-year-old gaming king, Vishal Gondal, CEO, Indiagames, who has come a long way from his humble beginnings in the backyards of an eastern Mumbai suburb, Chembur.

Many startups have their origin in a hobby. Most game development companies come under this category. Developing a successful business model for such companies can be a challenge, especially if you’re a rookie entrepreneur. Vishal Gondal, who founded Indiagames and still runs it after selling a majority stake to UTV, recalls how his business model fashioned itself when he still didn’t know the meaning of the term:

I was totally into games since my childhood, be it volleyball or online. I still play games all night long. I created my first game at 14, it was a Pacman clone. In 1993, I started FACT (Futura Academy of Computer Technology) at a garage in Chembur, Mumbai. I was just 16 then. There were only three computers and I taught students software programming, multimedia, etc.

In 1997, I started ADVER Gaming i.e. games built around advertisements. My first project was for Pepsi. The game was programmed to shoot Coke cans with Pepsi. I used to go to companies and ask for themes for creating games. For Pepsodent, the game was designed to kill germs. I have also designed the scoring system for Femina Miss India, in which his algorithm helped calculate the scores of the contestants.

Then came the Kargil war and I thought a game where you can shoot the terrorists who are trying to cross the LoC would be very appropriate. ‘I Love India’ was an instant hit. Then I realised that there’s a lot of demand for India-based games. And so in 1997 Indiagames.com, a website focused on games for India, was launched. It had games like Ravan Vadh and Dusserah.

It was still a small venture with only five people until PricewaterhouseCoopers stepped in. One day in 1999 two investment bankers, I had no clue what it meant then, walked in and told me that they can provide me with venture capitalists. I had no clue what they meant, first investment bankers then venture capitalists. They explained that VCs will give me big money to expand my company and they will take stake in it. The best part was I would not have to return the money they’ll put in. Great. Now, when I look back I think had I been aware of all that I would have been able to take the plunge and reach were I stand today. Ignorance can sometimes be a bliss, you see. They asked me my business model and when they realised that was reacting to it as if they were speaking in Greek, they made one for me. PwC said they will only charge me success fees, that is, if they succeed in getting the funds, then only I will pay them. I agreed.

They arranged Rs 3.5 crore from VCs and got their due. With the new money, my office expanded and I hired around 40 people. But, I was quite conservative in spending, don’t know why. After the dotcom bust, I wanted to shut online gaming and move over to mobile gaming. But, the other board members were not sure about it and wanted to go with providing services to foreign software companies. So, I had to also act as IT service provider for some time.

But, I had faith in my gaming abilities and as there were not many players in this segment then I managed to get assignments for mobile gaming from Disney, Universal, Sony Pictures and Nokia. And so came games for Lion King, Finding Nemo, Hulk and Wheels of Fortune.

I always had the feeling that something more was needed to besides these, I needed a few products. I need to license a character, make a game and distribute it. But, it was very difficult to choose such a character because if it fails we will lose big time. In end 2003, Spiderman 2 was to be released and I decided to go for him. Got in touch with Marvel Comics and managed to get a worldwide licence for Spidey. The game was released in 60 countries and in 6 languages. Later I acquired licences for Bruce Lee, Jurassic Park, Buffy the Vampire slayer and Mask. Mobile game publishing increased our revenues 10-fold.

I am happy that I have proved that you can do a product story in India. Now, I have a team of 300 people which include gaming programmers, graphic designers and gaming testers. Everyone in my team love gaming and that’s the common thread that binds us. When we are not creating games, we are playing one. My offices are in Mumbai, Beijing, London and Los Angeles. I also outsource some work to Eastern Europe, US and China.

My dream is to give games or e-sports, as I call it, the recognition of a sport. It is never business for me, it’s just gaming. The other global players in mobile gaming are EA, GLU and GAMELOT. Besides, companies like Yahoo and Indiatimes also have mobile gaming facilities. My recent favourites are Resident Evil 4, Gears of War and WiiSports. It keeps on changing.

With the growing market of pirated games it is becoming very difficult for gaming companies to maintain margins. So, I have made a pact with major gaming providers including Microsoft where I deliver a gaming package to people via broadband and charge them monthly. The companies are paid according to the usage of their games. So, when there’ll be easy and cheap availability of legal games, people won’t go for pirated products. Recently, UTV has taken over a major stake in Indiagames.com. (the stake held by Tom Online). To budding entrepreneurs, my advice is that you should have a good original idea and the capability to execute it. Have faith in your product. And always give preference to business sense than legal sense.

Gaming's dark side

Are games addictive? Do they cause violent behaviour? Gondal says, "NO!"

"With low penetration of gaming in India, I think violence is not perpetuated through gaming. There is more violence on television. You can get addicted to worse things in this world, so it's better to get addicted to a game! And he explains the positive aspects -- games sharpen reflexes and knowledge. Strategy games -- like King of the Empire -- and social games help increase tactical insight. Also, the theme that is amongst the most popular in gaming is 'Good must triumph over evil.'"

Wanna go gaming?

Being a part of the International Game Developers Association, it has been Gondal's endeavour to promote game development in India, especially because not many companies are looking at this segment. "We have a shortage of trained manpower, as there are no institutes to really train people in this field. We take people at a trainee level and train them for 6 to 8 months."

"The good thing about the gaming sector is that an employee can even be a school dropout. To be a 'tester,' you just have to be passionate about gaming. Testing is a very important part of gaming, as we cannot launch games unless they are tested well. For game designers, we have a varied set of people: artists, programmers, people from tee arts, science, and commerce fields.

"We have trained about 80 per cent of the people working here. Indiagames is the only place, which has the largest number of team members in one place. Interestingly, we have foreigners keen to work for us. Our US operations are headed by an American, while in Europe we have hired a former Vodafone head.

Techie's interests

Gaming is Vishal Gondal's first love, but he also loves travelling and trying out new cuisines ("I have been to many countries," he says). He is also a gizmo man; he likes to have all the latest gadgets. He dotes on his Blackberry phone. His home is wi-fi ready.

Future perfect

Optimistic that gaming will boom, Gondal explains that the company will set new targets and grow. "We have about 60 per cent of the market share in India. We are growing at 150 to 200 per cent. The priority is to stabilize and tap the more markets and capitalise on the tremendous mobile growth and increased broadband in India."

"We have just launched Jurassic Park. It is a very interesting theme where we put you in the park and how you go about to escape from the park. We will also be working on 3D games and expanding the console gaming project. Another project will be a console game on Emperor Ashoka -- all about him and his wars. Indian stories have global appeal as well. We hope Emperor Ashoka games will reign over the games space."

With the Indian mobile gaming market set to generate $336 million in annual revenues by 2009 and the number of mobile users to go up by 2 million every month, Indiagames is certain to ride the wave. "The next two years are critical to us as mobile users are going to increase in number and broadband is coming up in a big way in India," says Gondal.

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