In 2020, the developers of Raji: An Ancient Epic (one of the most well-known video games to come out of India) noted how difficult it had been to finance their work; the rejections from potential investors were so numerous that the founders came close to asking their team to look for other jobs. (They eventually received an Unreal Dev Grant.)
Raji ended up being novel in the attention it received as an Indian-developed game in the West. In the same year that the game was released, the prime minister of India himself, Narendra Modi, made a statement about wanting to see more video games about Indian culture and folk tales as part of a campaign known as “Ek Bharat, Shreshtha Bharat.”
2023, thus far, has also been significant for Indian developers and Indian culture in video games. In March, Xbox announced a program to help ‘underrepresented creators’, and one of the games chosen for this was The Palace on the Hill, from an Indian developer, Niku Games. Two months later, Sony launched its own program to specifically support emerging game developers in India. Venba, by Visai Games (based in Toronto), released in July and has been celebrated for the way it handles the depiction of Indian immigrants in Canada and the experience of the Indian diaspora there.
There is a sense of momentum, of things rapidly changing, for Indian game development and games that depict Indian culture. We spoke to three different developers based in India about their thoughts on this shift, along with the development of their own games.
Loss and hope in Fishbowl
Rhea Gupte and Prateek Saxena from imissmyfriends.studio are making the indie RPG Fishbowl, a pixel art game inspired by their own experiences during a time of turmoil. The game is focused on a 21-year-old video editor named Alo; she is isolated at home and grieving for her grandmother.
“Goa, where we live, was one of the many places affected adversely during the pandemic,” Gupte explains. “It was a difficult time for us emotionally to not be able to meet friends and family for long periods of time alongside so much collective grief and loss. However, every day there were also stories of hope, resilience and communities coming together, even if [via] long distance.”
Saxena adds, however, that the pandemic was actually the reason for why they were able to even start their studio, as “all work-related travel had halted” and they found themselves with a lot of time at home, so they decided to channel their “creative energy” into making a game.
Saxena didn’t actually have a computer while growing up; he mainly remembers watching his “best friend play games like Dark Reign, Road Rash and Roller Coaster Tycoon.” Later, his sister won a competition for which the award was a bootleg Famicom system that was just named “video game” and came with pirated cartridges. He knew a lot of others who had bootleg systems at the time too, and mentions the startling fact that Nintendo, to this day, “doesn’t officially sell in India”.
“In general,” he says, “consoles became popular in India much later and they are still quite expensive for most of the population living here.”
Gupte remembers being able to play games with her sister on their cousin’s PC, with one (Mixed-Up Fairytales, a Sierra game from 1991) seeming to make a particular impression on her.
When they both began working on Fishbowl, they used the game engine Unity, but found it a bit too challenging for their experience level, and they couldn’t get the pixel art to look the way they wanted. They spent nine months struggling with Unity and wondering how it was going to work out, when Gupte found a conversation on social media where a pixel artist was asking for recommendations for making their “first top-down 2D pixel art” game, and almost all the responses cited GameMaker. (Saxena had used the engine before as a teenager, but was unaware of how much it had progressed since then.) Development sped up after they switched to GameMaker, partly because they found the engine more “straightforward” for their game, and partly because of all the help they found on Discord servers such as GameMaker Kitchen and GameMaker Helpers.
With Fishbowl, Gupte is keen to depict darker-skinned characters that she didn’t get to see in media much when growing up, as “colorism has been a ghastly reality due to the effects of colonization, racism, and casteism.” She mentions how children’s media, in particular, depicts dark-skinned characters as evil and fair ones as pure and how fairness creams are one of the highest-selling beauty products in India. She wants “young children and teenagers, especially, to see themselves in the characters they love and to identify with them.”
“We feel games like Raji, Venba, Palace on the Hill, do that beautifully. We hope Fishbowl can add to this as well.”
The dynamics of a new home in Brocula
Prateek Jadhwani, creator of the upcoming Brocula, didn’t have the chance to play many games during his childhood. He purchased his first console in 2013—an Xbox One, for Titanfall. The game that impressed him with its visuals and made him want to get into creating his own pixel art (and indeed, his own video game as a whole) was the acclaimed indie Hyper Light Drifter.
Jadhwani doesn’t have a team; he is making his game by himself. He did a Unity course in 2016 and a small pixel art course two years afterward, but also found YouTube tutorials very helpful when making his game. When he started out, it took him “15 days to complete one simple walk cycle in pixel art”, and “3 months to code the most basic inventory system”. Jadhwani explains that animating a character requires multiple pixel art images being stitched together into one video or .GIF, that getting a character to move in four directions itself is tough, and that even animating his protagonist’s cape wasn’t easy. He has learned a lot, he says, over the span of three years, and seems more satisfied with his pixel art and programming now, with one example he cites as the recipe crafting system in his game: “Earlier the system would limit the player to just four or five recipes. But after more experimentation and Unity skill development, I was able to convert a complex piece of code to use a pagination system which would give players more options when it comes to making recipes.”
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Brocula, a game about a vampire who awakens after hundreds of years, is the inspiration at its core. Jadhwani grew up in Madhya Pradesh (Indore) and then moved to America for eight years while he did a Master’s degree before returning to India. His new home was in Hyderabad, where he had no friends, nor people he knew at all. He struggled just to find places to buy groceries.
“Brocula [the game’s protagonist] follows a similar background in the story. He is new in town, and he knows no one. And he needs to explore the town while he tries to earn money. There is also an NPC in the game, Mayor, who helps out Brocula in the beginning, either to get jobs, or asking him to talk to someone else for a certain thing, that is also based off of people from my office who helped me out with a lot of things when I was new here. In all, I just wanted people to experience what it feels like when they are new in town and how happy it makes one feel when they get unexpected help from other people.”
Jadhwani enjoyed the Netflix Castlevania series at the time and loved the idea of using a vampire for his protagonist. A famed video game franchise thus inspired a television adaptation that in turn has inspired another video game, in a charming loop.
Art and slice of life in The Palace on the Hill
Mala Sen and Mridul Kashatria (Niku Games, based in Bengaluru at present) are working on The Palace on the Hill. Kashatria describes it as “the story of a young boy growing up in a small village who has a dream to become an artist,” a dream that Kashatria says is shared by many adolescents who have creative talent and have to choose between working for money and their passion.
The prologue features the protagonist Vir as he farms and cooks and interacts with villagers around him. Vir is also an aspiring artist, and the game as a whole reflects this interest in art; the game features hand-painted watercolor work, and there is even a mechanic where the player puts together visual references to form artwork themselves. Sen, who directs the visual design of the game, is an artist herself and has also worked on “large tapestries and giant murals” separately from video games.
The developers weren’t able to play many games during childhood, but there are still games that have left a “big impact” on them, such as The Walking Dead, Civilization, and Cities: Skylines.
They already have some experience in game development, having made “small mobile games based around ideas of Indian culture,” and there is one in particular that made a big impression in India. One day, Kashatria saw some village kids rolling a tire on the street, and this inspired a game named Hoop Rolling; it became a hit, he said, with 100,000 downloads within a few days of release. It was a “pleasant surprise”, and convinced him to take inspiration from the real world again when making The Palace on the Hill, this time through his and Sen’s experiences in Rajasthan observing old ruins and wondering about the people who had lived there in the past. (Rajasthan, Kashatria tells me, is known for its associations with Royal kingdoms and castles, and attracts a lot of tourism.)
Things haven’t been simple. They have “bootstrapped” their studio with their savings, they note, and have had difficulty raising funds for their work. Kashatria says they found it “very unaffordable” to visit international conventions to meet publishers.
Things seem to be much more promising recently, however, as they have been selected for both the ID@Xbox Developer Acceleration and the Wings Elevate 2023 programs. The Palace on the Hill was also advertised through the popular Wholesome Games Direct earlier this year (where Fishbowl was also present), as well as LudoNarraCon, a ‘digital festival’ for ‘narrative games.’ Kashatria adds that they have also been selected by the Indian government to receive a grant, relating to the increased interest to promote cultural games in India.
The foundation and future of a community
One thing that became clear when reading over the answers from these developers is the great benefit of community in India and internationally. For Saxena, it was important at an early stage:
“When I was in school, I met and became friends with the founders of a game development studio called Hashstash in Delhi (now MyyHashstash). Kinshuk Sunil and Yadu Rajiv [co-founders] were always welcoming and I would often visit their studio when I was in Delhi. They had built a small community of gamedevs and it inspired me to think that this could be a viable dream.”
Saxena remembers that, at the time, Sunil and Rajiv were working on “Circulets, a local multiplayer tablet game” along with “Huerons, a dot-based puzzle game”, and that the studio had the feel of a game jam, where ideas and designs were shared. Sunil and Rajiv, incidentally, are now important figures in gamedev.in, a community that both Jadhwani and Gupte mention in positive terms. It “hosts lots of events,” Gupte explains, “like Campfire, where devs can meet each other online and chat, and Demo Day, which was the first place we ever showcased the demo of Fishbowl”.
Saxena believes that the game development community in India is much larger now than when he first started dreaming of joining it, due to the success of mobile gaming in the country. Interest in PC and console games is growing, but at a slower rate due to the higher prices involved in owning such systems.
Jadhwani also thinks game development in India is “on the rise” and is appreciative of “events like IGDC [India Game Developer Conference] that help game devs with networking, talking to investors and publishers throughout India.” He also mentions the r/IndianGaming community and the “valuable feedback” it gives him.
Sen and Kashatria mention the significance and “reach” of the mobile gaming market in India, and that “there are a lot of Indian studios doing the art, 3d modeling, VFX and programming work for big global publishers”. When asked if this takes away from the games development within India itself, though, Kashatria says that it is actually the opposite, pointing to the graphic designers and technical artists in India who gain valuable experience from working with “big international studios” and that this has also led to more funding opportunities. The two do say, however, that “a lot of work needs to be done by the marketplaces like Steam, Google Play and Apple Appstore to help indie devs deliver diverse culture-based games.”
Hearteningly, support is coming from outside India too. Aside from the aforementioned Xbox and Sony programs, there are also events such as BitSummit in Japan and Gamescom in Germany, both of which the Fishbowl team attended. They funded the first trip entirely by themselves, but the latter was trickier.
“The smallest Gamescom booth fee is pretty much equivalent to our entire Bitsummit budget, inclusive of everything. We wouldn’t have attended had it not been for the kind folks at GameMaker sponsoring the entire experience for us.”
Gupte, a latecomer to the game development scene, is ultimately happy with how things are looking with games development in India: “There is a slow growing interest in indies [developers] making PC and console games, telling homegrown stories with so many talented devs wanting to make something beautiful and impactful.”
During a call with Kashatria as he attended IGDC, he mentioned how he knew many people there and how ten years ago they were all “hanging out in game jams.” He is excited about the future, observing that there is a “wave of new creative projects coming from India.”
“Keep an eye on it,” he advises me.