Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Has India got game?

An upstart Indian video game company launches its first big title.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 6, 2010

NEW DELHI, India and TOKYO, Japan — A line of patient gamers spiraled around the billowing white pavilion for El Shaddai — the first top-tier video game released by India's UTV Software Communications, which debuted at the Tokyo Game Show last month.

As the queue snaked past video screens playing scenes from the game's back story and display cases containing specially designed Edwin jeans “as worn by" the character Enoch in the game, some gamers scoped the storyboards, while others multitasked with handheld devices. At a game convention, you find game addicts.

The mood was mostly curious. Compared with Halo: Reach or Final Fantasy XIV, El Shaddai, designed by Sawaki Takeyasu for UTV's Ignition Entertainment unit, had virtually no hype going into the show. The animated trailer — a must for today's top-end, or AAA, games — would not be showing on a jumbotron at center court, and more than a few of the people waiting to play the old-school, third-person, punch-and-slash adventure had probably stumbled over because they'd stopped giving out badges at the nearby booth for the PlayStation Move.

But that didn't stop El Shaddai, a Cinderella at the ball, from winning fans. At the award ceremony on the final day of TGS, the 200,000-odd visitors voted El Shaddai "Future Game of the Show 2010" — honoring it among the top 10 favorite games showcased at the convention.

Now, for UTV, who invited me to attend TGS as its guest, the question is whether that recognition will pay off in sales. The Indian company — which has shelled out some serious coin to acquire game design firms in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan, as well as India, over the past three years — has a lot riding on its first AAA game's success.

Building on the reputation and financial wherewithal that the company has built producing and distributing Indian movies and TV shows, CEO Ronnie Screwvala hopes to become a significant player in the global video game business.

That means developing games from UTV's own family of studios, pushing new distribution models and attracting independent game designers who need a Harvey Weinstein-type mover to take their titles to the boardrooms of Sony, Capcom and Microsoft. A big splash out of the gate would draw that kind of attention right away — just at the right time.

"It's very important," Ronnie Screwvala, UTV's 54-year-old CEO, told GlobalPost. "We've got a lot riding on El Shaddai."

Though it has potential, the game business in India is worth a tiny $100 million of the $20-plus billion global market. Moreover, virtually all of that comes from games for mobile phones, and Indian animators and game designers are at least a decade behind their counterparts in America and Japan.

That's why Screwvala is striving to build a global gaming company, rather than an Indian one. The idea is to follow the so-called "Pixar model," with which Apple's Steve Jobs built a $7.5-billion company from a base of a measly $10 million by assembling a small, committed team of in-house directors and animators. But that's easier said than done — especially from India, skeptics say.

"Financially, if we sell a million units [of El Shaddai], it's not a big deal," said Screwvala. "But it's more about, 'Where the hell did you guys come from?' That's the reaction we want from the industry."

Acquiring controlling stakes in Mumbai-based Indiagames, U.K.-based Ignition, and U.S.-based True Games in 2007 and 2008, UTV has pumped $75 million into developing its gaming division — adding more than 400 visualizers, game designers and technology experts at studios in London, Tokyo and Shanghai, as well as Austin, Texas and Gainesville, Fla.

Revenue started trickling in too. But the big prize of its acquisition spree — an action sci-fi game called WarDevil designed for Ignition by Digi-Guys that was poised to turn the game world on its ear with ultra high-definition game play — failed to surface in time to put UTV's gaming business on the map.

"If we'd ever come up with a date in public, which we haven't, then the question would be delay. But we set ourselves our own expectations, and our own internal deadlines and we definitely are not on track with those internal deadlines," said Screwvala, who blames the delay on a decision to make the game available on Microsoft's Xbox360, as well as Sony's PS3.

The game that marked UTV's debut instead, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, is a completely different animal. It's a fantasy title, based on the apocryphal Book of Enoch — a text that was excluded from the Bible's Old Testament, which tells the story of the human Enoch's "ascent" to become the angel Metatron.

Naturally, in the game version, Enoch rises to heaven by taking out fallen angels with a flashing scimitar of God-energy (or some such). Where WarDevil is set to jump into the battle for ever more real-looking graphics through three-dimensional, computer-generated animation, El Shaddai has a hand-drawn feel reminiscent of Japanese anime.

Blogging for Wire.com, critic Daniel Feit, for instance, wrote that the game "dazzles with watercolor visuals." Will that made-in-Japan aesthetic play in the States — which accounts for the lion's share of the global game market?

"It has a very Japanese art form to it, but the storyline is very universal," said Screwvala. "So while most people feel that Japanese games, normally, are meant for the Japanese market, we've created a game in a Japanese studio but for a world market."

But, hey, if El Shaddai doesn't make that big a splash, don't expect UTV to roll over and play dead. Screwvala's Hollywood ambitions survived his company's production of M. Night Shyamalan's dismal "The Happening," and as far as he's concerned that flop just gave American show business another reason to recognize his name.

And unlike that lucky, or unlucky, one-off in Hollywood, UTV has a flurry of global game releases on the slate to ensure that even if El Shaddai flops, designers and distributors will take notice of the little video game company from Bollywood.

Targeting around $90 million in revenue and modest earnings, UTV expects to release seven sub-AAA console games this year. A massively multiplayer online fantasy role playing game called Mytheon from its Austin-based Truegames studio is due for release early in 2011. A second AAA console game called Reich — billed as a futuristic first-person shooter — and the much-awaited Wardevil are also scheduled for release. And, according to UTV, all three of its AAA console games have the potential to become movie-and-merchandising franchises like Resident Evil — or at least Streetfighter.

You know what they say: You can take the company out of Bollywood, but you can't take Bollywood out of the company.

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