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Breaking down the Billion

Shailesh Prabhu deconstructs the hype for a massive Indian smartphone market

A lot of people ask me why I moved to the Nordics. "India is the place where all the action is", they say, or "Everyone wants to invest there." "The big billion is coming online and will be playing games just as soon as we fix X", is the more conservative camp. I, however, have been quite vocal in my scepticism of this market. My experience is as a small independent game development studio (2-3 people), not looking for investments, but looking to make games. What does India have in store for people like us? I recently gave a talk at the Sweden Game Conference about my experience as a game developer in India and my experience with the games market there. This piece will try to capture the essence of that talk.

In 2010, our game, 'It's Just a Thought' was in the top grossing paid apps on the Apple App store for a particular week... Sounds impressive, but the reality is that we only had 5 downloads at $0.99 that week - which was all it took. Today, many proponents of the Indian market, might argue that the figure is 6 years old and things are different now, but surprise, surprise - none of them openly share their stats. Meanwhile, including all our future games (HUEBRIX iOS and Android) and the games I have partnered with other developers on (Socioball, One More Pass on iOS and Android and Bluk on iOS) we have less than 1% of our downloads in India. With HUEBRIX and Socioball, where we had more than 2 million downloads, about 17,000 are from India.

"My experience of the Indian market is that it is extremely speculative and bullish, funded by a lot of venture capitalists who are really disconnected from reality and easily buy into any hype"

My experience of the Indian market is that it is extremely speculative and bullish, funded by a lot of venture capitalists who are really disconnected from reality and easily buy into any hype. It is almost as if they want it really bad. At the same time most of these studios end up being headed by business school graduates from an entertainment industry (because all entertainment industries are the same, right?) Hardly any medium or large scale studios are being headed by people from the games business who have shipped titles, who know what it takes, who know the process, markets, etc.

It is no secret that India has a population of over 1.2 billion people! We often hear the business case of "a small percentage of that and we will have a HUGE market." But this isn't matching up - let's examine why.

The first point to consider is that a large part of India lives below the Poverty Line: about 30% of India falls in this category. That still leaves 750+ million people right? Well, India's last definition of poverty line was Rs. 32 per day (USD 0.48 per day) in rural areas and Rs. 47 per day (USD 0.7 per day) in urban areas. I can vouch for the fact that those poverty limits are not really indicative of a decent life. These people definitely can't really consume games. Similarly, how much of India is clumped around or just above those poverty lines? How many can even think of spending on games? Is anyone even considering how much of India can afford games at all?

Popular local smartphones, like the Spice range, often lack the power to play modern games.

Popular local smartphones, like the Spice range, often lack the power to play modern games.

Poverty problems aside, there are several cultural and technological barriers to games in India. Most of India's large population lives in over-crowded cities with poor infrastructure. Our traffic jams are so severe that more often than not, we lose mobile internet when stuck in one. Being one of the more popular use cases for mobile games, this is definitely a problem. At the same time, our local trains are so crowded that it is largely impossible to play a game while stuck in a crowded train, yet another popular use case for the mobile game. Hell, a HUGE majority of India uses squatting toilets, ever tried playing candy crush while you have to squat to "go" and use water to clean up after? Yet another popular use case down the drain.

Coming back to infrastructure, some time ago the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India said that we have 140 million broadband subscribers. Recently I had to buy a prepaid SIM card (which a majority of India still sues) for a friend who was visiting from overseas. It was purely for calls so I did not buy any data, but, because I refilled by card on a particular day, I got a free 5GB of 3G data. Do we know how many of these 140 million broadband subscribers are "free" recipients of data which they don't want or don't use. It does not help that the same authority described broadband at 512 kbps.

"I can vouch for the fact that those poverty limits are not really indicative of a decent life. These people definitely can't really consume games"

It is well known that we have literacy issues in India. A lot of people own smartphones but don't know much other than how to make calls or sometimes send texts. India started computing in English and we didn't really have local language keyboards, OSes or smartphones until very recently, the adoption curves for which are still not very well known. We have over 122 languages in India - with over 22 'official' National languages. Hindi, the most widespread language, is spoken by only 40% of Indians. There is also hardly any machinery in place to localise your game to all Indian languages.

Couple that with the Indian perception of the internet: the "lack of awareness and perception of lack of value or utility or lack of ability" (that Facebook's morally questionable Internet.org program rightly identified) being the primary reasons why people don't take it seriously, which can also be extended to games, our so called billion market doesn't seem that large anymore.

"We have over 122 languages in India - with over 22 'official' National languages. Hindi, the most widespread language, is spoken by only 40% of Indians"

It's not just language which is fragmented in India, but culturally our tastes differ vastly too. If you have ever been to India you can tell that the food, music and movies are all very different in various regions in India. Can there be a blanket "India friendly game"? Maybe a few, like Cricket or Teen Patti or the Bollywood flavour of the season, but nothing beyond that truly captures the whole nation in one clean sweep.

As a developer you additionally have to cope with widespread corruption, namely from trade bodies and politicians inflating the market to increase investments for their own interests. The talent pool that lacks exposure, too. Even though there is a small group of extremely talented people, we are nowhere close to a critical mass. If, after all this, you make a great game, you face additional hurdles trying to get global exposure for it. If you try to get in touch with most store/brand owners, they can mostly only get you visibility in India or Asia, where monetisation is much poorer than in the western world. Gladly, some of that is changing and more developers in recent times are getting exposure in countries like US, thanks to the efforts of some store managers looking for cool content. At the same time ad supported games are tough too as eCPMs in India (due to poor purchasing power) are much lower than in other countries.

In such a situation it is probably best as a studio to focus on a more global scale, especially as a small developer. This is what I did at my studio for 9 years and what I will continue to do in my solo/side projects. I would much rather bring a slice of India to games and make unique experiences that the world can enjoy. I would urge people to think long and hard before jumping on the billion player hype.

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