India could be one of the world's most important industries and markets for games, but there is a long, long way to go. That much is clear from the very start of the NASSCOM Game Developer Conference, when the journalists in attendance assemble for an opening address from Rajesh Rao, chair of the NASSCOM Gaming Forum.
"It's more an entertainment business than an IT business," Rao says, addressing the room. "But it is enabled by technology."
For the handful of European journalists present, all of whom work for gaming focused outlets, it feels like a statement of the obvious. For those from the Indian press, though, perhaps it isn't so clear. Rao founded Dhruva Interactive, India's first game developer, back in 1997, but it's only in the last few years that a national games market and industry has even seemed possible. "I've been waiting and waiting and waiting for this market for a very long time," he says, "and I think, finally, the smartphone revolution is making that happen."
According to a comprehensive report released by NASSCOM, India is the world's fastest growing smartphone market. By the end of this year there will be 200 million smartphone users in the country. Another 100 million are expected to join them in 2016 alone, driven by mobile manufacturers' commitment to producing low-cost devices. Around 82 million of India's existing smartphone users have access to 3G internet, and that, too, is growing at a rapid pace: a CAGR of more than 61 per cent, according to NASSCOM's data.
"Even if a small percentage of people start paying, suddenly you'll see multi-million dollar business, going to $300 million, to $500 million"
Taken as a proportion of India's total population these figures represent low penetration, but it's important to remember that only China rivals India in terms of people. Compare these figures to the population of almost any other country and the conclusion is quite different. Smartphones, Rao says, have provided the "Wow" factor that feature phones lacked, opening up the world's second most populous country to gaming culture for the first time in its history. NASSCOM estimates that between 40 and 50 million Indians play games on their smartphones, more than any country in Europe, and this is really just the beginning.
"PCs never really penetrated to that level, and even where they did there was a lot of restrictions on how those PCs were used in the home," he says, reflecting on a past in which games were scarcely played, let alone understood. "Parents would generally frown upon kids playing games, and the games that were developed were more targeted at the male audience.
"But when the whole casual scene started with the web and social games, and then transitioned to mobile, more women started playing games. And women are huge influencers in India, mothers are huge influencers. They have realised that games are not that bad after all, so we are seeing a change in mindset.
"It's not just kids playing. Grandmothers and grandfathers are getting smartphones now. People are playing across age groups. The consumer side is really beginning to happen."
However, while playing is happening on a wider scale - and a scale that, going forward, only one other country can possibly match - Rao is careful to remind the room that paying remains a key issue. Only 2 per cent of Indians possess a credit card, according to NASSCOM's report, which is 26 million people in absolute numbers, but still only a tiny sliver of the country's population. As such, while 50 million people might be playing mobile games - a number growing at a CAGR of 40 to 50 per cent - annual revenue from those players is still only $150 million in total.
This is also changing quickly, Rao says, with more and more people getting access to credit, the looming promise of mobile carrier billing, and, just a few months ago, both Apple and Google lowering the minimum app price on their Indian stores to just 10 rupees, or around 15 cents. Games are already the most popular paid app category on the Indian Google Play store - Android is the dominant mobile OS - and this new pricing is only likely to strengthen that position.
"Once monetisation happens and the market shows real money being made, the smart companies will decide, 'Hey, let's go to the land of opportunity'"
"As the taste for games grows people will start paying," Rao insists. "The price points have to become India friendly, but Google and Apple have already done that. There's strength in numbers. Even if a small percentage of people start paying, suddenly you'll see multi-million dollar business, going to $300 million, to $500 million. This is a massive country, with so many young people."
That much is certainly true. Around two-thirds of India's 1.3 billion people are under 35 years old, and that is where India's nascent games industry is starting to flourish. According to NASSCOM, 75 per cent of people employed in the Indian games business are below the age of 30, and the country's children are now exposed to games at a younger and younger age.
"We ran a programme last year among schoolkids, just to see," Rao says. "We were completely blown away by the amount of interest in game development at the school level. These people are being exposed to games earlier than before. Even if a small portion of them decide they want to make this a career, just imagine the pipeline of talent that is coming into the industry."
With games now more accessible and, crucially, more affordable, India's potential is enormous. "The building blocks for the market are in place," Rao says, and as soon as the expanding player-base starts paying the rapt attention of the global games industry will surely follow.
"Once monetisation happens and the market shows real money being made, the smart companies will decide, 'Hey, let's go to the land of opportunity.'
"This is literally the last bastion for the games industry. The last market that hasn't been cracked."
GamesIndustry.biz attended NASSCOM as a guest. Our travel and accommodation costs have been covered by the show organiser.