Saturday, April 11, 2009

Will Hanuman be gaming's saviour in India?

By Anand Ramachandran. This post is a mashup of two separate pieces I did for The New Indian Express and Business Today.

He's possibly the greatest Hero in all of fiction and Mythology. He would have ended the Ramayana war before it began, if only the Lord had let him. He even managed to turn a crappy animated film into a super smash hit that, in turn, sold a lorryload of crappy merchandise and made tons of money for the producers.

Now, Sony is hoping that he can do the same for the Playstation brand in India. They couldn't have picked a better guy . . er . . god.

Yep, everyone will agree that Hanuman is the pWnzor. The cat's whiskers. The kvlt_sh1t3. The Son of Vayu has, with good reason, captured public imagination through the ages, appealing to generation after generation with his heroism, chivalry, strength of character, and sheer awesomeness.

Which is why Sony Computer Entertainment Europe has gone with Hanuman:Boy Warrior as India's first ever indigenously produced console game. That's right, this is the first ever true-blue, made-in-India, made-for-India console game, and that alone marks it out for importance. It's a great sign that Sony is supporting and investing in Indian games made by Indian studios – surely the best way forward to tapping into the world's largest unexploited videogame market. I'm hoping that Hanuman : Boy Warrior marks the beginning of things to come.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. From the hour or so that I spent playing the game, here are my impressions. The game looks and plays like a PSOne platforming action-adventure. Although the core gameplay just about passes muster (in itself a commendable feat for developer Aurona Technologies), the game lacks polish at every level. The graphics are dated by about fifteen years. The controls (though surprisingly decent for most part) are wonky and unpredictable. The camera control is completely manual – and cripples gameplay sometimes. The level design, combat and animation all reflect the relative inexperience of the developer. There's also the definitely the possibility of budget and time constraints – the game was apparently developed in ten months.

But, in the end, none of this really matters very much in the context of this game. While it will never impress the hardcore, Hanuman : Boy Warrior is decent enough a game to offer a few hours of fun to its target audience – very young, newbie and casual gamers for whom this may even be a first-time console buy. This market is not as quality conscious as veteran videogame buyers, and may be more willing to forgive Hanuman: Boy Warrior's technical and gameplay deficiencies than someone who regularly plays God of War.

Hanuman : Boy Warrior has the potential to do for videogames in India what the Hanuman animated movie did for animated features – open up the market and raise investor interest. In that sense, this is an important game. If it does manage to become a mass-market seller, it could pave the way for more, and certainly better games to come through from India – a service that is invaluable to the fledgling Indian market.

According to Santosh Pillai, CEO of Aurona, the game was completed in nine months, which is a tremendous achievement by any standards. Of course, many of the issues mentioned earlier could be put down to budget and time-frame limitation, and Aurona has done a creditable job overall. But, sadly, the game runs the risk of being panned by critics and gamers from the hardcore segment.

The market for videogames in India is a strange beast. While the market, in theory, has existed since the mid eighties, with a number of 8-bit and 16-bit Nintendo / Sega clones appearing on store shelves – it has never really gathered momentum in the mainstream. A thriving grey market continues to exist, with Nintendo's Gameboy and the PS2 itself being the top sellers. As far as the official market goes, with Nintendo's recent entry into the fray through HCL, all three top console players are now present in India – but sales continue to pale in comparison to evolved markets. Recently, at an industry event, Microsoft shared an unofficial figure of 'less than 100000' XBOX units (of course, that could even be five thousand). Sony claimed aound 400000 PS2s, 120000 PSPs and 35000 PS3 units sold. Compare those figures with international figures, which run into the millions, and the untapped potential becomes obvious.

However, price points are still a major issue. To really hit the big time, the gaming industry needs middle-class India to buy videogames. The big three consoles cost upwards of twenty thousand rupees – a major investment for most Indian middle-class families. Games, too, are priced between Rs.2500/- and Rs.3500/-, an expensive proposition for what is essentially a plaything. Also, unlike in the west and Japan, where the average videogame customer is actually aged about 33, the Indian consumer still perceives videogames as a purchase for children, further increasing the price barrier.

This is why the PS2, at a price point of Rs.6990/-, and Hanuman : Boy Warrior gains much importance – it can remove the price and cultural barriers in one fell swoop. By positioning the purchase as an ideal premium gift for children, it can push consoles into middle-class homes, creating an installed base and bringing future repeat-buyers into the fold.

Hanuman : Boy Warrior is priced at Rs.499/-, which is an interesting price point that is slightly below the norm for PS2 titles, but not so low that it could be considered breaktrhough pricing. The game has the right ingredients to work in the Indian mass market – an irresistible Hero, the Mythology factor, and an affordable platform with the widest installed base in the country.With the right marketing push, and a little bit of good luck, this could become the game-changer that the industry is looking for.

1 comment:

  1. Fully agree about the game.. the controls can be irritating esp when trying to perform special moves and oh and ya try stringing moves.. just impossible.
    Didn't you face any problem while 'swinging'? Gee there were one or two times it drove me insane.. yes I was really sleepy but isn't he supposed to be be a good jumper naturally? =P
    I really hope people bother to buy the game and console.. a cousin of mine is already bugging his father to buy him one .. like Ghajini it might actually work!