Levelling up the gaming scene

Hyderabad’s emergence as a gaming hotspot in the country owes much to its vibrant tech scene, supportive governmental policies, and a passionate gaming community. Despite persistent gender biases, women now comprise over 40% of gamers, marking a significant shift in the landscape. With the pandemic reshaping societal attitudes, gaming in Hyderabad is rapidly transitioning from niche to mainstream, illustrating the city’s dynamic evolution in the digital entertainment sphere, writes Naveen Kumar

April 26, 2024 08:10 am | Updated 08:12 am IST

 Around 20% of Indian gamers are paying users, with in-app purchases projected to grow at a 35% CAGR, according to the India Gaming Report 2024, published by the Interactive Entertainment and Innovation Council and Winzo. 

 Around 20% of Indian gamers are paying users, with in-app purchases projected to grow at a 35% CAGR, according to the India Gaming Report 2024, published by the Interactive Entertainment and Innovation Council and Winzo.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Jaya Lakshmi watches from the balcony of her third-floor apartment in Kukatpally, a suburban area of Hyderabad, as her children wave goodbye from their school bus. With mornings now designated as ‘me time’ for the software-professional-turned-homemaker, courtesy her industrious domestic help, she often indulges in a solid two-hour session engrossed in Candy Crush and online Ludo on her smartphone.

As the tasks in the games reach higher levels of difficulty, she willingly invests anywhere between ₹100 and ₹250 to purchase ‘extra lives’ or in-game assistance, oblivious to the fact that these seemingly small sums contribute to the billion-dollar revenue generated annually by the gaming industry worldwide.

According to the latest report released by FICCI-EY, the number of gamers in India is projected to reach 491 million by 2024, up from 455 million in the previous year. The online gaming segment alone is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21%, reaching ₹388 billion by 2026. In 2023, the industry witnessed a revenue surge to $3.1 billion, with a 22% growth rate. Notably, the real money gaming segment is poised to command 83% of the total revenues.

A world created by men

The Indian gaming industry did not boast many women even a decade ago. There were games that lacked characters and narratives that resonated with female players.

Cut to the post-pandemic era, women now constitute over 40% of an industry traditionally dominated by men, as per the latest Lumikai Gaming Report. Often characterised by macho and loud protagonists, high-speed cars, and intense action. Amid the challenges, there were women who made significant strides in the world of gaming, though their journey was not so smooth.

Adi Vyshnavi, better known by her online pseudonym ‘Natasha Gaming’, hailing from Bhimavaram in Andhra Pradesh, was one of the pioneers in live-streaming BattleGround gaming in Telugu. She kept her identity concealed until she reached 50,000 subscribers on YouTube and was named ‘Conqueror Top 75 Asia’, an exclusive title for the top performer in PUBG.

In 2019, Padmaja, a homemaker and mother of two from Kukatpally, near Hyderabad, got her first smartphone at the age of 45, as a birthday gift from her husband and son. Within a year, she reached level 5,000+ on Candy Crush, dedicating an average of two to three hours daily to the game. “I never cared about levels and scores. I play when I get some time to myself, and it turns out I am at a decently high level. My son pointed that out to me when I asked him to cross a rather tough level which I had been struggling with for two days,” she says.

Women gamers, despite their increasing presence in the community, continue to face hurdles ranging from online harassment to unequal opportunities in professional gaming. Sexist tropes and derogatory comments often permeate gaming spaces, creating an environment that can be unwelcoming and discouraging for female players.

Speaking on the gender bias in the online gaming space, Sweta Chakraborty, a concept artist for games who designs characters/skins etc., says that the online Indian gaming space still harbours toxicity for women. “If you speak into your mic in games like CounterStrike, men will either start flirting or yell ‘go back to the kitchen’. As a beginner, it is discouraging. Initially, it used to get overwhelming and I often thought about quitting the space, but then I responded to all the inappropriate comments by playing better. However, if you do play badly on certain days, you get to hear mean comments. That is what ruins the space for women who play games during leisure,” she adds.

She also mentions how it gets tough for live streamers who deal with real time comments: “Women often play for fun or to unwind with friends. In proper competitive gaming and hardcore game rooms, if you are a woman and even if you play well, you are mocked and ridiculed.”

Priya Sharma, a prominent game designer based in Hyderabad, emphasises the importance of fostering an inclusive gaming culture. “It is crucial that we create an environment where everyone feels welcome, regardless of gender. The gaming industry has tremendous potential, and we need to harness the talent of all individuals to drive innovation and growth,” she says.

Hyderabad’s gaming scenario

Gaming culture has always had an underground network in Hyderabad. Gaming enthusiasts have been familiar with names like Games Bond, Hitler’s Den, and Respawn since the 2000s. Back then, the cost was as low as ₹20-₹30 per hour, compared to ₹100-₹250 today.

Most of the gaming studios in Hyderabad, slightly different in terms of aesthetics from a regular corporate office, have couches, beanbags and office chairs spread across the floor with designated rooms and areas for ‘art team’, ‘designer’ etc. One might see people busily moving across the rooms and corners but the place maintains a rather relaxed atmosphere. The places also have big-screen TVs with games on ‘pause’. However, when it comes to work, it is literally a minimum eight-hour job with frequent overtime and it can get as crushing as a regular 9-5 corporate job at times, say game developers across the board in the city.<SU>

Along the IT corridor of Hyderabad, the Image Tower being built by the Sattva Group in collaboration with the Telangana government stands as a tall symbol of the city’s burgeoning gaming ecosystem. This 16-lakh square feet facility, with investments exceeding ₹900 crore, will provide commercial office spaces for the animation, visual effects, gaming, and comics (AVGC) sector. The task of accommodating the workforce of over 30,000 is currently under way.

The city’s rise as a gaming hotspot can be attributed to a combination of factors, including a thriving tech ecosystem, supportive government initiatives, and a vibrant community of gamers. Mobile games involving puzzles and stacking are categorised as hyper-casual games (HCG), used mostly by women and those over 50.

Clad in comfortable basketball shorts, a slightly oversized T-shirt and a pair of sliders at the India Game Developer Conference (IGDC) at Hitex Hyderabad, Sameer C., a game designer working with city-based ZombieFox studios, has spent almost a decade in the gaming industry. He says people abroad are familiar with Hyderabad. “A lot of US companies want to start operations in Hyderabad. Bengaluru is oversaturated while Pune is not developed enough, so this leaves Hyderabad in the middle,” he explains. “Be it former IT Minister K.T. Rama Rao’s push during foreign summits, it seems like a lot of investors and CEOs are looking to set up shop in India, specifically Hyderabad. A good example of this is the IGDC held in November 2023. Investors and studio heads from across the world were showing interest in the stalls set up by the Indian gaming community.”

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a boon for the global gaming industry. This trend was particularly pronounced in India, where industry observers noted a shift from traditional households frowning upon gaming to actively supporting it.

Prateek Jadhwani, 32, a city based solo game developer whose game ‘Brocula’ is debuting on May 7 on Xbox, says that though his parents are aware of the concept of gaming, it took some amount of convincing to make them understand the career shift. “I was working for a corporate firm in the US but decided to develop a game from my home in Hyderabad. The conversation with my parents around this topic happened around 2019-2020, which made it easy for me as people from the older generation were fairly aware of the concept of gaming,” he shares.

While the latest GST regime that was implemented in October 2023 came as a setback to the real gaming industry, it hasn’t deterred gamers in India from engaging in ‘pay to play’ models. The India Gaming Report 2024, published by the Interactive Entertainment and Innovation Council and Winzo, foresees an expanding base of paid users as a proportion of the total user base. Around 20% of Indian gamers are paying users, with in-app purchases projected to grow at a 35% CAGR.

Gaming as a career

Game designer Sameer points out that HCGs bring in the largest revenue share in the mobile gaming space. “These games include Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Temple Run among others. These are technically not traditional but still most played,” he says. Traditional games are Counterstrike, God of War, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty etc.

“I remember even 10 years ago, the figures were about $1-5 million in revenue per day for Candy Crush. Anyone starting a gaming studio now realises that they can earn more through HCGs. Moreover, games like Candy Crush need a very small team to maintain as opposed to hardcore games. For example, a game like God of War might earn $500 million, but it also costs $300 million to make and sustain it,” explains Sameer.

Even in HCGs, with a total staff of about 40, someone with a designation of ‘junior game designer’ in any studio would earn anything between ₹1-2 lakh per month, depending on the project, scale, and demand of work, says Sameer. “This is different in the case of AAA games, a classification used within the industry to signify games with in-depth storyboards and high budgets.”

These are high profile games that are typically produced and distributed by large, well-known publishers.

“In these, the studio runs with around 200-300 staff and the budget for the game allotted to them would be around $300 million. However, India has a market which is more ambitious but with fewer staff. For example, I am working three jobs right now. Gaming as a career is still not favoured by most Indian parents but we surely are getting there. A lot of us hope to see India reach global heights in gaming with more AAA gaming coming from us,” he adds.

Drawing parallels, another game designer from Hyderabad, says that when Sony was willing to fund games in their PS2 era back in 2002 and also when big games like RaOne came out, there were no big professionals. “The ball was dropped so badly that Sony did not come back to India till 2020. Now, gamers are running the show and are getting funds as well as recognition,” he says.

As part of the Telangana Gaming Policy of 2016, the State announced setting up of a world-class Animation, Visual effects, Gaming & Comics Academy to create the requisite talent pool needed for the growing AVGC Industry. Since then, there has also been a strong push for public-private partnership to set up universities, colleges, education institutes to impart targeted courses in this domain.

IACG Multimedia College, Digiquest Institute of Creative Arts & Design, ICAT (Institute for Creative Arts & Technology), Design and Media College and Arena Animation are some of the top game development colleges in the city that also offer specialisation in the VFX, visual and 3D Art design among others.

The policy also proposed AVGC as a subject in all fine arts courses in Degree colleges and University programs and introduction of skill development initiatives under Telangana Academy for Skill and Knowledge.

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