Not too long ago, the pinnacle of gaming in India were Prince of Persia and Doom. Now, those computer games can finally be sent back to the Jurassic era where both serious and casual gamers agree they belong.
Indian gamers came out of the shadows in 2002 when Sony Play Station Portable and PS 2 were introduced in the country. The launch of Microsoft's Xbox in August 2006, just months after it hit store shelves across the world, demonstrated that the rest of the world was also taking Indian gamers seriously.
And why not? Nasscom estimates the Indian gaming market will grow at an astounding 78 per cent (compounded annually) to cross $300 million by 2009.
Of course, that's still minuscule compared to the $36-billion world gaming market in 2009, but, still, it's nothing to sneeze at. Add to these predictions that console games (such as the PS2 and Xbox) will account for a third of the market by 2010, and it's easy to see why gaming is suddenly serious business in India.
Something for everybody
On the face of it, console makers' strategy is touchingly simple -- make sure gaming involves the entire family.
Typically, gaming is considered the preserve of the teenage boy or 20-something single male. Microsoft and Sony are determined to give their consoles a more universal appeal, which will also help families justify forking out large sums to buy the consoles: Xbox costs around Rs 20,000 for the basic model and Rs 23,000 for the premium model, while Sony PSP2 is available at Rs 10,000.
This cost scales up as consumers have to buy the software (CDs or DVDs) that costs anywhere from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,500 -- the consoles do not come with pre-loaded games.
To increase awareness and acceptance among non-serious gamers, then, is a critical component of the marketing strategy. Which explains why Xbox's creative agency McCann-Erickson roped in actor Akshay Kumar and cricketer Yuvraj Singh.
"We want to connect with consumers culturally and be relevant at the same time," explains Mohit Anand, country manager, Microsoft Entertainment and Devices Division, India.
To appeal further to potential customers, Microsoft ran a New Year promotional offer -- Kheloge. . . toh jeetoge -- where on the purchase of an Xbox, consumers were assured prizes ranging from T-shirts and caps to microwaves.
Even the games that can be played on the Xbox have been chosen for their universal appeal. For instance, a game called Viva Piñata, which is based on an American TV show, involves activities such as taking care of your pets, home turf, garden and so on.
Another game, designed especially for the Indian market, involves virtual cricket and uses the brand ambassador: the Yuvraj Singh International Cricket 2007.
"Gaming has the capacity to involve anyone in the age group of 3 to 50 years. Thus, manufacturers and content providers must ensure that the games are developed in a way that everyone in the family feels part of this different world," comments Neeraj Roy, managing director and CEO, Hungama, creators of online and mobile games.
If the Xbox is counting on its games and celebrity power, Sony is banking on direct customer interaction: it holds regular events to showcase the Playstation experience.
Sony World outlets apart, demonstrations are also conducted at colleges and malls -- where the target audience is likely to congregate. The company has already begun the initiative in Delhi and Mumbai, and now plans to participate in college festivals across the country.
Where Microsoft's choice of games aims for the entire family, Sony has ensured its product features will appeal to those between eight and 60 years -- the PS can also be used to watch movies, upload photos and so on.
"The PSP can involve every member of the family," points out Ken Nakazawa, division head, Play Station, Sony India.
Like parents, like children
But even though console manufacturers are doing their bit to involve everyone in the family, gaming in India still comes with some baggage from the past.
Most "grown-ups" consider gaming a complete waste of time and, more importantly, an avoidable distraction. Sony is working on that. All its communication -- interactive communication with customers through experience zones or mass communication in the form of newsprint and catalogues -- emphasises the positive aspects of gaming: encouraging planning, thinking and co-ordination, for instance.
"The current generation kids are going to be gamers for most of their lives, as technology is becoming a part of the culture. Therefore, we guide parents to believe that gaming will help their children think faster, be alert and attentive," explains Nakazawa.
Essentially, though, console manufacturers need parents to experience the product for themselves -- and for youngsters to try the consoles, get hooked and then use pester power to ensure they get their hands on a PS2 or Xbox of their own.
"Awareness in terms of usage is fairly high. However, manufacturers must realise that the marketing of this product is different from that of PC-based games or mobile games. Console games are largely retail driven, and it is important to allow the customers to feel the product," says Jayant Sharma, CEO, Milestone India, distributors of console games in India.
To their credit, Sony and Microsoft realise just that -- which is why they have installed their machines in multiplexes and retail outlets like Planet M and Crossword, where walk-in consumers can just plug-in and play the games.
"With this strategy we expect to boost the gaming industry's momentum. However, changing consumer behaviour does not take place overnight," says Nakazawa.
What's in store?
Of course, the biggest hurdle is still price. Compared with PC and mobile games, console gaming is prohibitively expensive.
To encourage acceptance and initial buys, both Sony and Microsoft are giving away complimentary games with their consoles. They have also tied up with banks and financial institutions to offer instalments schemes -- beginning at a low Rs 999 a month -- to make the purchase decision easier.
There's another important issue for manufacturers -- piracy: the pirated gaming market is already valued at over $40 million.
Left unchecked, piracy could eat into a large chunk of the revenues of console game developers and, by association, console makers. They're working on solutions, though: the machines have apparently been jigged so they don't accept pirated DVDs and CDs.
The industry is also lobbying for a reduction in import duties on console gaming. "That will allow us to capture a large part of the business from the grey market and offer legitimate products at comparable prices," says Sharma.