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The Rediff Interview/Vishal Gondal, CEO, Indiagames
Meet Vishal Gondal, India's king of gaming
Manu A B | September 20, 2005
Last year, Indiagames, the Mumbai -based gaming company, hit the jackpot when China's Tom Online acquired 80 per cent stake in a multi-million dollar buyout.
Coming soon from Indiagames are the legendary adventures of Emperor Ashoka and an exciting game-based movie on the Jurassic Park.
Meet India's 28-year-old gaming king, Vishal Gondal, CEO, Indiagames, who has come a long way from his humble beginnings in the backyards of an eastern Mumbai suburb, Chembur.
The early years
Vishal got introduced to the world of games when he was just 13. What started as a favourite pastime later became an inevitable part of his life. It was a passion so strong that he had to sideline studies to learn the 'art' and 'science' of developing games.
Today, he has literally played his way to launch his own firm, Indiagames and develop games for people across the world.
A volley with games
Besides being a computer geek, he was into outdoor sports and went on to become a national volleyball player. But today that is one regret he has in life -- being unable to play volleyball amidst tight work schedules.
His typical day begins at office around 11 a.m. and winds up at the wee hours of the day. "I work with people in different time zones so I have to be 'on' throughout.
The Blackberry has made my life easy, though. Even if I'm on a holiday, with a Blackberry I can still get my work done. I think if you use technology smartly, you can work and lead a quality life as well," Gondal explains. He has even made a two-day trip to America!
The game buff
It all started with playing games in his Sinclair computer. He used to play with programmes like B++, C and BASIC. His passion for gaming grew and when he went to college but he opted for commerce for his graduation!
Ask him why? And he smiles, "I wanted maximum time for my own activities. To him, commerce and arts courses give a lot of time, which he could dedicate to his gaming activities.
Other courses, like science, take a lot of time so it was a very practical decision to do B.Com," he says. Being a national volleyball player, getting an admission in the college was easy, he adds.
Gaming: A self-learning process
Mastery over gaming was a great self-learning process. What initially started as a pastime to develop games for PCs turned out to be a good business idea. Soon Gondal had investors knocking at his doors. He received seed capital from Infinity and IL&FS in 1999 as they looked forward to supporting his idea and, most importantly, funding the venture with an initial investment of Rs 3.25 crore (Rs 32.5 million).
"The business was a totally different transition. We were focussing on online gaming. We were focussing on developing games for clients in the United States and Europe, " he says.
Vishal tasted success with the first game on Kargil war, which became a great hit.
No formula for making money
A simple recipe for success is that one has to be the first to do something. There should be a value proposition.
"There is no formula for making money. Merely imitating a successful model doesn't help. Your ideas should be unique and must have value," he points out.
Looking back, Gondal recalls that it hasn't been a very smooth ride. "We went through a tough period during the dot-com bust. But we survived. Most start-ups try to copy established business models. The key lies in believing in the business model and being passionate about it.
A lot of people who lost everything were impatient. The credit also goes to the long-term investment strategy of our investors -- IL&FS and Infinity -- who believed in us and looked at long-term investments.
Being in the online business, we were able to change our business model to cater to the US and Europe and we managed to work with Nokia for mobile gaming. With the popularity of mobile phones, the gaming business brought better fortunes.
"I guess it is important to be at the right place at the right time. There is no scope for you if you enter the business late. You simply have to be the first to get there," says Gondal.
A big 'NO' to outsourcing
"Opportunity lies in creating and exploring something new. People always try to copy business models. Why should we always look at outsourcing for revenues? It's high time entrepreneurs in India to look beyond outsourcing and services revenue. They have come up with their own ideas - develop new products," he highlights.
The intellectual talent in India is not fully utilised, he adds. "Look at the Silicon Valley companies which have made money through their own innovations. IP and new products should be our focus. So we stopped taking up outsourcing work. This has given us plenty of time to focus on new products and development," he says.
"When we take up projects like Bruce Lee, Phantom, Jurassic Park, it doesn't not matter how big or small my company is. What matters is how well I can execute an idea. Product nature is such that I can give value to a product and developed," Gondal says.
"With a product range like Jurassic Park, Phantom, Bruce lee, the idea is to develop unique products. It is five times cheaper to develop games in India. We can leverage against our foreign counterpart with the cost factor," he adds.
Making a mark abroad
In 2003, Indiagames bagged the exclusive worldwide rights for Spiderman for developing games, ring tones, wallpapers, and images by signing an agreement with Marvel Comics. Last year, Indiagames obtained licences for games like Bruce Lee and Predator.
"Our biggest markets are the United States, Europe and the rest of Asia. Indian is still a secondary market. This is because mobile and PC penetration are yet to pick up in India. Indian growth is now rapidly catching up, but the US and Europe continue to dominate."
Today Indiagames is one of leading gaming development centres in the world with 270 professionals on board. Indiagames also has tie-ups with Hollywood studios, handset manufacturers and major mobile operators.
Focus on mobile gaming
Indiagames will concentrate on mobile gaming business, as there is tremendous scope in this area. With the growth in the number of mobile users, the company expects more people to get hooked to games. The company is also focussing on convergence in a big way, as it is happening on a large scale.
"This means creating content for a common convergence platform for mobile, computers, TV and consoles. Creating content for a convergence platform is key to us. With Cisco's investment we are working closely on the IMS platform. With Macromedia's investment we are closely working on Flash for mobile and TV," says Gondal.
"We are taking mobile entertainment to the next level with game show hosted by television personality Mandira Bedi and star cricketer Zaheer Khan. We have discovered that working with celebrities work very well. We have signed up with Mandira Bedi for multiplayer games on mobiles. This has received a huge response," he gushes enthusiastically.
Gondal believes that interactive-real-time content will make the entire mobile entertainment experience very exciting. He believes that with the possibility of even winning prizes and mobile game shows will go a long way.
The TOM breakthrough
TOM Online, one of China's leading Internet companies, acquired an 80.6% equity stake in Indiagames in 2004 for $17.73 million.
"The deal has proved to be extremely good as they are the leaders in the Chinese market. We have been getting lot of inputs from them and we are putting it in India to develop future products," says Gondal.
Indiagames already has a strong presence in major markets like Europe and North America, and a major market share in India in the wireless gaming segment. With the tie up with TOM Online, Indiagames today has access to more than 1 billion mobile phone users in China.
China & India: An awesome pair!
China and India should work together to emerge as superpowers, says Gondal.
Showering praises on Chinese talent, Gondal points out that there are several things to learn from them.
"The Chinese are far smarter than others. Even the Chinese portals have done exceptionally well. He points out the case of baidu.com (in which search giant Google has bought a stake). They know how to create value better than us. All Chinese Nasdaq-listed companies have been phenomenally successful. The Chinese market capitalisation is tremendous. The Chinese have learnt to create and unlock value," he says.
"The IT boom has given India a good opportunity to emerge as a global power. Foreign companies perceive India as one of the best in terms of IT and software. I hope our politicians don't let go of this opportunity. Even the worst countries have much better roads and airports. Here, even Internet leased lines are down most of the time."
Hollywood & Bollywood
"Hollywood films fit perfectly well in the games genre. We have had great successes with films like Batman and Spiderman. We will be working on Phantom. We have had lot of tie-ups with Bollywood. But Bollywood is a business of hits and misses. To create a ring tone, wall paper of any film we have to very careful. For example, Munnabhai MBBS was a huge hit: even today we are selling games on this film."
"Yet Bollywood remains an unpredictable business and not many Bollywood films can be used for games as most of them are based on love stories. We have to be very selective about movies and the kind of games we develop. We also have instances where the films have not done well but games based on them have worked well. For instance, take Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Sathiyo. . . in this we have a nice war game, so it did well. We have to very selective with content. Some Indian film games, however, do well abroad. A game on Prince of Persia did very well globally."
Keeping pace with technology
The biggest challenge for Indiagames is keeping pace with the technological changes. "With more and more new mobile phones hitting the market, we have to support the games on all the new phones and different languages. We have to constantly change to adapt to the old and new phone models," he says.
"We are not in the tech space, we are in an entertainment business so it is very challenging to identify the right games and create the best games that people will like. You may invest a large amount in a particular game but it may not click at all. It's a real challenged to pick and choose films that will click when converted into games," he says.
After extensive research and group discussions among team members, films are shortlisted. In India, cricket games do very well. In the United Kingdom games on pubs, pool and dart click, while in the United States it's baseball which rules, he informs.
"We are also focusing on China and Japan. Our products are relevant across the world-- a product like Bruce Lee will work across the world," says Gondal.
Gaming's dark side
Are games addictive? Do they cause violent behaviour? Gondal says, "NO!"
"With low penetration of gaming in India, I think violence is not perpetuated through gaming. There is more violence on television. You can get addicted to worse things in this world, so it's better to get addicted to a game! And he explains the positive aspects -- games sharpen reflexes and knowledge. Strategy games -- like King of the Empire -- and social games help increase tactical insight. Also, the theme that is amongst the most popular in gaming is 'Good must triumph over evil.'"
Wanna go gaming?
Being a part of the International Game Developers Association, it has been Gondal's endeavour to promote game development in India, especially because not many companies are looking at this segment. "We have a shortage of trained manpower, as there are no institutes to really train people in this field. We take people at a trainee level and train them for 6 to 8 months."
"The good thing about the gaming sector is that an employee can even be a school dropout. To be a 'tester,' you just have to be passionate about gaming. Testing is a very important part of gaming, as we cannot launch games unless they are tested well. For game designers, we have a varied set of people: artists, programmers, people from tee arts, science, and commerce fields.
"We have trained about 80 per cent of the people working here. Indiagames is the only place, which has the largest number of team members in one place. Interestingly, we have foreigners keen to work for us. Our US operations are headed by an American, while in Europe we have hired a former Vodafone head.
Gaming is Vishal Gondal's first love, but he also loves travelling and trying out new cuisines ("I have been to many countries," he says). He is also a gizmo man; he likes to have all the latest gadgets. He dotes on his Blackberry phone. His home is wi-fi ready.
Optimistic that gaming will boom, Gondal explains that the company will set new targets and grow. "We have about 60 per cent of the market share in India. We are growing at 150 to 200 per cent. The priority is to stabilize and tap the more markets and capitalise on the tremendous mobile growth and increased broadband in India."
"We have just launched Jurassic Park. It is a very interesting theme where we put you in the park and how you go about to escape from the park. We will also be working on 3D games and expanding the console gaming project. Another project will be a console game on Emperor Ashoka -- all about him and his wars. Indian stories have global appeal as well. We hope Emperor Ashoka games will reign over the games space."
With the Indian mobile gaming market set to generate $336 million in annual revenues by 2009 and the number of mobile users to go up by 2 million every month, Indiagames is certain to ride the wave. "The next two years are critical to us as mobile users are going to increase in number and broadband is coming up in a big way in India," says Gondal.
Five years from now. . .So where does Vishal Gondal see himself five years from now? "It's very early to say anything. If you had asked me this question five years back, we couldn't have predicted that we would be in this position today. We will remain focussed on gaming. I think it's now time to forget the West and look East!"