'We're not India': Dawn Patrol reveals how Sri Lankan developers are fighting preconceptions
More than your typical chop shop
When it comes to mobile technology, the Indian subcontinent is well known for IT outsourcing.
Meanwhile, market analysts hungrily consider its 1.7 billion population, even if at present they are consuming much more content than generating revenue.
Then there are those who are keen to build a gaming culture, both in terms of a consumer audience and a professional developer market.
One such is Prithvi Virasinghe, the CEO and co-founder of Sri Lankan mobile game studio Dawn Patrol Games.
As he points out, there are plenty of misconceptions to overcome, but there's also the opportunity to help train and build a thriving ecosystem. Oh, and there's plenty of sun and surf too.
Pocket Gamer: Can you provide some company background?
Prithvi Virasinghe: Dawn Patrol Games is an indie game studio based in Sri Lanka with a passion for strategy and narrative-driven games. We do original iOS and Android games as well select client work.
We're a team of 12 full time with staff from USA, India, Europe, Australia and Sri Lanka.
I'm CEO and lead designer and my wife Silje Nilsen is art director and lead animator and the one that says "No!" to most of my ideas.
What were you doing previously?
I've been making games professionally since 2003, but I've been designing games ever since writing my first AD&D clone in 8th grade.
Before starting Dawn Patrol Games, I was creative director of 345 Games, MTV Networks, where I worked up from being a producer and game designer. My team produced online games for MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and Spike TV, which we grew to a multimillion user base with well over 200 plus original titles.
Co-founders: art director Silje, producer Gautam, and CEO Prithvi
My personal favorites were for South Park, The Daily Show and an original multiplayer game I designed for Comedy Central called The Redneck Games - the Standards group made us change it to Blue Collar Olymp-Hicks but I still stand by the original.
Following the market trends we evolved into premium games on mobile and console, where I led the development of Deadliest Warrior: The Game on XBLA/PSN.
It's an interesting arc because mobile and online games overlapped a few years ago, and now triple-A - or triple-A methodologies - is overlapping into digital as well - so if feels like I've been riding this crazy evolution in the game space from an early stage.
How did you make the switch to setting up your own outfit?
In 2011, I raised angel funding - plus my own savings - to start my own company.
My girlfriend - who is now my wife - was working as a senior animator for various TV and film production projects in New York City and Oslo - and cross-commuting - so I convinced her to join me and move to a tropical island to make video games instead.
I pitched it to her as the 'Good Life Program', which is about living in a tropical paradise, making games, and surfing all day in-between. Well, we got the making games in a tropical paradise part right; the surfing all day in-between part we're still working on.
What would you say are your strongest skills?
As a company we are developing strategy games for iOS and Android with content-driven monetisation - pay-for-content rather than pay-to-win - as well as content generation so we can do things like asynchronous multiplayer, live events, social-driven narrative, and content handling from the cloud.
The industry term for it is 'midcore', but that seems to make it sound less sexy than what we are actually doing.
A lot of people seem to dislike the label midcore. Can you dig into more detail about what you mean by that in terms of gameplay?
As a designer, I really love genre mashing and I think in today's mobile world we see a lot of blends happening.
All our tech staff have computer science degrees with heavy C++ and math backgrounds. Our geek levels are at an all-time high, so when I throw them complex system design, they love the challenge.
We see the re-emergence of strategy games in mobile, re-worked with social gaming gating - monetisation - and adapted to distributed gameplay, such as asynchronous play.
Growing up I loved real time strategy games and played the hell out of classics such as Dune II and Age of Empires, so it's great to see this genre refreshed. There were some bleak times in RTS between Starcraft I and Starcraft II - with some notable exceptions of course, like Rome: Total War.
For example, if you look at the sub-genre of tower defense, it is simplified RTS with only offensive buildings. Now we see unit management, economy and town building being added back so the genre is adapting to the medium. It's personally very exciting!
Can you talk about any clients/projects you've recently worked on?
Maybe you've heard of the popular indie brand, Emily the Strange? We were lucky and fortunate to work with the property owner to create a casual physics-driven stacking game on mobile to coincide with their 20th anniversary.
Zonster Heights (above) launched 21 July at Comic Con 2013 in San Francisco and was featured in MTV Geek. We really like the brand and its positive messaging to teen youth but we were also most excited to write our own sticky physics system for it!
We're currently working on an original RTS game for tablets called Nitropia - that's a working title - and trying to close a larger client project; a sci fi-themed strategy builder with live events and PVP. We love strategy and narrative.
What's it like being a games developer in Sri Lanka?
We are leading the charge as one of two pro game shops in the country. The challenge is to build a games industry where none exists.
However, Sri Lanka has a strong enterprise software industry so we've found two exceptional technical directors and a talented base of programmers.
Art was trickier because finding 3D artists and animators willing to leave the more popular industries like broadcast and advertising is a hurdle. On the plus side, we do have a really well developed fine artist industry and artisans so we're able to find really creative and talented people and then train them.
The ramp up is longer but we also get these people who've always wanted to work in video games and give them their first legitimate go at it, so the energy and passion they bring really helps drive the team.
Now, being more established into our second year, we can take our time to identify the standouts locally as well as source regionally from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines etc. where there is a very strong talent pool.
What about business issues such as tax etc?
Tax-wise it's great because export software is tax free in Sri Lanka. It's a great incentive for tech companies to come set up here.
However I will caution that there is a fair amount of paperwork that needs to be done on the government side and thankfully we have a full time office manager and chief accountant that handle operations and allows the team to focus on games.
What's the education system like?
We've got great schools and computer science programs and there are new design schools opening as well, so we're going to see a lot of new talent emerging and that is exciting.
I'd love for Dawn Patrol to help inspire more people to consider game development and apply their creativity to it.
Everyone knows about outsourcing to India, but how easy is it for you to get western (or other) clients to sign up?
Since I've lived and worked my entire professional life in New York City, most of the industry that I know are stateside networks so our products cater to that market. You've hit a key point in the challenge to get Western clients to sign up though. We need to handle their perception of us being a low cost outsource shop.
A lot of people mistake Sri Lanka for being like India - we're both full of brown people I suppose - but we're a lot different.
I lived in India for six years prior to moving stateside so I can definitely say the level of education - we have a 92 percent literacy rate, the highest in South Asia - quality of life - our cities are a heck of a lot cleaner and not over populated - and transparency is higher here.
And we have better surf! The point is the countries are different and we're different from your typical chop shop.
We want to create content, build new worlds and support a rich ecosystem of players. But you know, when you need to keep the lights on you look around and take what the market is offering sometimes.
Is your main advantage just cost?
Pricing-wise we're less than half the cost of a Western studio but our quality is the same and just as important, we get the culture.
There is the problem of coming across as 'too cheap' where you won't be taken seriously below a certain man-month cost.
So our goal is to demonstrate the value we bring and not just the cost advantage and make clients trust us with content generation versus regurgitation.
We have strong technical expertise and a deep understanding of game systems, so we can be ambitious in our designs. I don't mean I can build you a Clash of Clans clone in six months for pennies on the dollar because I don't believe in burning my team out with crunch.
If we're going to take on an ambitious project we start with good planning and smart systems design. We use triple-A production methodologies from UI mocks, to paper prototyping, playables, alpha/beta/gold and most importantly beta testing.
It may sound like too much for a mobile game, but it's the surer way to make a quality product and on top of that, it won't cost nearly much as you think.
What's the long term plan?
We want to break through the assumption that being a developer from South Asia means we're an outsource shop. While we do work-for-hire, we started out as purely indie and then realized we needed to take on client work to keep the lights on until we struck indie gold.
We'd like to build a game that we can take the time to do right - say 12 months with at least a 3 month testing cycle - and then spend the rest of our time supporting that game and making it better.
We want to have a conversation with our players and give them something to get excited about. We want to make fans and not clients. However, until we can get there we want to work with people who are as passionate about their brands as we are about our games.
Thanks to Prithvi for his time.
If you'd like to know more about what Dawn Patrol can offer, you can hit up the website or drop email to email@example.com
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