Mark Skaggs first spoke at India's Nasscom Game Developer Conference way back in 2011.
Known at the time as Zynga's SVP of Games and the creator of FarmVille, Skaggs also met a number of employees from Zynga's Bangalore studio while attending the conference.
By 2013, a core group of these former Zynga India employees had struck out alone as Moonfrog Labs – a new studio dedicated to making games for the Indian mobile market. And in February 2016, in an utterly improbable move, Mark Skaggs joined the studio as Director.
He's reflective on that decision as he chats with PocketGamer.biz at Nasscom Game Developer Conference 2017, the conference where it all started, this time in attendance as a local industry representative rather than a visitor.
“I'd done the rounds talking to companies in Europe, Asia and the US, and I remember making each of the calls to them to say I was joining this company called Moonfrog,” he recalls. “They were like, what? India? Are you crazy?”
But Skaggs was sold on Moonfrog's vision for the mobile games market in India.
“Two years ago, they said 'it's 3G, there's no 4G, data costs are super expensive and connectivity is kind of lame – but it's going to change.' And I could see it, I could tell,” he says. “It is just momentum.
“It happened, and it was kind of cool to see… it's like watching history lay out right in front of you.”
It's like watching history lay out right in front of you.Mark Skaggs
The mobile market in India has indeed taken strides in 2016 and 2017, with digital payments increasingly common thanks to demonetisation and the country overtaking China to become the number one country for mobile data consumption.
There are fewer missing pieces than ever, but Skaggs says there's still a long way to go.
“It's still early,” he reminds us. “4G rolls out in the US, and it's in San Francisco and New York. It's in high-density areas. A few months, a year later it comes to Austin and you say 'yeah, 4G! Oh, not really.'”
But while network coverage across the entire, vast country of India still leaves a lot to be desired, Moonfrog is already feeling the benefits of affordable 4G.
“Everybody's seeing this,” he says. “We're seeing the early uptick and the ground swell, but it's still not easy. It's early in the curve, but you can see it.”
Testing the water
Moonfrog's flagship game is Teen Patti Gold. Based on the traditional Indian card game Teen Patti, it's been consistently among the country's top grossing mobile games since its launch in 2014.
Since then, the company has been taking what Skaggs calls “shots on goal” in various genres, to see what works best for Indian players.
“We're doing experimentation to learn the market, learn the players,” he says.
The firm's two most recent are both licensed titles – the celebrity lifestyle game Alia Bhatt: Star Life and Bollywood movie tie in Baahubali: The Game, which has racked up more than 10 million downloads – but Moonfrog believes that more is possible.
“Everybody talks about what works in terms of entertainment: Bollywood, cricket, horoscopes,” considers Skaggs. “But I don't know if it's necessary. We did it for some specific reasons to test different IP styles and types.”
The bigger picture
Skaggs' talk at NGDC 2017 was focused on the unique design considerations that the Indian mobile games market demands, and this is an area in which he's certainly learned a lot.
The Samsung Galaxy S Duos is so slow, but it's more normal than a Pixel XL.Mark Skaggs
He describes his perspective on the global mobile games market before he joined Moonfrog as that of “a fish who couldn't see the water,” not appreciating issues with connectivity in the rest of the world, or how different user behaviours are.
He's found that some simple mechanics or UI elements, which might be taken for granted as being intuitive in the West, require more explaining for Indian users.
In an effort to better understand the mobile gaming experience for the average Indian, Skaggs spent the first 12 months of his time at Moonfrog using a lowly Samsung Galaxy S Duos – the number one device used by Teen Patti Gold players – as his main phone.
“That phone drives me crazy,” he states. “Because it's 3G, it's so slow in terms of its CPU, but that is more normal than a Pixel XL.”
It is this groundwork in the market, all the hands-on lessons learned from serving it so far, that Skaggs believes will give Moonfrog the advantage now that more and more international companies are “swarming around” the Indian “honey pot.”
And as far as he's concerned, the buzz around India is not unfounded. He likens the state of the market to that of China seven years ago, when Western heads were turned by smartphone penetration figures but ultimately disappointed by the dominance of Android and the difficulty monetising.
But we all know what happened there.
“Around 2014 or so, they hit an inflection point,” Skaggs says. “I think they called it a population dividend. And suddenly, from talking to people who lived through it, revenues on products just shot up and they weren't doing anything. Look at all the charts and it's just a giant upswing.”
Skaggs is confident that this day will come for India, and there's no better indication of his seriousness than the fact he effectively staked his career on it back in 2016.