BattleGrounds Mobile India, the bespoke version of PUBG Mobile for the Indian market, will finally return to storefronts this year after a nearly 10-month absence.
It’s been an almost year-long battle for publisher Krafton, with speculation and commentary swirling as many watched a litmus test for mobile gaming in India. And although it seemed like they were hoping in vain, Krafton have succeeded in ensuring at least a three-month trial of their game back on storefronts. Ideally this will be a rubber-stamp routine as the company seeks to toe the line for Indian lawmakers and reestablish itself in this lucrative Asian market.
But how did we get here? It's a complex story of political tension, anti-video game sentiment and the under-wraps relationship between Krafton and Tencent…
The story of PlayerUnknown's BattleGrounds is worth an entry in itself. Long story short, the popular battle royale title released back in 2017 and is partially credited with popularising the battle royale genre as a whole. It would soon be followed by a mobile adaptation to capitalise on both its success and the growing mobile shooter fanbase.
Released in 2018, PUBG Mobile was an instant success and even surpassed the massive playerbase of chief rival Fortnite. It remains the strongest presence PUBG has, in the face of relatively lower player numbers on its mainline PC and console counterpart. It was extremely succesful in India as well, and was the second-largest market for the title aside from China. But unfortunately, that success would abruptly come to a halt.
PUBG Mobile had fallen foul of a wave of apps being banned in India, mainly those with a connection with Chinese companies such as Tencent (who also published PUBG in the country), under accusations that they were mishandling user’s private data. But, for many the assumption was, and still is, that this was a tit-for-tat reprisal against China over continued political frictiom beyond the small matter of video games between India and the country. The political tensions relate to border clashes beginning in 2020 between troops stationed in the remote border between China and India.
Tech analyst Prasanto K Roy told the BBC at the time, "The government had banned these apps citing security concerns, data of Indian citizens going out etc, but it was essentially meant to put pressure on China over the border conflict.”
PUBG Mobile had already faced a frosty reception, with many accusations that the game was a cause of social ills. A murder case in the city of Lucknow, in the state of Uttar Pradesh even saw police theorise the confrontation between a son and his mother had taken place when she tried to stop him from playing the game. Later coverage indicated the theory was untrue, but it didn’t stop a decidedly chilly atmosphere from the media developing around both titles.
Even so, PUBG Mobile had developed a loyal following and a burgeoning esports scene. Both factors meant that whatever lawmakers and tabloids said, Krafton had a willing and waiting audience on hand. And although there were alternative games from Krafton that remained available to Indian players, such as New State, the clamour was mainly for the original PUBG Mobile to return. So it's no surprise that Krafton did everything in it's power to bring the title back.
First announced in 2020 and then released later in 2021, BattleGrounds Mobile India was an attempt to replace the original global version of PUBG Mobile that had been pulled from storefronts as there seemed little potential that the game would be reinstated. It required some significant moves to get the game on the app store. PUBG Corp, the developers behind PUBG Mobile itself, who are owned by Krafton, would go on to cut publishing ties with Tencent within India to satisfy regulatory requirements around the aforementioned issues with user data.
BGMI would prove to be a major success and a suitable replacement for PUBG Mobile, as there was functionally no difference between the two games aside from the differences behind the scenes. It rose quickly, garnering millions of players and revenue from in-app spending.
But the good news couldn't last. BGMI would soon find itself facing the same dilemma that its predecessor had and BGMI too was pulled from storefronts. Although changes had taken place, the remaining stake held in Krafton by Tencent proved to even be too much for regulators to bear.
It was Krafton that was the hardest hit. With stormy financials in 2022 and high profile executives leaving the company as a result. It was not a crippling blow by any means but it was far from an ideal situation.
However, after going to the effort of developing a bespoke version of one of their most popular games for one of their most important markets it’s unlikely the company were going to lay down and be defeated. We’ll perhaps never know the exact details of the negotiations going on behind the scenes, or what concessions were needed to bring BGMI back to storefronts, but whatever was promised, it worked. Today Krafton announced that BGMI would be returning to app stores in India.
No doubt CEO of Global Esports Dr Rushindra Sinha will be delighted. Perhaps a desire remove hinderance to India's soaring esports market had a part to play in the decision? Perhaps we'll never know for sure.
Doubtless right now management in various offices in various parts of the world will likely be patting themselves on the back. What remains to be seen is just how loyal and sticky BGMI's fans will be. Will they return in droves, or have rivals such as Indus started to pull them away?
Reactions so far have been extremely positive, with Sagar Nair, CEO of Qlan, The Gamer’s Social Network, an Indian esports stakeholder commenting, “The news that was eagerly awaited by the Indian esports community has finally been broken! It is great to see that the patience and perseverance on Krafton’s part to ensure that India’s most loved esports title returns in accordance with the Meity guidelines has paid off. Gamers have long waited for this moment and their happiness will be seen and heard loud and clear in the coming days.”
“With the Indian authorities sure to keep a close eye on the game during the issued three-month trial, it will have to uphold the guidelines that are demanded. On a macro level, this could potentially set the tone for future esports titles being released in India. We’re hoping for a long and continued stay for BGMI with no further complications, as the community rejoices and gets back to the grind.”
However, at this stage, given the tortuous route to market that PUBG Mobile has 'enjoyed' it may be that the damage is done and that some publishers will simply be dissuaded from trying to offer their games in India.
Ironically this would echo a problem with fellow mobile giant China, as while India is a competitor to China in terms of the huge size of its potential player base, Indian game makers have also complained heavily about opaque regulations, something which has frustrated game companies operating in China too.
It remains to be seen whether the battle is over and all parties can settle back to business as usual, or if another political spat could see the ban return. But for now Krafton seems to be victorious, and when BGMI returns to storefronts soon, you can be sure that the entire industry's eyes will be on how it performs.