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Reliance Games CEO on making games for the Indian market as well as nurturing local developer talent

Manish Agarwal on the coming opportunity
Reliance Games CEO on making games for the Indian market as well as nurturing local developer talent

Mainly because of its sheer scale of population, the India mobile market is often expected to be the 'next China'.

That's a massively simplistic attitude to take, of course; the two countries are very different.

Nevertheless, there are now those who argue that despite its reputation as a 'high download, low revenue' territory, India is now a country that needs to be taken seriously.

And someone who's been keen to talk up the longterm opportunities is CEO of Reliance Entertainment Digital, Manish Agarwal.

Although based in India, the publisher is currently focused on western markets, as demonstrated by recent iOS release Drone: Shadow Strike, but he explains, it's now ramping up games for Indian mobile games and looking to work with the growing local development scene too.

Pocket Gamer: India has long been seen as a high download, low revenue market. Is this changing?

Manish Agarwal: I'd say India is maturing, slowly but steadily.With about 200 million app downloads every month - expected to double over the next 2 to 3 years - the two key aspects we see aiding growth are falling data charges and the growing sales of smartphones.

A fragmented mobile environment makes app discovery very challenging, and the traditional in-app purchase model doesn't profit in India like it does in more mature markets, but the landscape is definitely poised to increase in revenue despite those roadblocks.

We expect 40 percent of all new mobile internet users to be downloading mobile games - which is a significant number.

What are the major obstacles for commercial growth in the Indian market - billing, low spec devices, bad 3G/4G connectivity?

Slow internet speeds and a lack of ubiquitous 4G/3G connectivity have traditionally led to poor install rates for games over 30 MB, which means users here miss out on a number of quality gaming experiences.

“A fragmented mobile environment makes app discovery very challenging.”
Manish Agarwal

That lack of bandwidth translates to lower ad monetization, as well, since Indians choose offline mobile gaming over connected, ad-driven titles.

The fragmentation of the marketplace among local and global app stores is also a hurdle, as is the reluctance of Indians to use credit cards for in-app purchases - although that last factor is changing rapidly among educated urban youth.

How important is Google Play as an app store in India, or is the country more like China with carriers and other media channels being key for app and game distribution?

Google Play is an important platform here, but the mobile ecosystem is fragmented among a number of competing carriers (Vodafone, Airtel, Idea, Reliance, Aircel) and app stores (Micromax, Samsung, Nokia Ovi.), making it important to have a strong distribution mechanism/channel for games.

For our part, we've found a sweet spot over the past few years working with manufacturers and carriers to drive in-app purchases through telecom billing.

What's the Indian ecosystem like in terms of the creativity of the local development scene?

About 18 months ago there were 30-40 developers who were focused on mobile game development. Today there are roughly 200, which is evidence of the huge promise ahead.

In our interactions, we've found there's a growing interest among millennials and college students in exploring start-ups in this space, which is very encouraging.

Small studios often face challenges in terms of deep design of metagame, the stringent game quality expectations of app stores, leveraging game analytics to tweak their game post-launch, and are challenged by dollar spends on marketing and user acquisition to enable discovery globally.

Indian mobile developers need to get up to speed on designing mobile games that monetize well in western markets so they learn not to repeat past mistakes.

We've started to see some international investment into Indian mobile game companies. Do you think this could shake up the market?

The Indian market is certainly ripe for new investment. Speaking only for ourselves, Reliance Games is currently working on ways to incubate indie developers with technical support, quality assurance, product management, and marketing mentoring services in order to help the next wave of game makers launch successfully around the world.

I think in the next 2 to 3 years we should see many more investments in this space with similar ambitions, and some of those announcements will likely come from Reliance itself.

In terms of Reliance, how important is the Indian market for you or are you more interested in international markets?

It depends on the game. We've put a lot of focus on high-quality games designed for Western markets, especially those in North America, Europe, and the UK, where we've seen games monetize well.

“Today there are roughly 200 Indian mobile game developers.”
Manish Agarwal

But India is definitely a key market for us - small games under 30 MB that appeal to consumer tastes here do well, and we're bullish on our prospects for expansion.

Reliance's Zapak Game Store is an online game portal that garners over 3 million unique users and over 5 million downloads per month, and we provide a number of services like free ad-wrapping, distribution, and carrier billing that make us attractive to gaming companies interested in India's growing audience.

You work with international brands including F1, Real Steel and Total Recall. Are these important for the Indian market?

Games like Real Steel, F1, etc. have solid user bases in India because Indian audiences are still relatively young demographically, and they get exposed to franchises from Hollywood and elsewhere.

So we do see a lot of interest in games with global IPs, but the monetization there is predominately ad-driven rather than in-app-driven.

What are your predictions for the Indian market in 2015?

Well, India is already expected to have close to 500 million mobile internet users by 2017, so we'll likely see a few trends tied to that.

Carrier billing will continue to be key to distribution, but as mobile internet speed improvements accommodate higher quality gaming experiences, we expect in-app purchases to mature from their current negligible state into a $50 million per year business within the next 2 years.

Of the 10-15 games Reliance plans to launch globally on an annual basis, we're tailoring 2-3 titles per year to appeal specifically to Indian users.

Thanks to Manish for his time.

Below, you can check out an interview we did with him at the ChinaJoy conference in the summer of 2013.