Americans tend to like video games. A 2009 market research study by NPD Group concluded that 169.9 million Americans can be considered gamers in some way.
But we are not alone in our love of video games in this country. A burgeoning appetite for games has taken hold in India. And at 103 College Road East, one company straddles the border between the U.S. and India video game markets.
Prakash Ahuja, right, is the CEO of Gameshastra Inc., India’s largest game services company, which recently moved to the Route 1 corridor from New York City. “We are a game development studio operating in global markets,” Ahuja says. “We work with all major game developers and publishers all over the world. We leverage the cost structure in India, as well as the talent pool, and access the markets in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.”
Six members of Gameshastra’s team work at this location full-time. Each day they connect with the Hyderabad branch, the home of the company, where 220 employees, eight game testing laboratories, an advanced game services facility, and full video and audio conferencing technology exist. Apart from game development, Gameshastra performs animation services, testing, and creative content development for industry firms.
The Hyderabad operation has the engineering, development, and testing personnel and numbers for every task, while Princeton is home to the minds behind it all.
As the head of the company, Ahuja travels to Hyderabad every other month to take a hands-on approach within the operation. Gameshastra chose Princeton for two main reasons. First, Ahuja has lived in Plainsboro for the past 10 years. Gameshastra was originally situated on Madison Avenue for two years but Ahuja eventually tired of commuting.
Second, company expansion will be in the offing in 18 to 24 months, Ahuja says. Gameshastra plans to hire more people as it bulks up operations. The plan is not to import talent from India or the Hyderabad base, but to tap into Princeton.
“In India we don’t recruit for people to come to the U.S.,” Ahuja says. “Over here we recruit people who can add value to our business. Princeton will add value because it’s a nice little town and it’s got a great school system, great neighborhoods. It becomes a viable place to interest and attract people, and we will be able to attract American talent to come and work with us,” Ahuja said.
Ahuja is selective about talent joining his team in India. The firm hires one out of every 100 people who apply. To become an engineer at Gameshastra prospective employees go through an elaborate testing process, “one that’s psychographic because we make them play games, plus a stringent HR process,” Ahuja said.
Top-notch IT minds must possess innate characteristics to make an impression on Ahuja. He values employees who have the ability to think on their feet and outside of the box.
“Even if you’re a great programmer you still have to have a passion for games,” Ahuja says. “Passion for gaming starts with playing games themselves. If you’re not a passionate gamer you will not fit the job,” he said.
Before the idea of video games entered his picture Ahuja was working for IT services company ITC Infotech. His father was an executive in the Indian steel industry who went to Germany to study engineering the late 1940s. “My father’s impact was the message that education makes a difference,” Ahuja says. “The whole family was motivated to do well in our studies and get quality educations.”
Ahuja earned his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta and has also completed advanced management programs at ITC-Geneva and Harvard Business School. He came to America in the late 1990s to work in IT management.
He has also passed his father’s ideals regarding education onto his children. Ahuja’s son is at Lehigh University while his daughter is pursuing her education in England, where Gameshastra itself has a prominent relationship with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.
Making a name in the U.S. has come gradually, through business connections and close ties with the gaming press. In 2007 Gameshastra invested in Casual Connect Seattle, a major gaming industry conference, marking the first time an Indian game services company sponsored an event with global prominence. The Seattle event, considered the largest casual games conference for professionals involved in creativity, marketing, and distribution, drew more than 5,000 attendees. Ahuja says Gameshastra is an active participant at shows in Los Angeles, Seattle, Montreal, and Texas, and the company’s Forrestal Center location helps connect with New York’s “small but vibrant” gaming community.
One offshoot of attending trade shows was gaining access to industry talent. Top-notch industry people took notice of Gameshastra, the most prominent example being Daniel Kitchen, the company’s current vice president of business development. He approached Ahuja after seeing Gameshastra at trade shows and hearing news about it, finally joining the company in 2009. Kitchen specializes in iPhone and iPod Touch apps. He previously managed smartphone development, including the launch of 16 apps for Skyworks Interactive.
Nothing Ahuja studied in college led him to a career in the gaming industry, he said, but an IT background certainly laid the foundation for expansion into the new world of computer technology applications.
“This is a growing, truly global business with exploding opportunities,” he says. “The industry’s growing at about 15 to 19 percent per year. It’s also recession-proof, as it was unaffected by the market collapse.”
Ahuja says that video games provide an affordable means of entertainment compared to the cost of a trip to the movies, affording the industry a shield against the wrath of global recession.
Then there’s the advantage of being cutting-edge and giving back to society. “The younger generation is far more technologically savvy compared to my generation, and we will see more and more gaming being used in education,” Ahuja says.
A game’s development, from brain to shelf, starts when the company incubates ideas for a game and pitches the idea to publishers like Sony, or EA-Activision, the large companies.
“Once a company buys into the idea, they greenlight the process and we get into a joint-publishing arrangement,” Ahuja says. “The game is developed out of the Indian studios, but we work with game designers in the U.S. and Europe who help in design and adapting each game to local cultural nuances.”
On its website, gameshastra.com, the company describes its services and offers a virtual showroom with some industry details. Information includes case studies on outsourcing, “five questions to ask while selecting a publishing partner,” and “five common testing mistakes and how to avoid them.”
Gameshastra.com also has sections on game publishing, porting (when a computer game is designed to run on one platform), testing, and localization — tailoring the thematic contents of games to particular audiences.
“Some games we develop based on what I call ‘Indian thematic content’ could also be sold globally,” Ahuja says. “There are some games purely developed in India for the Indian market, some games we believe would have a crossover appeal could go global, and some games developed for the global market that are not sold in India at all.”
Games for the U.S. market are carefully designed to be “US-culturally correct.”
Specifically for the Indian market Gameshastra created a game on rural sports like kabbadi (akin to football, but without the ball) and kho-kho (similar to tag) as well as kite-flying. Those games have been launched in India and have sold well, but Ahuja said they have not sold overseas at all.
Gameshastra also developed Cricket Challenge with not just the sport’s professional setting of a lush green field, but also apartment complex grounds and building backdrops that many youths in India would play the game in.
Cart Kings, with similarities to Nintendo’s Mario Kart, is aimed at children ages 8 to 12 and uses the nationally known Tinkle cartoon characters.
In India Tinkle is a familiar comic-style set of characters akin to Marvel Comics.
“We developed Cart Kings for the Indian market but the way the game panned out, we believe it has global appeal,” Ahuja says. “For example, Mario Bros. uses an Italian character, but the game has a global appeal. People play Mario Bros. here, in Germany, and all over the world.
Similarly we believe that Cart Kings has got a humorous character and the game came out well. It will do well in India plus it will also have crossover appeal in other markets.”
Utilizing well-known characters is the strategy Gameshastra plans to apply to incorporate India’s number one export — the Bollywood film genre — into video games. “Bollywood movies have a global audience. With the Indian Diaspora they’re very popular in North Africa and Japan,” Ahuja says. “There’s a huge audience and that same audience also plays games.”
Ahuja says the thematic content of such games would be based on Bollywood blockbusters to begin. If traditional American adventure games are based on movies such as the Indiana Jones quadrilogy, then Bollywood games could be based on similar action movies. The possibility of using famous actors’ voices for games has been bandied about too.
Ahuja feels that genre would have immediate appeal in India and globally, saying popularity would spread from word-on-the-street in India to Indian populations in all corners of the globe. Gameshastra already has a global footprint.
Now it’s a matter of widening it in Princeton.
Gameshastra Inc., 103 College Road East, Princeton 08540; 609-688-6886; fax, 609-228-4133. Prakash Ahuja, CEO. www.gameshastra.com