Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Great Indian Game Design Workshop Tour

Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai, India

FICCI-Frames posterEveryone in the entertainment business has, or should have, heard of Bollywood—the great Indian film industry located in and around Mumbai, or Bombay as it was formerly known. Bollywood turns out dozens of films for every one that Hollywood does—not blockbusters like Avatar to be sure, but movies made by Indians, for Indians. When Mr. Anirban Chatterjee of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) wrote inviting me to deliver a game design workshop at Bollywood's big annual Frames conference, I couldn't possibly refuse.

The only difficulty was that FICCI Frames, as it is universally known, takes place in Mumbai immediately after the Game Developers' Conference, which was in San Francisco—and my talk was on the last day of GDC. To get to India I would have to fly back to London and then directly on to Mumbai, or go on around the world and travel via someplace in the Far East. Nobody offers a flight directly from San Francisco to Mumbai, I discovered—maybe the planes don't have the range. I consulted flight timetables and found that if I left right after GDC, I would miss the first day of Frames but I could still get there in time to deliver a workshop.

Once I knew I was going to India, I wanted to take as much advantage as I could of being there. With a lot of back-and-forth E-mail, I was able to set up additional events at Dhruva Interactive in Bangalore and at the Image College of Arts, Animation, and Technology on their campuses in Bangalore and Chennai. This is the tale of the tour.

Sunday, March 14 – Tuesday, March 16

The day after the Game Developers' Conference ended, I flew overnight from San Francisco to London. My wife met me at Heathrow airport, and traded the suitcase full of cool-weather clothes for use in San Francisco for another suitcase of hot-weather clothes appropriate for India. She and I had lunch together, and then I got on another plane to Mumbai, also overnight. I arrived at about 9 in the morning on Tuesday the 16th, pretty wrecked after two back-to-back overnight flights.

Powai Lake from the Renaissance HotelThe Renaissance Hotel in Powai plays host to the Frames conference. Powai isn't the real Mumbai—it's a large, seemingly affluent suburb to the north, centered around a large lake. Of course, a suburb in Mumbai is a major city anywhere else—something like 20 million people live in the Mumbai metropolitan area, more than than several European countries put together. When I got to the hotel, I went straight to bed and slept all the rest of the day and all that night as well. By Wednesday morning I was feeling at least partially human.

Wednesday, March 17: FICCI Frames

Frames is primarily a conference, not a trade show, and a conference for suits, mostly: suits from film, television, music, animation, visual effects, and games. They lump games in with visual effects and animation because the majority of India's work in these areas consists of providing outsource services to Western companies. Autodesk sponsored several of the events at the conference; they provide a lot of the tools that these industries use. As India begins to develop more games locally, I hope that the game industry will move out from under the shadow of animation.

FICCI Frames Speaker LoungeMr. Chatterjee asked me to sit on a panel on the afternoon of the 17th, called “Is Gaming the Third Pillar of Mass Entertainment?” I wasn't sure what the first two pillars were, but I agreed to do it. They're film and music, it turned out. It was the usual sort of rambling panel discussion, concentrating mostly on the market, and I suspect I gained more knowledge than I imparted. One of the things I learned is that Indian film studios don't bother to release films during the cricket season—nobody would go, because they're all glued to the TV or radio. Another useful fact is that India has an installed base of 8 million PCs (I would have guessed it was ten times that, in a country with over a billion people), only one million consoles, and over 400 million mobile phones—more mobile phones than the entire population of the USA. Many of them aren't yet smartphones, but that will change. I have said for a long time that I thought video games would come to India via mobiles; it's nice to see my prediction vindicated.

While I was sitting on the panel I made the acquaintance of Vishal Gondal, the CEO of Indiagames. I had already met one or two people from Indiagames at the NASSCOM Games Summit last November, but not the man himself. Indiagames is located in Mumbai, and on the spot we arranged for me to give a game design workshop to his employees on Friday the 19th. Vishal is a proper game developer—he may be a suit, but he doesn't look like one, and he turned up for than panel in a T-shirt and jeans. I'm beginning to learn that I don't have to wear a tie at Indian events. It's too hot and even a lot of Indian bigwigs don't wear them.

Dinner that night was a huge buffet on the lawn of the hotel, accompanied by fireworks and an awards ceremony, mostly for achievements in animation and visual effects, but also for games. Indiagames won one of them, though I can't remember which award it was, unfortunately.

FICCI Frames awards show

Thursday, March 18: FICCI Frames Workshop

The Velvet Lounge.When I went to set up my workshop on Thursday morning, I was startled to discover that it was in a nightclub at the hotel—the “Velvet Lounge.” I think it's the only time I've given a workshop in a place with mirrored walls and a dance floor. Everything worked out just fine, though, and the workshop drew attendees from all over India—some had gotten up in the middle of the night to drive from Pune, and others had flown in from Hyderabad and Bangalore to be there. I was really pleased at the turnout. I think my event assembled the largest group of game designers ever gathered under one roof in India.

FICCI Frames WorkshopI normally randomize the teams when I do my workshops, to break up existing hierarchies and encourage people to get to know each other. I had initially been concerned that this might violate some subtle social code that I, as a westerner, was unaware of. In the end I need not have worried. Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, or Buddhist, we were all game developers and that was what mattered.

I tried a couple of new game ideas at this event. Knowing that Indian weddings—Hindu ones, at least—tend to be long, complex affairs, I decided to ask one team to design a wedding planning game. This isn't as outlandish as you might think (Ubisoft already has one), but the team sort of got the wrong idea and turned it into a minigame-driven dating sim, Japanese style, with the wedding as the end of the game. Generally, though, the workshop went off well and we took a lot of pictures to commemorate the event.

That evening there was another big buffet on the lawn, more fireworks, and more awards, this time including the glamorous stars of Bollywood—the press was out in force. I had no idea who any of them were. There was also a band, singing in what I guessed was Marathi, the local language.


Friday, March 19: Indiagames Workshop

Top view of the executive teamFriday was my hastily-arranged workshop at Indiagames. I didn't go to their offices because they didn't have a suitable space, but they had managed to rent classrooms at a nearby training center. It was a pretty big crowd, about 40 people, and warm but tolerable. Even Vishal Gondal and his senior executives participated. One of the attendees was Purnima Iyer, who had paid her own way to the FICCI Frames workshop the previous day but enjoyed it sufficiently to attend a second time. I had already met her in November, when she gave a talk at the NASSCOM conference. Purnima has her own blog about game design in India, and is beginning to make a name for herself.

Game designers on the jobOne thing I noticed at the Indian workshops was a tendency to think small. Many of their ideas consisted of Web-based or mobile phone games rather than the large console or PC games that participants in the West usually specify. It doesn't really matter one way or another—the workshop is technology-agnostic—but I suspect this reflects the kinds of games that the attendees grew up playing. It's probably good that Indian game designers do think small for the moment, since their own markets won't support large games yet, and there isn't the funding to develop them in any case. Students in the West often specify games that are impractically large. I don't discourage this in an introductory workshop, but sooner or later they do have to realize that game features have a price.

Chairs have bottle-holdersOne of the game ideas I gave them to work on was “Secret Service Agent”—the goal is to protect the President. Most people design this as a 3D shooter, but not the Indiagames team. They defined it as a sort of reverse tower defense game, in which the presidential motorcade moves through a maze of streets and the player must set up snipers and other agents to defend the motorcade from attack by people in the crowd. It was a 2D game and would actually be quite easy to build.

Indians serve water everywhere, at all times. If you're lucky, it will be chilled. The tap water isn't always safe, so it's usually bottled water. Even the classroom chairs have special water-bottle holders, something I've never seen in an any Western classroom. What they did before plastic bottles I don't know—glass ones, I suppose—and it must create an absolute mountain of waste.

The Indiagames crowd

Saturday, March 20

I had originally planned to spend Saturday being a tourist in Mumbai—perhaps taking a boat to visit the famous caves on Elephanta Island, or doing something that might involve being indoors and cool, such as a museum. However, when the time came I was pretty tired, between the jet lag, the hot weather, and the two back-to-back workshops. I just stayed in my room and caught up on E-mail.

Sunday, March 21

Sunday I was off by plane to Bengaluru, or Bangalore—another first for me. Like many other airports in India, Bangalore's is brand new, very shiny and attractive. It's also a long, long way from the middle of town, and on the taxi ride I had a chance to look at a bit of the countryside. The state of Karnataka seems to be hot and dry – drier, at least, than Mumbai was, and the heat was less oppressive. Dhruva Interactive, my hosts, put me in a very nice service flat, which is kind of like a hotel with a kitchenette in every room, but no restaurant. The room was spotless, the air conditioning worked well, and best of all, there was a high speed Ethernet connection.

Many of the service flats in Bangalore advertise that they have emergency power generation, and on the day I checked out, I found out why. Bangalore's power isn't very reliable, and it cut out briefly twice in the space of half an hour. But the generator kicked in within 10 seconds each time.

Monday, March 22 – Tuesday, March 23: Dhruva Interactive

One of the Dhruva buildingsDhruva is the Indian name for the North Star. Dhruva Interactive is the oldest game company in India, providing services to Western companies as well as creating original titles of their own. Their work has appeared in titles such as Asterix at the Olympic Games, Forza 2 Motorsport, and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. The company is located in a residential district—dotted with businesses here and there—located right off Hundred Foot Road, an upmarket shopping district full of designer boutiques.

I can't really talk about my work for Dhruva; suffice to say that it consisted of a mixture of game design training and some consulting on forthcoming titles. The CEO, Rajesh Rao, had also invited a few others to visit, including the irrepressible Anand Ramachandran, a journalist I had met at NASSCOM, who has enough energy and opinions for any three other people. He actually lives in Mumbai, and flew down to take part.

Design work in progress

Each night we went out to dinner, and of course it was all wonderful. There's a chain called Barbecue Nation where they put a box of hot coals into a recess on your table, and waiters keep coming around bringing different things on skewers for you to cook for yourself. They only stop when you put up a little flag to indicate that you've had enough.

Dhruva made me particularly welcome, and I owe special thanks to Raju Patil, the Director of Operations, who took care of all the local arrangements.

With some of the gang

Wednesday, March 24: ICAT Bangalore

ICAT Bangalore facultyOn Wednesday morning I checked out of my flat and went to give a half-day workshop at the Bangalore campus of the Image College of Art, Animation, and Technology. Like many Indian technical schools, ICAT is affiliated with a company, Image Infotainment Ltd., which uses the school as a way to spot and train new talent—at their expense rather than its own. ICAT is unique in that it awards full degrees, not just certificates, through an arrangement with the University of Wales in the UK.

The workshop at ICAT BangaloreI met Mrs. Varsha Shelar, the academic head, and several other faculty before starting the workshop for about 70 students and other visitors from nearby companies. I was curious to see what Indian game students would be like, since their educational system is pretty different from the West's. A local acquaintance described it as “Victorian,” and said that it concentrated on rote learning, which is not satisfactory in a creative field.

The only real difference that I could see, however, is that they're a bit quieter—less inclined to stand out. The sex ratio was actually a little better than it usually is in Europe, maybe 80% male rather than 95% male. It was a pretty good workshop. One team got a little lost, but I think if we had had more time and fewer people, I could have prevented that. A four-hour workshop for 70 people means that I'm spread pretty thin.

Coconut doesn't get fresher than this.While I was there they brought me a treat: a whole coconut, carved open with a straw stuck inside to drink the milk. Once you've done that you're supposed to cut it open the rest of the way and eat the meat, too, but I didn't have time.

After the workshop I hurried off to the airport for my flight to Chennai (the former Madras). I got in quite late.

Wednesday, March 25: ICAT Chennai

Chennai is hot and humid—everybody warned me that when they found out I was going there. They weren't kidding. It's on the east coast of India at about the same latitude as Bangalore, but very different. Unfortunately, I didn't see much of it. I arrived late at night, slept in the next morning, and gave my workshop in the afternoon. The ICAT Chennai campus turned out to be about 50 yards from my service flat, so I didn't get any time to look around.

ICAT Chennai

The Chennai workshop produced some of the best results I got in India. The room was long and narrow, not ideal for lecturing in, but the students were very energetic and imaginative. One of the game ideas I handed out was “to be a real cowboy (not a gunslinger).” The team chose to interpret this role as an Indian cowherd and not a cowboy in the Western sense at all. Indians keep cows for milk but not meat, and they treat them rather better than we do, so it was a very different take on the idea.

The workshop at ICAT ChennaiI also made a change to the workshop, which I think improved it considerably. Many participants start to present the game they've been designing by telling a long, rambling back story about their main character, and describe the game itself as a sequence of events rather than an opportunity for the player to do interesting things. In the course of the workshop they have worked out the gameplay, an internal economy, and a user interface for their game, but it's easier and more familiar to tell a story, so that's what they do. This time I explicitly forbade them to tell the story and required them to concentrate on gameplay. As a result we got much more interesting presentations and I think they did better work overall, too.

That evening Mr. Natrajan, the Chief Academic Officer of ICAT, took me to dinner at a fancy tandoori restaurant on a rooftop terrace—a popular thing in India; several of my dinners there were on rooftop terraces. We were ten stories up and could see all the lights of Chennai. The city also boasts a very long beach and a lighthouse on the Bay of Bengal, but I couldn't see much of them in the dark. Two ladies from the college administration came along, and in the course of chatting with them I learned how you put on a sari. (It takes a while.)

Thursday, March 26

I had to fly from Chennai to Mumbai in order to catch my flight home, and unfortunately this meant getting up at four in the morning. Everything went smoothly, although it was a bumpy ride to the airport, and there was more traffic than you would expect at that hour of the morning. The British Airways cabin crew went on strike the very next day, but fortunately it didn't affect me and I got home on time and luggage intact.

All in all it was a great trip. The only thing I would do differently is to come at a cooler time of the year. I had several requests to come back, and I probably will do next winter if there's still enough interest.