Alia Bhatt and Baahubali on your palm: Moonfrog Labs creates world-class games for desi audiences
Alia Bhatt is known not just for her acting chops but also her fabulous sense of humour. And this is in ample evidence in the videos that accompany an eponymous game created by Moonfrog Labs. Like the lovely Alia, who learnt how to laugh along with her detractors with self-deprecating humour, Moonfrog also knows the value of resilience against tremendous odds, having struggled like a Bollywood hopeful before finding success.
The Bengaluru-based firm, currently among the fastest-growing gaming companies in India, with hits such as Baahubali: The Game and Teen Patti Gold to its name, is turning four this November. Teen Patti Gold witnessed over 10 million downloads and made it to the list of the top five grossing apps in India. In April this year, Moonfrog launched Baahubali: The Game, based on the super successful movie franchise. right after the highly-successful life-simulation, narrative adventure Alia Bhatt: Star Life. Both these proved to be hugely popular. Baahubali has over 10 million downloads with over 1 billion battles fought in-game, while Alia Bhatt has over a million downloads. The company has also just launched Ludo Club, a multiplayer, online version of the board game.
Fifth largest gaming market
India is currently the fifth largest gaming market in the world, with revenues projected to reach $1.1 billion by 2020. But what these impressive numbers don’t highlight is the kind of struggle it takes to design games for a market like India. A large part of Moonfrog’s journey has been spent in trying to bridge the gap between India of the aforementioned numbers, and Bharat where, though Internet and smartphone penetration is going up, the concept of video/computer gaming culture is still nascent.
“No one can know for sure what game or product will fit well in this market. We can conduct market research, surveys, playtests and still not be able to successfully predict which game will do great when released to the 100s of millions smartphone users in India,” says co-founder Ankit Jain.
Moonfrog Labs was founded in 2013 by him, Tanay Tayal, Kumar Puspesh, Oliver Jones and Dimpalkumar Maisuriya. November 2015 saw industry legend Mark Skaggs, known for games like Command and Conquer: Generals, The Lord Of The Rings and Farmville, come on board to help unlock the next levels. The company’s growth trajectory is on the rise since.
Tanay explains, “Our focus is on gathering as much data about player behaviour to create a superior product; or, if the data points to another way, then develop an entirely new product. People compare Indian games with international superhits, and then automatically start comparing the companies that develop these games. What they forget is that game development is at a very nascent stage here. We’re the fastest-growing gaming company in India and there is immense pressure on us to create the perfect product." He goes on to add, "But we can’t let that get to us and bungle this opportunity of making history. We can’t forget that even the most successful mobile game companies have just one hit out of the five to 10 products that they make.”
What are the challenges in a market like India? According to Mark Skaggs, “The biggest one is getting the art and technology right. We have to design a game that will work seamlessly across various data networks, on the hundreds of smartphone brands and models, without any glitches.” Add to that the patchy networks and abysmal data speeds in non-urban areas, Moonfrog has its work cut out.
Getting the desi swag right
“Technology, Internet and smartphones haven’t penetrated the big and small cities completely. Despite all what they say in their ads, the networks are still hinky. We can’t have a large file size for downloads and updates because players on 2G networks will face problems. Fitting an international quality game (which could go up to 100s of MBs in file size) into a less than 20MB file is a huge challenge. We’re more than proud of our developers for making that happen,” says Kumar Puspesh.
While the right technology is important, getting the desi ethos right is crucial. “Creating shuddh desi content is always a challenge, particularly as the scape is changing every day. Acquiring and training the raw brilliance of the Indian talent pool is a big challenge that we have consistently overcome down the years,” says Tayal. To hone these minds into superior game-making machines, we’ve brought in producers, game designers and coders from the UK, the US and Chile. We’re thrilled by how fast our boys and girls are learning. They’ve managed to surpass most of our expectations and are showing some true international levels of potential,” he adds.All work and play make for a fun workplace
The work culture at Moonfrog is an extension of its gaming universe. Learning from missteps as well as wins is a way of life for the 150-strong team. In fact, Jain emphasises that “Getting something wrong just means that we need to spend more time with the data to see how best we can serve our players”.
Deepa Naidu, HR Director, elaborates, “One of our basic values is recognising that we don’t make ‘successful’ games: we make games that become successful if players love playing them. There are three values that we encourage all our employees to follow. The first is to not be discouraged from experimentation. In the gaming market as young as India, the only way to learn what works and what doesn’t is experimentation. The second is to have an entrepreneurial attitude and to own the products they’re working on, to innovate and ideate responsibly. And lastly, we discourage spending more time than is necessary on products and features. If a feature takes more development time than it’s supposed to, then either something has gone wrong at the planning stage or it will become obsolete by the time it is launched.”
While Moonfrog’s workday is all about play, outside of work the employees have the usual array of board game nights, sports nights, foosball breaks, samosas and pizzas. The odd bottle of bubbly or crates of beer pop up when the teams cross a milestone.
What does the future look like from their perspective? “Mobile phones are getting faster and stronger with better screens. We now have 4K and 5K devices hitting the market. Soon we’re going to be at a period where the human eye won’t be able to distinguish between any two screens because of its own perception limitations,” says Mark. He believes the next big trend will be creating content for this next generation of smartphones.
“Moonfrog is already working towards delivering great entertainment, specifically for players in India. We’re not just a tech company, we know about gameplay, great art and great production values. We’re at the centre of developing quality software for handheld devices,” he says.