[Techie Tuesday] Meet Loco’s Sushil Kumar who built one of India’s first interactive gaming apps
Even if Loco Co-founder Sushil Kumar did not set out with the plan to become a coder, meeting the right people at the right time provided him with the inspiration to look into a future in coding. The rest, as they say, is history in this success story that holds a great lesson: it is never too late to stop what you are doing to explore a different path for yourself.
Despite pursuing a different stream in engineering, the 28-year-old has gone on to build Loco, which is arguably one of the largest interactive games in India.
The startup was acquired by digital entertainment platform and Sequoia-backed Pocket Aces. The platform is set to invest $3 million to $5 million in Loco over the next 12 to 18 months and expand the startup’s gaming genre.
The idea for Loco dawned on Sushil when he happened to play HQ Trivia. Today, Loco ranks second in the world in interactive live gaming platform that is second in the world, in Product Hunt only to HQ Trivia.
“It was like being pulled back into the Kaun Banega Crorepati days, where we would end up playing the game sitting in front of the TV and guessing the right answer. I wondered why we were yet to do something like that in India,” Sushil tells YourStory.
That question led Sushil to build a successful offering. During the time of its acquisition, Loco was growing at a rapid pace, and already getting over 5,000-8,000 concurrent users in a day. In March this year, the team touched half a million concurrent users in a day.
But before the Loco success, there was a solid portfolio that was built on Sushil’s love for coding — be it at Sony, Unacademy, or work for Drivezy, and My Dream Store.
The son of an Indian Airforce officer, Sushil’s tryst with engineering actually began with electronics (he even built robots for the college robotics team). A pilot aspirant initially, Sushil, who hailed from Nalanda, Bihar, discovered his love for coding while in college.
A seemingly late bloomer, Sushil began coding only in the third year of college. At NIT, he met the likes of Himesh Singh, who went on to found Unacademy—serving currently as the CTO of the edtech startup—and the Founders of Drivezy and My Dream Store.
“Interactions with them shaped my view of the world of coding and the startup world. Also, in retrospect, I think it was the best decision ever. Meeting with different people and making friends ensured that I had a great network. Also, since I was from an Airforce background, I was used to meeting new people, and it helped me open my horizons,” says Sushil.
Once the curiosity for coding took root, Sushil hurtled ahead. He picked up Python as his preferred language and built a rudimentary blog. By the third year, he along with his friend and roommate would blog a piece—usually related to hardware and coding—every week.
Sushil says it was an experiment but it helped them learn everything they could about online content and digital marketing.
Soon, he was placed in Sony on his first job. Sushi notes that an article on the rudimentary blog was one of the reasons for his selection. While he was from the electronics interactive, his blogs on coding helped him bond with one of the interviewers.
“There was an article about how different OP APIs are created, and there was someone on the team who would patch Linux kernels,” says Sushil.
It was the year 2012, and the startup ecosystem in India was gaining steam. With the Sony job around the corner, Sushil had some time to explore coding after college wrapped up. So, he decided to work with Himesh and they built a Saavn-type app for mixing different kinds of music.
“We wanted to build something. The idea was to keep at it, and see what we could do and the different things we could create,” Sushil recalls. Such was his love for coding, that on his return home after college, he decided to teach Python and coding to sixth and seventh graders.
In 2013, Sushil joined the PS4 team at Sony. “Sony was one of the best experiences of my life. I was part of the graphics team - we would create the game samples from the game APIs. But within the first two to three hours of the day, my work would be done and I wanted to do something more,” says Sushil.
With the free time, he decided to automate the complete testing process of the games, where people had to manually play to test if all the pixels are right and if the game is rendering perfectly. It takes one to two weeks to test the SDK.
“I began to understand how the PS4 works and worked on how to automate it. The first thing I did was record all the game movements from the controller. I created the proprietary file with commands and started passing those using Python,” Sushil explains.
He then ran the script and read all the commands that were recorded and played it in PS4. Next, Sushil recorded the complete gameplay on the screen with the commands.
“Whenever a new SDK would come, I would record the gameplay on the same commands and compare the videos. But comparison is tough; it takes five to six hours for frame-by-frame comparison, which was very important for us,” says Sushil.
Since PS4 has a strong graphic processing unit (GPU), Sushil decided to take advantage of it and used its process power. Soon, the comparison of a 10-minute video took 10 to 15 seconds.
First brush with entrepreneurship
During this time, Sushil started taking up freelance projects as well – he helped with My Dream Store’s backend coding, and also built the initial website for Drivezy.
In 2015, he had his first entrepreneurial stint, when he mulled launching a smart lock to help people control their locks using a smartphone. He soon built a prototype using Raspberry Pi, and installed a small camera to capture a photo for image recognition.
“If you know the person, then the door would unlock. If not, an alert would go to your WhatsApp. I thought about how to manufacture it, as we had the prototype. A friend’s father had a lock business in Aligarh, and we approached him to see how we much it cost to integrate with their business. We were naïve back then: he asked us how many locks we could produce a day, and we calculated and said, ‘only two to three locks’," says Sushil.
It was then that Sushil learnt that the world of hardware and manufacturing was a whole different ballgame; the margins were usually less. Disheartened, Sushil soldiered on at Sony, and worked on different projects. By 2015, he also learnt virtual reality (VR) integration in the games.
“I knew gaming would be big in India but at that time, I realised we don’t have good enough games in India. Also, there is no dev kit in India to build the PS4 because many believe we aren’t capable and aren’t creative enough,” says Sushil.
So, he put on hold his idea to pursue gaming seriously then and decided to try his luck elsewhere. He had two offers: he got selected by Samsung, for Tizen, for graphic capabilities inside the OS, and also by Amazon to help build Amazon Pay.
The heady Unacademy stint
But just as he was about to join Amazon, Sushil got a call from Himesh, who by then was CTO and Co-founder at Unacademy. “I thought to myself, ‘I am anyways leaving Sony and I have tried two to three things, why not learn from the best’,” adds Sushil.
At Unacademy, Sushil was the first employee after the founders. He says,
“It was a rollercoaster ride. For me, the two years in Unacademy was like a second college in itself. I built different products, tried so many things. On the first day, Gaurav [Munjal], the Co-founder and CEO, asked me to create a website and launch it by evening. The whole experience taught me a lot,” he says.
In the initial days, Sushil would connect with different people in the developer community, which helped him understand the different systems and tech that was being built.
“We decided to first launch the PWA—Progressive Web App—built by Himesh and me. This helped us get into Tier II and III markets, and since we also provided offline support, it helped us send notifications. I then went on to create a proprietary player that can help create videos on the fly on the mobile,” says Sushil.
By the end of 2016, Sushil knew he wanted to do something different. A dating app was considered, but it never left the drawing board.
“It was on one of these days that I chanced upon the HQ Trivia. It was eye-opening and something new. India is a new mobile market especially in Tier III and IV markets, where they know only the mobile and have no experience with the desktop or laptops. So I thought why not build something like this,” he adds.
So Loco began as a side project with friend Chetan Dhembre. Gunning for a KBC kind of experience, they built a text-based game in seven days and launched in December 2017.
“In a week’s time, we had over 100 concurrent users on the app. The virality we realised had started happening automatically, with people winning games. Since this was one of the first interactive gaming apps in India, we wanted to build everything from scratch. By December end, we had 500 concurrent users and by the end of January 2018, we had 20,000 users. We were second in the world after HQ Trivia,” says Sushil.
Since the market was India, they wanted to ensure that the app was accessible to anyone who is using it for 3g or 2g. To this end, they worked on audio streams and the text.
The growing popularity of the app got the attention of Anirudh Pandita, Co-founder of Pocket Aces, who got in touch with Sushil through Sequoia.
“They believed live gaming was the next disruption in India and they were ready to invest in and acquire us,” says Sushil.
The traffic by then was gaining heat. “We had over 500,000 concurrent users. And in tech there is a belief, if your traffic goes up by 2X, you need to change your backend architecture. And we were doing this practically on an everyday basis,” he adds.
After acquisition, Sushil and Chetan began focussing purely on technology, while Pocket Aces invested in production and marketing. The team was soon able to rope in Breakfast of Champions‘ Creator and Host Gaurav Kapur to host one of their games.
Now, the team is working on testing different forms of gaming - fantasy and casual games. Loco is also launching a few other apps, currently in the testing stages.
Build as much as you can
Even as success is very much here and now, Sushil believes in continuing to code and building some great products. At present, his focus is completely on Loco, and as he builds the team he hires engineers who are hands-on, displaying sound problem-solving skills.
“Your hands-on experience is what defines you as a coder. Even today, both Chetan and I still code. We code as much as we can. It helps us keep in touch with what is happening in the world of technology and how it is evolving,” says Sushil.
And this is just what he tells other coders looking to create impact.
“Understand what is happening in the market and keep creating things. Don’t get into the rabbit hole of tutorials and online courses. Build things. It may not be a startup, it may be something really small, but build it with your hands. Even if it is a to-do list or a journal app, create some solution for yourself first. Solve your own problems with technology.”
(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)
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