It seems impossible to have an optimistic outlook on the future of this planet, considering all that’s going on. Things just seem to get worse, and we often have little recourse. That’s when we turn to distractions, content, and hobbies, which, since you’re on this site, are probably video games for you.
This is what inspires SuperGaming, who, as CEO Roby John told me, are working towards building an optimistic view of India’s future. The studio aims to do so via its upcoming game, Indus: Battle Royale. You must be wondering how a game that revolves around shooting other people gives off an “optimistic view”. That’s what I thought too, until I sat down with creative associate and writer Ankush Nishad.
While we spoke about the concept of Indo-Futurism – think Wakanda, but for India – the most wholesome bit in our conversations was about how diverse our country’s culture is.
“That is one of the bigger challenges,” says Nishad. “Bringing everything to the game, like in our art, which is very detailed, colorful, intricate, whether it be paintings, Rangoli, Mehendi, textiles, or our architecture.
“We have a lot of variety in different regions, and you don’t find this type of diversity working together in most other countries. India has always, throughout its history, been able to incorporate a lot of varying cultures or ideals together.”
You’d see what Nishad means if you ever found yourself walking down one of the older streets in any of India’s major metro cities. A pure veg restaurant sharing a wall with a local seafood joint, a tailor specializing in saris and other traditional wear bang-opposite a custom suit designer.
Looming over the roofs of one of the old British-era buildings you’d see a massive white dome of a mosque with the sounds of the Azan echoing, mixed with the bells of a small shrine dedicated to the Hindu god, Hanuman. It seems like a stereotype, but that is truly what the chaotic harmony of a market street in Mumbai is like – despite efforts by some to see it undone.
But that’s just the stuff you already know, that you’ve already seen on TV. If Indus is truly a representation of the culture of India, what about cultures that most need representation? When people think of India, they already think of the dome of the Taj Mahal, colourful textiles, and spicy food, but Nishad assures me that “representation” doesn’t mean showing off what’s already popular.
As a research effort, the studio organizes multiple trips all over the country so that the team could familiarize itself with varying cultures. “We also took inspiration from other architectural styles found across India, be it from the North in Ladakh, Manipur architecture, [or] Meiti architecture, which has its own unique style. The aim is to study different parts of India and bring those influences everywhere.”
It was evident that the team was trying to do more than just make a game that’s set in a futuristic India. It felt like they were trying to break the typecast that India has been given in the media. That little walk down the market streets of Mumbai isn’t all that the country is, there’s a lot more to offer, as creative Director Jwalant Gangwar explains.
“Whatever representation there has been of India in video games or media in general has always been cynical and almost caricature-like, so we knew there were some very important things that we had to hit. And from that emerged Indo-Futurism, an optimistic outlook of what India could be.
“Even though we hadn’t come up with the term ‘Indo-Futurism’, the intentions were always there, because our goal was to make a game that uplifts the Indian image.”
Gangwar points out how disproportionate the representation of India in video games is, as compared to its market representation. “Everyone wants a piece of this new, very delicious pie, but no one’s doing their part. It’s up to us.”
It’s not just historical architecture, culture, and ethnicity that the studio wants to focus on. The skill, talent and hard work that Indian developers have put in is crucial too, as that credit is rarely given on the international market. India’s international games are mostly gambling and board game apps, a reputation that Gangwar (and I) both hope that the country can shake. “We are more than Teen Patti, we are more than Ludo.”
You will have heard a lot about how deep and diverse the culture in India is. Religion, architecture, food, clothing… there’s so much to take inspiration from. But having too many options can also be a bad thing. In this particular case, the devs would have had a hard time trying to include so much in one map, as game designer Shwetaketu Dighe admits.
“I would say the most difficult part of incorporating Indo-Futurism is the diversity of India,” he says. “From biodiversity to the diversity of cultures, representing India in a 12.5 square kilometer map is going to be a hard task.
“It’s not just about Indian architecture, but Indian cultures and subcultures. Some are more famous than the others. Tribal art, for instance, we do not notice it often, but it is a big part of Indian culture. If you just try to list it down, there will be millions of things that you can include in a game. And so how do we filter this and how do we pick what we have to pick and put it in?”
Structures and characters inspired by India are one thing, but what about the map layout itself? It seems the melting pot of Indian culture has something for that too. A particular area of the map, called The Gufa, is designed to accommodate close range fire fights, like in a team deathmatch map. The inspiration for this area came from the Ajanta and Ellora caves.
This rock-cut cave system is a UNESCO World Heritage site that features intricately carved Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist iconography. On one of the dev team’s many research excursions, they realised that the cave system and outer structure coincidentally had all the features of a good TDM map. Inspiration finds you where you least expect it.
But what inspires a person, or team, to take India to the world? To make a game featuring aspects about the country that not many people outside the country would know? This is a risk that John and SuperGaming have been taking for a while now, and it’s been paying off.
“So when we did a game called Silly Royale (one of SuperGaming’s earlier social multiplayer games), we included game modes that were similar to Indian children’s games like Chorr Police, Pakdam Pakdi, Lappa Chuppi.
“It became a massive hit, the first 12 games we made under SuperGaming’s social games umbrella had a million users – the 13th game had a million users on day three. This made us think that this formula can work because that’s how many people understand and like the concept.”
Game modes that play on nostalgia is a great idea, but if the aim is to bring India to the world, then you need a stronger anchor. Traditional childhood games are great for Indian audiences, the rest of the world isn’t going to feel that nostalgia. But past experiences with his previous shooter MaskGun have taught John that there’s a hook to reel in that fish too.
MaskGun launched in Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand before making its way to India, so there was already an international audience. “We had Diwali as an event,” he tells me. “Everybody usually does Halloween and Christmas, but we put Diwali in. So I had people from other countries ask me what Diwali was, and it was great fun explaining that Diwali is the Festival of Light and its significance.”
“We kind of realized how much of culture a game can bring in and how much of it we are influenced by. And we thought that taking our culture to the rest of the world was even more fun. That gave us an insight of what we would eventually become.”
A lot of the answers revolved around Indus’ goal to show an optimistic view of India, but if that really is the case, does SuperGaming feel a sense of responsibility in terms of spreading a message?
“I grew up in an India where a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi were your best friends. We celebrated all of their festivals.” John tells me. “I’m hoping that that bias reflects in the game that I’m making.”
The intent is there. They’ve done their research, refined their ideas, and even built a launchpad – but the game in its current state has a long way to go if SuperGaming wants to achieve its goal of making India see an optimistic way forward.
The invite-based playtest that I witnessed later in the day showed a few signs of all the things the devs spoke about, but it seemed more like set dressing more than anything else. I don’t think too many of the invitees took in the Indus part of the game as they were too busy with the Battle Royale part. Perhaps that’s just battle royale fatigue at this point.
Of course, the game is not yet out, but I hope to see more of what the team spoke about when it finally is. It would be a shame if the Indo-Futuristic ideas of Indus are buried like its namesake.
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