The Promise of India
Ancient Culture, Modern Game Design

Ernest W. Adams

NASSCOM Animation and Gaming Summit 2009
Game Development Summit Keynote Address, November 7, 2009

This is an approximate transcript of my keynote address. Images and video clips from my slides are included.

Introduction

Good morning, everyone. I want to begin by thanking NASSCOM for inviting me to this event, and also Rajesh Rao of Dhruva Interactive. Rajesh waited around the lobby of my hotel at the Game Developers' Conference this year, like a tiger waiting for a goat, and when I came through, he pounced and asked me to come and speak here. This is my first visit to India, and while I have long been interested in the history, the many cultures, and the future prospects of India, I will have to admit that I don't know as much about the Indian game business as I should. I have been asked to address a number of specific issues in today's talk, and I'm afraid that some of you may already be familiar with some of the ideas I want to discuss. They told me to keep this talk practical with not too much blue sky or theorizing, so if you hear me say something that seems completely obvious, it's not because I'm trying to patronize you, it's just that I'm assuming that this is a diverse audience that consists of both experienced game developers but also new ones, or people who are considering becoming developers. I should also say that I'm not going to talk a lot about money. I'm a game design consultant, not a business consultant.

I've been asked to address the question of how the Indian game industry can move ahead, take the next step to join the community of major developers in the world, and compete on the global stage with game studios such as Bungie and Valve. At the moment, the Indian industry already has high production skills in certain areas: conventional animation, subcontracting for programming and art, and developing smaller games for such platforms as mobile phones, the PSP, web browsers, and so on. The question, then, is how to build on this foundation, and turn your business into the kind of company that makes real blockbuster games. That's what I've been asked to talk about. So I've broken it down into four questions:

  1. How to go from short, small games to Western-style blockbusters?
  2. How to move from storytelling animation to video game animation?
  3. How to go from subcontracting work to creating your own intellectual properties?
  4. How to make all this happen in 5 years instead of 15?

Developing Big Games

I'll begin with the easiest question first. How do you go from short games to long games? How do you make that transition to making big games?

A certain Indian developer, whom I will not name, said to me, "There are lots of people here who know how to make five-minute long Flash games. But we don't have enough people who know how to make games that last two hours." And in fact two hours is nowhere near enough for blockbuster status.

Let's begin by looking and some of the ways that games entertain. This is actually a slide that I use in my game design workshops.

  • Gameplay: challenge and achievement.
  • Aesthetics: visual and auditory style.
  • Storytelling: characters to care about.
  • Exploration: moving around unfamiliar space.
  • Novelty: new things to do, see and hear.
  • Progression: growth in many forms.
  • Risks and Rewards: fear of loss, hope of gain.
  • Learning: gaining understanding and mastery.
  • Creativity: making and sharing things.
  • Role-playing: wearing a mask, acting a part.
  • Socializing: interacting with other people.

You can make a short game longer by expanding many of these forms of entertainment.

Gameplay

We often expand gameplay by using a theme and variations, like a composer does when creating music. For example, if racing is a theme, then you can have different kinds of racing: cars, motorcycles, boats, and so on; and different kinds of races: on roads, on race tracks, or off-road. Or in a shooter game, there's really only one theme, shooting, but we offer the player many kinds of weapons: pistol, rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, machine gun, and so on. These variations give the player new challenges and new activities.

Progression

A game should grow as it goes along. Its difficulty should increase -- steadily and not too fast; I have a whole other lecture just on this topic. You can also upgrade the avatar's abilities, offering the player character growth. And when a game gets long, you have to think about pacing, interleaving difficult levels with easier levels. Pacing is also important within a level, providing the player with periods of intense activity and periods of relative calm.

Setting

You can change the setting, take the player away to somewhere new, even if the gameplay doesn't change. If you go all the way back to a game like Sonic the Hedgehog, you can see this in action. The gameplay was always the same. The buttons only did one thing, which was to jump, but you started off in the Green Hill Zone and then you went on to the Marble Zone and the Scrap Brain Zone, and so on. The change of setting kept it interesting.

Storyline

Include a story. Stories keep players interested in long games. When I was playing Starcraft, I eventually got a bit tired of the gameplay, but the story got me hooked and I wanted to see how it came out. The player's achievements cause the plot to advance, so he keeps playing.

Replayability versus Winability

A long game is also different from a short game in that a short game is intended to be replayable, and a long game is not. A short game should be different every time the player plays; this is why we shuffle the deck in card games. A long game, on the other hand, must be winnable. The player won't devote 40 hours to a game he can't finish. A player can lose a short game by bad luck, but a player must never lose a long game by bad luck.

Big Themes

Beyond this, however, big games are about fulfilling dreams – the dream to be somebody else that it is difficult or expensive or impossible to be: a general, a ballerina, a football star. Short games can be simple and abstract, like Pac-Man. Because the player will play them often, they should start, move, and end quickly. But long games need to draw the player in more slowly, to encourage him to invest his time in them, and to reward him for doing so. They need to be about something that matters. That's why long games have stories and short ones don't.

I do professional game design training, and I emphasize player-centric game design – design that concentrates on the player's feelings and desires. Ultimately, when you're moving from short games to long games, you're moving from very light entertainment – a few minutes' break – to something richer and more serious. You have to change your relationship with the player. You have to care for his feelings at every point throughout the game.

In addition, real blockbusters – the kind that cost 5 or 10 million dollars to make – require a much higher level of management skill to develop. You're simply looking after larger teams and many more assets. Changing the design of a game is not that difficult, but upgrading your production capacity is another story, and I'll talk more about that later on.

Animation

Since this also an animation conference, I know that a number of you are interested in expanding your business from conventional storytelling animation to video game animation, and that's the next question I want to address.

2D Keyframe

It's important to understand how storytelling animation differs from game animation. In the ordinary world of 2D keyframe animation, it isn't that different, and this makes it comparatively easy to move from storytelling animation to animating for games on platforms that still use 2D keyframe animation, such as Flash games and mobile phones.

There are still important differences, however. In a video game, the player might press any button at any time, and the game must display a smooth transition from whatever state the character is in at the moment, to the state that the player has called for, no matter what it is, and the software must be able to supply this on demand. If the character is in the middle of a jump, and the player presses the button to crouch, the character must complete the jump, land smoothly and then crouch down, and you have to create animations for every possible combination of events.

We're all familiar with this sort of thing from the 1980s:

 

Street Fighter 2 YouTube video uploaded by user Zephyrnix. Original video is here.

You can still get away with this kind of thing in little Flash games and on mobile phones, but it's just not acceptable in the world of big games.

3D Animation

If you want to take the next step to 3D animation, it gets considerably more complex. Game animation is moving farther and farther away from storytelling animation. In storytelling animation, the storyteller is in complete control of everything. In video games, we are moving more and more to simulate complex physical environments in which the player may interact with every object on the screen, and we are not in control. We can't predict what the player might do or what the simulation might produce.

And of course the most extreme example of this is The Sims. Many video games require only simple interactions with the environment such as run, jump, climb and shoot, but in The Sims, characters must be able to use a television, a stove, play on equipment such as swings, and so on. In The Sims, the animation data is not stored with the character, as you might expect, but with the objects themselves. So when the player buys a new object, that object brings with it the necessary animation data that allows a character to use it.

Procedural Animation

Game animation is becoming more and more like software engineering, and we're doing procedural animation. So we're starting to use techniques such as:

    Inverse kinematics. This technique produces correct interactions with objects even if those objects are in locations that are not known in advance. Instead of simply having a fixed animation, pre-rendered in the studio, we compute the animation in the player's machine so that it works correctly with the objects in the scene, no matter where they are.

    Ragdoll physics. This generates the behavior of human bodies tumbling under the influence of strong forces.

    True locomotion. Instead of simply having a walk cycle, we compute movement from physical quantities such as force, inertia, and friction. We already do this with vehicles, computing the friction between a race car's tires and the track, but we're now starting to do it with people too.

The ultimate example of procedural animation is Spore, which automatically generates actions for creatures that the player creates, and those creatures can be any shape whatsoever. In fact, before Spore was released, Will Wright boasted that everything you see on the screen would be procedurally generated, and not a single thing created by an artist. I don't know if that's still true, but the results are very impressive:

 

Spore creature "The Eternal Sweeper" by YouTube user benwhoski. Original video is here.

(Incidentally, if you look at this video at about the five-second mark, you can see that Spore is not doing inverse kinematics, because the creature's legs disappear into the ground. You see this kind of thing often in video games, in which a character's feet disappear into the stairs that he is supposed to be climbing. With inverse kinematics, the player's system would compute the position of the foot with respect to the ground and stop the foot when it touches.)

And putting it all together, we get things like the Madden NFL series. I worked for many years on Madden for Electronic Arts. American football is a game in which the athletes grab each other and try to hurl each other to the ground, often in a big pile-up.

 

Madden NFL 10 AFC North preview by Electronic Arts. Original video is here.

To make this look right requires a combination of traditional, motion-captured 3D animation and procedural animation, in which men slam together in big groups, and we have to correctly compute those interactions on the fly. You obviously can't motion-capture 15 people all slamming together at once.

The Perils of Hollywood Thinking

However, all that is just technology, and if you have the right attitude about it, you can take a storytelling animation company and start creating this sort of thing. But the attitude is critical. Twenty years ago I wrote an article called "The Perils of Hollywood Thinking," in which I warned that there is an essential difference between designing presentational entertainment – books, film, and television – and participatory entertainment – video games.

As a storytelling animation company your natural tendency is to think in terms of presentation, and that simply won't do in video games. A game designer is not a storyteller – even if the game has a story! A game designer is an enabler of other people's dreams. Games are about giving the player something exciting to do. Animation allows him to see himself doing it – but the point is that the player gets to decide what he does and when. That's what you have to provide.

Hollywood has tried to take over the video game industry on several different occasions, because they assumed that they knew more about entertainment than we did. They failed, because while they knew a lot about presentation, they didn't know much about play. There are only two film companies that managed to be successful in the game industry, and neither of them are typical Hollywood companies: LucasArts and Disney. Both of them understand and appreciate software engineering. And if you don't understand and appreciate software engineering, you have no business trying to get into video games.

Designing Intellectual Property

The third question was, how to go from doing outsourcing work for other people to creating your own intellectual property that will be valuable?

Characters

You do it with characters. The storytelling animators among you will already know this.

Bart_SimpsonLara_action_figuremario_449x600kratos

We used to think, say, 15 years ago, that it was desirable to make games that you can make a sequel from, so that you could build a franchise. But that's still to narrow a focus. The emphasis is no longer on franchises, but on brands, and a strong gaming brand is usually built around a strong character.

You can't monetize gameplay in any format except for games. Almost all the movies made from games have been terrible: the Doom movie, the Wing Commander movie, and so on. The only ones that were halfway decent were ones that had strong characters.

With good characters, you can make books, films, TV shows, games, T-shirts, and on and on. Begin with characters. Even a war game like Starcraft has memorable characters.

From Subcontracting to Development

Let's talk about the differences between game development work and outsourcing work. The most significant difference is: you own it, for good and ill. You have control of all the variables. This requires more dedication from the team. It's not enough just to come in and do your job and turn in the results to the client.

There's a major change of emphasis here. The attitudes of a service provider are fundamentally different from those of a designer and developer. I can't think of any clearer way of putting it than to say three words: it's your baby. And you have to love it like your own baby, care for it, and want the best for it.

Integration is another critical issue. If you're doing outsource work, the client handles integration issues, so you don't have to. But if you want to develop your own games, you must learn to handle a wide variety of very different talents. This is a problem the industry knows well -- it's often difficult to get programmers and artists to talk coherently to one another. Unfortunately, there's no easy answer. The producing skills needed to handle this properly can't be taught in university courses.

This is the area where India is weakest. Yesterday when someone asked for a show of hands how many people had been in the industry less than two years, easily half the hands in the room went up. That is, to be blunt, a terrifying lack of experience. To learn this, you need to import skilled game producers and project managers.

Testing and Tuning

Testing and tuning is also different. Service providers don't normally have to test and tune (unless they're a testing company). They create their assets to the client's specifications and they're done. But easily 50% of the labor of making a game is in testing, tuning, and polishing it. This is where more love comes in. And you have to realize that if a given feature takes N days to implement, it will take another 2N days to test and tune . There's always a strong temptation to add new cool features, especially if you're used to thinking only about how long they will take to implement, but not used to thinking about how long they will take to polish.

Do Not Promise More Than You Can Deliver

Major admonition: don't promise more than you can deliver. Overpromising has killed off more projects than almost anything else. As a game design consultant, I am always very clear with my clients about the limitations of my abilities. I often get people wanting me to help them make an MMOG, and I tell them, that's not my area. I refer them to one of my colleagues instead. It means I don't get that money, but it also means I preserve my reputation and I don't cause an expensive failure. Besides, I have found that most clients appreciate that sort of candor, and maybe they'll remember it later and offer me something else another time -- whereas if I waste their money by promising something I can't deliver, they certainly never will.

A Few More Principles

Let me make a few more suggestions if you want to make games for the West:

    Research your audience. You can't expect to make games for the West without understanding their styles of entertainment, any more than I can make games for India without understanding what Indians want. Study our myths and stories, watch our movies, play our games. Realize that different countries have different expectations, because the West is not monolithic. The US is fairly socially conservative about sex -- in that respect it's akin to India -- but less so about violence. Germany, on the other hand, has very strong censorship about violence. You'll have to know these things.

    Enthusiasm is not competence, and passion is not professionalism. Yesterday we heard Biren Goshe ask, "how do we retain the bubbling energy of the five-year-old?" And I agree that you want to do that. But you don't want the attention span of a five-year-old, the manners of a five-year-old, the teamwork of a five-year-old, or the dedication to quality of a five-year-old. I have worked with some people who might as well have been five-year-olds, and it wasn't worth the pain – even with their energy and creativity. Hire game developers, not gamers. The fact that someone loves games does not automatically mean that he'll be any good at making them.

    Don't copy, improve. I don't know how many cheap, bad ripoffs I've seen in the game industry, but it must be hundreds. Somebody comes up with an innovation and everyone rushes to copy it. But Half-Life is not a copy of Doom. It's an improvement on Doom. And realize that new features alone are not improvements. Half-Life didn't add that much to Doom -- it was still mostly about shooting - - but it just did it better. If you're going to borrow from someone else, improve it. Do things better, faster, more richly, with higher production values

    If you can't do it well, don't do it at all. This is a point I drive home again and again to my students. A small game that is beautifully polished and is perfect in every way is better than a big game that has buggy, badly-tuned features.

Making It Happen in Five Years

So now we come to the last question: how can the Indian game industry make this happen in five years instead of 15? In my opinion, the answer is education and professional training. This is what education does: it trains people in an efficient manner rather than requiring them to learn on the job. Learning on the job is valuable, and there are things that you learn on the job that you don't get anywhere else, but it's costly, because you make mistakes as you learn. In a competitive industry, we can't afford too many mistakes. Education provides a place where students can make mistakes safely, and where they can devote all their time to learning new things.

In the last 10 years an enormous number of game schools have been established in the US and Europe. Some of them have been good, and some have been bad; but the good ones will eventually drive out the bad ones. In the industry, especially the well-established industries in the US and the UK, there is some debate about whether we even need formal game development education, because after all, it didn't exist when we old-timers were young, 20 and 30 years ago. However, we've had all that time to figure things out the hard way. Along the way we've made a lot of mistakes and wasted a lot of money. For a country with a much younger game industry – the Indian sub-continent, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia – formal game education can save you all that wasted money and effort, and allow you to catch up to the West much more quickly.

Curriculum Framework Document

As you may know, I'm the founder of the International Game Developers' Association, and a strong supporter of the work of the Education Special Interest Group. Among other things they've created a Curriculum Framework Document that helps educational institutions to set up their game programs. You can find it, and other resources, at www.igda.org/education.

Professional Training

Then there is professional training at the corporate level. In addition to my game design work and my teaching at universities, I also do professional training for development studios at Sony, Ubisoft, Bioware, Crytek and so on. I hope you will forgive me if this sounds like an advertisement, but I think it would pay you well to import experts from the West to come and teach these things at your company. Not just game design, which is my area, but such things as large-scale project management, the Scrum methodology, asset management systems, and so on. The knowledge is out there and there are people who will be happy to teach it to you. You just need to bring them to India.

The Centre of Excellence

Finally, I understand that there is a proposal pending with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to establish a centre of excellence for video game development. I think this is a very important step, and I strongly support it. A center of excellence will be able to bring in experts from the West. It can help train the teachers here in India. It should promote communication among institutions and become a clearinghouse for information and tools.

The Promise of India

Now, this has been a rather prescriptive talk, full of warnings and advice, because I was told that what people really wanted was sound practical information, so I've tried to give that. But the title of the talk is "The Promise of India," and I want to end on a somewhat more positive note.

The promise of India is threefold.

Talent

This is a country with a lot of very smart people in it. India has a long tradition of education, of arts and literature, and of high technology and engineering. These are advantages that a lot of other post-colonial societies in Africa and Southeast Asia don't have. And it also helps that you're an English-speaking nation, which gives you a competitive advantage over, say, Eastern Europe. So I'm strongly confident that India has the talent, the resources, and the attitudes required to become a major player in this industry. All you're lacking is experience, and that will come with training and time.

Markets

I know at the moment that most of you are interested in cracking the US and European market because that is where most of the money is made now. But in my opinion, that's a short-sighted view. The world balance of economic power is changing. The economic stimulus spending that the United States did to halt the recession -- 787 billion dollars -- was mostly underwritten by the Chinese, and the world is going to notice that.

China and India are the next two great markets for video games, and they will in time be larger than the entire rest of the world combined. Don't rule out your own home market. One out of every six people in the world is an Indian. There's this stereotype that India is a poor country, but even if you discount 75% of population, the richest 25% of 1.2 billion Indians is still 300 million, which coincidentally is the population of the entire United States. Because India is farther behind as consumers of games, the growth, when it comes, will be fast, and some people – possibly some people in this room right now – are going to make colossal fortunes selling games to Indians.

Yesterday we heard a lot of pessimistic talk about the state of the console and mobile business in India. 90% of the Indian people don't know consoles even exist; 90% of people either don't have a game-ready handset or they have one and don't know they can play games on it. But I'm an optimist. India is not going to stay "poor" forever.

The West is not making games for India. Yes, we heard some lip service from Sony and Microsoft yesterday, but frankly, I'm not impressed. What would happen if you walked into Sony and said, "I want to make a blockbuster for the Indian market? I need 20 million dollars in development funds and another 80 million in marketing funds?" You wouldn't get it, and that also is short-sighted. But no one is in a better position to take advantage of this opportunity than Indians themselves.

I think it is entirely appropriate that people should make entertainment for their own culture. I don't really like the cultural dominance of the American entertainment industry, which you can really see if you live in Europe – half the cable TV channels are American. But India knows better, which is why you have your own film industry for your own market. And you should have your own game industry for your own market as well.

Culture

Just as I say, don't overlook your own markets, I also say, don't overlook your own culture. India has been a source of gaming innovation since the dawn of time. You invented pachisi,

Krishna and Radha playing Pachisi

Radha and Krishna playing pachisi, which was later adapted to create Parcheesi and Ludo.


you invented Snakes and Ladders,

Moksha-Patamu

Moksha-patamu, the early form of Snakes (or Chutes) and Ladders.


and you invented chess, which is probably the most famous game in the world.

Krishna and Radha playing Chaturanga

Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga, the precursor to chess.


Now, I know that India has had visitors from the West since time immemorial who have come here and been fascinated by your history, your religions, your languages, your arts and so on. From Alexander the Great to the Beatles, India has had visitors who came, saw, and went home amazed. You may be a bit tired of all these Westerners coming here and saying "ooh, look at the pretty temples" without ever really understanding you. And I have to confess that I am one of these people. I know that there is a talk scheduled for later in the program called "Beating the Mythology Hangover" and I'm afraid it's going to say just about the opposite of what I'm going to say.

But the fact is that the Western companies continue to make game after game after game based upon the northern European tales of adventure – in short, ripping off Tolkien. It's almost as if the rest of the world didn't exist. We also borrow a little from medieval Japan – the era of the Shoguns – and China. But I haven't heard of a single Western company that is making use of the vast wealth of cultural resources of India.

Don't be afraid of trying India-inspired – not Indian-themed, but India-inspired – games in the West. Of course you'll have to make sure that the play style – the game's challenges and actions – are acceptable to the West, but the art, architecture, music, names, weapons, clothing, jewelry, hairstyles can all come from your culture. Look at Assassin's Creed, Prince of Persia, God of War, and all the many, many Japanese games that are successful in the west. We ate them up! Now of course Prince of Persia has very little to do with Iran – it probably wouldn't even sell well in Iran. But the artistic inspiration is undeniable. And there is no reason at all that God of War couldn't have been made with Indian gods instead of Greek ones. If the gameplay is good enough, and the production values are high enough, it doesn't matter.

I am sick to death of elves and dwarves and knights and dragons! I want to play a game about Indian gods and heroes and demons and elephants. I want to play a game – no, I want to make a game – that is inspired by the Ramayana. That is my dream project: a huge sprawling game of role-playing diplomacy and war and heroism drawn from Indian myths and legends.

But of course, it shouldn't really be me who makes it. It's a bit presumptuous of me, a Westerner, to come here and talk about borrowing your culture when I haven't even read all your legends. It should be you. Because you, here in this room, with all that you are and all that you represent -- talent, markets, culture -- ultimately, you are the promise of India.

Thank you very much.