In December 2016, one particular acquisition slid past most of mainstream media’s eye in India. It was a small deal, after all, just $8.5 million. Starbreeze Studios, a Swedish game developer, acquired Dhruva Interactive, a 20-year-old gaming services company. $8.5 million isn’t a lot of money, so it is easy to brush it off as a small deal. Except, if you think about the kind of company that Dhruva is and the business it is in, you will probably appreciate it a little more.
Rajesh Rao, Dhruva’s 46-year-old founder, has worked on some of the biggest game titles—Microsoft Studios’ Forza Motorsport and Remedy Entertainment’s Quantum Break, among many others. Still, he remarks how he was just a decade and a half too early to set up a gaming company. Dhruva began at a time when no one in India was playing PC or console games. In the mid and late nineties, gaming was the pastime of the privileged few or those who had cousins abroad.
Twenty years later, making and selling mobile games is as tough as ever. So much has changed in the last two decades (mobile phone penetration, disposable incomes, digital payments infrastructure, etc.) that Indian game developers should have struck a pot of gold. If not gold, a respectable fortune, at the very least. But they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Games nobody played
The nineties was the caveman age for games. At a time when good sound and graphic cards for PCs, or high-resolution colour monitors, were still rare and expensive, Rao set up his gaming company in 1997. This was after Intel, which had just launched its Pentium II processor in India, pitched to Rao that his team could use their processors to even make games. “And just like that we began making games for a living,” says Rao. “There was no market sizing, business potential or anything. Just a bunch of 20-year-olds awed by the possibility that we could make them and would be the first company in India to do so.” So if you had to credit someone with the first-mover advantage, Rao would get all of it. But it isn’t much of an advantage really when you are the only one at the party.
Dhruva started out as a game designer and developer. It even came close to getting its PC version of Mission Impossible published for a global audience. But as with 20-30% of the games developed, it got killed at the very last stage. For Dhruva, this was the first game it had made, and it gave the team the confidence that it could make world-class games.
An Indian company that could make world-class games was a feat by itself back then and even now.