Biff! Zap! Game Coding Comes To India

Software makers are working overtime to turn out games for cell phones

It's almost midnight, but the Bangalore offices of Dhruva Interactive are buzzing with activity. In one corner, a half-dozen developers are putting the finishing touches on a cell-phone version of Slyder, a puzzle game that will soon light up the tiny screens of subscribers of U.S. mobile carriers Sprint Corp. (FON ) and Verizon Wireless (VZ ). Across the room, another group perfects the serves on a tennis game featuring Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova that will be sold by European carriers Vodafone (VOD ), Orange (FTE ), and T-Mobile (DT ).

The lights are on late into the night at gaming companies across India these days as the country makes its mark in the $2.2 billion global business of providing games for cell phones. "From a technical perspective, everything's there in India," says Daren Siddall, an analyst with researcher Gartner Inc. (IT ) Although mobile-gaming development today is just a $100 million business in India, it's growing at 50% a year and by 2010 could be worth $500 million, according to Nasscom, India's software trade association. And Indian companies could book an additional $130 million meeting local demand for mobile games by then, up from the current $20 million, game makers say.

The industry is gaining traction as foreigners set up shop. Los Angeles-based Jamdat Mobile Inc. opened a 25-person office in Hyderabad in December. MFORMA Group Inc., the Bellevue (Wash.) maker of a game based on X-Men 2, has a team of 35 developers in Bangalore and expects to have 100 by yearend. Britain's Babel Media Ltd. has 20 staffers working in a testing facility near Delhi. And Dhruva is co-developing mobile games with Britain's I-play and is in discussion with Electronic Arts Inc. (ERTS ), based in Redwood City, Calif., to do the same. As with other software work, India's low costs are behind the trend, though it's also being driven by a shortage of qualified developers in the U.S. and Europe, according to Adventis Corp., a Boston consultancy.


The downside for India is that the work so far is relatively low-level. Few Indians actually design games; instead they concentrate on "porting" -- tweaking the software code to ensure that games work on the myriad phones and networks used by cell-phone carriers. This work, plus testing, can represent more than half the $200,000 to $1 million it costs to develop a game. "With each technology advance and new phone, there's the huge challenge of porting and testing," says Chris Boden, head of Asia for In-Fusio, a French game developer that is looking for partners in India.

India's gaming companies, though, are hoping to move into more creative work. Dhruva, with 20 gaming software writers, has licensed the rights to Charlie Chaplin's image for mobile-phone games. And the company has done animation for games aimed at consoles such as Sony's PlayStation. Bombay's Mobile2Win embedded a game sponsored by Coca-Cola (KO ) Co. on 1 million Siemens (SI ) phones sold in China last year. Now its 28 coders are setting up a gaming Web site for Motorola Inc. (MOT ), and the company has licenses to animate Bollywood blockbusters and cricket stars on phones. And Bombay-based IndiaGames has nearly 200 staffers who have written games based on films such as Jurassic Park.

Another big opportunity is creating games for India's own cell-phone users -- who number 54 million today and are expected to reach 180 million by 2008. Paradox Studios, a unit of conglomerate Reliance Industries, has 60 coders producing games for the 10 million customers of its parent's mobile phone franchise. Both locals and foreigners are hoping to sell some of those India-developed games abroad as well. "It's not cost-saving but the regional market opportunity that ranks at the top of my list" of reasons for setting up shop in India, says Daniel Kranzler, MFORMA's chairman. As mobile usage takes off in India, there are sure to be plenty of late nights in Bangalore to come.

By Josey Puliyenthuruthel in Bangalore

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