I met up with Shriram Srinivasan in Bangalore to talk about how he decided to get into the video game industry in India. Currently starting his final year of college at DSK Supinfocom, Pune, he has worked on projects that have won international competitions, been nominated at the BAFTAs and showcased by IndieCade at E3. He shared his views on how to begin a career in game design in the country and his experiences at game design college:
TGS: What got you started? When did you get the idea to get into games?
SS: I didn’t really have too many friends who played a lot of games. I was always a bit of a lone-kid who was always with games and doing random things on Photoshop. That made me go, “Hey, why don’t I start a career out of this? Why should I follow the mainstream of engineering or whatever?”
That was actually my introduction. Doing something different, but which I loved. It was around the 11th grade.
TGS: How did this idea go down with your folks?
SS: My parents are kind of cool, especially my mom. My father was sort of skeptical, but my mom was very supportive. She saw a future in this. At that time, there weren’t any colleges or prestigious places for games in India. There were a couple of smaller places around the country that I was trying to get into, but then I thought that maybe I should do something bigger. And then I found DSK.
TGS: You just applied and wrote an exam?
SS: I had to create a portfolio for the entrance. Then there was a 4-hour written exam, along with a videoconference with people who checked my portfolio and spoke with me. That was actually my first game – it was more like a tutorial, though – made in GameMaker: Studio. It was a ball that bounced and sped up and stuff.
TGS: So you had to make a game for the interview?
SS: It wasn’t necessary – I just always wanted to do a bit extra. I also created an After Effects video, a few Photoshop files with a bit of photo manipulation, and a design document for Most Wanted 2. I pitched a Most Wanted 2 concept! (We both laugh) This was before the latest Most Wanted released. And that was my portfolio.
TGS: What was your college experience like? What skills did you pick up?
SS: It was pretty interesting to discover myself and certain skills that I hadn’t figured out earlier. We concentrated on basic art, a very good foundation of game design, and project management, along with a little bit of programming. That was the first two years. In the third year we focused on core game mechanics. The third year was about creating your own game concept, pitching it, and filtering things. In the final year you have to make a full-fledged game, so the pre-production is done in the third year. Apart from this, we had two projects each year.
The first year didn’t focus so much on making games and was more about introducing yourself to entertainment medium. We had to make a video report. I made a super-cheesy parody of a superhero movie and a board game.
The second year was about digitalizing the board games that we made. There was filtering to decide which projects were selected – for example, I felt that I didn’t have the right team to make my board game with, so I killed my project and shifted to another team. There was also a point and click adventure game that was a lot of fun. We actually used pictures of each other to make the sprites! It was fun, but it was also frustrating because there was just too much work to do and all the games had to make in such a short period of time. Still, we were really satisfied with what we managed.
At the end of the second year there was a senior who’d just finished college and had found out about a competition in Scotland: Dare to be Digital. It was sort of a roadway to BAFTA. He was a really good programmer and designer, and was interested in making a small team – to which he invited me. His concept, Project Heera, had won at BYOG 2012. We collaborated with him on it and fortunately got selected for the competition. It was pretty crazy since there were only 15 teams selected from across the world! It’s a pretty huge platform – you get people from Rockstar and Ubisoft as mentors at the competition. There is direct contact between you and people in the industry. We even met people who were designing Watch Dogs. It was cool, and that experience gave us all a really good idea of the industry and how it works. It helped us learn a lot that we didn’t have the opportunity to learn in college.
In India it’s sometimes sort of closed – it isn’t really developed here, but in the UK it’s fully fledged. You have so many people who are doing game design, and it’s not something that is considered inferior. That gave us a great perspective of how people in other countries look at game design and studies. It was a great experience, and fortunately we also won! This led us to the BAFTAs and we were nominated for the Ones To Watch award.
TGS: So you did this all this on the side when you were in college?
SS: No, it actually fit perfectly into the three months of holiday we had after our second year.
The third year was all about creating our own concepts. It was about pitching, presenting and refining. I’ve now ended up with one of my friend’s concepts called Levitate. It was inspired by Journey and will be on the Oculus Rift and Razer Hydra. You’ll actually be able to experience the journey and feel like you’re in the game.
TGS: You said it’s your friend’s concept – are all your projects done in groups?
SS: Our college has different branches – Game Design, Game Arts and Programming. We started out with about 28 members in game design. Each of us pitched a concept in the first portion of the year and this was cut down to half the amount. The next session halved it again. At the end, it was broken down into 4-5 projects that were worked on.
My first concept was a 3-D isometric exploration-based horror game that had semi-roguelike elements. Then I saw my friend’s concept and found it pretty interesting, so I decided to collaborate with him on his concept instead. At the end of the third year we had to do an internship for at least 3 months, and that’s why I’m here in Bangalore. I’m actually interning with Zynga at the moment.
TGS: What advice would you give to people in India who want to get into the gaming industry?
SS: Firstly, you’ve got to be passionate about games. It might sound pretty obvious, but I’ve seen people who aren’t really that passionate and want to get into it because they think it’d be cool. If you see it as just a fun pastime, but not the detail that goes into it, you might want to do some research. See if it matches your vision. And play a lot of games! People who like to make games don’t stick to one game. You need to experience a lot of things. And not just design-wise – also art and programming.
Secondly, I feel like studying in design is the best way. You could learn the hard way and teach yourself, but if I’d gone indie in my home state (Tamil Nadu) or even anywhere else in the country, I don’t think I’d be able to see myself making games. You don’t get exposure and specific design knowledge – you don’t learn how to make things. There are so many engineering and IT people who move into games and they don’t really know what to do with design – due to a lack of experience in the field they don’t try to experiment, and turn to making clones to avoid risk. They try to make something good, but it doesn’t really end well. With a formal education you get to know what to do and what not to – and what you can do. Exposure really matters here – especially worldwide exposure. Many games in India are still doing things that were being done years ago in other places. Sure, it’s developing, and there are places that are successfully innovating and producing quality games – like Yellow Monkey Studios – but not on a large enough scale. You need exposure to what’s happening elsewhere. Studying doesn’t mean you need to be restricted to your subjects. You also need to go wild and explore – you get to meet a lot of like-minded people in college and this gives you the opportunity to collaborate. It makes it easier to form teams to participate in game jams and enter competitions.
Also, decide whether you want to do design, art or programming and stick with it. Or if you’re not sure then try analyzing what you’re good at.
TGS: What colleges would you suggest looking at in India?
SS: There are other colleges, but they might not give you the same exposure. I don’t mean to sound like I’m obsessed with my college, but DSK is the best college experience you’ll get in India. It offers exposure and guidance, but they don’t spoon-feed you, unlike other places in the country. It’s about you learning your way. The trainers guide and mentor you, but they still let you experiment and make mistakes. They don’t give you ready-made solutions – instead they let you find your own solutions to the problem.
TGS: If you could work anywhere, where would you be?
SS: I’ve got an idea of the progression that I want to have. First I’d like to work at a AAA game company for the experience. I don’t want to start out as an indie, but would like to gain experience from established companies and then go indie. From my point of view, I think you need a solid background and experience from working with huge titles. My preferences are places like Ubisoft. My ultimate goal is Rockstar. They made the first game that inspired me to get into games. After that I’d like to start my own team and make games that I like. You can’t really have too much freedom at a big company – after all, at the end of the day you’ve got to generate revenue. My ultimate goal is to be able to make games that are just for the audience. And I don’t want to do it anywhere else – I want to do it in India. That’s where I see myself in 15 years in the industry.
TGS: Is there anything else that you’d like to tell people who might be considering a career in game development?
SS: If you’re really passionate and interested, don’t hesitate to express yourself. Don’t worry about what society and others will think about you being in the industry. Don’t think, “How can I say that this is my job?” I know a lot of people who are very interested in making games, but buy into the stereotypical Indian mindset that gaming is for kids and that most adults don’t take it seriously. We shouldn’t be shy or embarrassed. Go ahead and find the career that you want!
You can find Shriram on Twitter @SteeriksRam