India is expected to see huge growth in the video game industry in the coming years, not only in terms of game sales, but also with regards to video game development. While this has been acknowledged by several industry leaders, EA has been the first to make its move, first establishing its publishing business in India two-and-a-half years ago, and now with its new state-of-the-art development studio in Hyderabad.
EA opened the doors to its new studio to the media recently, and I was one of the handful of journalists invited by EA to see for ourselves what the team in Hyderabad was up to. Currently employing a little over 200 people, this studio contributes to various aspects of EA’s business, with its main focus being end-to-end development of games for mobile platforms.
While the mobile division at Hyderabad works closely with its counterparts in EA studios across the world, it is equipped to handle all development activities, right from development, to certification and distribution. Unlike game development on other platforms, for mobile platforms, the work doesn’t end at simply making the game work. Each mobile game that is developed at Hyderabad is customised to work with the multitude of different mobile devices varying in screen size, operating systems, controls, etc. The Hyderabad team is also responsible for localisation, ensuring that their game is tweaked for the various regions and the different service providers operating there.
The Hyderabad studio has contributed to mobile versions of some of EA’s most popular franchises like FIFA, The Sims and Need For Speed. Besides these long-running franchises, this studio has also played its part in bringing household names such as Monopoly, Tetris, Bejeweled, Scrabble, The Simpsons and Kung Fu Panda to mobile devices.
“If you look at our development slate, it’s full of movie tie-ins and games from existing EA franchises like FIFA and Need For Speed. We have to be faithful to these titles. They are big brands to ignore, because the monetisation possibilities are so much bigger with these titles. We also have Spore for mobile platforms,” says Amol Gurwara, head of operations at EA’s Hyderabad studio.
While the mobile division is the largest at the Hyderabad studio, there is work being done one PC and console platforms as well. The Sims, the biggest-selling PC game franchise of all time and a series of games that has been, so far, developed entirely at The Sims Label in Redwood, California, will now move part of its operations to EA Hyderabad. With an aim to increase revenue by way of micro-transactions, the Hyderabad team will work with The Sims Internet Group, responsible for online businesses for The Sims Label, to develop tools for the online sections of upcoming Sims games.
Also focussed on PC and consoles, the quality assurance team, headed by Mike Marlowe, Senior Development Director at EA, provides cutting edge behind-the-scenes support to EA studios around the world. The QA team at Hyderabad develops tailor-made programs designed to put any EA game through its paces and provide valuable feedback back to the development team.
“We produce technology that teams all over the world use; that’s one aspect of what we do. We have to create, innovate and maintain that technology. So if we provide that technology to a team and they have problems, they come to the team here to fix it. Secondly, teams can take that technology and do all sorts of cool things that they want to do with it. A game developer anywhere in the world could say, ‘I’d like to have you do some automation, development and testing’. Then this team here would be able to take that game and with technology we have, develop automation and instrument it with the technology we have. The automation programs would interact with the game and systematically go through all the assets and menus in the game. It all depends on what that particular team wants,” says Marlowe.
While automated game testing may increase efficiency in QA, human testing still remains an integral part of the process. “Automation software is supplemental to human testing,” Marlowe states, adding, “The value of the human is that we can articulate the experience. The automation program can give you statistics and numbers, but it can’t say ‘I had fun’. So it will never replace manual testing, its simply giving extra tools and information to the whole project team.”
And with the automation QA process well established, the team at Hyderabad is now looking to expand by adding more human testers to its ranks. “Mike Marlowe’s team handles QA purely on the automation side, but there is definitely scope for testing of console and PC games. We’re already doing that, but there is a lot of potential for ramping up those divisions quite rapidly,” says Gurwara.
Further on the PC and console platforms, the Hyderabad studio also has a team working on game art and assets for games developed by various EA studios around the world. Led by Rob Kahlon, Art Director (Worldwide Outsourcing) at EA, the team is currently working on Mythic Entertainment’s Warhammer and Dark Age of Camelot titles.
Gurwara also sees tremendous growth potential for this division, but feels there is still time before India is ready to develop games end-to-end for high-end platforms, saying, “Various studios that are part of the EA fraternity may have the need for getting parts of the game developed in India; maybe developing some of the art assets. Rob (Kahlon) is going to build up the group that provides art support. These groups aren’t as end-to-end as the mobile division, but eventually they will also get there.”
With so much great work being done at this studio, and keeping in mind the studio’s aim to grow further, not only with its primary mobile division, but others as well, EA plans to increase the workforce at Hyderabad from its current strength of 200 to 500 in the coming months.