Reliance Jio’s moves in the games space have not gone unnoticed what with efforts in cloud gaming and esports, however it’s been most active in building a catalogue of titles for its Jio Phones. For the uninitiated, these are the company’s line of feature phones with 4G connectivity running KaiOS, an operating system based on Mozilla’s erstwhile Firefox OS. The first Jio Phone launched in 2017 resembling feature phones of yore. This was followed up the Jio Phone 2 with a QWERTY keypad in 2018.

With most Indian game developers focussing on Android, iOS, PC or in some cases, even consoles, we wondered what kind of game developer would make games for Jio Phones. Turns out we didn’t have to look too far.

Aside from making games for Android, iOS, and PC, Mumbai-based Roosh Interactive has supported Reliance’s Jio Phones since the release of the original Jio Phone. The Mako Reactor spoke to co-founder Srinivasan Veeraraghavan to find out what it’s like to make games for what is essentially feature phone hardware in 2020.

Established in October 2013, Roosh Interactive is a 14-person outfit. It’s four co-founders — Deepak Ail, Kaiwan Yezdani, Prasad Ramdas, and Veeraraghavan himself cut their teeth making mobile phone games for Indiagames in the mid-2000s. They were responsible for some of the early mobile hits from the country such as Spider-ManBioShock, and Cricket Fever as well as more recent titles like Zombie Bloxx. However when they set up Roosh, it wasn’t with the explicit plan to make games for Jio. Rather, the team released a steady stream of Android and iOS games in its early years and still do.

Bike Champ is one of Roosh’s many efforts for Jio Phones

“There was an interesting proposition that came by because of their acceleration program called JioGenNext,” Veeraraghavan says. “It’s a corporate accelerator that invites innovative companies to participate under the Reliance umbrella and get access into how Reliance works and its key technologies.”

The team at Roosh felt it would be worth applying for. More so with Jio’s 4G network launching a year prior with a massive splash.

“We wrote to them, submitted our deck, and we got selected,” he says. “We were one of the 20 companies out of the hundred that applied.”

During this program, Veeraraghavan and his team hobnobbed with Jio’s upper management and learned some crucial details along the way.

“They see themselves as a start-up, they still do,” he says. “And they’re very country proud. They don’t care about launching Jio in other countries because there are enough business options to explore in India and they are very happy to do it.”

Making games for first-time gamers

Exposure to Jio’s strategy and processes coupled with the Jio Phone’s recent launch made Roosh realise that its feature phone expertise would come in handy.

“Since our expertise is already there and we understand feature phones we thought of exploring this space,” he says. “The Jio Phone had really manage to get a huge audience and all of them were first-time gamers.”

However it wasn’t without its challenges. While Roosh had technical prowess to pull it off, appealing to first-time gamers posed its own issues.

“Suddenly figuring out what a new person who has never owned a phone before and he’s gaming on it for the first time, obviously the mindset was different,” he says. “We were very clear from the beginning that we were going to attempt different genres for the phones. We definitely had to do racing. We always knew that for a typical Indian audience that racing is the top genre in the local market even as of today.”

With that in mind, the team drew inspiration from classic Atari 2600 games like Night Driver — a racing game with a first-person camera. The reasons for this were purely inspirational.

“It had a pseudo-3D style which motivated us to push boundaries on a feature phone in terms of visuals and tech,” he says.

This resulted in Roosh’s debut Jio Phone effort called Racing Champ. The controls had you moving left and right but the entire experience is in first-person.

Racing Champ was the start of what Roosh describes as the Champ series of games for Jio Phone. Seeing that this was for a platform that had first-time gamers, it seemed like a good idea to create a new range to show them the ropes and build an association. At the moment the developer has eight games on Jio Phone.

“We wanted to create a brand for these people who were seeing this and to establish ourselves in the space,” he says. “We also have a ludo game called Ludo Champ too. Racing Champ and Ludo Champ are the most popular games from the series.”

Not everyone plays hyper-casual games

Although the Champ series has helped Roosh cement itself with Jio Phone users, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Certain genres and formats that were assumed to be shoe-in successes have failed. One of them was a game called Super Swami, a title in the hyper-casual genre.

Smartphone developers like Ketchapp and Voodoo have popularised hyper-casual games which are characterised by their simple mechanics and near-instant gameplay. On the surface this would seem like a safe bet for first-time gamers using the Jio Phone. This was far from the case.

“We thought hyper-casual games would work on feature phone audiences coming from the mindset of developing games for smartphones,” he says. “It did not work at all. We thought Super Swami was fast-paced and fun to play but audiences did not catch on. It was a brutal lesson learned in terms of what games and content a first-time user would like.”

He opines that hyper-casual games are a victim of their timing for this specific audience.

“We ourselves started playing hyper-casual games after maybe 10 or 15 years of gaming so perhaps the audience maturity isn’t there yet,” he says. “If you ask any mobile developer today, their first attempt for such devices would be hyper-casual.”

The challenges of Jio Phone game development

With that in mind, we wondered if dealing with such a unique audience meant the nuts and bolts of making games for the devices they use would be any different.

“Main thing to remember is the screen size,” he says. “The viewing distance, like when you hold the phone in your hand and the distance from your eyes to your phone — the phone screen is the size of the thumb approximately. If you see your thumb finger and that’s the size of the screen. It’s small. And the resolution is also, maybe I think it’s been 320×240 so it’s like a real small resolution phone as well. We didn’t waste too much time into figuring out what should work and what should not work because we were already working on those screen resolutions back then. That saved us a lot of time.”

This made Racing Champ’s first-person perspective a perfect fit.

“You cannot do a racing game with a third-person camera because the car or bike will be really small,” he says. “First-person gave users a sense of space they could identify with well and connect with what’s going on in-game.”

Another point of concern was loading times. For an app to work on KaiOS devices, it needs to run on HTML5, a markup language used for creating and structuring content on the web. While this meant games could work on multiple devices, it also meant that making games for Jio Phone would not be able to leverage the hardware directly usually resulting in a loss of speed.

“When you’re running HTML5 games, you aren’t running natively on the platform,” he says. “They’re kind of running in a browser environment. And with that loading of games definitely is an important criteria. Because with HTML5 games, if it’s very, very simple enough, then it will load really fast. Loading time makes a huge difference. If the game is technically pushing it, loading times would be longer.”

Jio’s 4G network negated the load time problem to an extent but Veeraraghavan admits that developers need to reign in their scale and scope of their game to prevent it from being a “major challenge”.

The other issue to contend with was the choice of engine. Unlike smartphone, PC, or console development which has the likes of heavy hitters such as Epic and Unity complete with exhaustive documentation and tutorials, KaiOS game development is a lot more esoteric.

“Cocos2D still runs and there are a couple of other Javascript-based HTML5 engines that were popular,” he says. “But not all options are like modern engines. So if you needed any specific animations to be done, there are no tools. You’ll need to build from scratch.”

He opines that the development ecosystem to create games for a platform like this is split between legacy engines and tools that was popular at a time and still in service or creating the necessary tech in-house.

“For us, we were writing our own engine and making the games,” he says. “We even had to make libraries to take care of sprite rendering, we had to write our animation system too. All of these aspects we had to build from the ground up.”

Getting your game on the Jio Phone store

The conversation shifted to app stores and the power they wield. With Apple and Google coming under fire for their heavy-handed practices, most recently with Epic Games’ dispute over Fortnite, we had to ask what’s it like working with a local platform like Jio.

“From Jio’s point of view, they work to protect users primarily from any outside foul play,” he says. “So there’s a lot of blocking from that angle. They really protect their consumer and look at curation to the point of questioning and curating what kind of games needs to be served to them — what images are used in promos, what kind of brutality does it have, and so on.”

In addition to content guidelines, the submission process is thorough too. There’s a dedicated testing team at Jio to ensure a consistent user experience.

“Their own testers will point out bugs which are core to the functioning of a device, like ensuring the back button for game is in a specific place” he says. “It reminds me a bit of console submissions.”

Also with different control inputs at the user’s disposal, it’s important to make sure a similar action could be performed regardless of how they interact with the Jio Phone.

“There’s a middle joypad along with numbered buttons so we have to make sure both are functional,” he says. “We don’t know if a user is going to turn left and right in our game with the joypad or if he prefers to use the ‘five’ and ‘six’ buttons on the phone we had to make sure that both worked. Else it would be flagged as a bug. From their perspective it was about making sure each game works well on their devices. And for us from a development point of view it was a reminder that these are first time gamers so you have to treat them from that angle.”

Interestingly, developers don’t get access to metrics that indicate how well or poorly their games are doing as they could with Android or iOS. This means there’s no clarity on daily or monthly active users. Though they are told if there are pain points in getting its audience to play games or if a game is simply not resonating with users like the aforementioned Super Swami as well as qualitative feedback.

“We don’t get access to any of the data. It’s not like a traditional smartphone market where you get access to the analytics. It is a walled garden in that respect. We have absolutely no access to any numbers,” he says. ”They let us know if load times are too long, situations where a game is failing, or where the user experience is going bad. We get a clear idea of what users are doing and where the drop off is happening.”

Making money on Jio Phone games

Furthermore, all games are only monetised via ads through Jio’s own service. There is no option for in-app purchases at all right now and while Veeraraghavan did not comment on revenue share details, it’s common industry knowledge that these deals are usually structured differently with each game developer.

“I’ve been told they will be looking into in-app purchases as well,” he says. “I think the main challenge for them is how is a first-time phone user going to end up paying.”

Veeraraghavan points to a recent offer for the Jio Phone 2 which is the most expensive mobile from the current range. It costs Rs. 2,999 and can be booked for Rs. 99 with an EMI of Rs. 141.

“For people like us it’s extremely difficult to understand what an EMI 141 rupees means,” he says. “What’s our audience going to do with an in-app purchase when he’s going to pick a phone up for Rs. 141 monthly, that’s the bigger challenge. That’s why ad monetisation is there. The good thing is they have the numbers in terms of reach.”

The upside to Jio Phone game development

The JioPhone running on KaiOS makes easier for developers to update games versus the Java and Brew handsets from yesteryear. But with no access to analytics, only one monetisation option in advertising, and a somewhat rigorous submission process, Veeraraghavan tells us Roosh continues to add new content to Racing Champ and Ludo Champ as well as develop more games for Jio Phone.

Granted quantitative data is hard to come by but the qualitative feedback to him is the return on investment. Having a ground-floor opportunity to understand India’s nascent, nearly invisible gaming audience is simply too good to pass up.

It’s something Jio seems to be talking up publicly. In a recent industry panel Ashish Gupta, General Manager – Lead Games Ecosystem for Reliance Jio revealed 28 to 30 percent growth in consumption of data in gaming through mobile, PC, and set top boxes along with increased viewing times for videos in gaming over the last three months. Gupta, who oversees games content for the Jio Phones also commented on the state of that audience.

“Not hardcore or casual, but ultra casual and in terms of mass they’re very big, I’m talking about 144 million user base, spending around 22 minutes every day,” he said at the time, adding that 96 percent of them are on prepaid connections. The Mako Reactor reached out to Gupta to clarify if he was referring to Jio Phone users, which he confirmed was indeed the case.

“The current motivation for us is to understand what the first-time Indian gamer really wants,” Veeraraghavan says. “With every game we put out we’re learning. With every game we get feedback as well like what the users are saying and playing and what they want.

We’re trying to map it little bit to understand what they are doing and what are they actually actually want. So I think that gives us key insight to such an audience, the first time user audience, and I think that is going to be the exciting part.”