Upcoming made-in-India action-adventure game Raji: An Ancient Epic from Pune-based Nodding Heads Games is in the final stages of its development for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The debut title from a team consisting of industry veterans from the likes of Rockstar, Zynga, and EA has had a rocky road to this point, beginning life as a Kickstarter campaign that eventually failed back in 2017.

The Mako Reactor spoke to Shruti Ghosh and Ian Maude, Founders and Artists at Nodding Heads Games to chart the journey from inception to completion of Raji: An Ancient Epic.

Life after a failed Kickstarter

“It’s been a roller coaster for us,” Ghosh says. “Initially, it was quite difficult for us because the Kickstarter didn’t hit the mark. We were really counting on that. At the time, the team was working for nine months. It was sustained by the savings that Avichal [Singh, Founder and Lead Designer], Ian, and I had. And we were really at the last straw of what we had left. So we were really counting on the Kickstarter to be successful, but that didn’t quite go through and then we were in quite a dilemma on what’s going to happen to the project.”

“It was almost going to end,” Maude adds.

The team decided to hunt for a publisher to finance its efforts to turn its concept into a reality. There was a cut-off point in mind if plans fell through. Though this was not without some major sacrifices such as Ghosh selling her flat.

“So we said we’re going keep a deadline and look for other modes of investment,” says Ghosh. “If it doesn’t happen, we just say goodbye to the project and go back to doing what we were doing before. To sustain at that time I sold my apartment to sustain the team. And we had a lot of back and forth with a lot of publishers and a lot of months of struggle.”

Game development in India is a tough sell

One of the biggest hurdles for Nodding Heads was selling publishers on the idea of an Indian studio making a game for console and PC.

“[W]e were kind of the first Indian team that was trying to make a game for Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC,”says Ghosh. “Usually the [Indian game development] market is known for mobile and people trust the market more for outsourcing. So they don’t really trust a new team, that too from India to come out with something like this. They really liked the quality, but also but they were quite taken aback wondering if ‘they can make a full game?’. And that was quite a struggle that we faced initially with all the publishers that we were talking to. Everybody likes the demo, but they just couldn’t trust us to finish or just deliver a full game by the end of the year.”

Nodding Heads took Raji: An Ancient Epic to the UK for EGX Rezzed. The event is one of the premier indie game showcases around. With all things considered, it was a massive risk.

“When we took the game to EGX Rezzed 2018, publishers that we spoke to all said ‘it looks finished, it looks done’,” recalls Maude. “And we said ‘no, this is just a demo. This is just proof of concept’.”

With no publisher in sight and low funds Nodding Heads had its back to the wall. Time was running out. The situation looked bleak and the developer was looking to shut down.

Saved by the makers of Fortnite

That is of course, until Ghosh checked her phone one June morning in 2018. The choice to build Raji: An Ancient Epic on Unreal Engine 4 had a fortunate consequence. The studio had just won an Unreal Engine Dev Grant. Established by Fortnite creator Epic Games in 2015 for “promising developers working with Unreal Engine”, awards ranged from $5,000 to $50,000 with no restrictions or obligations to Epic Games.

“I remember the morning when I opened my email on my phone,” Ghosh says. “We were having a really bad time, getting rejections from different publishers. Every time you have such good conversation and they just come back with an email just saying that ‘no, we can’t publish you for so and so reason’. It was such a bad period for me that day and to see that message on phone, I was literally in tears that we’ve got a grant and there was some ray of hope.”

“We were literally down to our last rupees when that came in and with such immaculate timing,” says Maude. “And also, this is for the guys and girls at Epic that do the grants, Raji wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for that. If it wasn’t for that grant in 2018 it was make or break for us.”

Maude isn’t joking about how crucial the timing was. The core founders themselves were already looking out for jobs.

“A few days before the grant arrived we discussed when to tell the rest of the team to search for jobs, we were actually looking for jobs as well as we still had bills to pay,”says Ghosh. “But that sum of money from Epic Games helped us to have a little more time to figure out if we can try somewhere else or we can approach another publisher or investor and just give a little more of a lifeline to the project. That was really helpful at the time.”

Partnering with Super.com

However the trip to EGX Rezzed did prove worthwhile. Nodding Heads met a lot of publishers and investors, leading to an introduction by Epic to its eventual publisher Super.com. The London-based outfit signed Nodding Heads on a few months after it received the Unreal Dev Grant.

Naturally, with the amount of time it’s taken the team to get to this juncture, it’s been working hard to prove it has what it takes.

“We’ve been working day and night to finish this game,” says Ghosh. “And guess what? We’re on to the finish line. We’re almost ready with the gold build. So the final testing and bug fixing is going on.”

A relative newcomer in the space, Super.com seems like an odd fit for the seasoned bunch at Nodding Heads. Although it’s far from the case.

“They’ve never interfered with what we want to do with the game and they’ve always given feedback, but never quite tried to enforce anything on us,” says Ghosh. So that’s been really good and most importantly, they’ve put the trust in a team that most publishers or most people just backed out last moment that didn’t want to go through with the deal and publish us.”

Developing Raji: An Ancient Epic for the Nintendo Switch

With all this in mind, we had to ask if partnering with a publisher made access to development kits easier. In previous conversations with Indian game developers, we were told of the issues involved in getting the hardware necessary to make games a reality. Spoiler alert: it’s no different for Nodding Heads, and perhaps in a few ways, even worse.

“No,” says Ian with a laugh. “It just seemed that no one within the customs and excise department were particularly bothered.”

They tell us that platform holders like Sony and Microsoft were hesitant to ship developer kits to India. This forced the team to look at other means to not fall behind schedule.

“For our Sony dev kits we had to get it shipped to England to Ian’s home,” Ghosh says. “When we were at Rezzed, we picked it up and that’s how we got a dev kit for Sony. Similar for Xbox. Our sound designer is from Greece. So it was shipped to him and he brought it to India with him. And for Switch it was a big hassle because we had to wait for months emailing our point of contact at the customs department.”

All of this ensured that the Nintendo Switch version of Raji: An Ancient Epic was pushed back a bit. Nonetheless, the team is happy with the results on the hybrid console.

“We’re very chuffed about that,” says Maude. “It was the most challenging one, to get the game running on that at a very good frame rate and also to for it to be looking as good as it is. So we’re very, very happy right now.”

The workarounds employed to get console developer kits in were also used when it came to testing Raji: An Ancient Epic on Nvidia’s line of RTX video cards.

“We have had a lot of support from Nvidia, they’ve been supplying us with a few cards when they’ve been coming out and so most recently was the RTX cards,” says Maude. “That was a massive issue as well, especially with getting them shipped over. And I think they had to go back [to where they shipped from] at one point. We had to ask them to ship them to their Pune office for us to pick up. They were amazing about it.”

Optimising Raji: An Ancient Epic for PC and consoles

On the topic of video cards, we had to ask what were the challenges faced bringing the game to the PC. Though early demos were visually striking, they did have some performance issues. It’s something the team is aware of and striving for consistency.

“We’re constantly looking at all the assets and having to create LODs for them, and making sure that it is seamless all the way through,” Maude says.

The way development is streamlined is to target platforms with the lowest specifications, which in this case is the Nintendo Switch. Though unlike your average AAA production that throws a ton of resources into this, Nodding Heads is an indie outfit.

“Our tech team is basically Jalay [Bhatti, Technical Artist] and Dipam [Bora, Programmer] who work on making Raji playable on the Switch and other consoles,”says Ghosh. “Switch was our target because it is the lowest in terms of specifications that it can run the game. And if it runs smoothly on Switch with good FPS [frames per second] then we know that everything else would be fine.”

This bodes well for those looking to play the game on PC and explains why the minimum requirements are on the lower side. Nevertheless the optimisations don’t stop there. Visual effects, characters, assets, materials, and transparencies are just some of the elements of the game that are under constant evaluation to fit within the technical constraints present.

“Even lighting has to be optimised especially on one particular level,” says Maude. “Because we were just using so many photons and it was blowing the budget [the amount of system resources for a given scene in a game]. So we had to think out of the box and think of different ways of how are we going to go light that.”

The constraints and hardware limitations proved challenging for ensuring Raji: An Ancient Epic had got its look and textures right. Textures are the graphical skins or images on 3D models so they appear to have surface detail. They help developers convey a specific look and style to allow their games to stand out.

“We know that that each asset that we create has a certain budget of texture and it doesn’t cross that limit,” explains Ghosh. “But within that we have to get the look that has to be constant through the entire game. We concentrated on the art and art style to achieve this. And Jalay’s job was basically to make sure that this is not affected, but it still runs smoothly on the other devices and he’s done really good.”

All of this made us wonder if the existing tech and tools are enough for what indie teams like Nodding Heads want to accomplish.

“You have to work within the limitations as well,” says Maude. “Because you can’t have the moon on a stick. With the likes of Unreal Engine 5 now, then, yes we will be able to do what we really want to but the consoles have to catch up.”

For now though, the process of optimising Raji: An Ancient Epic seems akin to composing a scene for a movie or a TV show with an objective of bringing specific details to light at the right time.

“It’s like a way where you’re drawing the focus and what elements you’re using to create that focus,” says Maude. “For me it would be like graphic design layouts, but for Shruti, it’d be like, it’d be fine art paintings. It’s like how you actually compose an element or your piece. And you know, that knowledge we have it’s synergy, we can just bring it together quite quickly and easily.”

Building the world and story of Raji: An Ancient Epic from Hindu mythology

While Nodding Heads’ development challenges are aplenty, they are after all, in service of the game it wants to make. Attempts to make games based on Hindu mythology have existed, such as Hanuman Boy Warrior though none of them had a proper worldwide release or were particularly any good. Raji: An Ancient Epic hopes to change that.

“We’ve never seen games out in global markets that shows Indian mythology Indian culture, because all the games are mostly on Greek mythology or Norse and we’ve grown up with such a vast treasure of mythology,” says Ghosh. “Yet there is no such game in the global market where international players have played something that is made on Indian or Indian culture or mythology.”

The game’s main storyline is about the protagonist Raji searching for her brother. Gods from the Hindu pantheon have trusted her with saving the world and she evolves through this journey from just finding her brother to actually being a hero.

Although studio is keeping crucial plot points of Raji: An Ancient Epic close to its chest, it did explain how it plans to weave the lore of gods from Hindu mythology into the gameplay.

“We have a storytelling aspect to it so you when you get blessed by a god in a particular level you have these depictions like you’d see on temple walls,” Ghosh says. “When you stand in front of these in-game you’ll learn how that specific god came into being.”

“The first level is about Durga blessing Raji,”she explains. “So you have the story of Durga’s formation and how she was blessed by all the other gods how her weapons came from. This is something completely new for an international player. They may have heard about Kali, they might have heard about Shiva but they don’t know how did these gods come into existence.”

All of these backstories and origins help to flesh out the world of the game, serving as tapestry to the game’s core narrative of protagonist Raji’s journey.

“We’ve been toying with putting all these other stories in about the gods, it was pretty much last minute putting those into the game,” Maude chimes in. “Because from my point of view, being a Westerner, I learned an awful lot throughout this thanks to the team. I thought it would be a shame for players to miss out on this mythology that’s so rich.”

The other purpose for these pieces of lore is to improve the game’s pacing.

“We wanted to give a backstory that also gives a breather in the game to the player from just nonstop combat,” says Ghosh. “So it lets you take a look at the art, appreciate the universe and then absorb the story.”

How player feedback made Raji: An Ancient Epic better

Like most modern games, Raji: An Ancient Epic is also a product of user feedback. Aside from the aforementioned demos, the game has been playable at consumer events like EGX Rezzed, IGX, and PAX.

“When people have played it at events, we will actually talk to them too,” says Maude. “We want to get an understanding of what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they found difficult. Then it was always taking all this information back, having a debrief with the team and then reevaluate certain aspects and potentially, you’re looking at changing certain things.

One of the key features of Raji: An Ancient Epic that has evolved with player feedback was its combat. Certain sections felt repetitive and difficult while some tutorials didn’t explain themselves as clearly as they should have.

“There is a section in the first level which was a part of our PAX demo,” says Ghosh. “Most people were stuck and unable to cross that area. It was quite the blocker for a lot of people which had us modify the level design.”

Another element that benefitted from users playing a slice of the game was its UI.

“There is this aspect of the game called Favour of Gods – after you’re blessed with a weapon, you get different elemental powers,” says Ghosh. “The UI for it lets you play around with various combinations. While it was well received, we made certain tweaks after listening to players.”

That said, the team is conscious about maintaining a balance between its creative expression and what makes entertainment better.

“I don’t think you can be of this mindset of like, ‘this is my game and I’m not going to listen to anybody,’” says Maude. “You have to cater to your player audience. But also at the same token, you’ve got to be true to yourself as well.“

Will Raji: An Ancient Epic be exclusive to the Epic Games Store?

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the team finds itself relying on apps like Slack and Discord to take the game across the final stretch while working from home. The duo are mum on a concrete release date though it should ship this year, stating it would “be announced by our publisher with their marketing plans”.

Considering the Unreal Dev Grant and Epic’s introduction to its publisher, we wondered if Raji: An Ancient Epic would have any sort of exclusivity to the Epic Games Store or any other platform for that matter. We were left with this:

“This is also something we cannot disclose that you will come to know pretty soon,” says Ghosh.

“We’re saying that with a big smile,” teases Maude. “So that should give you a good idea.”

Regardless of which storefront it lands on for PC, Raji: An Ancient Epic is shaping up to be an interesting title for the Indian games industry that’s  obsessed with metrics and conflating video games with fantasy sports and gambling. It’s heartening to see game developers actually go ahead and make games no matter how stacked the odds are against them.