In the early days of the smartphone boom, conventional logic dictated that game developers catering to the Indian market needed to make a game based on cricket or Bollywood to achieve mainstream success. It’s a far cry from the current scenario what with the likes of PUBG Mobile, Free Fire, Call of Duty Mobile, and Ludo King topping the charts. However there’s one series of cricket games that’s managed to hold its own — World Cricket Championship.

The World Cricket Championship (or WCC as it’s also known) franchise has seen over 110 million downloads with 15 million monthly active users, and nearly three million daily users across Android and iOS according to its developer, Chennai-based Nextwave Multimedia.

With the next game in the series development titled World Cricket Championship 3, The Mako Reactor spoke to Founder and CEO PR Rajendran to find out how the studio has endured and evolved over the years.

World Cricket Championship origins are in advertising

Unlike most game companies that begin with well, the express interest of operating in the space, Nextwave started life as a digital marketing agency, making micro-sites for various clients. When advergaming and branded games started catching on, Rajendran and his team were quick to adapt to the needs of their clients.

“We started building these small games of which bring out the brand story, like, for example, one of the first games we built was for Iodex,” Rajendran says. “You have a 12 over cricket game and you get hit by one ball and then you have to use the Iodex spray in-game and then you’re all right, and you can continue to play.”

At the time, Nextwave would work with digital agencies in Europe, building games for their clients and eventually making casual games for the likes of Nestle.

“They [Nestle] had a very huge game based strategy,” he says. “We built virtual worlds for them. We also also built games where you buy chocolate or stuff outside the real world and we had a code in which you could use and unlock items in the game. So we had a huge experience in a building games for the European market, and that’s how we got into gaming.”

Eventually Nextwave’s work was getting noticed and even winning advertising and marketing awards. The company got so good at it that a decision was taken to strike out on its own.

“Later on in the years we’d get a single line brief based on which we’d build a game,” he says. “Then we got the confidence that we’re good enough to win awards and all that so we said, ‘let’s build our own IP‘. The obvious thing seemed like cricket but all of us had to go through a lot of learnings.”

Funding a cricket game without your own money

Transforming from a services-based business to being a product-focussed company was not easy. Aside from the obvious challenge of designing a cricket game with all the bells and whistles versus cranking out simpler, casual fare for clients, funds were also tight.

“The transition was financially very difficult because we were never funded until recently [the company was acquired by Indian gaming giant Nazara in 2018],” he says. “We managed to do both [develop WCC and do client work] for some time.”

However there was a point at which it was difficult for Nextwave to commit to both, particularly with the sheer size and scale of WCC versus the services work that allowed it to work on WCC in the first place. This made operations stressful until a booming app ecosystem in the early-2010s provided opportunities it took advantage of.

“Fortunately the turning point for us came in a period of 12 months,” he says. “It was a time when there were a lot of competitions being run by app store owners and handset manufacturers. We took part in all these global competitions, and we won prize money of around Rs. 1.2 crore within a span of 12 months. This gave us the impetus to say no to some service jobs and then we focussed on making our cricket game.”

With cash flow in place, Nextwave was able to launch World Cricket Championship. It wasn’t without its issues though.

Making a cricket game in India isn’t as easy as it looks

“The thing we didn’t realise at that point in time was sports simulation is very complex,” he says. “It’s very expensive to build. We never knew that as we were always building these simple casual games in the past. We thought it would be 5X more or 10X. We didn’t realise it’s probably 100X more in terms of the work that is needed to put a game like this out there, and also in terms of investment. That was a huge thing.”

The company soon realised that some trade-offs had to be made to see the first World Cricket Championship game come to life.

“We had to build the game in piecemeal – we’d make money, make a profit, build the game, keep continuing the game,” he says. “At some point in time along the way we realised the importance of game design, economy, and that each one is a huge speciality in terms of skill sets that were not there in India.”

Rather than import the talent from abroad like some Indian studios have done in the past, Nextwave opted to persist with local talent that it kept nurturing.

“We always get people on board and give them all the freedom as well as point them to all resources on the internet to learn, get them books and get them into seminars,” he says.

World Cricket Championship 2’s regular updates created hardcore fans

The learning wasn’t restricted to tech and design. User feedback is a huge part of the World Cricket Championship series, to the point where the audience has a say in what features eventually make it into the games. Rajendran explained how this came to be.

“That’s one of the things that’s a standout for us because a lot of cricket games were there in the market and all of them were made by very big companies, as you would know,” he says. “They will build the game and it would then get updated during the World Cup, then it would get updated during some T20 cup. And after that they don’t bother about the user. I mean, okay they’re big businesses that do a lot of things. We felt it’s like letting your audience down because you can’t do that right? Once a year, you update the game because of an ongoing event in real life, so when we were continuously updating the game, we did it only because the game was so bad. And we’d ask ourselves ‘how do we improve this? This is so embarrassing.’ That started building a very dedicated community following.”

“We didn’t start it very consciously but our thing was ‘how to get good product, the fans our giving us some nice ideas, let’s do that’,” he says. “So that has created this community of well-wishers and we’ve been very fortunate having that fan base and we continue to see see how well we can engage with them.”

Earning their respect wasn’t easy and Rajendran admits there were some real-life missteps along the way.

“One time we had some issue with a bug for an update to World Cricket Championship 2 and we didn’t launch that version,” he says. “It got delayed by 30 or 40 days and by the 40th day we apologised to the fans on the delay and said we were working on something nice.”

What happened next was severe fan backlash, forcing the company to take its office phones off the hook.

“By 12 or one o’clock in the afternoon on that day we had received 250 phone calls asking about the update and our night security was complaining that they could not sleep as we were getting phone calls through the night,” he says. “Next morning it was so bad with the phones continuously ringing that we pulled out the phone cables and we changed our telephone number and only then did we get back our landline. We were operating for that one month on another number until we got the update for the game out.”

World Cricket Championship isn’t the only cricket franchise it has worked on. Nextwave also worked with the Australian Cricket Board on a game for the Big Bash Cricket League, Australia’s version of the IPL.The experience helped make World Cricket Championship 3 a better game Rajendran tells us.

“We learned a lot of good practices,” he says. “For example: they wanted the cricket game to launch on a specific date. We told them that we’d give them the men’s cricket league on that date and the women’s cricket league later down the line. They came back saying ‘we will never do that, the women’s cricket and men’s cricket must be launched on the same date, no discrimination. You can delay the game launch if needed.’It made us think ‘why don’t we have women’s cricket in our game?’ So these are things you learn from collaborating with another entity or a cricket board. In World Cricket Championship 3 we have women’s cricket too.”

How a vocal fanbase pushes developers to make changes

As for World Cricket Championship 3, one of its headline features is its all-star commentary with Aakash Chopra and Matthew Hayden. The latter was a result of a chance meeting and Rajendran tells us that Hayden also advised on some of the game’s animations too. As for Chopra, turns out Nextwave’s fans resorted to blackmail to make it happen.

“Even before Aakash Chopra started commentary for us there were hundreds of World Cricket Championship 2 videos with his commentary added to it,” he says. “People would take his commentary from live matches and put out videos of it with World Cricket Championship 2 gameplay. With every update they would ask ‘is Aakash Chopra commentary coming otherwise I’m going to one-star you [leave the game a one star rating on Google Play or the App Store, which is the lowest possible].”

This also posed another challenge, keeping Chopra’s popularity a secret from him before approaching him and striking a deal.

“We had to reach out to Aakash Chopra and hide the fact that we had no choice but to go with him for the Hindi commentary so we’re not negatively impacted when it came to negotiating commercials,” he continues. “Fortunately he was very pleasant and he was very happy to do it. For Hindi commentary we had no choice but to go with him because it was a huge fan thing.”

World Cricket Championship 3 career mode is like an “IIT exam”

The conversation shifts to World Cricket Championship 3’s other big addition – a career mode. While the game is in early access on Google Play, we noticed that this mode is locked out unless you have 799 platinum coins – one of the game’s currencies. We found the move perplexing as you’d think World Cricket Championship 3’s newest mode would be playable out of the gate.

“All our early access players will get platinum for helping us through this phase,” he says. “You don’t need to pay or buy if you don’t want to. If you do all the missions and log in every day, you can earn 20 platinum coins per day. That’s on the lower side of a player’s skill level. If you’re a higher skilled player, your earnings go up as well. We saw that most can earn it in 25 to 30 days.”

Nonetheless, he tells us that the team is looking to make career mode more accessible to a larger number of players.

“What we’re also seeing is that some of our players are frustrated,” he says. “Right now in the beta it’s like the IIT exam, it’s very tough. We’re making the paper a little easy to relax the platinum earning restrictions so they can experience this mode. If we give players a chance to earn it faster, maybe they’d be ok with that.”

At the same time though, a section of World Cricket Championship 3 players have been purchasing in-game currency to unlock career mode as well as T20 mode he tells us though “most people are keen to unlock” these without spending money. For Rajendran this is a welcome change compared to the last game in the series.

“In World Cricket Championship 2 there was no incentive to go online,” he says. “All the monetisation was via ads. We tried to do some in-app purchases over the base that was set. Most people didn’t even come online in World Cricket Championship 2. In fact the number of active users offline was more than online. We couldn’t even account for it. Here because you have to earn platinum, more people are coming online and staying online to earn rewards.”

Borrowing from FIFA, Fortnite, PES, and PUBG Mobile

That said, don’t expect platinum coins and ads to be the only monetisation options in World Cricket Championship 3. There are plans to introduce subscriptions like PUBG Mobile and Fortnite as well.

“We are definitely looking at subscriptions because if it works for us, it’s recurring revenue,” he says. “That’s something we’re currently solutioning. By the time of launch we’ll have a subscription too.”

Another addition in time for launch will be more motion capture and cut-scenes for the game’s career mode, drawing inspiration from the likes of FIFA and PES.

“Our career mode has about 15 cut-scenes and have a lot of cut-scenes planned for the next few months,” he says. “We’re planning a lot of that. If you look at PES, the career mode cut-scenes alone are at least 15 to 20 minutes. With FIFA it’s a lot more I think.”

Will World Cricket Championship 3 come to PC?

Considering Nextwave’s focus is on building the biggest cricket game its ever worked on, it’s been a challenge even before the ongoing coronavirus pandemic which has made development all the more tougher.

“The complexity of a sports simulation game with so many modes and testing to ensure that everyone’s code on every device works with each other are some of our major challenges,” he says. “On top of that you have COVID going on. A lot of our guys are in small towns, they all went back to their hometowns. Putting it together remotely and testing it out, it’s a big challenge. The largeness of the game and testing takes a lot of time because you make a change in one part of it and another place gets affected.”

At the same time, Rajendran is quick to point out that there have been some positives for his team despite the coronavirus lockdowns and curfews that have riddled the nation.

“I’m really happy to see people can live in their own hometowns very comfortably and get city salaries and develop a game without much of a productivity drop,” he says.

Finally, we wondered if Nextwave was content with making games like World Cricket Championship 3 just for mobile devices. The console and PC space is dominated by one studio, Australia’s Big Ant. Is Nextwave interested in making the jump to other platforms? He left us with this.

“Actually that’s been one of our long term dreams,” he says. “We have to see what the revenue earning potential is in these platforms. That is where the big decision will lie. There’s already Big Ant as a player in the space which is very dedicated and they’re on that in a big way. We need to see what we can bring to the table and what is our vision for PC or console is. That is the answer we’re trying to solve. For us it is a matter of six months, we just need to upgrade our art assets because everything else is there.”

It will be interesting to see what Nextwave manages to do with World Cricket Championship 3 when it eventually hits iOS and Android. Hopefully PC and console versions won’t be too far behind.