When Raji: An Ancient Epic showed up at Nintendo's indie showcase last month, it was the well-earned culmination of a long and stressful journey for an action adventure game about a young girl chosen by the gods to be a savior. Part of what makes Raji unique, however, is where it was developed: India. There have been other games made in India, of course, but it's rare for them to get the kind of high-profile visibility that comes with Nintendo's backing.
A temporary Switch exclusive that will be released on other platforms later this year, Raji exhibits strong Prince of Persia vibes, combining combat against ancient demons with platforming and exploration. The moment-to-moment gameplay of Raji isn't especially new, but the setting absolutely is, infusing every aesthetic element—architecture, character design, the soundtrack—with a flavor that's wholly new, compared to other games like it.
But again, it's remarkable I'm even here telling you about the game. Raji originally tried to raise funds for development on Kickstarter—and failed. There was a very real moment where Raji might not have moved forward, were it not for some fortunate luck some months later. To go from such a public setback to premiering in a Nintendo Direct? That's somethin'.
It's why I wanted to get in touch with the development team at Nodding Head, and ask what it was like to watch your game being shown to thousands of rabid Nintendo fans, how they recovered from the Kickstarter moment, and more.
The answers were written collectively by co-founder and art director Ian Maude, co-founder and art director Shruti Ghosh, and co-founder and lead designer Avichal Singh. (Yes, there were two art directors on the project. I double checked!)
VICE Games: When Nintendo first reached out about being in their Nintendo Direct presentation, what went through your head? What was your studio doing when the presentation was rolling?
When Nintendo approached us asking to be part of Nintendo Indie Game World, we knew at that moment that this is the highest point of our project so far and the greatest achievement for the studio's debut title.
Due to Covid-19 we are all working from home, however some of us who live a few miles away gathered at Paras’s place, who’s our lead programmer, to watch the Nintendo Indie World Showcase. And to our surprise and joy, Amir Rao of Supergiant Games kicked off the show with their latest offerings.
Needless to say, when the presentation started, we were overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions. The kind of struggles we have been through and now finally releasing on Nintendo Switch, alongside some of the best indie developers in the game development industry is very humbling. Some of us were very emotional that night, which was a longtime coming.
Your team originally tried to fund through Kickstarter, but it didn't work out, with the game falling a little short of its goal. How did you feel after that setback, and what turned things around?
We were devastated when we had to make the conscious decision to cancel the Kickstarter. We learned that to raise money for a goal like ours, we would need a PR agency and a marketing campaign, for which we did not have funds for either.
The cancellation of the Kickstarter led to a crossroads where it was either sink or swim financially. Shruti graciously offered to sell her apartment in order to make sure we survived the extra months. During the period our backsides were glued to our office chairs writing personalized emails and reaching out to numerous publishers.
It was disheartening to see some top tier publishers who will remain nameless showed significant interest in Raji prior to the Kickstarter, only to rescind their offer. We learned the hard way, but as they say, you learn from your mistakes.
Months later we received the Unreal Dev Grant which was a huge relief because we were running out of funds. The Dev Grant gave us a new lease of life. These funds enabled us to pursue and finally sign a publishing deal with Super.com back in October 2018.
The broader gaming public probably isn't too familiar with many games made in India. Does that put additional pressure on you and your team? Does it feel like you're "representing" India?
Our mission and vision from day one has been to put India on the game dev map. This meant reaching a quality which resonates with some of the very best Indie games out there.
The pressure was always there. Firstly, we had to match our own expectations and vision while respectfully representing the Indian game dev community. And if this means we’re the flag bearers, then this fills us with immense pride.
What has life under COVID-19 been like in India? I feel like most of the perspectives that get shared online are from places like the US. What's you and your team's experience been like?
When the lockdown was imposed, post COVID-19, our team had to work from home. While this was something we were able to deal with, the challenge was continuing with console development.
Earlier, we simply turned around as we were working under one roof at the studio to inquire or help each other with any development related queries. Now we have to go through virtual communication.
While we were able to overcome the many hurdles—though, when nearing the deadline, we had to go back and forth to our tech artist’s apartment, which meant navigating barricades and police checks which were 14 kms away amidst the pandemic. We took all the necessary precautions, of course. However, the issue we faced was we had just the one dev kit for each console.
Prior to lockdown, we made sure our tech artist and console programmer had all of them, but when it came time to test the game we would have to drive to their apartment under such conditions. We made the most of a bad situation, especially under such trying and exhaustive times. It’s also worth pointing out that our development schedule did not falter nor was the release delayed due to the pandemic. Which has presented its own levels of stress and challenges along the way.
I suspect much of my audience doesn't know much about India. When you think about India, what comes to mind? What would you tell people, something that might surprise them?
The first things that come to our mind when we think about India is colourful, rich cultural diversity. India is such a rich country in so many ways with unrivaled beautifully intricate architecture which varies greatly from different parts of the country. India has an assortment of art forms and highly skilled and talented artisans. You only have to look as far as our palaces, the many temples which grace the lands, every corner, each detail has a story to tell.
We are not a country where just poverty is shown in movies and documentaries but a beautiful land which has so many languages, landscapes, architecture and food to explore. India is a rich tapestry of all of the above and much more.