When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned the global hit PUBG by name in an interaction with the public on video, it brought the house down. Modi is a media-savvy leader who understands how to appeal to an audience—and the fact that he chose to mention a video game by name (one that his own government, ironically, banned later on) to play to his gallery was telling of the fact that video games have finally entered mainstream consciousness in India, after spending decades on its periphery.
Today, India is the fastest growing games market in the world, has a burgeoning game development industry, and is on the radar of global gaming giants. Game consoles are stocked in stores, e-sports events are shown on television, and every time you step out in public, you’re likely to see someone playing a game on their phone.
It’s possible that none of this would have happened without the unsung, unrecognised work done over four decades by an unlikely ally: the video game piracy business.
In the 80s and 90s, when the industry was exploding worldwide, the scene was practically nonexistent in India. Barely anyone outside a few lucky kids (possibly with relatives living abroad) were even aware of video games and the culture around them. But, because video games were so inherently exciting and cool, word began to spread. Kids wanted to play Super Mario Bros and Contra and all the other cool games their friends had. Enterprising shopkeepers in well known grey markets like all those ‘Burma Bazaars’ and ‘Singapore Plazas’ all over the country began importing knockoff Nintendo clone consoles with those legendary 1000-in-1 cartridges that are so appealing to the typical Indian middle class customer. This started off a piracy-fuelled revolution that spawned a generation of passionate, knowledgeable, video game-loving kids who went on to eventually spend money on games, play games professionally, develop games and even invest in games-related businesses.
“I probably wouldn’t have become a good game developer if not for being able to play all those pirated games,” admits Pavan C*, a game designer and developer based out of Bengaluru. “When I was growing up in the 90s, most PC games simply weren’t available in India, and those that were, like FIFA, cost around Rs 3,000 ($40), which was out of the question for my family.” Luckily for Pavan, a local computer shop sold pirated game CDs for about a hundred rupees ($1.36), and he would spend all his allowance on getting his hands on the latest titles, spending hours playing them into the wee hours of the night.
“Playing all those games was the only thing that helped me gain the depth of knowledge and experience of different genres of games, which helps me make better games today,” he reflects. Today, Pavan no longer depends on piracy to play games. Thanks to digital distribution and India-friendly pricing on platforms like Steam, he can pay for all his games.
It’s a narrative that resonates with nearly every core gamer in India born between 1970 and 2000. Take Elizabeth F*, a lifelong gamer based in Kerala. “When my dad got me a console with Super Mario Bros on it, I didn’t even know the word ‘Nintendo’. I didn’t think in terms of piracy or otherwise. I just knew that I loved those games and I couldn’t stop playing.” She continued playing pirated games (downloaded for free from the Internet) through college, but eventually started paying for games when she finally started earning money.
“I still sell PS2 consoles with 100 built-in games, boss. It’s a hot selling item” says Dinesh*, who owns one of the oldest video game stores in Chennai (he opened up in 1983 and sold Sega Genesis consoles and games). “For my rich customers, I sell PS5 and XBOX Series X. But not everybody can afford that. So I sell PS2 for Rs 3,000 ($40) also. I have something for everybody,” he says, with visible pride. For Dinesh, selling pirated games is a way to sell original, licensed hardware—he makes good margins on selling the actual consoles, controllers and other accessories. Thanks to piracy, he keeps his customers supplied with enough content to justify the hardware purchase. It’s such an obviously effective business model that Microsoft is betting heavily on the same general idea with their XBOX Game Pass subscription service—offering a lot of games for an affordable monthly subscription, so that people get on their platform.
While hesitant to share numbers, Dinesh says that every year, a higher percentage of his revenue comes from people wanting to buy original games and unmodded hardware. “Ultimately, people want good quality and original stuff. The main reason they go for pirated is that it’s much cheaper,” he opines.
Piracy also plays a major role in popularising video games in smaller towns outside the major cities. In the mid 2000s, SONY India researchers found that the most played video game in India was WWE: SmackDown! vs Raw (a game so popular in India that it’s, quite incredibly, still listed on Flipkart)—thanks to piracy. They found that every small town in India (and cities, too) had small shops with a PS2 console and pirated copy of SmackDown! vs Raw, charging sums like five rupees an hour to play.
This means that while official sales for the PS2 hardware in India were small, the sales through the ‘grey market’ were significantly higher, meaning that SONY was, however indirectly, making money in the Indian market through sales of its console.
It’s in no small part due to this early traction that PlayStation is by far the most powerful game console brand in the country today. With the smartphone market exploding in rural India, the side-loading business is booming. And a huge part of their revenue comes from games. For sums like Rs 50, the shopkeeper loads APKs of premium android games (which may be too expensive or too large to download on a poor data plan) into the phone’s memory card for players to enjoy. Piracy continues to reach games to players who can’t access or afford them.
“The piracy business has always understood how to provide value to customers,” says games journalist and former arcade operator Videep Vijay Kumar. “They often come up with innovations which the more legitimate businesses follow years later. The grey market guys in India were doing buybacks long before the likes of Best Buy introduced it in the US. Game piracy in most markets was a proxy for the ‘try before you buy’ model—in a way it may have paved the way for early access, free-to-play and freemium models that are so prevalent today. People can’t be expected to always pay up front when they aren’t sure about the quality of the game.”
While piracy is often looked at (quite understandably) as a scourge of the games business, its benefits are actually all too plain to see. Piracy helps grow interest in games and keep the demand alive in markets that the larger companies don’t yet consider large enough, help in the archival of video game heritage by preserving titles that nobody cares about anymore and gives people who can’t afford or access games an opportunity to play them, learn about them, and perhaps fall in love with them. Which sounds eerily like what the marketing departments of games companies should ideally do.
India today has filmmakers, musicians, cricketers and entrepreneurs springing up from smaller towns and villages. In the years to come, it’s inevitable that we’ll see game developers, pro-gamers and gaming YouTubers emerge from there, too. And when that happens, we should probably thank the piracy industry for their silent, invisible yet critical contribution in getting Indian kids to fall in love with video games.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy
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