Raji: An Ancient Epic has been causing ripples across the world for its stunning visuals, use of Indian mythology, and a great storyline. The console-worthy game from India was delayed for a couple of years due to the lack of funds making it a bumpy ride for founders Shruti Ghosh, Avichal Singh, and Ian Maude. Indianexpress.com spoke to the three founders about their journey of creating the game, which has been released earlier this week on Nintendo Switch and is set to launch on PC and consoles soon.
How Raji began
“It feels great. Finally, after three years of struggle, we are going to get the game out,” Ghosh heaves a sigh of relief as she lists every excruciating detail in their long journey to get the game out. “In the initial years when we tried to do a Kickstarter campaign, we could not reach the goal. That was the only plan we had back then. We made a demo for 10 months,” she remembers, adding that the team was just five of them… “sustaining ourselves with our savings”.
The three founders bootstrapped the project with their savings, hoping funds will pour in from Kickstarter. “We did not have the budget to get a PR company to do marketing for us in the initial first few days of the campaign. That’s something we learned. We were struggling to find a publisher to fund us,” Ghosh adds about what she says was a “difficult time for the entire team”.
Ghosh, a specialist in hand painting, has game developer experience with Burn Out Open World & Dominator and VC Arts – Fantastic Four as well as Bejeweled Blitz, Monopoly Slots and Tetris Blitz.
Despite the feedback of the game’s demo being positive, the Nodding Games founders had to toil hard to finally get a publisher.
“Every day, we were sending emails. We were getting really good feedback from publishers but somehow the answers were ‘at this time they won’t fund us’. It was disheartening but we had to keep trying,” she says. Despite securing an Unreal Dev Grants, a $5 million fund supporting developers working with Unreal Engine 4, Ghosh had to sell her apartment to sustain the team till they found a publisher. “After much struggle, we struck a deal with super.com. They believed in our dream and gave us the freedom to make the game the way we wanted to.”
So, what motivated the team all this while? “Whenever we used to talk of our aim as a studio, it was always to put India on the game developer map. We wanted to make a console game that was of international quality and we thought that nobody delved into the Indian mythology and made a game that represented something. That’s how Raji started off.”
Elements of the game, the inspiration behind it
From what is visible of the trailers, many parallels can be drawn with other games in the hack and slash genre. Singh, one of the founders and game designer, lists his inspirations: “Bastion, Journey, Transistor, and when it comes to gameplay God of War, Prince of Persia, Hyper Light Drifter, Devil May Cry… all of these games inspired us.”
Raji is getting a lot of appreciation for representing the traditional Indian artwork on the walls and sculptures as the story progresses and mood changes. Ghosh acknowledges that a lot of this comes from her experiences travelling to different parts of the country as a student.
“In college, I studied traditional painting styles. That has always been an inspiration for me… the craftsmanship of our artists is beyond beautiful and I really wanted to represent something like that in the game as a tribute,” she explains. “If you look at the mythological stories of Durga and other gods in the game, they are painted on the walls like in the palaces of Rajasthan.”
But this was anything but easy. “The 3D artwork was difficult given the amount of time we had. It was a 14-month project that was cut-short from what we initially had. We had to deliver the quality in the way we wanted to in a very short period of time with a small team which consists of an artist, me, Ian our character artist, David and our other 3D artist Shreya and our tech artist. We are quite experienced, especially Ian and me,” she added.
For Maude, every minute detail has its own significance in the game. “Basically, there is a backstory for every element within the game even if it is a rock, pebble etc. Especially when it comes to character’s jewelry and how it influences them.”
Shruti explains further: “We took a lot of inspiration from Indian and Balinese mythology. We thought that storytelling through puppets is a good way to take the player away from combat and tell the story of Raji. Avi’s inputs were crucial in this. He would give us an idea of the character he needs and what kind of enemies would be. He would do the initial research and find out the kind of description he wants.”
Expectations from the game’s feminist character
In the game, Raji sets out to save her brother on Raksha Bandhan Day and kill Mahabalsura. Usually, it is the brother’s duty to save his sister, but in the game, it is the other way around.
Maude, who has worked for top gaming companies like Rockstar, Ubisoft, The Chinese Room and Acclaim, says the story was not made keeping in mind that the female protagonist will be more appealing. “It wasn’t a conscious decision and it was a sibling story anyway. It just felt right. It just seems like the right thing to do.”
Shruti agrees but believes Indian mythology is what will intrigue the audience more because it has still not been used in a game of this level. “I think at the end of the day if the story is convincing and players can connect to the character itself then the gender does not matter. There are games before us that have had a strong female protagonist, believable characters and people love it,” she says, adding that she does not know whether Raji will attract more gamers or not.
Singh cites other games that feature female protagonists and have been a huge hit among gamers. “It has been done countless times in the past decade. Transistor, Hellblade, Horizon… there are so many other games. People play the game as long as there is quality, something fresh. We are providing all those,” he said.
As Art Director of The Chinese Room, Maude oversaw the Bafta Award-winning game “Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture”. Later on, he became a lecturer in video game art in Pune where he met the two co-founders.
Response from Indian gamers
Raji: An Ancient Epic is yet to release on PS4, Xbox One consoles and PCs but the anticipation is there, especially with some celebrities sharing visuals of the game. “Indian gamers love the game. Rapper Raftar shared the game on his Instagram story and we were invaded by his fans. People in India are just waiting because they want the game on PC or PS4,” says Singh who joined Zynga after his studies and worked on Farmville and Empires and Allies.
The push for make in India will also help in all probability. “Well, it is made in India and it is up to the people what they want to do with it. The core team is in Pune. Of course, the game is 100 per cent inspired by Indian architecture, mythology and more than half the team is from India,” Singh adds, saying getting tagged on social media for ‘Made in India’ is good.
But the game will have a global outlook, and Singh has his reasons for that. “Raising funds for a game in India is the most challenging thing. We all have worked in companies like Zynga, EA, Ubisoft but we had not made anything together. The idea always was that this game is for the international audience and that’s why the quality bar was set really high.” They could look at language versions later if people demand it. For now, the English version itself has been an uphill climb.
Singh almost dismissed any possibility of a sequel to the game in the near future. “We have been so occupied with Raji’s development so far. We haven’t really put any thought to a sequel. We would like a break first because we have been working extremely hard for the last two years. Even before there was so much financial stress we took… You need financial stability too. I am looking forward to a break first and then discuss what is next,” he said.
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