Tech Legends: India’s Growing AAA Game Rep

This article is part of a series focusing on the 3D industry in India. Read more here.

Video games increasingly occupy a central role in the entertainment industry, both in terms of time spent in front of the screen, and in pure profit – 2019’s highest-grossing movie was Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame, earning over $858 million; by contrast, the year’s biggest-earning game, Epic Games’ Fortnite, earned more than $1.8 billion. This was, incidentally, Fortnite’s second consecutive year occupying the top spot.  

With such demand for high-quality content, it’s no surprise that some game studios approach their creations as projects on the same scale as the most impressive motion pictures. And, more and more, Indian game studios have a prominent role in the creation of such titles – frequently as external art service providers for other studios. 

We were fortunate enough to speak with Rajesh Rao, founder of Dhruva Interactive, Bhanu Prakesh of Technicolor Games, Pradeep Kumar of Lakshya Digital, Vishweshwarayya Hiremath of Sumo Digital, and Amaresh Beuria of Lifelike Studios to give us some insight into why the Indian gaming industry has established a reputation as a reliable provider of such externalized work, as well as delving into how such external asset providers use Substance in their work on a day to day basis.  

The evolution of the gaming industry in India

Rajesh Rao, Founder of Dhruva Interactive

Rajesh: Dhruva broke into the industry when we started working with the French game development company Infogrames in 1998. They trusted us in working closely together, and their CTO at that time, Eric Mottet, even invested some money in the beginning. It is this ‘French connection’ that really helped to put us on the map. 

Meet Rajesh Rao

Dhruva Interactive was founded in 1997, and was the first gaming company created in India. It worked on over 100 titles across various platforms, including on well-known games such as Halo 5Forza Horizon 3 and Quantum Break. Dhruva Interactive joined Rockstar Games in 2019.  

Rajesh Rao, Founder of Dhruva Interactive, talks about the company’s pivotal role in cementing India’s reputation as a center of gaming excellence.

Rockstar Games’ website

Our main challenge in the beginning was people. When we started to hire artists, first we had to convince them to join us. Almost all of them had experience in 2D but had never worked with 3D. A lot of them had not even played a game nor seen a console, and trying to bring them to 3D was tough. So we ended up creating a gaming room, and whoever we hired would spend two weeks in that room playing games. That’s how we’d expose them to the games and to the culture.  

At that time, a lot of fine arts schools were still run by very traditionally oriented people who looked down on computer graphics. Now, with much younger people becoming deans of schools, they realize that youngsters need to take every opportunity they can, but in those early days it was really tough.  

Dhruva has been the proof that Indian gaming companies can reach very far. When Rockstar bought Dhruva for its talents and the quality of the team, after Rockstar has already had its own team in India for several years, that showed the point we’d reached when it came to our capabilities as a team. It’s much harder to push quality then to scale low-end services. We made a conscious decision that we’d push for quality instead of quantity. That’s how we kept the best people in the company.  

But I think there’s a lot of good work happening now in India – for example Technicolor Games in Bangalore, Lakshya Digital, and others are doing some great work. And companies such as MPC are working on big, Oscar-winning projects in VFX. So I think that now there are great options for talent in India to have a meaningful and fulfilling career. Before, too many people were burning out on low-quality work, which was less rewarding for skilled people. Now there’s still a lot of work to be done to show and promote that our industry can provide long and fruitful careers. But I’m sure that will happen when more ‘Dhruvas’ and more ‘Technicolors’ come along.   

Education should also really improve. Too many schools are still teaching tools but not teaching the core, the art, the work ethic. Too many teachers have never worked in the industry. You need teachers who have passion, and who give great assignments. Pretty much all the big studios have their own internal mini-studios to train new hires who come fresh out of school.  

Bhanu Prakash, Department Director, Technicolor Games

Bhanu: In my view, the Indian game design industry has evolved greatly. We can see consistent growth in Indian studios working with popular game publishers and on developing games. Regarding the more technical side, whenever I visit IGDC, SIGGRAPH Asia, SIGGRAPH International, or ZBrush Summit, I always see or learn something new in creative technology, which is super helpful as we keep challenging ourselves to predict and anticipate the future of games/CGI production. I would also like to take this platform to thank Technicolor for all those wonderful opportunities.  

Education and recruitment processes can still be improved, in my opinion, because I still see some of the institutes have not upgraded their curriculum according to market requirements; this results in students not being sure how to create an eye-catching demo reel, or struggling when they attend interviews. Also, they need to have a basic-to-strong foundation in art (perspective, form and structure, value, negative space, color), which can help them to create amazing artwork. Because of the points discussed, we continue to find some challenges around recruitment, and we look to further provide art training in-house to bridge potential gaps in our new hires’ education.  

Meet Bhanu Prakash

Technicolor Games focuses on fulfilling the creative needs for the gaming industry, and on pushing forward the gaming market overall. The company has collaborated with many of the top game developers in the world. 

Bhanu Prakash has worked in the gaming, VR, film, and animation industries for over 15 years. His current role as Department Director at Technicolor Games in Bangalore has seen him work on titles such as FIFA 2020, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Rainbow 6, the Call of Duty franchise, and many more.  

Technicolor Games’ website

To summarize, technology has pushed the boundaries exceptionally. When I see some of the current game (real-time game engine) cinematics being produced, they truly look amazing, competing with film VFX shots! We, as industry experts, need to be open to ongoing learning and ready to adapt to new technology and processes that can improve work efficiency and provide amazing quality.  

Pradeep Kumar, Associate Art Director, Lakshya Digital

Pradeep: For studios and publishers, traditional outsourcing models have not always been the most effective and efficient, often requiring more supervision and resources than expected to achieve quality return on the investment made. Lakshya is different! Our team of industry professionals, based offshore in India and onshore in the US and Japan, collaborates throughout the development process to reduce turnaround time and client costs, while delivering a greater volume of high-quality content.   

From a good-to-have, outsourcing has become a necessity. Today, outsourcing is a critical component of any project plan. At Lakshya we understand our role to be of an “External Development Partner” and not just an ”Outsourcing Vendor”. Our team of industry veterans not only helps manage projects efficiently, but as a true partner it thinks from the client’s perspective. We foresee and provide solutions to the challenges that may arise during the production process, delivering the highest quality at the best value while adhering to the strictest standards of QC and security.   

This is the additional value that we bring to the client’s pipeline, which makes Lakshya an effective and trustworthy outsource partner.    

Meet Pradeep Kumar

Established in 2004,Lakshya Digital is a premier provider of art, animation and VFX services for the video games industryOver the past 16 years they have grown to become the largest game development service studio in India, and one of the largest globally. Lakshya Digital works with game developers and publishers in the US, the UK and Europe, and Japan, on titles such as Kingdom Hearts 3 from Square Enix, Shenmue III from YS Net Inc., WWE 2K20 from Visual Concepts, Sea of Thieves from Rare Studios, and Just Cause III from Avalanche Studios. 

Pradeep Kumar, Associate Art Director at Lakshya Digital, provides insight into his company’s role in India’s gaming sector.

Lakshya Digital’s website

The Indian gaming industry is currently valued at over $890 million (approximately Rs 6000 crore) and accounts for roughly 1% of the global gaming industry, and is poised to become one of the world’s leading markets in the gaming sector. India got off to a very slow start in the business of outsourcing game development, and got a foothold barely a decade and a half back, around the same time Lakshya was formed. However, India has done extremely well since then. The growth potential of the game process outsourcing industry is very similar to the hugely successful BPO industry in India, and owes much to the availability of a large and trained talent pool in the country at competitive rates. And there are additional reasons such as familiarity with the English language, the inherent cultural flexibility of Indians, and their ability to quickly absorb and engage with people of other cultures.   

Outsourcing has allowed Indian game developers to get exposure to work with some of the best creative talent in the world, pick up new skills and work to international standards, which has helped in creating a solid base for the future. Top international studios such as Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Rockstar and Zynga have already set up development centers in India, which only goes to show the quality of the game development talent present in the country.  

With the world’s largest youth population (two-thirds of our 1.3 billion people are under the age of 35), abundant talent in programming and art, technical and creative skill sets and a professional aptitude to meet international game development needs at competitive costs, India is well on its way to becoming a GPO hub.   

Vishweshwarayya Hiremath, Associate Art Manager, Sumo Digital

Meet Vishweshwarayya Hiremath

Established in 2007, Sumo Digital is one of India’s leading video game developers. They work hand in hand with Sumo Digital’s 8 UK studios to build groundbreaking games and content for some of the world’s biggest publishers including Microsoft, Sony, Apple and Sega.  

Vishweshwarayya Hiremath, Associate Art Manager talks about Sumo Digital’s work on franchises such as HITMAN 2.

Sumo Digital’s website

Vishweshwarayya: In this tech-savvy world, India has become a destination for international game development outsourcing due to the large pool of talent available to unlock. Big companies like Microsoft, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Disney, and Sony are making huge investments which ensure a brighter future here.  

Outsourcing in India will continue to evolve on a much bigger scale as we have a huge skillset across Art, Design, IT and QA available at a comparatively lower cost along with world-class infrastructure.  

Setting up an indie game studio

Amaresh Beuria, Co-founder, Lifelike Studios

Amaresh: Lifelike is a game development studio with a team of 12 people. We consistently put out high-quality output, but we never take this level of quality for granted – we keep pushing ourselves to achieve the best we can while still maintaining a good studio environment and a work-life balance.    

The events that led to the formation of this studio are quite interesting. Myself and Ashish grew up together playing video games all the time, and we were really amazed by the graphics and beautiful gameplay mechanics used in those games – we always had a sense of curiosity within us to learn how that was done. So we jumped into the development side of gaming. In particular, as we were playing Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, we experienced how it’s possible to be emotionally moved by a video game; this is really what inspired us to make games. After working in a few different studios (where we met Neha), we realized that a lot of people in India still can’t relate to our vision. That’s what led the three of us to start something of our own to tell our stories through the games that we make.  

Meet Amaresh Beuria

Lifelike is a game development studio with a team of 12 people. We consistently put out high-quality output, but we never take this level of quality for granted – we keep pushing ourselves to achieve the best we can while still maintaining a good studio environment and a work-life balance.

Amaresh Beuria, co-founder of Lifelike Studios, talks about the challenges and opportunities involved in creating an indie game studio in India.

Lifelike Studios’ website

Our first choice was to work on a single player narrative game; we all love that type of game. But after an early gameplay prototype, we decided if we hoped to convert that prototype into a high-quality fully-fledged game, we’d require more time, and more people with the necessary skills. At that time there were only six of us, so we decided to start with something smaller, which eventually kept growing as more people joined the team. That project ultimately became the game Rogue Heist, an online multiplayer shooter.  

Currently we are working on Rogue Heist Mobile and prepping it up for the beta release on the Google Play Store and Apple’s Appstore. Also, we just partnered with Mobile Premier League, an Indian esports Platform, to release the esports version of the game, so we’re also currently working on maintaining the live ops for the game.  

Creating an indie games studio was one hell of a roller-coaster ride. Every day is a challenge. There are days which start out great but end up not so good, and vice versa.  All of the unknowns and variables that we face each day is like a completely new territory for us – from working with a very small team which is still very new to this industry, to having a stripped-down budget, to figuring out different pipelines and workflows that’ll simplify the process, to familiarizing everyone with the game engine (Unreal Engine 4) and the process involved around that, and so on – but we do our best to solve them and move forward with what we’ve learned.   

Having said that, there’s also a positive side to working in an indie studio. It gives you that freedom to learn and implement new things. You get the chance to experiment a lot in terms of what pipeline or process you want to follow. You encounter a lot of different things in the pipeline, which helps you establish a broad perspective and understanding of what’s going on. With such a small team you get to maintain the studio culture quite easily and you know all your teammates, their strengths, weaknesses, various approaches, and so on. All these things help you grow as a team and strengthens your process.  

Our main challenge as an indie game studio in India is primarily getting a team in place. Hiring has been a big challenge so far and there are a lot of factors that contribute to it. Whereas most Indian gaming studios develop their games in Unity, we use Unreal Engine 4, and therein lies a big recruitment issue – we don’t find programmers and artists who are familiar with the pipeline. The task of familiarizing everyone in the team with UE4 is a time-consuming, and this in itself becomes part of our pipeline.  

But really, the core problem lies in our educational system itself. The exposure to the new tools and technology available is close to zero. Students just don’t have access to the universities that possess real expertise unless they spend a fortune to go to foreign countries, where you can reach out to the industry veterans for more information about the field, best practices to use, and so on. And so students don’t have any idea about the gaming industry in general. We lack the basic infrastructure to push students who are interested in this field to the next level. That’s where we as a studio take the initiative to do so. 

We won’t usually hire a very experienced campaigner who lacks the ability to adapt to new tools and learn new things. Rather, we prefer newcomers with a fresh mindset and an eagerness to learn. Most of these newcomers didn’t know much about software like the Substance toolset when they joined the team. We train them on the job and teach them how to use new tools and technology in the pipeline to their advantage, and to take their skills to a different level. We introduce them to the studio culture of not getting scared of exploring and learning. This process can be quite difficult, and it can take a long time, but that’s our way of tackling the challenge.  

Game Design in India  

The Indian game industry has a lot of potential. We have a huge population and, recently, good access to the internet. So you can imagine how big a market this can be in the future if nurtured properly. We just need to realize this potential and develop a good infrastructure for upcoming game developers and artists, which can help them receive good exposure to high-level tools and technology as well as reach the veterans of the industry, in order to benefit from their experience.   

Right now, there’s only one such event, IGDC, being organized in India at that level. We, the team at Lifelike Studio and the Substance team, got to know each other in the last IGDC. We need more such events to interact and form a community in India, as well as to make India a core part of the worldwide gaming community. 

The Lifelike Studios team at IGDC

Studios’ use of Substance in their art pipelines

Pradeep Kumar, Lakshya Digital  

We partner with many different development studios on quite a huge variety of projects. For most projects, Substance tools are fast becoming Lakshya’s first choice.   

We use Substance Painter and Substance Designer as the main texturing and material authoring tools for most of Lakshya’s game art creation. Substance Source is a huge time-saver and learning source. Apart from using these tools to create texture maps here are some other ways we use them:  

– To create the procedural materials which are used directly in engines like Unity and Unreal .  
– For baking texture maps and texturing of Characters, Props and Environments.    
– Substance Source and Substance Share have a huge library of work, and even if we can’t find the exact material we’re looking for, this library is a great base to build upon, and is a great learning resource to understand complex material.   

We found that traditional software was limiting artists to PBR, which means it was very difficult to get consistent results between different members of the art team. Substance allowed us to create consistent results amongst our art team.   

Substance Painter’s non-destructive workflow allows us to change the result at any time by using the procedure parameter. Since we work with huge teams and have reviews at various stages, it is imperative that we have the ability to make quick iterations to incorporate inputs received at various stages from different reviewers.   

Smart Materials in Substance Painter really help our artists to speed up production work. We create a Smart Materials library to speed up our work and to ensure consistency between all the assets of a game.   

Substance Designer has changed the process of creating environments for games. Now instead of spending days on sculpting for normal maps using traditional software, we use Designer to create normal maps directly with the same level of quality.   

Powerful PBR real-time rendering helps us to get faster input from internal and external teams. Now instead of setting up engines or renders, we can show assets to reviewers directly in Substance.   

Substance provides multiple material libraries in Substance Source, which is a fast way to complete texturing results with short deadlines.    

Overview of Lakshya Digital’s Texturing Workflow  

In the early days, our initial perception was that Substance Painter was a tool to hand-paint directly in 3D, but now we are moving towards using it as procedural texturing package. By using only procedural techniques, we now texture assets in just 2-3 days (instead of spending 5-6 with traditional methods).   

It’s tempting to sculpt all the fine details of an asset in traditional software, but it’s quicker and more flexible to add them through textures using Substance Painter. Rather than spending time creating all the small details like bolts, grooves etc., we save time by creating fine details in Substance Painter using generators and masks, and then use layering to build up complexity.  

Baking carried out in Substance.

ID Map is used to assign materials.  

Smart materials are a great starting point.  

Some of the materials used come from Substance Source.

Some of the details are added directly in Substance.

Dirt/wear and tear are added.

Decals\text are added.

Because the textures are procedural in Substance, the output remains fully editable, making it much quicker to accommodate reviewer feedback than when painting details by hand and using blending modes. While a procedural workflow gets good results quickly during look development for final-quality work, procedural techniques get us almost 80% of the way to a hero-quality asset.   

Favorite features in Substance  

Substance Painter:    

– We love the Color ID Pick feature, this is a fast way to use the ID mask on a mesh. 
– Generators and smart materials help us speed up production work.    
– Painting the base color and roughness by using the generator in real-time (and swapping between 3D and 2D quickly) is very helpful. We can also create/save our own generators and Smart Materials presets. Sharing this within the art team is the fastest way to work in a team.  
– The UDIM feature is helpful in getting high-quality textures.  

Substance Designer:

– Tile Sampler, non-uniform directional wrap grayscale, Shape Splatter, Multi Material Blend Flood Fill and HBAO node are all excellent features. HBAO in particular is an excellent node. We use it to make tileable materials and it really gives us the desired result quickly.   
– Gradient Picker in the editor for the Gradient Map node. This node is super-useful to make base color variations. 
– The ability to create procedural materials which can be customized in game engines.   

Bhanu Prakesh, Technicolor Games 

We have a team of 200+ skilled asset artists in our games division, delivering characters, environment props, vehicles, foliage, and so on for world-class games. We work for AAA and AA games, mobile, and AR/VR projects. We first used Substance in 2015; we were in the very initial stages of understanding the software back then. Our team really took the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the software starting from the Substance by Adobe book The PBR Guide. As they quickly realized, this isn’t just simple texture paint software; it carries lot of information and technology, and it created a lot of buzz amongst the team at that time with its fresh way of thinking.   

In earlier days, in-engine reviewing of game assets mostly had to wait for the clients to integrate the asset in the game engine. But Substance was a game-changer for us with its amazing real-time 3D asset viewer. When I first saw the asset in its 3D view with all the secondary maps and was able to paint it real-time, it felt like magic! Also, the ability to check the textures in different lighting conditions was amazing.  

The Substance team has done a great job by continuing to update its software, its tutorials (very helpful), the Substance Source material library, and so on.  

We’re currently using Substance in 75% of our projects; for the remainder, the clients have a specific tool or software to be used. In many such cases, we’ve suggested that the client shift to Substance, explaining the exceptional ability of the tool.  

Overall work efficiency has improved a lot, and we’ve seen modeling artists show an interest in learning the software to upgrade their skills with this amazing tool. It’s become part of our artist cross-training program. Using Substance Designer, we can develop our material library, which is super-helpful based on our needs.  

Vishweshwarayya Hiremath, Sumo Digital  

Sumo Video Games is a co-development studio that supports the Sumo Digital UK teams and projects. Together, we develop and co-develop games with publishers and other development studios, for example with IO Interactive on HITMAN 2.   

Substance Designer and Painter have been our main texturing tools since 2015. We have also been using Substance Source as it provides a great base to start any texture. Hopefully, we will be using another great tool, Substance Alchemist, soon.   

For HITMAN 2, we used mostly Substance Designer and Painter. Most of the tileable textures created were in Substance Designer. Since we used tileable textures in all areas, the usage of Painter was minimal. We use Painter only with unique props, for baking various maps and texturing.  

Since the art style for HITMAN 2 is realistic, real references were used for quality. Substance tools helped us to produce the highest quality outputs and made the texturing pipeline feasible and faster. While in production, these tools helped us turn around assets more quickly, and we were able to iterate easily when required.  

Substance Painter, on the other hand, helped us to achieve visual quality and minute and unique details from real references were achieved much more quickly compared to other texture creation tools.  

Artwork from HITMAN 2 created using the Substance toolset  

For the Castle Wall texture (above), we’ve used three variants – normal, damaged, and damaged weathered. All of these were created in Substance Designer.   

The trim texture at the entrance arc design, the gargoyle placed on top of both corners at the entrance, and the stone art pieces placed on different areas of the castle were baked and textured in Substance Painter.  

Ima Ruin assets in the Santa Fortuna level: baked and textured in Substance Painter .

Wall textures in the Isle of Sgàil level.  

The Castle Main Exterior Wall tileable texture variations were a few of the textures created in Substance Designer.  

In addition to the Substance tools, I’d also like to add a little about Adobe Photoshop, one of the great tools of all time. It is essential in all gaming and production, irrespective of other software we use for texturing. We used Photoshop as an essential tool to work with for game engine-related jobs in HITMAN 2.   

Making Rogue Heist: Amaresh Beuria, Lifelike Studios

Early on, we struggled a bit to figure out a proper PBR workflow for texturing and shading of all our props and characters. We’d been using Photoshop to manually create all the texture maps required for PBR shading, and the process was quite cumbersome, so we usually outsourced that work.   

Then our Lead Artist Chandraprakash Maurya joined the team and after working a few years in feature films, TV series and ads as a texturing and shading artist, he was the only one with proper knowledge of a PBR workflow and using software like Substance Painter, Marmoset Toolbag, and others at that time.   

He introduced all the new artists to the Substance tools and the entire texturing and shading workflow using the PBR model. The Substance tools are very user-friendly and intuitive, even for new artists, and so the learning curve was quite fast. Since the Substance tools are widely used in the CG industry – we see them everywhere, from indie to AAA game developers – we decided to go with Substance Painter for our texturing pipeline.      

Apart from Substance, the primary software that we use in our pipeline is UE4, which is the core. Since we aren’t yet using the Substance shader pipeline, we mostly use Substance Painter to generate good quality texture maps to be used in the UE4 shader. The best part about Substance is that it allows you to select UE4 as the preset configuration while exporting, and displays all the required maps that you can use in the engine to create your own shader. This also gives you the ability to combine different masks and pack them into one texture, which is a huge help in optimizing the textures for games such as Rogue Heist Mobile.  

Substance really is a great piece of software when it comes to a modern-day artist, whether you’re working on an art showcase, an indie project, games, VFX, or even feature films.  

We use Substance Painter to create texture maps for all our models, whether it’s an organic model like a character or a hard-surface model like weapons and other environment props used in the game. Once we’re done with the sculpting or modelling process we import the unwrapped model, both high-poly and game resolution, into Substance Painter and generate the normal map by baking the sculpted details from the high-poly to the game resolution models. This generates clean normal maps in the baking process most of the time.   

Then we use the default smart material and procedural texture library in Substance Painter to create a base texture for our assets. This saves a lot of time and helps us maintain the texturing consistency in our pipeline. It allows us to paint directly on the 3D mesh, and this includes painting on all the physical details, like metallic, roughness, and so on. We use Painter’s procedural texturing methods to add dirt and edge wear. The software directly displays the end result along with the quality right there on the viewport in real time. This gives you a perfect visualization of how your textures are going to look in the game engine under different lighting scenarios, which is a huge time saver in the pipeline and helps us finalize the assets quickly. 

Read more about 3D in India here.