Lahore-based, Mindstorm Studios is an independent videogame developer. Only three years after its launch in 2006, they released their first PC game, Cricket Revolution. The title made such an impact that soon after its release, the studio was contracted by the ICC (International Cricket Council), to create Cricket Power — a browser based game for the 2011 Cricket World Cup. They have also had much success in the smartphone gaming market, including 2 million downloads for their iPhone and Android device game, Whacksy Taxi. All of this is more than impressive, when one considers that this Pakistani studio is based out of a country where there is little to no support for the video game industry, and where software piracy is a national epidemic. When we spoke to Mindstorm Studios, they were certainly not in denial. “Any developer based in Pakistan needs to recognise the harsh reality behind software retail in Pakistan. Piracy is widespread and purchasing power lacking, it’s best to develop products for a market which will respect your time investment and pay for something they like to play.”
With the woeful state of software retail in Pakistan, digital distribution has played a pivotal role in the success of Mindstorm Studios, and is in fact, the underlying thread connecting the majority of their catalogue. Due to this heavy reliance on online sales, Mindstorm Studios is a prime example of the new breed of Indie video game studios. One of the reasons why digital distribution has found popularity amongst PC development studios is because it makes piracy more difficult: Online PC game delivery platforms such as Steam, Direct2Drive, Origin, and the like, depending on the platform, require persistent internet connections to play games published on their services, and are often equipped with DRM that is difficult to hack, making it nearly impossible to play multiplayer games without private servers. Such games are also often deliberately encoded with sleeping bugs, which act as a failsafe if the games are hacked, rendering them unplayable in single player modes. Mindstorm Studios, with Cricket Revolution are the first and only Pakistani developers to find publication on Steam, and consider it to be the medium that made their target audience easier to bowl over, “Cricket Revolution was always meant to be a retail product primarily but we found success on Steam, which allowed us to tap into the international market.”
As the world embraces digital distribution, Pakistani gamers are not far behind. A Lahore based gamer, who goes by the online handle ‘Blade’, says, “My experience of Steam is great. I own Team Fortress 2, Portal, The Half Life Series, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Battlefield Bad Company 2 on Steam. Piracy is still an issue in Pakistan, but as I see it, people have started to buy legitimate games online, only because it is impossible to play multiplayer with pirated games.” Meanwhile, Islamabad based gamer, ‘faraany3k’ notes that digital distribution removes the need to import physical copies of games, and thus eliminates the cost of importing. He goes on to say, “Steam lets third world countries join the mainstream gaming community. And frequent Steam sales let everyone enjoy latest games at cheap prices.”
Sellers of pirated videogames in Pakistan aren’t nearly as happy with the impact digital distribution seems to have made, though. Ali, who runs a video games shop out of Rainbow Center in Saddar, Karachi, complains about how complicated pirating games has become, “Yes, before, you could just buy the CD and run the game. Now you have to disconnect the internet connection [to complete the installation process], and even then there is no guarantee the game will run. More customers are just returning CDs, and it is definitely impacting business.”
But while most Pakistani gamers agree that buying games from Steam is convenient, with ISPs being as fragile in Pakistan as they are, and Steam requiring a persistent internet connection, there is always room for frustration. Pakistani gamer, Hassan Anis, who is studying in America, shares the following thoughts, “Most of the complaints regarding Steam stem from the lack of fast, low ping, stable internet connectivity here in Pakistan. This coupled with the fact that the closest host servers for games like Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty are based in Europe (and maybe some in the Middle East), means that Pakistani gamers are not going to have the smoothest of experiences with online multiplayer modes.”
With the lucrative digital distribution business still in its infancy, and the largest piece of the distribution pie owned by a developer themselves, not everything is hunky dory, however. Publishing giant, EA games, pulled most of their catalog off of Steam, claiming a conflict of interest between said platform and its owners Valve Software. Recently, EA launched its own digital distribution platform, Origin. Whoever wins this war, one thing is for certain, competition almost always benefits the end consumers. And with Pakistani gamers happy to be able to play games legitimately online, further competition should mean even lower prices, and an improvement in quality of services, as well.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 3rd, 2011.