Spider-Man is out now for the PS4. For many, it will probably be their first experience of playing a superhero game on current generation consoles since the Batman Arkham series. And though the Spider-Man games have existed on every platform since the Atari 2600 — developed by companies such as Call of Duty hitmaker Activision and Street Fighter creator Capcom — the web-slinger's mobile debut has its origins in India.
The very first Spider-Man game on mobiles phones was developed by Mumbai-based Indiagames. The game — also titled Spider-Man — was made in little less than a month by a team of four and it nearly shipped with assets cribbed from Spider-Man: Mysterio's Menace for the GameBoy Advance. Intrigued? Gadgets 360 caught up with Indiagames alumni Hrishi Oberoi, Srinivasan Veeraraghavan, and Vishal Gondal to find out what it took to bring Spider-Man to Java and Brew feature phones exactly fifteen years ago.
At the time, Indiagames was a relatively unknown games company that had created 11 mobile phone games that were generic, arcade fares such as Zapper, Chopper Rescue, and Tank Attack. This was prior to the days of iOS and Android when telco operators ruled feature phone stores and dictated what was available for sale to consumers. These games were moderately successful and the company was ready to look extend its reach beyond India and parts of South East Asia.
“We were at E3 2003 when the idea struck that if we can get a certain amount of revenue on non-branded titles what if can get a big brand? Maybe that could make us a lot of money. On a piece of paper I started writing down the names of every big superhero like Spider-Man and Batman,” recalls Gondal, revealing why the company decided to go with a licensed game instead of creating its own IP.
“Coincidentally at E3 itself we met the guy who represented Marvel Comics,” he adds. In that meeting, we said that we'd be interested in licensing Spider-Man. They didn't know who we were and they never licensed anything like this to a company outside of the US. Before this, no Spider-Man mobile game was made.“
Familiarity or lack thereof aside, there was another party involved — Activision. Marvel had licensed the gaming rights to Activision but since Activision had not made the game, the rights had to come from Activision, not Marvel directly. So it had to be structured as a deal involving Marvel Comics, Activision, and Indiagames. In addition to this, concerns remained on the company's ability to actually pay for use of the Spider-Man's license.
“To close this deal I actually took one of our investors with me, Vikram Godse,” Gondal explains. “The reason I took him with me was Marvel asking if we had the money to pay them as to them, we were a small company.”
“I told them 'I've got my bank with me, I have access to all the money.' Obviously, I was bluffing, I didn't have all the money. The goal was to convince them that we had the financial backing and we could do this.“
After some back and forth, terms and conditions were agreed to. It involved Indiagames agreeing to give Marvel a hefty payment — or minimum guarantee as it's known in industry parlance — upfront. The asking price was nearly too much for the firm.
“Vishal emptied the company bank account, around $200,000 to $300,000 to put down as a minimum guarantee,“ Veeraraghavan recalls. “The whole company went to this temple in Chembur near the office to offer prayers because we've put all our money in, now God rescues us.”
That wasn’t the only risk. Work began on the game even before a contract was signed.
“Even before we got the license, we started making the game,” Gondal states. “Our goal was the day we get the license, in a few weeks we should launch the game. Typically what used to happen was you get the license, you make the game, that takes three to six months and then you launch the whole thing. As we were negotiating the deal with Marvel, the game was already under production so we were ready.”
What's more is, the game had to be done in an extremely tight time frame.
”There was a very specific, non-negotiable request — the game had to be done in one month,“ recalls Oberoi. The reason was a licensing restriction.
”We had a blackout period where we could only do the sales of the game for about a six or eight month period,” says Oberoi. ”After that, the Spider-Man 2 movie was going to be launched. In March 2004 they were going to start the marketing of that movie so by that time all other Spider-Man licenses had to go off the shelf.”
Aside from a hard one-month deadline, Indiagames had access to the Spider-Man Classic license as it was known, which meant their source material was restricted to the comics. One area where the team wasn't restricted was what kind of a game they wanted to make. They drew inspiration from Spider-Man games on Nintendo's GameBoy Advance.
“I played a whole bunch of Spider-Man games on GameBoy, and Spider-Man: Mysterio's Menace was one point of reference,” Oberoi claims. “Our take was something you don't see in mobile games today. It was a side-scrolling, level-based game like Mario or Mega Man. Green Goblin shows up, kidnaps a bunch of civilians. Spider-Man has to rescue them and there were five levels. You have to go from level to level and rescue the hostages. It was the first true side-scroller we had done.”
This was during a time before engines like Unity and a lot of the tools necessary to make the game had to be developed from scratch. There were all of two programmers working on the game — Oberoi, Veeraraghavan — and they worked alongside an artist and a tester.
“We didn't have a side-scrolling engine then. We had to in roughly 20 work days, create a side-scrolling engine, write an animation system that has all the side-scrolling elements, and then work on tech which we hadn't worked on before,” says Veeraraghavan. “Hrishi had worked on some of this before on Java, for me it was completely new. This was my first mobile game actually.”
“We were basically staying in office for those 20 days,” he continues. “Because the systems we were writing had to be well done. We didn't do a shoddy job, we could have, but we didn't. Both Hrishi and I didn't want to cut corners.”
What this meant was, the team didn't want to compromise by making a generic Mario clone plastered with a pixelated facsimile of Spider-Man. Attention to detail to some of the character's specific attributes like his ability to cling onto buildings was of paramount importance.
“In Spider-Man what used to happen is that you could cling onto the side of a balcony, climb up, and run. All these are elements were separate collision and animation systems,” says Veeraraghavan of the development process. “And it had to look smooth and neat. This is the first time we had at least six frames of animation, we pushed it to six for the first time. Usually, it used to be two frames max three. But in some of these cases like climbing up a ledge is six frames.”
With no dedicated game designer on the project, all of the game's rules and gameplay elements were decided by the team. The lack of time meant power-ups or abilities beyond Spider-Man's web shooters didn't make it into the game.
Furthermore, the game's animations were taking a lot longer than expected. For a majority of Spider-Man's brief development cycle, it was using art assets taken directly from Spider-Man: Mysterio's Menace.
“What we did was, we took the emulator of the GBA on the PC and cut out the sprites from the GBA game to put it into the mobile game,” Oberoi tells Gadgets 360. “We didn't have time to do original sprites at the same time while coding and designing the game”
Thankfully this wasn’t the case for the final release as it sported original animations, according to Veeraraghavan.
“It was almost that the final version of the game had all the GBA animations inside,” he remembers. “We did not have the final animations ready. We had got it done just two or three days before, but till then, we were working with GBA animations.“
For the most part, Marvel and Activision stayed out of the way, allowing Indiagames to make its game as it wanted to.
“The support we got from them was that they stayed out of the way. Which was decent support in itself,” Oberoi says: “When we gave it for approvals, they didn't push back on much. Because mobile was so small and niche, it must have been that if it looks decent it would be approved.”
However, there was one piece of content that didn't make it to the game — a level that was added in secret by Oberoi. It was no longer a secret after it was discovered by Pratik Murarka, a tester at the company.
“If you stood next to a door of a certain building and you pressed up, you would go inside,” recounts Oberoi. “It would teleport you to a hidden level. If you could swing through it - as it was piers broken up by the sea, it would allow you to fill up your web shooters. I built it as an easter egg and Pratik found it on his first day. I was hoping to slip this in but that didn't happen because a very smart tester found it and we couldn't add an optional, secret level without Marvel's approval.”
Nonetheless, the game finally shipped in September 2003. With so few games on feature phone stores the world over, it turned out to be one of Indiagames' most successful titles outside of its IPL cricket games. It was a premium purchase, costing between $5 to $7 depending on which operator store it was bought from.
“From a single brand perspective IPL made more money, but aside from that Spider-Man is the single game which made more money for us than anything else,” Gondal says. “We had only eight months to realize the revenue from that license. We made close to a million dollars at that point in time. It was quite possibly the biggest ever revenue we made out of any game.”
As for a sequel? Marvel opened up bids for use of the license. Indiagames was outbid by another mobile game company Mforma for one game. Then Gameloft swooped in and developer many of web-slinger’s sunsequent portable adventures.
Indiagames' take on Spider-Man gave it inroads to international distribution across telcos the world over. Buoyed by Spider-Man's commercial reception, it also shaped the company's strategy going forward wherein it tried to get its hands on every Hollywood license available.
“What we did — which was a stupid thing in hindsight [as it meant no focus on original IP], we said Spider-Man worked so we'll buy every license from Hollywood,” says Gondal. “We literally bought 15 licenses. Name a character and we had it. Bruce Lee, Godzilla, Scorpion King, The Day After Tomorrow - we went after every possible movie and brand license. Some worked, some didn't. The confidence we got from Spider-Man did this.”
While Spider-Man on mobile may have been a simple affair, the repercussions were immense. It came at a time when India was seen as little less than an outsourcing hub. Along with the likes of Paradox Studios (Battle Dust) and later Trine (Street Cricket series), it cemented the fact that developers in the country could do more than serve as inexpensive labor.
“We had to explain to some of our investors what we were doing,” admits Gondal. “They asked us if we were stupid, wondering why we'd pay money for a license. This was the time when everyone was saying India is for cheap labor. Investor logic was 'go and tell Marvel that we will make this game at half the price to you and you sell it to anyone you want.' The model they were used to was making games for cheap. With Spider-Man it was literally the fullest developer and publisher role.”