The 'new economy' constantly throws up a multiplicity of entrepreneurial ventures trying to solve the problems of modern India. By telling their stories I try to catch a glimpse of the entrepreneurial evolution that India is going through. I have a weakness for the gloss of novelty and chase it in all experiences, from exploring new cities and restaurants, to changing what I read.
The years following the dotcom crash of 2000 were hard on Nitish Mittersain, the founder of the then freshly minted Mumbai-based gaming company Nazara Technologies (recently rechristened Nazara Games). His venture was building Flash-based multiplayer games, and planned to generate revenues through brand partnerships. But when the crash struck home, it destroyed any possibility of advertising income. The company had raised about Rs 75 lakh from angel investors at a wildly ambitious valuation of over $5 million and, in a short period of time, had hired a workforce of almost 60 people. Nazara had just begun and it was already time to cut back. “It took a couple of years to really get the full realisation of the magnitude of the crash,” says Mittersain, who was only 20 at the time.
By 2004, having scaled back operations and recuperated losses, Nazara and its founder were “back to square one”, or where they were before the bust hit.
The company had, by then, begun working on localised gaming on mobile phones. “We thought: Let’s build a big brand and a big IP [intellectual property] that people will recognise,” he says. And this was the biggest—and most audacious—idea they could possibly come up with: “Let’s make a game with Sachin Tendulkar.”
A few months later, Mittersain found himself in the cricketing icon’s home. A star-struck Mittersain showed Tendulkar a mock-up of the game that his team had put together. “He seemed excited. So I said, boss, I need exclusive rights to make games for you. He said: Okay, I’ll charge you a million dollars. That’s my minimum endorsement fee.”
Even now, Mittersain barely manages to say “one million dollars” between loud guffaws. “I told him I can give you Rs 5 lakh maximum.” He spent some more time with the cricketer, asking him to look at it as a way of connecting with his fans rather than as a commercial venture. “To be fair to him, he [eventually] said, let’s do it.” That, in effect, was the beginning.
The upside of this association—apart from the visibility—was that it provided Mittersain access to telecom giant Airtel, of which Tendulkar was then the brand ambassador. “That’s how I got my first contract with them.” Such deals typically involved the operator selling Nazara’s games to its customers on a revenue-share basis. Other telecom companies suddenly became more accessible.
Following this breakthrough, Nazara found an investor in WestBridge Capital India Advisors, which invested $1.5 million in 2005 and another $1.5 million in 2007; this was also the year that Nazara decided to become a mobile-only gaming company, recalls Mittersain, talking to Forbes India in a large boardroom at his company’s offices at Nariman Point in Mumbai. He is sitting on a chair with wheels that he pushes around with his feet, rolling it back and forth as he speaks. Seated beside him is the former CEO of Reliance Games, Manish Agarwal, who took over as CEO from Mittersain, who became managing director, a little over a year ago.
Today, says Mittersain, Nazara Games, in addition to being a mobile games developer, is also a publisher, which involves licensing an IP from its owner and partnering with third-party developers to create a game with it. A publisher typically also works on the game’s design, its monetisation, engagement, virality and data analytics. Chhota Bheem, a mobile game based on the popular animated character, is a good example. Nazara struck a deal with the game’s IP owner, Green Gold Animation, in 2015, proceeded to engage third-party developers to create it and, thereafter, distributed it through various channels.
The person behind it
Very early in our conversation, it becomes clear that gaming wasn’t just a sudden fancy for Mittersain. “I coded my first game when I was 8 years old,” he points out. This explains his youth at the time of launching Nazara. (His father, Vikash Mittersain, who ran a textile business, was the first angel investor in his son’s company, and holds the position of chairman in Nazara.)