GOQii’s Vishal Gondal on real money gaming, gambling and FAU-G

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It is no secret that GOQii founder Vishal Gondal has never shied away from expressing his strong views on real money gaming. Despite a dozen notices, allegations and police summons, Gondal continues to be vocal about his disgruntlement with India’s real money gaming market.

If real money games like rummy, poker and teen patti can be classified under the banner of online gaming, then it is an oblique victory of irony that Gondal, who is widely regarded as the pioneer of online gaming in India, is also now the biggest critic of it. Gondal, though, insists on making a sharp distinction. According to him, online gaming should not be an umbrella term for what he bluntly refers to as “Gambling”. While the dust is yet to settle on whether games that involve stakes should be seen as skill-based or chance-based, Gondal is adamant on his stance that we must call spade a spade.

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Simply put, he is a man of many firsts. One of the firsts to raise venture capital in 1998 when the concept was largely unheard of, first to set the ball of online games rolling, first to launch gaming tournaments, first to create a truly homegrown Indian shooter game when PUBG was banned and of course, the first to be sent a spate of notices for his scathing remarks on real money gaming.

With a vision to see India-based games topping the Indian gaming market, Gondal comes off as a visionary and a patriot. In episode three of G2G news’ flagship video series “Game on with Jay Sayta”, the host took a deep dive all subjects, contentious or not, related to India’s online gaming industry with Gondal.

Game Development Journey

Currently, Gondal backs nCORE Games, the studio behind the aforementioned shooter game FAU-G and runs GOQii, a fitness technology start up that aims to gamify health and fitness. Recounting the early says of his career, he informs Sayta that his journey started decades ago way back in the 90s.

Prodigiously enough, he was coding games as a hobby when still in school. A hobby that would later become the foundation of his first company. He shares, “I started India Games: the first ever gaming company in India. We grew it; India Games pioneered online gaming; mobile gaming and even Esports; we were the first to launch world cyber games in India and conduct gaming tournaments. We worked with all the major mobile operators ranging from Apple to Google. To put it simply, my gaming journey has been very enriching. In this process, we raised various rounds of funding from various kinds of investors including Cisco, Adobe and UTV. Ronnie Screwvala and I have a great relationship and he was on our board for several years.”

Gondal later sold off the company to Disney and worked with them for about a year before embarking upon GOQii. One would naturally wonder why Gondal, who appears to be so passionate about gaming-related subjects, remained missing from the scene for so many years.

After a long hiatus, Gondal re-entered the gaming market with an explosion of promise. Explaining the reason for the rather long break, he shares, “Once I exited IndiaGames, I had a non-compete with Disney which didn’t allow me to invest in the gaming vertical. I started GOQii which combines gaming and health. In my world, in my life and a lot of other people’s life, GOQii means gaming meets health and our consumers are called players so the whole mentality and DNA of GOQii is from the world of gaming as you earn karma points so in my world there is a term called ‘Meta Gaming’ which is taking gaming and applying it to various walks of life.”

Gondal informs that GOQii is representative of his dream of making the world healthy. He adds, “But in a fun and interesting way and not in a dry and boring way how typically healthcare is delivered”

Gaming vs Gambling

It was only after his non-compete agreement with Disney ended that he backed nCORE Games in 2018. Explaining what spurred him on to invest in a game development company, he shares that the idea arose from his disappointment in the fact that there was a conspicuous dearth of Indian home-grown IPs with the exception of Ludo King. He notes, “If you look at the Google Store in the top 50 or 100 games there are no Indian games. All the games are mostly Chinese and there are various versions of this Chinese games and unfortunately it’s been dominated by gambling games whether it is teen patti, poker etc.”

“It is like saying Indian theatres will play only foreign films or release only porn movies,” he disdainfully compares. He further remarks, “porn and gambling are both not the right activities to indulge in hence I equate gambling to porn.”

For Gondal, it is plain and simple; it is either gaming or gambling. Citing the example of western companies he shares, “In the US also it’s very clear; either you play for fun or you play to make money. It’s a fairly simple thing in the UK, US and in most countries where the regulations are very clear that betting in sports is considered in that particular form.”

Germination of FAU-G

As much as the timing of FAU-G’s release date and the rhyming name gave an impression that it was meant to rival the already popular and banned shooter game PUBG, Gondal informs that FAU-G, the action game, was a part of their roadmap for ages. He says, “We are working on a cricket game, We worked on a music game and we were working on an action game on an Indian theme. We were going to make a game on Indian Soldiers. We are not going to make games on World War 2, Chinese encounters here and there. If an Indian makes a game, it will be about Indian soldiers and that is how we were conceptualizing FAU-G. The game was based on the Galwan Valley episode. I don’t know why people are surprised. We were not waiting for any game to be banned or unbanned.”

With no intentions of competing with the giant, Gondal shares that like movies, gaming too is a form of entertainment and different movies are liked for different reasons. Same is true for the gaming vertical. 

FAU-G was announced amid buzz, star-power and fanfare but met with mixed reviews right after it released. Gondal says he already expected that since the process of making a game is an iterative process. He explains, “You launch the game, get feedback, update, fix and release another patch. The way games evolve is by learning from consumers and updating the game and then you reach a point where you get a great product but you start with a mediocre product.”

He states that the first version of most games is always below average and mediocre and its evolution is an ongoing process that involves continual fixed, patches and updates which can take months to years.

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Comparing FAU-G to PUBG would, according to Gondal, be akin to comparing a baby to an Olympic athlete. He expounds, “It is just like when a baby is born, you’re not expecting the baby to start 100 meter races in Marathon, right? The baby needs to crawl and then it will walk and then it will stand and then it will learn and then your baby can train and become Usain Bolt.”

He shares that other games in the Indian market have evolved in China and other countries. Mature games like PUBG have had millions of dollars spent on them before arriving at the final version as opposed to games like FAU-G which is still in its first flushes.

Game companies like SuperCell launch games in certain countries like New Zealand, Canada etc and test the game before they even launch it in other parts of the world. Gondal expands, “Their concept is simple; if we are just testing, why test everywhere in the world, we will test in a small geography. They see the response and only then take it to the global level after carrying out those tests. So it is a very standard practice in gaming companies and matured gaming studios to launch, learn, iterate and fix. It’s an iterative process”

An iterative process that Fau-G is also frequently undergoing. Gondal shares that, based on the feedback, they accelerated the multiplayer. “The good news is most feedback we have got is cosmetic and around controls like colour or scope size,” he adds.

Views On Real Money Gaming

His narrative for anti-real money gaming stance is clear. As a parent of two teenage kids, his contention is that these games are blatantly ‘advertising as games of eSports and fun and it is absolutely normal to make money on these games.’

He shares “It is very very unfortunate. We as parents and me particularly being one of the pioneers of online gaming. We can not see that under the garb of gaming, we are dishing out things which clearly people above the age of 18 should be doing”

At the heart of his concerns lies his contempt for the supposed dishonesty and surreptitiousness amongst the stakeholders of real money gaming . He posits that people should be made aware as to what this really is. He adds, “Cigarettes, it is said that, they’re injurious to health, it is said that they cause cancer yet people are consuming them which is out of their free will. It is like promoting ayurvedic medicine and claiming that they can make your lungs stronger and tobacco has so many qualities of health after that, for namesake under that, it is written that, by the way, it can also be injurious to health, in subscript.”

Despite the disclaimers which he feels are not enough, he seeks to spread more awareness on what the youth of the country could be getting into. “What is happening is that these games are well known and these games are carrying the disclaimers that these games can be addictive and cause financial loss. It is clear what is addictive and can cause financial loss; it is called gambling. This is how it is treated all over the world,” he warns.

According to him, companies are not to be blamed as they are doing what their shareholders expect of them; which is to make profits for them. He brings up malpractices, the use of AI and bots and the dastardly prospects of being cheated under the garb of online gaming that is taking place, regarding them as the very reasons why most of the southern states have chosen the banning route.

He goes on to share that the legal notices were a part of a concerted and concentrated effort to muzzle his voice by lobbyists and special interest groups rather than individuals. Interestingly, even in his excoriation, Gondal is not appearing to be a votary of bans. All he seeks is that consumers should be given a clear picture.

He elucidates, “Let the consumers decide as to whether or not they want to do this but for god’s sake, let’s not have our kids and youth get exposed to the addiction gambling which is very very bad. It is even worse than alcohol and drug addiction because it involves people stealing and doing other crimes and we have already seen people committing a spate of legal offenses. There have been so many suicides related to this.”

Unlike alcohol, drugs and cigarettes that Gondal shares are the addictive substances which are widely understood to be harmful, these games enjoy a false image of innocuousness.

“Governments can decide whether I want to allow cigarettes, drugs and alcohol in their states or country. And then the rules are made and accordingly there is a legal age limit of people getting alcohol.  And then there is taxation around it. Today what is happening is that because they are not even saying that this is gambling, the state is also losing a lot of money on this because if this was a lottery and other things, it would be taxed,” he expounds.

Expanding on his contention with the labelling and projection of this industry, he shares that this is not gaming. “Why is Google not allowing these games to come on Playstore? Why is Apple not allowing these games to come on Apple? I am saying that let us look at form over substance. If these games are completely kosher, why is Google having a very different position? Why are they not challenging Google and saying that Google is not allowing this. Similarly, why is Apple not allowing this?,” he rhetorically asks.

PM Modi’s Statement On Online Gaming

Recently Prime Minister Modi, tweeting at a toy convention, shared his views on the gaming landscape in India. The Prime Minister shared that games should be Indianised and we should be cautious about some games that cause violence and mental stress.

Gondal shared that his views in complete alignment with those of India’s Prime Minister. “He is also saying what I am saying. Why can’t an Indian movie be number one in India? If a Chinese picture is number one in India then that is a problem,” he emphatically shares.

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Citing the example of his own game, he shares, “You should see FAU-G’s new multiplayer mode where we made a Bazaar and this was inspired by Rajasthan. The minute you open the game, you can feel that it is Rajasthan. We even have an advertisement inside which says wear a mask so what we are trying to do is reflect the Indian culture. For example, all our dialogues are in Hindi. We are an Indian game. There are games that have their text in Chinese. We made a game for India; it is an Indian storyline, Indian product and an Indian game.”

Gondal clarified that the problem is not violence itself but meaningless violence which he is not a proponent of. He shares that unlike Grand Theft Auto where players randomly shoot down people, his game in fact supports patriotism to support the country and does not promote violence on innocents. 

“All the war movies for example, you saw URI, which is about a surgical strike. Will you say that URI promotes violence? No, it is showing you the actual incident where it happened and how our forces went and fought with the enemy. So what we are trying to depict here is what are the hardships of being an Indian soldier. The Indian Soldier is fighting an enemy that is not meaningless violence,” he explains.

Quoting religious scripture Bhagavad Gita, he shares, “It is the intention that determines what is good or bad. if you are doing it as a soldier against the enemy, then you will get a medal for it. If you’re doing violence against an innocent person, for that you will get punished. The same violence is not the problem here, it is your intention which is the problem.”

Future Roadmap For nCore Games

Detailing Ncore Games’ future plans Gondal shares that their focus largely remains on creating localized IP. He shared, “We have started with FAU-G. Our cricket game is under development and we should be hopefully releasing that soon. We’ll be working for multiple game titles also but right now our hands are full with this so you will be possibly seeing a lot more updates coming in this year.”

Heaping praises on Ludo King’s founder for not introducing the element of money despite the roaring success of their title, he shares, “Except for Ludo King, we don’t have a single top title and congratulations to the team who took a very Indian game and took it to the next level. If you note, they have not gone in the RMG way. Vikash (Jaiswal) could have easily introduced the element of money in it but he is also very clear on what is right and what is wrong.”

In corollary to the thread, he envisions that at least 40 out of the 50 top games in India should be Indian. While we may differ on a range of game-related subjects, this is one notion that what we all congenially agree on.