After breaking into the scene nearly two years ago, Raji has become a household name for gamers in the Indian subcontinent.
Post winning multiple accolades and nominations, Nodding Heads Games looked to improve upon their labor of love and sacrifice. Keeping this in mind, Raji: An Ancient Epic - Enhanced Edition was envisioned and executed.
In an exclusive conversation with Sportskeeda Gaming's Matthew Wilkins, Avichal Singh and Ian Maude, co-founders of Nodding Heads Games, opened up about the project's humble beginnings and the road to making Raji an indie game for fans to remember for years to come.
They talk about Phoenix's first unsuccessful flight, linguistical issues, and "deep pockets, short arms." Here is an excerpt of the conversation.
Raji redefined - A legacy comes full circle
Q) I would like to start by saying congratulations on the success of Raji and the launch of the Enhanced Edition. From what I understand, it's been a long time in the making, and the team has worked hard to fine-tune every aspect of the game. But before we dive into the details, tell us how the experience and journey have been thus far.
Avichal: I'll start perhaps in the Kickstarter days because that is a monumental phase. It was when the rising phoenix nose-dived into the ground. As you know, Kickstarter was a very important step for Raji. We were trying to raise $135,000, and we only reached about $68,000. Things were a mess, I would say.
We were crunching and had just finished the demo. We had to travel to NASCOM in Hyderabad, and we launched on the same day, which was not a bad idea. We got a lot of pledges from the event.
Many showed up at the booth and were happy to help make Raji a reality. The first couple of weeks were good, and then we started seeing momentum dying down. Plus, we had zero clue about marketing.
Ian: We didn’t have the finances left for anything else because we took all our money and savings and pooled it together. We even took personal loans from our families. Who didn’t entirely understand what we were creating, but nonetheless, they trusted us with the funds. In some cases, no questions were asked.
Avichal: And, I have to say that it was not a very large amount. It was so small that none of it was assigned to marketing. So that’s why the Kickstarter started dying down. However, we tried our best to inject momentum.
We had a viral post on Tumblr. It was unexpected, but there was one post made by a lady trying to help us. It went viral, crossing more than 200,000 impressions, but none of that could help us reach the finish line, so we had to cancel it.
It was a huge letdown for everyone. Some of us were literally in tears. There were many “what’s next?” being asked, knowing we’d placed all of our eggs into a basket.
We just ran out of chances of making some money to survive. As a start-up, we were together for ten months till that point, and we were not ready to give up. Everyone knew this.
We had applied to DevCom, and before that, I think Shruti made the decision to sell her apartment in West Bengal, Kolkata, so that we could raise some money and survive. This allowed us to go on for a few more months, eventually leading to the Epic grant.
This came in the nick of time and is why we thank Epic Games at every opportunity. While that saved us, we were emailing and talking to tons of publishers in the meantime. We eventually decided to move ahead with Super.com.
That was when we knew that the game was going to get made. There’s no way that this is going to go wrong. Of course, it was a very short duration. Raji was created in about 20 to 22 months by 13 developers during a period of extreme crunchtime.
Ian: It was our only time, wasn't it, Avichal? It was the only time we had as an Indie-Indian studio - to make the best of impressions. It was either "sink or swim." So we just threw everything viable that we had at it to make the best of the situation.
Aside from this, we had to contend with stereotypes and trolls. But you know what? I want to say thank you to all of those people who doubted us. They fueled us to make it the best game that we had at the time.
To date, we've received 36 accolades. We didn't go out searching for them. We got them through nominations. It's a very humbling experience which we're eternally grateful for. Out of the 36, ten were wins, which is something to be extremely proud of, given what we've achieved.
Avichal: More than that, the game was deemed a successful indie game on all terms. Given that a lot of people look at these things from a financial perspective, this was very important for us as a studio. If you don't earn enough and survive to make another game, then what's the point?
Many people think like that, and I'm so glad that we're still here and looking forward to whatever's next. Raji was able to give us that chance, and we were able to give Raji a chance.
Avichal and Ian: There were so many key moments post-launch. The first one was Nintendo Indie World. Before that, it was E3 2018, in which we were featured and only had six seconds of screentime.
We were showcased for two seconds in the intro and four seconds in the rest of the video. To think that on December 13, we were ready to press the cancel button. It was quite devastating, but the thing is, you learn from your mistakes.
Avichal: This helped us understand marketing. We took those failings from the Kickstarter days, learned from them, and applied them to Raji. That helped us have a decent launch.
But apart from numbers, the fact that we were selected by Nintendo Indie World to be featured, and we didn’t even know that Supergiant Games was on it. It was just a cherry on top as everyone looks up to them in the industry. Due to this, we were proud that Raji was being announced alongside Hades.
Soon after the Nintendo launch, the PC launch happened in October, and then came the line of nominations and awards. Press coverage from the media and positive sentiment from the game, especially on Steam.
After that, we tried to take a break. The emphasis is on “tried”, as we still haven’t. Just a week here and there. But the burnout that Raji caused us is something that we’re still coping with.
Q. In many ways, Raji has been the underdog that broke into the gaming scene and made it big. It has been nominated/won numerous awards and has set a benchmark for game developers in India. Given these facts, what are your expectations from the Enhanced Edition?
Avichal: Honestly, we are trying to keep expectations a bit low. We don’t have some crazy marketing behind this like the real launch. Since the update will be pushed for free and Raji’s enhanced edition will show up on everyone’s Nintendo Switch, Steam, or PlayStation, we feel that whoever plays the game will find value in replayability.
They will also find a motive for replayability, one of them being Hindi voiceovers. We’ll also be adding regional subtitles, and although it’s not as huge a feature, it’ll add more flavor to the game. If not, we also provide RTX, new game modes, AI variants, SFX, soundtrack, and improved boss fights. The list just keeps going.
Ian: I suppose it’s more a love letter to our fans because we are addressing most, if not all, of the issues based on the feedback. We documented it all on a vast spreadsheet, and it addressed the problems.
We saw an opportunity to look at everything else while the gameplay was getting an overhaul. Effectively, it’s all the stuff that we wanted to do, which we couldn’t do before. In essence, It’s given a breath of fresh air to the game.
Avichal: There are new skins, cool tattoos, and new masks for demons, inspired by Balinese mythology. The team has been playing and testing this for so long, so our eyes are tired. So, we’re looking forward to seeing how people receive it.
Yeah, so those are our expectations. It’s all about player love; it’s not a numbers game for this launch. It’s a free update, and we’re just happy to see people enjoy and remember it since this is our first and last content update.
Ian: Yup, Then we’ll move on to new pastures.
Q) Since the upgrade is free to all players, I'm intrigued as to why this decision was made? In today's day and age, where most enhanced/upgraded editions cost extra, why make this update free for Raji?
Avichal: If you put a $5 or $3 tag on a DLC, it creates friction. Thus, the goal here was to let the players know that they helped us reach our targets, and this is our way of saying thank you with a free content update.
The goal was never about making this update to recuperate costs from the players because we see a long-term relationship with the community.
Furthermore, most DLCs do not sell. This was something we analyzed on Steam and other platforms. DLCs have to be marketed well, or they have to be good, content-wise. To put this into perspective, there are only a handful of DLCs that people talk about.
Q) Coming to the game itself, for gamers who are picking up Raji for the first time, what can they expect from the Enhanced Edition? Could you give us some insight as to the major updates or content within the game that has been improved and in what ways?
Avichal: I think the biggest feature people have asked for the most is Hindi voiceovers. We went through a lot of voice actors before selecting the ones we went ahead with.
And since it was all a work-from-home situation, there were numerous challenges, but we overcame them. However, it did take a while to get the entire voiceover done. It took approximately eight months to reach that finish line, from the very first thought of "let's do Hindi voiceovers." A lot of effort went into it.
There are also new game modes: a story mode with "easy, medium, and hard difficulties", and one shot - one kill mode is coming as well.
For people who want to replay and go through the story, there's a mode for that. For gamers who want to play the game at their own pace, there's the easy mode. Those looking for a challenge will find it in the hard mode.
While on the topic of gameplay improvements, some of Raji's abilities have improved based on some of the feedback. We've also added AI variations since there was a bit of repetition happening towards the end of the game.
We tried to cushion it with the new AI, which will be interesting. I'll stop here for now because I don't want to give too much away. Play it and experience it for yourself.
However, I would say that the new AI variation is something that we’re proud of. New skins and masks add a lot of character to them. We’ve even modified some gameplay behavior. Tried to make it a bit more challenging.
Since a lot of people are going to replay it to see what’s new, we have attuned it to a certain spot. Anyone looking for a challenge should just play the hard mode. On the subject of difficulty, we’ve improved boss fights as well. Last but not least, we’ve added RTX, which took us months.
Ian: That took a while, but you know what, though? The results are outstanding.
Avichal: So RTX and DLSS have been implemented, and we’ve partnered up with Nvidia on this. The trailer featuring these new changes should also be revealed on launch day. They look absolutely fantastic.
SFX has got a huge overhaul as well. Especially the combat part. We also tried to address the repetition with music. We noticed a few complaints, so we tried our best to resolve that.
Other than that, we have implemented numerous bug fixes, the main menu has been changed, and players can zoom in now. This is something that players have asked for as well.
Ian: There’s so much stuff. It’s just like a new launch.
Avichal: There's a zoom-in and zoom-out feature that a lot of people will like. Raji's UI has been improved to give players more feedback. Every time Raji takes a hit, the feedback will be better. The VFX has improved as well. I think I'll stop here now. There's far too much to mention.
Q) Now, I understand that Raji has been given Hindi language voiceovers. Given that it's based on Indian culture/mythology, this is a welcome option for the game. I'm sure that native speakers of the language will be thrilled. However, aside from Hindi, are there any plans to add more regional languages to the game?
Avichal: No, it takes too much time, believe me. So, in 2020 when we launched, some people wanted Hindi voiceovers. We even tried to explain things to them.
To start with, the cost, not just the financial aspect but the time and availability of resources, was a limitation. While some tried to understand why we couldn't ship with Hindi, others were aggressive about it.
When we finally committed to the Hindi voiceovers, I had to coordinate with the voice actors, which took a lot of time from my day-to-day routine. That's not the end of it. When it comes to voiceovers, the entire team has a say in the process.
They provide feedback about how the line is feeling and how well the actor's voice suits the scene. Do they see Raji in this voice? This entire process took eight months. We don't think that we'll be able to provide another language for all these reasons.
Ian: Yeah, because from there, it also goes to the core team, and then we discuss it at length. We'll be acting out certain scenes to get a better feel and emotional understanding of how the lines ought to be delivered.
Avichal was the spokesperson because you only need one voice to communicate the intent to the voice actors. It's a very time-consuming process.
Avichal: And there were so many re-recordings. We encountered hardware issues, quality inconsistencies, and issues with the sound design. It's not as straightforward as people want to believe. That's why we cannot add another voiceover.
Q) Aside from language, I would like to ask about the combat system. Since the game at its core is primarily focused on a narrative-driven experience, feedback from players suggested that it wasn’t up to the mark. How has the team addressed this and implemented changes to the Enhanced Edition? What have they done to make it more seamless and enjoyable?
Avichal: Yup, a lot of small improvements have been added in. One of the first things players will notice is that Raji’s a little faster now. This was done to get rid of the resistance that players were feeling.
Additionally, the combat SFX and VFX have been improved because there were complaints of it not feeling impactful enough.
Even when Raji got hit, there was not enough feedback. So there’s now this pushback we’ve added. This will occur when she sustains heavy hits and will roll in the opposite direction.
Then there’s the whole post-process feedback as well that we’ve improved. Players will be able to feel it when they get hit and hit enemies. All this adds to the feel-good factor when it comes to combat.
Also, Raji, on the right-click, had this triple-combo in which one of the attacks caused her to jump forward. And a lot of people have rightfully said, “why are we jumping towards the enemy while using a bow and arrow?”
So we changed that. Now, she stands still, jumps at the spot, and shoots the arrows. This will help players feel better about combat. Another small detail is that you get health orbs near instantaneously when you attack an enemy in execution mode.
Earlier, there was a small gap between the timing for the orbs to be received. During this timeframe, players can get hit again. In certain cases, this could lead to death. We addressed that, and Raji now almost instantly gets the health orbs.
We’ve also changed a lot in-game pacing. Since we added new AI variations, it has helped us cut down on enemy repetition. However, to some extent, that is unresolvable because we’re limited by the number of AIs we can add.
Q) Are there any plans to put Raji on PlayStation Plus? Given how rapidly these services are growing, would the game benefit from it?
Avichal: Currently, we have no plans for the PlayStation Plus, perhaps in the future. For the time being, Raji is available on Game Pass, and a lot of people are happy with that.
Q) Do you feel that adding Raji to the Game Pass provided any tangible results?
Avichal: Yes, definitely. Our Game Pass launch was done almost seven to eight months after the main launch. When you do that, and it’s really far apart from the main launch, you get to know if it worked or not.
Because when you launch everything at the same time. It’s hard to understand the singular driving factor behind the success. But yeah, case in point, Raji did reach many new people through Game Pass, and we were pretty satisfied with that.
Q) Although Raji has made it big in the gaming scene, do you feel it would have performed better if there was some official support/recognition from the government? With Esports booming in India, would this have helped garner more attention to an original homemade 'desi' indie game?
Ian: Oh! Now, we're talking!
Avichal: So, before we could start promoting the finished product, there was this huge requirement of the government supporting us in our dire times. We had the talent and the experience to make Raji, but we had to pool in and live off our savings. It got to the point where we didn't know if we had the money for more than a few months.
Ian: Let me just interject a little bit here, Avichal. You're going to get a little bit from me on this. So, all the way through Covid-19, there was no financial support whatsoever from the Indian government for any company, let alone for any indie start-ups.
On the other hand, the United Kingdom and Europe had the foresight to provide financial support. Without this, I'm certain many businesses wouldn't have survived.
Avichal: I think there was a big financial remuneration announcement from the Finance Minister. But I don't think the video game industry was a part of it.
Ian: Yeah, but it's great, isn't it? You know, actions speak louder than words. That's all it is. It's just words and hot air. Nothing comes of it. It's like they have deep pockets but short arms.
If they wanted to help struggling developers like us, then I believe they would have done it by now. Unfortunately, it's an uphill struggle. It's excruciating knowing that many just want that sliver of hope.
But they can't because they don't have the financial support. What the government has to realize and take seriously is that the video game industry eclipses both movies and music combined on an annual basis. So the turnover annually is in the billions. This cannot be ignored.
Just think about having some more studios like Nodding Heads Games, talented independent studios representing India on an international scale. It can only do wonders for the Indian Dev scene.
Avichal: And the fact is Raji’s entire development phase went on for four years, from 2017 to 2020, when we finally launched. There was not a single tweet or email in that timeframe, nothing of that sort. It’s like the government doesn’t know that we exist. Maybe that’s just where the government is.
But I feel there are always these announcements about some group looking into gaming and animation. I see these announcements every two or three years, but I don’t see any fruit coming from them.
I haven’t met any developers, at least in India, who have got real benefits. This is where the government needs to wake up because it’s such a shame. As of 2022, India lost on the PC and Console gaming front, but Raji proved that you can still do it from the home ground.
You see the Honourable Prime Minister making statements like Indians should play cultural games. We were being tagged on Twitter in that post, but that’s the irony, right? They don’t even know that Raji exists. If you do know, have you done anything about it?
There's not much to show from the government right now. Although there have been many plans and announcements, nothing has come of it. We can be hopeful, but I'd rather be a bit skeptical and make my own backup plans.
Prepare yourself rather than wait on them. We've spoken about this earlier as well, but it seems like there's no one in charge to look directly into it, and if there is, then the process is too slow. I don't know what else to say.
One can study what happened in the UK, Canada, Europe, and other countries with the game-dev culture. I know this because when the meetups started in Bangalore, I was one of the first few who pulled in many people.
I even read up on Gamasutra from other countries to understand how their community grew. Learn when the publisher steps in, when the money comes into play, and when the government finally steps in. It grows from there. We are yet to see that here.
I know a lot of developers from India who would benefit from this. You know, people need more capital to fail than to succeed. It can’t be that you fund ten studios and expect everyone to succeed.
But if you fund no one, no one succeeds. That’s where we are right now. We don’t have any schemes or relief plans; nothing concrete. We have announcements to which I remain skeptical.
Ian: There are programs, but they aren't focused, and what they do have in place is all about investing in the company. I don't think that's right. Because then there's a conflict of interest when the government becomes the partner of that particular company, and things can get very complicated or messy later on.
Rather, what they should be doing is looking at talent across the entirety of the country. Invest in talent and provide schemes and grants that immediately benefit start-ups.
Avichal: On the same topic, there are almost no video game colleges in India. That's why I mentioned that the funnel is broken. We expect Indian gamers or expect Indians to make games and form more studios, but the fact is no one is in this field.
If we look at the funnel, there are barely any freshers in this industry compared to what engineering colleges might have in a year since we don't have dedicated colleges.
It's a crazy opportunity for the government. Think of employment opportunities. Look at the colleges, the teachers, the number of students, and the money and taxes involved. Also, a lot of these people will set up studios, and we know that game studios can make it big.
There are only a few studios like ours because many people don’t step into this territory. The costs are high, and the risks are even higher. But all that can be mitigated when you have some backing or a fund.
I would say that Epic Games has done a lot in India. They’ve helped us, and they’re assisting other developers as well. Perhaps the Indian government should work with them or someone else, but something does need to happen.
Ian: And if they have some sort of grant system in place, it shouldn't feel like a chore when going through the application process. It needs to be streamlined.
These funds need to be made available because otherwise, how will the industry grow? This provides the necessary breathing space rather than worrying about who's paying the bills.
At least you'll know that's covered for at least a few months, allowing the team to do what they do best and be creative because India has so much to offer.
When I was teaching the students, I would tell them that they are the generation who has to go and make a difference. You've got to break the mold. You have to break the stereotype.
Whatever people see in the West, you have to disprove them. But when you're running with one leg tied behind your back, it's such a disadvantage, and it's a shocker.
Q) Given India's vast mobile gaming sector, has it ever crossed your mind to create a version of Raji to cater to the segment?
Avichal: This was another big ask, especially from Indian gamers, and we do think it's important to reach more people. However, we can't confirm or deny anything at this point. We ask you to be patient, and if you follow Raji on social media, hopefully, you'll see something soon.
Q) Thank you for your time, and I wish everyone at Nodding Heads Games the very best in future endeavors. Speaking of which, now with the Enchanted edition live and the game coming full circle, what's next? Will there be a Raji part 2 which will continue the protagonist's adventure, or is there something else in the works?
Ian: I'll just say think of what George has done for Star Wars. Haha.
Avichal: Of course, we are thinking about the next project. When we play the game, it's always at the back of our minds. However, we have nothing concrete to answer. As I've said, we're first looking forward to our break, and when we come back with a fresh mind, we'll start cooking again.
We're also going into silent mode, just letting you know beforehand. But yeah, something will be revealed in the future. But we're about to wrap up everything there is to do with Raji for the moment.
Ian: We just need to consolidate it now and put everything to bed. Make sure everyone has a good break because, believe me, we need one. And yeah, as Avichal says, watch the social media space.