A geek, a history buff, a technologist and an entrepreneur, Siddharth Jain, is on a mission to bring wholesome family fun back to the table. He talks to Creative Sparq about his journey as a gamer, the benefits of playing games as an enabler for learning and the buzz around his latest creation – Avertigos-South China Sky.
How did your journey in gaming and graphics start?
Games have been with me most of my life. When I was eight years old, I got my first computer. Soon thereafter, my father, who is not a techie, but believes in all things “geeky”, presented me with an Atari 9200, one of the first game consoles. So I was exposed relatively early to the world of digital entertainment games. Up until 2000, when I was 22, I was a professional gamer. I used to do exhibition matches for various international game publishers, all over India, and won several game tournaments. At that time, e-sports wasn’t as lucrative as it is right now.
I didn’t really think I would be developing games. I started my career in television and advertising. I had taught myself 3D graphics and programming as I was always interested in those areas. There were very few courses that offered this in India twenty-five years ago, so I spent a lot of time experimenting and figuring things out. Soon I started working for production companies producing their graphics, while I was still in school. I did my university studies through correspondence and continued working as a freelancer, doing work for television networks such as NDTV, BBC, CNN. I worked on several ad spots as well.
From a gaming and graphics freelancer to an entrepreneur. Tell me about that transition.
Given my background in programming and graphics, it was natural to start building my own gaming engines, which I started in my early 20s. By 2000, I also started a company that specialized in creating games for media publishers in India. We struggled for a while. The industry was very new. In 2005, I got an opportunity to move to Singapore with my business, Playware Studios, as the gaming industry here was getting attention and encouragement from the Singapore government. We started making entertainment games for different media publishers.
In 2007, we got an interesting opportunity. The Singapore Ministry of Education [MOE] was investing in “Intelligent Nation 2015”. One part of the project involved at looking at the Future of Schools”. The MOE wanted to incorporate gaming into education. We eventually moved into the education technology space with the aim of bringing “play” into every classroom on a global scale.
After a decade of bringing “gaming” to the education technology sector, you are embarking on something very different with the Avertigos board game. From digital, it’s back to physical games. Why are you doing this?
We started a subsidiary called Playware Hobbies that focuses on board games. Our first game is called Avertigos China Sky. It’s a unique 3D tactical board game featuring beautiful miniatures.
There are two reasons why we chose to develop and launch a physical board game.
First, having spent a lot of time building games in the Education sector, we realized that games have a significant part to play in several areas – mental well-being, social skills development, strategic skill development, quicker learning.
Studies show that people who play games regularly have a relatively larger pre-frontal cortex in their brain that aids in complex decision making, creative problem solving and accessing working memory. Games have a lot of positive impact to individuals and society. We wanted to create something that leverages these positive aspects.
Second, while digital games have become one of the largest industries in the entertainment space, it is also subject to a competitive business environment that is focused on profits and player retention. While such games are still very creative in their design, everything becomes very commercial in its approach. People essentially download a free game and then pay during the game to win. The art and pleasure of playing a game seems to have got lost in the mix. As a result, a lot of the game design isn’t as pure as it used to be. We wanted to challenge that and bring back the art and science of games that is fun and friendly for the whole family.
So, we decided to develop a physical board game that brings to life the joy of playing a game with friends and family.
A historical narrative forms the spine of your board game, Avertigos China Sky. Tell me more about the storyline.
I am huge history buff, particularly fond of naval and military history. Avertigos is a game about flying sail-ship miniatures. It’s set in a rich and deep world. When we were considering whether to do a fantasy or sci-fiction angle for the game, we felt that both genres had been overdone. So, we decided to go on the Alternate History track.
The inspiration comes from the naval might of the Chinese in the 14th and 15th century. The Chinese in the 1400s had the largest navy in the world, significantly larger than what Britain had at its height. Admiral Zheng He [also known as Cheng Ho], a favourite of the Yongle Emperor, almost circumnavigated the world in the early 1400s. He travelled through South East Asia extensively including Singapore [which was called Long Ya Men at that time] and India. Most of the Peranakan culture in this region has its roots in of those voyages. However as is often wont to happen, political agendas became more important. After the Yongle emperor, the son who came to power, the Hongxhi Emperor, destroyed the entire naval fleet along with historical records of his father’s achievements. Many hypothesize that if the Chinese had still been active in the region perhaps Europeans may not have had the impact they had in Asia through their colonial exploits.
So, in our game, Avertigos, we have taken that theme, though it’s set in the 1650s. It’s a world where Chinese traders find a rare-earth metal in Mongolia, called Bayan Ore*, a magnetic substance with anti-gravity properties. [This is a fact. A lot of the rare-earth minerals that goes into our mobiles today, is found in Bayan, Mongolia albeit none of those fly].
The international landscape in this time-period, however, resembles our current time-period where the mercantile powers are very strong. It’s a time where trade and cross border exchange of goods and ideas is both important and threatening. In this trade-centric world, there are large powerful clans who are engaged not in military wars, but trade wars. All players in the game start building their trade interests and eventually they must resolve their expansionary plans through trade pacts or escalation into wars. In this first instalment, the action takes place in the South China Sky, where the Dynastic naval armada is facing off against the combined fleets of the Singasari League to exert supremacy over strategic islands and control rich trade routes plying exotic goods.
It’s the first board game in the world, where the action takes place not only in a 2D space but in 3D, as the sailing ships can be elevated or lowered as players advance in the game. The game provides endless replay value through its modular boards and miniatures. The game has lego like ships that can be reconfigured by the players to create their own combinations.
That’s a rich and creative but complex narrative for a board game. Who is the target audience for Avertigos?
It is an involved game and yes there is a significant buy-in from parents, as the early bird pricing ranges from SGD $67 for a dueling kit to SGD $307 for the definitive set. Hence parents are going to be important in getting their kids and family in playing the game. While the game requires making strategic moves, it still has the element of chance and luck, so kids do have a fair playing chance against adults.
This is the whole point of our creation – to get families playing board games again. We have designed a game that is very family-friendly. Our reasoning is that we have reached a time in society where people don’t want shallow stuff. They want deep narratives. So why exclude the kids. Why not make it family friendly?
Plus we’ve included many teachable moments in the game ranging from history to sociology to science. The game is also a great platform for developing thinking skills, interpersonal skills and creativity.
With children on digital devices constantly, do you think a board game can generate and sustain their interest?
The allure of the games starts with the beautiful lego-like flying ship miniatures and then we build on that sense of wonder with a lot of rich narrative and lore throughout the game. There are historical references, trade and military parlance and cultural symbolism. If you make these references interesting in a contemporary manner, children will discover the learning on their own. There is an illustrated manual with the rules of the games. Plus, we have also uploaded how-to instructional videos online. However, one of the beautiful facts about board games is that it’s a community activity. The game has not even been launched and we have a fan in French Polynesia who has translated all our rules into French. We have a fan in Canada, who has made a neat little tutorial video on her interpretation of the rules.
How do you see the creative process while developing a game?
When you build a fantasy world or an alternate reality, your creation emerges gradually. The more you build it, the more you discover of yourself as a creator. The process is open-ended. Hopefully it will never finish. It’s an on-going process.
We hope to keep introducing new pieces of history that will be released gradually and give our audience a wider and more vivid view of the Avertigos world.
How do you keep your creative energy flowing?
To keep things fresh, we play a lot of different types of games at home and in the office as well. I listen to different types of music and like discovering musicians from different parts of the world. I read a lot, mostly books related to science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction and I really enjoy dancing.
To find out more about Avertigos, check out the kickstarter campaign here.
About The Interviewer
A brand storyteller, Ayesha Kohli is the founder of communications consultancy Sparq Communications and the Editor of Creative Sparq. She launched the site in 2017 to showcase different perspectives on creativity and creative thinking. Passionate about people, culture, education, leadership, technology and trends, she loves championing emerging talents and new businesses. Connect with her on LinkedIn.