He runs Ludo King, arguably the most popular online game in India that has been downloaded 300 million times since it was launched on Google Play three years ago. There are 6 million daily active users while 75 million in a month are playing it.
But as this board game of 4 tokens explode online, is it just an innocuous game from our childhood in its digital version or the starter kit for a gambling addition?
On an average, a user spends 45 minutes playing ludo. To put this in perspective --, on average, Indians spend a little more than 38 minutes on Tiktok, 35 minutes on Facebook, 14 minutes on Twitter and 44 minutes on Instagram. All of these are single-user, single-screen apps.
“The familiar, intuitive game mechanism coupled with the convenience of mobile, cheap data and devices and the snacky nature of the game [has become] an entertainment option beyond video,” feels Manish Aggarwal, CEO, Nazara, the country’s biggest mobile gaming startup. “The fanbase is bigger than PUBG. The addressable market is 450-600 million.”
It can be played online with the game machine or with people beyond borders. Alternatively on a single device by multiple people. You can play it in teams of four in suburban trains in Mumbai; in your car while going home or to office. They are even playing it in college canteens, in metro cities and in the heartland. Or even in dedicated cafes in Indonesia and Morocco. And France and Germany.
The Indian internet gaming startup ecosystem finally has rolled a six. Game developers say there are more than a thousand Ludo games cumulatively on the App Store and Google's Play Store. Also, most of these developers offer an application package (APK) for Android users, which allows for downloads externally. Till date, Ludo King by far is the biggest. But Ludo Star in Bangalore and Ludo Superstar in New Delhi are fast playing catch up.
Ludo Star, for example, which was started by two IIT Kharagpur graduates Afsar Ahmed, and Govind Agarwal, has 10 million downloads and a daily active user base of 1.5 million.
So far most offer pure thrill. Companies predominantly make money when users “buy” in-app currency. But some are throwing the dice to push the legal boundaries with inducements and cash, exploiting loopholes. There is also the matter of betting. Betting on ludo now has been almost entirely in the shadows but there are workarounds and these could be what defines the next wave.
Bring home the moolah
One monetization strategy has been advertisements. A user has to watch an ad before they start playing a game. These ads can be anything from a hyperlocal service to an e-commerce company offering personalised discounts. Google has been trying to design its Google Pay marketplace around hyperlocal ads. But it does raise privacy concerns but no one is worried. “A large percentage of our revenue comes from ads,” says Jaiswal. But that is not the industry standard. In-app virtual currency is the future but it could be a double-edged sword.
In Ludo Star, users can buy “gold”, which can then be used to place imaginary bets inside the platform. This, Ahmed insists, works solely on the ”bragging rights” principle. And that there is no stake or take for the winner, barring the virtual cash. It also offers a paid version of “rolling again”, or an undo feature, where users pay to have another roll of the dice if they are unsatisfied with the earlier result.
In revenue terms, Ludo Star earns a massive chunk through these in-app purchases of virtual currency (65-70 per cent). The “winnings” of this in-app currency bet can be used to “unlock” skins or themes of boards. Legal experts believe that as long as there is no cash-out this part of the business is fine.
Two steps forward
But things start to get a little grey as soon as cash gets involved. Recently, according to media reports, a man in Gujarat lost Rs 11 lakh while betting on ludo and was allegedly attacked by debt collectors with a bat and a sword. There were others who couldn’t. In Bangalore, a 32-year-old man was stabbed to death because he wouldn’t pay the Rs 100 he lost in a bet on ludo. Lest we forget – our mythological cannons say empires, even wives were gambled and battles fought over its “seemingly innocuous old avatar Pachisi”
The game has avoided controversy till date, but legal experts ET spoke to believe that it is a matter of time, especially with offline betting.
Most games allow for a viewing room experience where players can circulate viewing room links to friends across the world who in turn can bet on the game’s outcome.
Ludo game developers insist that they are not in control of this behaviour.
“These games are just the platform. They can’t help it if someone bets on them,” clarifies Gowree Gokhale, partner, Nishit Desai Associates.
But companies are beginning to flirt with the idea of introducing betting within games as well. The thumb rule in India is that if it is a game of skill then it isn’t considered gambling and if it is a game of chance and it involves the exchange of money, it is banned.
The question is how do companies define this game. More importantly, how does the law interpret it?
There are no case laws available yet that define the game. No state – from the extremely conservative Telengana, Orissa to the moderate Kerala to the liberal Nagaland – has taken a view.
And here in lies the catch.
“Any game would need to substantiate the claim that the winning outcomes is influenced preponderantly by skill rather than chance in order to qualify as a "game of skill" under existing Indian law,” says Nandan Kamath of LawNK, a Bengaluru-based law firm specializing in sports law. “Games of skill receive certain protections of the law as they fall under exceptions to gambling legislation,” he adds. Equally, virtual currencies which these games offer are effectively a "cash equivalent" and an item of value, he argues.
Others are far more circumspect arguing when played regularly, there are several strategies that come in. “There is a preponderance of skill and strategy with an element of chance,” says Nazara’s Aggarwal.
Yet one cannot ignore the fact – to enter the game one needs to roll the dice for a six. And that is more fate than finesse.
But there could still be workarounds. Gokhale from Nishit Desai Associates highlights a ludo gaming company seeking a service fee to play a game, collectable from all its users. When a user wins, she gets a prize from that pool. Despite looking like gambling, “it can be argued that these are two separate and unrelated events. And can be allowed,” she says.
Some developers therefore are trying to tweak the traditional format and offer variants. The government, meanwhile, has adopted a wait-and-watch approach. “If the court says that this app is a problem and has given directions to that effect, our job is to notify Google Play Store or whoever to comply with the orders,” said a senior Meity official on condition of anonymity. What is making this trickier is the classification of these games basis skill or chance.
Bottomline the confusion persists, creating an unstable business environment, worries Roland Landers CEO All India Gaming Federation. “We need to have clarity for businesses to thrive grow, and ensure the consumer is protected.”
For the moment though, companies are leaving nothing to chance.
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