The handheld gaming segment has seen a surge in popularity, in recent years — mainly owing to the runaway success of the Nintendo Switch and the more recent Steam Deck, which offered enough horsepower to run quality titles with portable convenience. It’s no secret that its closest kin is the ordinary smartphone, which already has its own library of games, albeit none too alluring for the mainstream PC or console gamer. The hardware is clearly the culprit here, even the best of which cannot run most AAA or even popular indie titles at decent frames or quality — that is unless the studio takes the extra effort of making or porting a dedicated version for the same.
In most action-heavy titles with 3D modelling, such attempts are futile, owing to the number of particle effects and artefacts that would make games appear downright unappealing. The next best option is to take the least demanding version — usually the Nintendo Switch one — and gradually downgrade and port it to mobile by making appropriate platform-oriented changes. It’s even more convenient if they’re all built on the same engine, and that’s what Pune-based developer Nodding Heads Games did with its recent Netflix collaboration, bringing its acclaimed Hindu mythology-inspired title Raji: An Ancient Epic to Android and iOS. Gadgets 360 recently had the chance to speak with Avichal Singh, co-founder and game director, and Paras Chaudhary, the lead programmer at the studio, to understand the porting process.
“Raji has been developed using Unreal Engine 4 for all major platforms,” Singh said, adding that an eventual mobile version had always been at the back of their minds. “It has been no different for iOS and Android. The mobile version of the game is not a hundred percent direct port of the PC and console versions.” While the core visuals and gameplay mechanics are the same across all platforms, the control scheme and the user interface were heavily tweaked to suit a touch-screen experience. This translates to a movement analogue pad on the left-hand side, while the action buttons dominate the right. In my testing, Raji also supported fair movement on the PS5 DualSense controller — via Bluetooth — but configuring any other buttons was troublesome. There’s no proper button mapping option or indicators in the in-game settings either, so that’s something the team could definitely improve upon.
“Once we had launched on all platforms we had planned for, we immediately started working on the mobile port. We received a lot of requests for launching the game on mobile devices, this also helped us come to the decision of porting to mobile,” Singh added. Developing a game on mobile (from scratch) understandably comes with a ton of limitations, but Nodding Heads Games had a reference point to fall back on. They tested the Nintendo Switch version of Raji: An Ancient Epic as a direct port on Android and iOS, which showed poor performance based on the average smartphone hardware.
“Following that, the game went through multiple iterations of optimisations. A lot of the geometry and VFX in the levels was reworked to reduce the GPU load while still maintaining the aesthetic quality of the game,” Singh explains. “Textures were downsized to save up on memory. Parts of the code had to be rewritten to optimise CPU usage.” The team took almost every use case into consideration, be it owners of a budget device to flagship, by adding an FPS limiter — 30 and 60fps — in the settings and a toggle for graphics quality. That way, no one’s left out from the experience.
Another challenge facing Nodding Heads Games was the overall download size of Raji: An Ancient Epic, which had to comply with the 2GB limit on app bundles on Google Play Store. “The size of the game was reduced from about 4 GB of the Nintendo Switch version to 1.8GB for Android,” Singh said. “The optimisation process took exceptional effort from the team because we wanted to maintain the quality bar that had been set in the PC and console versions of the game, and at the same time deliver a game that is enjoyable on mobile devices.”
This opens the door for discussion on whether today’s mobile devices are powerful enough to run select Nintendo Switch and older PC games with sufficient optimisation. We recently saw something similar with Sid Meier’s Railroads!, a 2006-released PC game which recently saw an impressive port to mobile devices. Going further back to 2013–2014, we’ve seen gems like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Company of Heroes, and even Old School RuneScape thriving on Android and iOS. Most of these examples are paid games with a one-time cost, but Raji is being offered for free — as long as you have a Netflix subscription.
Currently, Nodding Heads Games has no plans to release Raji: An Ancient Epic separately, and joins Netflix’s efforts to expand itself to an entertainment hub, of sorts. Launched in 2021, Netflix Games grants subscribers a catalogue of mobile games at no extra cost over and above the basic subscription fee. A lot of big names such as Hextech Mayhem: A League of Legends Story, TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, and Stranger Things 3: The Game are already part of the pack, but there are 40 more titles coming this year. Apple Arcade seems to be its closest competitor with more games in its catalogue, and somewhat more flexible subscription options. However, both seem to be going for an all-in mobile market approach instead of console or PC, at least for now.
This could have to do with the general cost involved in owning/ maintaining a current-gen PS5 or Xbox Series S/X or a bleeding-edge PC. Just looking at this from an Indian perspective, it somewhat makes sense why Raji opted for a Netflix partnership. For one, the game is rooted in Indian mythology, featuring tales of ancient gods and weapons that reference important moments. Plus, there is a huge demand for mobile gaming in the country, largely fueled by cheap access to 5G internet and budget or mid-range smartphones that come with decent hardware. This makes content streaming on platforms such as Netflix a breeze, ultimately letting more players experience the game while not having to put a price tag on it.
Raji: an Ancient Epic on mobile is a Netflix exclusive for now, and it includes every bit of content Nodding Heads Games has ever released for it. That includes the Enhanced Edition update, which includes a full Hindi voiceover, a permadeath mode, and localisation in several Indian languages such as Devanagari, Bengali, Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu. Circling back to the permadeath feature and the general design of Raji, I was inclined to ask if the team ever considered making a roguelike, in the vein of Supergiant Games’ Hades, but based on Hindu mythology.
“We love Supergiant Games and Hades! However, we always stick to our action-adventure gaming roots,” Singh exclaimed, talking about the future of his studio. “There is something brewing. For everyone interested, do follow our social media handles.”