Stuff Meets Shalin Shodhan, Director at Masala Games

Building an Indian detective adventure game

1) Can you tell me about yourself and Masala Games?

I have been in games and film for about 20 years. I got my Masters in Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon, worked at Electronic Arts for 4 years on the game Spore and worked at Pixar Animation Studios for 5 years on 6 films including Toy Story 3, Inside Out and Brave which won Oscars for Best Animated Film. My wife and I moved back to India in 2014 to raise my twin boys at home and started Masala Games. We do game development services for clients and make original games like Detective Dotson!


2) What's the current team strength of Masala Games working on Detective Dotson?

We have about 15 folks split between the game and the show. We also do services at Masala games. We have another 15 team members doing client projects. So a total team of about 30 people.

3) What's the story behind naming the main character Dotson? What inspired it?

We wanted an easy-to-say name for a global audience. As a pixel character, Dotson is made of - dots and so he’s Dotson!

The idea for Detective Dotson stemmed from our country — India, and our interpretation of it. We realized that if we don't tell our stories, someone else will and it won't be an appropriate representation. Twenty percent of the world lives in India and yet there are barely any games that have India as a setting. If we don't fix that, who will?

There are a lot of games from India focussing on fantasy or mythical aspects of the nation along with some international attempts at it such as the Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed games. While those are great, we believe the India we live in to be a compelling canvas to paint fascinating stories for the world at large. It's this choice of setting — modern-day India along with inspirations from our pop culture like Bollywood and crime shows like CID that make Detective Dotson a cultural joyride through our country unlike any other.

4) While Indian movies usually glorify cops as law enforcers and also do-it-all detectives, what made you pick a detective instead of a cop as the main character?

While we did deliberate the possibility of a cop as the main character, we felt that it wouldn’t be as relatable. Dotson has dreams of being a Bollywood star and is forced by a series of events to be a detective. It’s relatable in the sense that at a very basic, human level — we all have, at one point in our lives or another, the job we dream to do versus the job we have to do. That’s why the focus was to have Dotson as a relatable everyman compelled by circumstance to be a (reluctant) detective.

We were very sure that we didn't want him to be heroic. But we wanted him to have the struggles that a lot of us have. The main theme – for at least how I see India – is we just kind of go with the flow and go through life with very little control, but it all kind of works out anyway.

That's Dotson's essence. He's not good at being a detective. His dream is to be a Bollywood star, but his dad was a great detective. And so, he has to follow in his dad's footsteps, which is also a very Indian thing.

5) Is there more than one case to solve in the game and how long is the main story?

Yes. Detective Dotson will feature multiple cases. Since it's broken up into multiple chapters or episodes, each episode is a single case. As for the length of the main story, we’re still deciding what would be the right duration for a game like this. Being avid gamers ourselves we love our sprawling 50+ hour-long adventures like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Baldur’s Gate 3 but we also love our focused, shorter games like Undertale and Vanquish. Since we’re a small, fiercely indie team, Detective Dotson would likely skew towards the latter two.

6) Will the game have choices with a branching storyline or is it a linear story?

Detective Dotson is meant to be a linear adventure with a definite end at least for the initial set of episodes. Depending on the reception to these and our bandwidth, we might decide on a branching storyline for future instalments via DLC.

7) What's the reason behind transmedia expansion for story-telling here? Is it necessary to watch the episodes before playing?

We’ve always wanted to make a detective game that doesn’t take away control from the player to explain the story via dialogue or cut scenes. At the same time, we do have a lot of stories to tell for Dotson. So we always had the ambition of doing the narrative heavy lift as a show. About two years ago, we unlocked a pipeline with Unreal Engine to do cinematic output with game assets. This gave us the confidence to go transmedia from day 1.

The mini-series serves as a companion piece to the game. Both the game and the show can be enjoyed independently and are not required for the other. But as a pair, they become a great dive into Dotson’s world. We’ll be sharing more details closer to an official reveal.

8) Is there any support from the Xbox developer Accelerator program, Sony's India Hero Project, Apple India or Netflix Games?Detective Dotson, we’re a part of the Xbox Developer Acceleration Program. We’re grateful to ID@Xbox India lead Arjun Varma in particular for helping us on our journey to launch.

9) Any hints on the game's pricing and will it have regional pricing?While we’re still evaluating the right price for Dotson, we’re all too aware of the demand for regional pricing from markets like India. Rest assured, we’ll do right by our audience.

10) Is there a possibility of a physical disc release in the future?We’re big fans of physical media and it’s something we’d love to do. A Detective Dotson Edition with chai glasses and limited edition snacks maybe? Perhaps after we’ve launched digitally.

11) Are there any learnings from the Spore game and the Pixar movies that accelerated the development of Detective Dotson?Here are two that I think about a lot:

1) Helping the team generate the self-belief that they can make something world-class. Giving them a safe space to try bold things without worrying about failure. I want my team to look back at their careers when they are older and see that they did their best work at Masala Games.

2) Pipelines are everything. If you invest in the right pipeline and work hard to preserve and improve it, you can produce extraordinary output with small teams.

12) How does the co-op model fit in with the gameplay? And is it a shared world?

Co-op cases will be specifically designed for two characters. They will be in addition to all the single-player cases. Not too many co-op detective games out there, but if you think about it every Sherlock needs a Watson. We’ll be sharing much more on this soon, co-op mode is going to be very special in Detective Dotson.

13) I've heard the song JJ and realised that music and dance have always been a part of Indian storytelling culture. Was the genre and preference for music decided while writing the story or was it explored after you picked the musicians for the game?

I am a musician and a multi-instrumentalist so I “hear” the story first, then I “see” it and then I’m able to write or explain it! To me, it was critical to have epic musical moments like Dotson finally waking up to his responsibilities, getting angry and taking control of the situation set to an absolute banger of a musical backdrop that calls back to famous Bollywood dhol intros. Listen to the first minute of 1-2-ka-4 from Ram Lakhan. Those street drums - the Maharashtrian Lezim, a South Indian Pakhawaj and a Punjabi Dhol woven together is the best metaphor for India I can think of and BOY is it epic. At the same time, we always wanted to infuse the music of now with the traditional instruments. So you will see a lot of funky juicy bass lines, synths, rock guitar layered in with Indian beats and melodies. Again an appropriate metaphor for who we are and what India is. It’s been the place where culture has mixed for centuries - there’s no place quite like it. THAT’s what Detective Dotson is trying to celebrate.

14) How did the Future Games Show collab with Roger Clarke (RDR2) and Britt Baron (FF7 Rebirth) happen?

We always like to make pixel art versions of the creators that work with us. They turn out so cute and are a great way of saying thank you to them for supporting independent studios like us. When we offered this to the team at Future Games Show, their idea was to go a step further! We loved their suggestion of dropping the show presenters into our Indian street-side set.

When we found out they would be Roger Clarke aka Arthur Morgan from RDR2 and Britt Baron aka Tifa Lockhart in Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, we were ecstatic. The team are big fans of both games.

The story idea was that Britt had gone missing. Roger goes off stage to look for her and as the camera zooms in to the backdrop. The two of them appear in pixel art, Dotson-style cartoon versions on the set of Detective Dotson - which for this event is a cosy Indian mohalla. Britt is hanging back from a wedding procession that has just passed by. She is dressed in a beautiful fuschia ghaghra and some nice wedding jewellery. Meanwhile, Roger is dressed as a local roadside romeo hanging out at the corner tea stall. The two of them introduce the game as Roger wonders how they will get back to human form. We produced the whole segment in 4 days in Unreal Engine.

You can download the demo and wishlist the game here on Steam.