Bollywood’s love affair with the Forces / Vardi

Has the film industry suddenly developed a massive crush, or is it just election year excitement?

Still from Parmanu

Fifty days after the Pulwama terrorist attack, acknowledged as an intelligence failure even by the BJP-appointed governor of Jammu and Kashmir, the Hindi film Romeo Akbar Walter arrived. John Abraham plays a bank clerk, recruited by RAW to gather information in Pakistan as rumours of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 swirl about. He leaves home and vows never to come back, and asks only that his mother be taken care of.

As its name suggests, this is the sort of film where everything has a double entendre. At the end of the film, the double meaning of mother is underlined — Abraham couldn’t perform his mother’s last rites but his motherland is in good hands. Major M.S. Grewal, the father of the film’s director Robbie Grewal, worked in military intelligence.

No bullets here
The trailer of India’s Most Wanted, starring Arjun Kapoor and slated for a May release, is also out. The promotional material says it is the story of the capture of ‘India’s most wanted’ terrorist without firing a single bullet. The success of the intelligence team is signposted in the promos.

Batla House, slotted for release on Independence Day, is based on the infamous encounter of 2008 when two suspected terrorists, and one ‘encounter specialist’, Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma of the Delhi Police, were killed in Delhi’s Batla House. This one too stars Abraham, who has built up quite a filmography of ‘intelligence’ films.

Earlier this year in Uri, Paresh Rawal played the role of the Modi government’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval. Rawal’s character is called Govind Bhardwaj, and he sports a moustache similar to Doval’s. He uses information from RAW, ISRO and DRDO to strategise a ‘surgical strike’. Doval, an intelligence man himself, served as director of the Intelligence Bureau, the country’s internal spying department, set up by the British in the 1880s (RAW came into being in the 1960s, in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war, and is responsible for foreign espionage).

Still from Madras Cafe

There is a clear message in these movies: that there are, deep within the government, officers working ceaselessly to keep you safe. The men of the government are mostly shown as slow and dull, with splendid inertia and annoying questions, while the men of action save the day.

Crush on the intelligence

Like everyone else here, I hate government offices. It is insufferable to be told that there are some officers who work hard when you still have to submit documents in quintuplicate at government offices and never encounter these industrious officers yourself. More importantly, it feeds a disingenuous narrative — the idea that things are ‘under control’ and that the state knows everything there is to know, the ‘surgical strike’ narrative of omniscience.

It is easy to imagine that this on-screen romance with the intelligence community is timed with an important election year, particularly for a right-wing government pumped up on national security concerns. But the Mumbai film industry’s crush on the intelligence forces goes further back, at least to 2012, when Kahaani and Ek Tha Tiger were massive hits.

Espionage thrillers

Still from Ek Tha Tiger.

Hollywood’s long-standing love affair with the CIA is well known. Films like Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, and TV series like Homeland and 24 rolled out after 9/11. But the association goes even further back, to the years following World War II, when there were Nazi-hunting espionage thrillers like Notorious, Where Eagles Dare and Marathon Man. The 90s (and the end of the Cold War) spawned films based on Tom Clancy novels — The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger. In all these films, American intelligence is heroic and correct: Zero Dark Thirty justifies the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay because it leads to the capture of Osama bin Laden. The PR exercise that Hollywood performs for the CIA is well documented in books such as Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood, which notes that the CIA invited Tom Clancy to meet them. Actor Ben Affleck who played the Clancy character Jack Ryan was also invited by the CIA, and the result of these meetings was Argo.

On a budget
RAW and other Indian intelligence agencies had a budget of ₹60,000 crore in 2018. As lawyer Prashant Bhushan argued in a PIL before the Supreme Court, this is roughly ₹5,000 crore more than India’s health budget for that year. The PIL asked for an audit of how the intelligence forces spent this money, but the SC dismissed it saying national security would be compromised. Do RAW and IB pay Bollywood for PR? We don’t know because we can’t ask.

In 2012, two films featuring intelligence operatives were superbly successful. In the opening minutes of Ek Tha Tiger, Salman Khan, a RAW officer, tosses a wad of cash in the air in a sticky situation and his stocky frame swaggers away like a crab in slow-motion. And when Khan elopes with an ISI spy played by Katrina Kaif, his genial RAW boss, played by the marvellous Girish Karnad, chooses to keep quiet — because Khan possesses much knowledge but will never betray his country.

More remarkable is Kahaani, which was made on a budget of ₹8 crore and earned over ₹112 crore. A heavily pregnant Vidya Balan turns out to be an elite operative who brings down a terrorist who had carried out a deadly gas attack on the Kolkata metro rail. She is part of such an exclusive unit that even the surly fox played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui is not aware of it. Interestingly, while in Kahaani, Indian intelligence comes away looking ill-tempered, it is also the real star of the movie — with the power and discretion to create crack teams with able agents like Balan.

Vidya Balan in Kahaani

Last year, in Raazi, which earned ₹195 crore, Alia Bhatt played Sehmat, a Kashmiri spy’s daughter emotionally blackmailed into spying for the government by her dying father. Sehmat’s devotion to duty appears to come from blackmail and fear, not from ideology and conviction. Intentional or not, I thought this was an unusually honest picture — after all, spies work under unforgiving pressure where the fear of death or jail-time is ever present. Raazi is based on the book Sehmat Calling by ex-Navy serviceman Harinder S. Sikka.

Successful strategy
Last year, there was also Parmanu, propaganda for the BJP and another box-office success. Here, John Abraham is a civil servant working for the ‘research and strategy’ department, who successfully leads India to her second nuclear test in Pokhran in 1998, right under the nose of the CIA.

Still from Naam Shabana

In 2017, in Naam Shabana, a young woman murders her alcoholic, abusive father and is sent to a juvenile home. She is later recruited by the intelligence forces when her boyfriend is murdered by a gang of rich brats. Taapsee Pannu plays Shabana Khan. Her recruiter first helps her avenge her boyfriend’s murder. When this satisfying job is done, she is trained for an elite mission abroad to nab a face-shifting terrorist. I love the premise of this story — intelligence forces buy complete loyalty from recruits by helping fulfil their need for justice, the scarcest commodity in the Indian system.

Naam Shabana spins off into Baby (2015), where a crack intelligence team led by Akshay Kumar brings home a terrorist nestled in the ‘Middle-East’, which in contemporary Hindi film topography is the terrain of oil wealth-fuelled terrorism, paedophilia and all manners of human rights violations.

Rescue mission

Still from Phantom

The highest-earning Hindi film in 2017, which made more than ₹500 crore (officially) is Tiger Zinda Hai, where the ex-RAW agent played by Salman Khan and the former ISI spy played by Katrina Kaif rescue 25 Indian nurses and 15 Pakistani nurses held by an ISIS-like group in Iraq, while the CIA twiddles its thumbs. Khan and Kaif go into hiding after the rescue because they suspect that their respective governments will not abide such bilateral co-operation. Governments are tied up in petty rivalries, the film notes, but intelligence agencies are above all this.

In Phantom (2015), disgraced ex-army man Saif Ali Khan and RAW agent Katrina Kaif execute the Indian fantasy of travelling to Pakistan and taking out all the planners responsible for the 26/11 attacks. In Bang Bang (2014), Indian intelligence works with British MI6 to nab an international terrorist; the British leave much of the heavy lifting to the agent played by Hrithik Roshan. Two years earlier, in D-Day, a ‘crack team’ led by Arjun Rampal’s character screened the fantasy of getting Dawood alive in Pakistan, with the tagline India Strikes Back.

No terror strikes
Much like Hollywood, Bollywood too never addresses India’s intelligence fiascos — the terror strikes of 26/11, the Kargil intrusion of 1999, the assassination of prime ministers . In the film Madras Cafe, the RAW officer played by John Abraham even warns the former Indian Prime Minister against going to a rally where he will be assassinated, but he doesn’t heed the advice.

There is also admiration for disturbing behaviour. Why should the Indian state be observing a young Indian Muslim woman as it did in Naam Shabana? Isn’t it illegal? Is it meant to rationalise the Gujarat government’s surveillance of a young female architect?

Still from Jolly LLB 2

Only one film in recent years has laid bare the rot in the inner workings of our security forces. In Jolly LLB 2, an amoral newbie lawyer finds his conscience when he comes across the case of a young Muslim man killed in cold blood by the police. This is termed an encounter death, a constable is killed to make the encounter more plausible, and an ‘encounter specialist’ cop earns yet another mark in a celebrated career. That this film stars ‘nationalist’ hero Akshay Kumar, and is a bona fide box-office hit is the sort of nice surprise that Hindi cinema offers far too seldom


Philanthropy. The love of humanity

Philanthropy. The love of humanity: the love of the potential for compassion, love, and life. Critical both at scale, and at each moment with each individual. For us, philanthropy aims to enable people to realize their best selves. Sometimes, this is focused and pragmatic – such as supporting our local foodbank. Food security for families and children provides an essential foundation for life’s potential.

More broadly, this can also range to other dimensions. Supporting entrepreneurship. Supporting the next generation of educational leaders. Supporting key projects to encourage leadership and courage in the love of humanity.

Some philanthropic investments are commercial models for social impact.

What pattern shapes these philanthropic investments? The venture investing model: a selected and unique entrepreneur, a bold plan frequently with intelligent risk, the potential assets and skills to execute the plan, and favorable market conditions.

It is important for us to note, however, that philanthropy also seeks more than simply outcomes. It is also a form of community engagement. This engagement is a partnership between multiple stakeholders, the most important being the members of the community directly affected by the engagement.

We share common commitments, values, and principles regarding the expression of generosity in our community and the world at large. We also respect that our individual expression of these values often manifests in different ways. While there may be times when we will collaborate in a particular expression of giving, we also respect, honor, and support our mutual autonomy in making our giving decisions. In the words of one of our heroes: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

In case you want to approach me ….

First, I look for entrepreneurs with both a bold long-term vision and the resilience and creativity to bring their idea to market.

Second, I like opportunities and models that have the potential for massive scale. That is, can this solve needs for millions to even hundreds of millions of people?

Finally, I look for unique insights and advantages the entrepreneur has that others might not. Why is their approach the one that’s going to achieve scale sustainably? When entrepreneurs make a persuasive case for their unique thesis that has these characteristics, I’m in. I will put money into an organization with the goal of that organization becoming self-sustaining. In that case, the tax status of the recipient is unimportant – the eventual return on ‘investment’ is the sustained impact of that organization.


Behaviors of Exceptional Leaders

Being a leader is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or not a leader. True leadership takes practice—you must earn the respect of your team, your organization, and your customers all day, every day.

I’ve met hundreds of leaders and worked with some of the best over the course of my career. Those that are most effective consistently challenge themselves to pay attention to all 11 of the behaviors listed below and they make constant, incremental improvements to them.

1. Respect Everyone

I high five and say hello to whoever is managing the front desk of my building every morning, at lunch, and before I leave the office each day. Same is true for the barista and the checkout clerk at the grocery store. I’m not expecting anything in return. I simply believe you get back what you put out into the world. I like to think that respecting and appreciating everyone I encounter brings a little joy to them — it sure makes my day better.

There are plenty of people in power who don’t respect everyone equally. These people are not leaders. A real leader knows that they don’t have all the answers and they’ll need to rely on others for support. The only way others will trust you enough to follow you and support you is if you’ve consistently shown them respect.

2. Trust Your Team

Leaders require trusted information to make decisions and accelerate progress. Which means you need your team to be comfortable being honest and vulnerable with you. How do you encourage that? Show your team you trust them by being vulnerable with them yourself—share your challenges and what you learned from past failures. Then, make sure they have both the responsibility and authority to accomplish their goals. I call this alignment of responsibility and authority ownership.

When your team trusts you, they will tell you the truth and engage in healthy conflict. They will show you that they’re just as invested in the outcome of the decision as you are, and that’s invaluable because it allows you to build strong relationships.  

3. Value Relationships

You will have significantly more opportunities to achieve your goals if you foster meaningful relationships throughout your career. The adage that “who you know matters more than what you know,” rings true in business and in life for good reason. That’s because people want to work with people who take care of them, support them, and treat them right.

As a leader, it’s your job to maintain professional relationships with everyone on your team—even if they aren’t people that you would like to socialize with outside the office. Furthermore, it’s your job to create the conditions necessary for your team to build and sustain positive relationships. My approach is to start and maintain every relationship as one where I’m committed to being “of service” to the other person. Every interaction I have begins and ends with “what can I do for them?” This empathetic mindset is what attracts people to want to work with you.  

Empathy begins with understanding life from another person’s perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. It’s all through our own individual prisms.

4. Practice Empathy

The most mature, driven, and demanding leaders understand that you need the support of your team to be successful. If you want to create a high performing team, you need to show each individual that you care about them and are able to see from their perspective. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they say—but you do need to be able to take their point of view into consideration.

The times we need to practice empathy are usually when things aren’t going well and we’re in a position to provide guidance and support. Actively listen and confirm you get it before you recommend solutions. For example, someone who’s frustrated by a negative interaction with a customer needs to know that you understand their frustration before you work on the solution. The key is to acknowledge what they’re experiencing and be authentic in how you demonstrate that you’ve heard them.

5. Be Authentic

Leaders do not pretend to be something they aren’t. If you lead a team of two, three or 10 people, you need to make sure everyone knows your motivations, your goals, and your blind spots. Only then will your team truly rally behind you, stick up for you, and have your back when things go sideways.

One great question is: “What’s your warning label?” Mine is: I expect a lot, and I’m going to be brutally direct with my feedback—but it will always come from a place of optimism and support. My team knows upfront that I am not going to pull punches, and I expect the same in return. The result is an authentic relationship built upon healthy dialogue, transparency and very few surprises.

A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.

7. Encourage Feedback

Assumptions are the root cause of most frustrations in the workplace. Yet they continue to happen every single day. Why? People are busy. As a result, we try to save time by communicating quickly and electronically. That’s where things go wrong. It’s easier to fire off a dozen messages while sipping your coffee in the morning rather than having an actual conversation with someone. But tone, intention, and context are impossible to decipher via email, text or Slack, and the feedback we give and receive either gets lost in the shuffle or it gets misconstrued.

As a leader, your job is to make sure the members of your team are getting face time with each other to share feedback. At Upside, every person has multiple one-to-ones across their team—leaders, individual contributors and peers.

It’s also a good idea to understand how each person prefers feedback. For example, maybe they prefer to listen, think, and talk again later on, whereas your style is to hash it out on the spot. Those preferences matter, and if you honor them you’ll get better results from your team. But remember, it’s not enough to encourage people to share information—as a leader, you have to make sure you’re listening to what your team is saying, and doing something about it as a result.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”

8. Listen and Lead
It’s easy to think that the loudest person in the room or the first person to speak is the leader. The best leaders make time to listen to the feedback of others before making a decision. That doesn’t mean leaders can’t make decisions quickly. It simply means that leaders are open to outside perspectives to inform their decisions and know that they are more likely to succeed as a result.
Next time you’re having a one-to-one meeting with someone on your team, do yourself a favor: shut up and listen. If you find yourself talking, ask a question and let the person go for a little bit. 

Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.

9. Make Change Normal

One of the unenviable responsibilities of leaders is that you’re required to make really tough choices. The best leaders understand that it’s critical to change course when presented with new information, even if new facts conflict with prior decisions. A truly exceptional leader will adjust their strategy given the new context.

Here’s what that might look like. Let’s say a wave of customer feedback has come in that is highlighting a gap in a feature of your product. It might make sense to put new features on hold while the team addresses the gap. The key is to communicate changes that follow a feedback loop/pattern, for example you need to acknowledge that you:

  1. Had a strategy (to build new features in the next sprint)
  2. Received new information (customers state they need better existing features)
  3. Realized you need to develop a new strategy (put the development of new features in the backlog and prioritize the customer feedback work)

The best leaders practice this pattern daily—checking if the constant flow of new information requires a change in strategy. By making change a normal part of your routine, you increase your ability to be resilient in good times and bad.

10.Be Resilient

If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never take risks and, you’ll never do anything truly remarkable. Being resilient means owning mistakes, learning from them, and quickly moving on.

Don’t let a negative experience of the past hinder your future progress. Remember the lesson and make sure you’re applying the learning to the next challenge that comes your way. Further, if you really want people to take ownership—responsibility and authority—to deliver outcomes for you, you need to have their back when things don’t work out, so they can learn to be resilient too. To do that, you need to let go and allow other people to own the things you normally would do yourself.

11. Let Go

Perhaps the hardest thing for any leader to learn is how to transfer ownership and to trust other people to perform a task or project. It’s not surprising when you think about it. Many leaders become leaders by excelling as individual contributors. When it comes time to cede that responsibility and authority to someone else, it can feel unnatural.

A successful leader must be comfortable with the fact that other people may not perform a given task to the same level of quality as you would on your own, or that they may even fail completely. However, allowing the people you lead to do things on their own builds their confidence, and in time, allows them to grow and take on even more—that’s your primary job as a leader. If you let go of your own desire to do it your way and instead empower the person to build their capability, that’s where the true leverage is. If you’re really good, you’ll have hired people that you respect and trust to deliver an even better outcome than you would have.

Leaders Never Stop Practicing

Exceptional leaders are people that know they are on a continuous journey of practicing leadership, and recognize that the opportunity for improvement is constant. They also know that practice is by far the most important habit to invest in to be successful. I’m by no means a perfect leader, but I’m working every day on getting better.

What leadership experiences have stuck with you? What leadership traits do you admire? What have you learned from failed leadership?

China invests billions…

libaba and Tencent, two of Asia’s most valuable companies, have made an array of investments as they build their ecosystems and go head-to-head in “new retail”

China’s technology triumvirate comprising Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings have become some of the country’s most active investors, spending billions of dollars in a variety of industries, whether to support their own core operations or to diversify into exciting new areas.

A look at available investment data shows that Tencent is the most active of the three, having taken part in at least 94 investment and merger and acquisition (M&A) deals since the beginning of 2017, according to data compiled using Bloomberg’s M&A function. That is almost 25 per cent more than Alibaba’s 74, and far exceeds Baidu’s 25 deals.

Broadly speaking, the three firms’ investments shine a light on how their business strategies are evolving. Alibaba and Tencent, which vie for the title of Asia’s most valuable company, have gone head-to-head as they gear up for a war targeted at the intersection between online and offline retail. The aim is to integrate offline retail – otherwise known as bricks-and-mortar – and e-commerce to create a seamless shopping experience for China’s 1.3 billion consumers.


However, the investment splurge by Chinese technology companies is not too dissimilar to that of their US counterparts, many of which historically acquired or invested in firms that were deemed as key to future growth. Facebook, for example, bought photo-sharing app Instagram in 2012 and messaging platform WhatsApp in 2014, while Google acquired YouTube in 2006 and navigation app Waze in 2013.

“Companies like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have become like investment companies. They are sitting on top of piles of money and they are figuring out how to try and make the best use of it,” said Shaun Rein, managing director at China Market Research Group. “The rate of investments is increasing because they’re trying to stay ahead of each other. Their major business lines have got so big that they are not going to get the same growth they are used to and it’s faster to buy technology and market share than to grow it organically and sustain a similar pace of growth.”

Alibaba sees 2019 revenue growth above 60 per cent as it pushes beyond e-commerce
Soon after Alibaba founder Jack Ma Yun coined the term “new retail” at the end of 2016, the company went on an investment spree, snapping up stakes in Chinese offline retail companies with 11 deals worth at least US$6.9 billion. Alibaba then invested in 11 e-commerce ventures worth a total of US$4.5 billion, with over a third involving online grocers in China and India. Simultaneously, the firm rolled out its new retail Hema supermarkets across China, which enable users to shop both online and offline and have in-house chefs to whip up meals for customers on the spot.

As China’s largest e-commerce company, Alibaba currently has more than 617 million mobile users at its Taobao Marketplace and Tmall platforms, giving it a huge pool of users that it can tap to launch other services. Aside from e-commerce and retail investments, Alibaba has also invested in platforms that provide local services, such as flat rentals firm Mogoroom and fintech consumer loans company WeLab. Alibaba has signed a total of nine deals with platform companies since the start of 2017, in an attempt to build an ecosystem of service offerings linking payments, e-commerce and food.

Not to be outdone, Pony Ma Huateng’s Tencent has spent about US$778 million since 2017 to strengthen its offline retail presence, pitting itself against Alibaba in the “new retail” landscape by acquiring stakes in Chinese supermarket chain Yonghui Superstores and retail chain Better Life Commercial Chain Share Co.
Shenzhen-based Tencent originally built its empire on gaming. The company has established itself as the world’s largest gaming firm, creating blockbuster titles such as Honour of Kings as well as launching popular battle royale games, such as Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

Tencent has also become a force in social media. It first developed the instant-messaging service QQ and later, the multi-purpose mobile messaging-social network-and-mobile payments platform WeChat, which recently crossed a billion users. WeChat, known as Weixin on the mainland, also offers e-commerce and food delivery services, all at a user’s fingertips and without them ever needing to leave the platform.
Tencent diversified by investing in Chinese online grocer Miss Fresh last year, and extended its e-commerce investments to second-hand car platforms, such as Chehaoduo and Renrenche. It has also poured money into the logistics arm of e-commerce ally, leading a US$2.5 billion fundraising round. Subsequently, Tencent and together invested some US$863 million in Chinese e-commerce platform VipShop to form an alliance that could rival Alibaba.
Tencent was recently criticised in an online essay by veteran tech editor Pan Luan, who claimed the company had “lost its dream” by becoming an investment company instead of continuing to develop great organic products in core areas. The article has triggered heated debate, with some arguing the firm may be losing its innovative edge while others say it is setting itself up for successful, long-term growth.

The investments Tencent have made are “complementary to their core businesses, in the sense that they either add content or capabilities to the ecosystem that’s been built around its social media, gaming and entertainment businesses”, said John Hall, co-head of JP Morgan’s investment banking unit in Asia-Pacific and global head of technology services.
Alibaba and Tencent’s heavy spending had spooked investors ahead of earnings releases this month, as fears mounted over looming margin pressures. Both companies, however, surprised on the upside.

Tencent beat analysts’ estimates by about a third to report a 61 per cent first quarter profit, but flipped to net debt of 14.5 billion yuan as of March 31, from a position of net cash at the end of last year – as a direct result of its investments and M&A activity. Earlier this month, Alibaba saw net income for its March quarter decline by 33 per cent to 6.6 billion yuan but its overall results were better than expected.
In contrast, Baidu’s deal-making pace has fallen behind its competitors. In 2017, Baidu closed 13 deals, about four times less than the number of deals Tencent took part in over the same period, according to Bloomberg data.

Last year, Baidu acquired or invested in eight artificial intelligence (AI) start-ups as well as in Chinese carmakers WM Motors and NIO, as it looked to scale back other businesses to focus on AI as its growth driver. In April, Baidu sold its stake in food delivery platform to Alibaba, exiting the industry entirely. Last week, video platform iQiyi said it will take over Baidu’s movie ticketing business, a step that could free up more resources for the latter’s expansion into AI.


Investment data from China’s largest tech companies shows not only an evolution of their existing strategies – it also reveals an array of moon shot ventures and new industry bets, ranging from space exploration to the health and fitness industries.

How Brain can be used (or abused) in VR

For virtual reality to work at its best, there’s a certain amount of deception involved. After all, the much-lauded sense of presence is essentially tricking a user into feeling like they are inhabiting virtual worlds, rather than hanging around in an ordinary room with a headset on. In her GDC talk Tuesday, Radial Games’ research scientist and tech designer Dr. Kimberly Voll provided attendees with an overview of how the brain works in virtual reality, focusing on three key things to keep in mind.

First, as anyone familiar with the term “cognitive dissonance” knows, the brain will work pretty hard to create a consistent, sensible world view even in the face of conflicting evidence.

“It’s going to try to make sense of this mess that is all this information coming in at any given time, even when it’s inconsistent information,” Voll said. “Your brain does not like being inconsistent. It will work very hard to straighten things out, which is great news if you’re in VR, because this means most importantly the brain is working for us, and we can take advantage of this if we don’t get in its way.”

Second, our brains are not to be trusted. They present us their interpretation of reality, she said, and that can mean the brain rearranges memories, or convinces you completely that you saw something you never did.

“Our brains essentially, in short, are always screwing with us,” Voll said. “And we need to be mindful of that because it affects how we see the projects we work on, how the consumers of our projects see them, and how we work with each other.”

Finally the brain is, as Voll put it, “super gullible.”

“We can actually trick the brain into seeing a lot of interesting things without those things actually being there, which turns out is also helpful in games, VR, and entertainment,” Voll said.

Developers will need to consider all three things if they want to complete the illusion of virtual reality and achieve an enduring sense of presence in their games.

“You do not get presence for free in VR,” Voll said. “It might seem that way because the first time you put on that display, your visual system is screaming at you, ‘Holy shit, I’m in VR.’ But once you get over that, and those of you who have worked in VR for a while will know what I’m talking about, other things will start to bubble up.”

There’s a wealth of different ingredients in the “perceptual soup” that Voll said adds up to presence, and some of it is simply beyond the ability of VR to replicate. Given that, it’s important for developers to carefully consider the elements of their game that could take people out of the experience, or help bring them deeper into it. That could mean ensuring a consistent level of interactivity throughout the game (if a player can open one desk drawer, all desk drawers should be similarly interactive), or simply providing a narrative layer to dress up the gameplay and give players more reason to care about what they’re being asked to do. But devs must be careful.

“There is kind of, if you will, a dark side to this,” Voll said. “Sometimes it’s a funny dark side, but it’s a dark side, where we can lead people to do things–without intending to–that they shouldn’t be doing.”

She gave an example from Fantastic Contraption, where players access the system menu by putting on a virtual helmet in the game world. The studio found that when players wanted to leave that menu, they often took the entire headset off in real life, rather than just the virtual headset. They’ve also had similar problems with players finishing VR demos and then laying the controllers down on a desk that only exists in the VR world. Worse still, some people try to lean on those virtual desks, with predictably jarring (and sometimes painful) results.

“We need to be careful of that because we’re not going to ship ourselves with our products. But we have a responsibility about the affordances we’re setting, at least to a certain extent,” Voll said. “It’s a collaborative responsibility, but I think we can’t stick our heads in the sand.”

She added, “Our players are putting their trust in us when they place themselves in the rig. Part of creating believable spaces is that we want people to believe in these spaces, and we want people to feel safe so that they can give into these spaces. If someone’s uncomfortable, they won’t let themselves go. And if we’re contributing to that discomfort, well it becomes our fault.”

Voll is not alone among developers calling for restraint in VR–particular with the use of jump scares–and she’s also not alone in hearing push back to the idea. Many of those who object do so by downplaying the experience, reminding that it isn’t actually real.

“While it might not be real, it’s sure as heck real enough,” Voll said. “And the potential for doing real psychological trauma is there. Physical trauma as well, people walking into walls, or scaring people to the point they have a heart attack. We don’t know yet how this is going to go, but we have to be careful. We have to be mindful of this. Our players place their trust in us when they place themselves in the rig. If you take nothing away from this talk, take that away.”

Google Stadia: what developers think of the game-streaming service

Has Google got its head in the cloud, or can its sheer size help it succeed where many have failed in building a hardware-free future for gamers?

Google’s announcement of game-streaming service Stadia may not have been a huge industry revelation; Google has made no secret of its ambitions to enter the video game market, and it was somewhat given away by public trials last September. Instead, it was the things that weren’t revealed at Tuesday’s Game Developers Conference keynote that took many by surprise. Ahead of the event, a long list of big-name reveals had been rumoured – but none materialised, except Bethesda’s Doom: Eternal, which was not shown actually running on Stadia. And of course everyone was on tenterhooks to find out how much it was all going to cost, information that was also absent.

“There’s just so much that I didn’t learn today that I really wanted to,” says Gizmodo’s Alex Cranz. “And that makes me nervous about it.”

Video-game streaming services are certainly nothing new. OnLive launched a cloud-based game subscription business in 2010, but had ceased operations by 2015. It is one of at least 10 other companies that have tried and failed. The survivors are Nvidia’s GeForce NOW, Shadow and Loudplay, and of course Sony’s own Playstation Now. But Google believes it is bringing something new to this market, based on the sheer scale of its infrastructure, and the technology it is putting at the other end of the cable.

“The specs were really impressive,” adds Cranz. “Those were on par with a 2080 [GPU] from Nvidia and a really nice Intel processor, so [equivalent to] a really good gaming PC. But it’s a completely new platform that people will have to develop games for, so I don’t know how easy it’s going to be to translate games that are already developed for console or PC. This [keynote] felt like less like something for the general public, and more like a pitch to the developers.”

“I’ve always been super-sceptical about streaming games,” says Ragnar Tørnquist, founder of Red Thread Games and veteran developer. “I was told 10 years ago it was going to be everything, and I said no, that’s impossible. But I do think this is the beginning of a sea-change.”

Chet Faliszek, Valve alumnus and co-founder of new development studio Stray Bombay, agrees the time seems to be right for gaming to move toward streaming. “Digital downloads brought us closer,” he tells us. “Stadia seems like the natural progression in our always-connected world.”

The point of game streaming, in theory, is to liberate games and players from consoles and PCs: to enable them to play on any screen, without having to purchase a £350 box to sit under the TV. There is general agreement in the games industry that this would open games up to millions (even billions) more people. “Removing friction between gamers and the game is always the goal,” says Faliszek, enthused to see what the tools will be able to deliver. Tørnquist agrees: “I think that removing technology as a barrier is interesting. It’s interesting for creators as well, as we can get people into our games who don’t have the hardware for it.”

The question is whether most people in the world have access to a fast enough internet connection to make it work. What sort of internet connection would be required to achieve Google’s ambitious 4K streaming? Cranz estimates it would need to be fairly sizeable. “Right now that requires 40-50Mbps, which most Americans do not have. More than half the United States won’t be able to play any of this.”

“But half of people do have internet good enough,” points out Tørnquist –his argument being, for Stadia to succeed, it doesn’t need to include everyone, just enough people.

Competition is always welcome too, for developers as well as players: the more ways there are to reach customers, the less of a stranglehold over the market each competitor has. “I think [streaming] is going to eat into the PC and console market, which is a good thing,” says Tørnquist. Oxenfree developer Night School Studio’s Sean Krankel agrees. “I think more competition is good. I like the idea of things being shaken up.”

Krankel is also rather taken with some of the new possibilities that Stadia opens up, including what Google is calling State Share, a feature that will allow players to share an exact moment in a game with others. He is also enthusiastic about the instant YouTube sharing built into Stadia. “For people who grew up with it, this is just a part of gaming. Video streaming culture has become vital for studios, as opposed to a thing to be afraid of.”

There is also less nervousness from developers around the idea of subscription services, as Stadia is likely to be. Microsoft’s Game Pass has led the way on this, offering a catalogue of games for a monthly price. “Game Pass has been extraordinary for us, because it lets people who would not otherwise play our games try our stuff,” says Krankel. “We’ve seen a lift – when we put [Oxenfree] on Game Pass, sales did better elsewhere. It was crazy!”

It is bizarre that any kind of pricing model was totally absent from Google’s announcement. The audience was shown a huge array of ways players could see a trailer, or glance at a tweet, and be just a single click away from streaming the game on whatever device they were using. But not how much it will cost. “Is this is going to be something I subscribe to monthly? Is it something where I own the game? Am I going to have to reinvest in games I already own?” asks Alex Cranz. “There were just so many questions there, and no answers.”

This raises questions about the idea of ownership. Though perhaps, as in the music and TV industries with Spotify and Netflix, the idea of ownership is becoming less important to players. “The Netflixisation of the industry is going to happen,” says Tørnquist with certainty. “Which is good for us in the short term, but in the long term, maybe not. If you lose your games on Stadia, do you lose what you purchased there? Do you lose your saves? [With streaming] you lose the permanence of it. No copy of that game exists anywhere you can access. You’d have to physically break into their data centre to steal it! Games are going to appear and disappear as the industry moves further into the cloud. People will just carry on with their lives – but what we’ve made could go away forever.”

A potentially sticky fact about Google is that the company does have a habit of losing interest in its less successful projects. Emails are being sent out this week warning people to back up any data they may have in Google Plus, before it’s entirely closed down next month. Its 2016 answer to Facebook’s Messenger, Google Allo, was switched off just last week. And anyone who moved on from the ageing Gmail to the much superior Inbox is having to move back again when that’s shut down in a week. People may well wonder if they should trust Google with their games as much as they would trust established gaming names like Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony.

Everyone we spoke to at the Game Developers Conference was interested in what Stadia could be, although most were hedging their bets until a lot of the questions are answered. How easy will it be for developers to adapt existing games for Stadia? How will pricing work? Which games will be playable on release later this year? What kind of internet connection will be required to use it? And what happens down the line if Google’s attention drifts on to something else?

Yesterday’s presentation offered up more questions than answers about Stadia. It’ll be summer before the picture becomes clearer.

Apple Arcade v Google Stadia: which is the future for video games?

Netflix-style subscriptions by two tech behemoths could open up gaming to millions who can’t afford pricey equipment. Watch out Microsoft and Sony

In the last week, two of the world’s tech giants have made a big play for the attention – and wallets – of the world’s two billion gamers. Apple, already a big player in the video game market thanks to the iPhone and App Store, announced Apple Arcade, a subscription that will offer exclusive high-end games to be played on Macs, iPhones and iPads. And Google, a newcomer to video games, announced the subscription service Stadia, which will let players stream games to any screen from the cloud.

These moves towards a Netflix-style subscription approach present slightly different visions of how video games will be made and played. Google and Apple’s services will join Microsoft’s Xbox Games Pass and Sony’s PlayStation Now. Which company will dominate? And will these subscriptions complement the gaming industry’s current business model or eventually replace it?

Apple Arcade addresses a couple of problems: the devaluing of games on the App Store, where £3 seems like a significant price to pay and low-quality, ad-festooned free games dominate; and the challenge of standing out in a very crowded app arena. It is a way for Apple to invest in and develop premium games, while ensuring that those games can only be played on its devices. And, in theory, it could mean that developers could earn good money from them.

Keza MacDonald – Video games editor at the @guardian.

Google’s Stadia, on the other hand, is a harder sell to people who own games consoles. Long download times are annoying, but the PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo experiences are good, and game prices are reasonable. (Though doubtless Google will make its subscription service attractively cheap.)

Still, a games streaming service could offer instant access, portability, and freedom from a console. Google wants to make the same game available to play anywhere, on any device. You could start playing a game on your TV, then pick it up where you left off on your phone. But streaming technology requires an internet connection, and a fast one at that, which is fine for playing at home but useless on, say, a train where service is patchy. Even a small delay between what you’re doing with the controller and what’s happening on screen would make many games unpleasant to play.

Stadia’s advantage is that it proposes making games playable on any device. The idea of liberating video games from expensive consoles has driven investment in game streaming. I suspect that, just as there are people who prefer high-end speakers and vinyl records to streamed music, there will always be gamers who want a box under an expensive TV so they can have the best possible gaming performance. But streaming would open games up to millions – if not billions – of people who don’t want or can’t afford to buy pricey equipment.

The games industry has been through many technological revolutions, from the invention of 3D graphics to the emergence of online playing, but the games themselves – rather than the technology – have always driven success. Consoles such as PlayStation 2, Xbox 360 and Nintendo DS have sold hundreds of millions of units because they had great games that you couldn’t play anywhere else. In the same way, a game subscription service will live or die by the strength of its content. And like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, they will compete by offering exclusive content.

In this respect, Apple already has a big lead over Google. So far, the latter has only announced one game – DOOM Eternal, for consoles and PCs. Apple, meanwhile, announced an exciting range of games from celebrated and innovative developers, including a surprise sequel to beloved 90s adventure game Beneath a Steel Sky. All games will be available only through Apple Arcade.

It is not clear whether Google intends to make Stadia a home for games you can’t play anywhere else, or simply an easier, more convenient – and probably much cheaper – way to play games already available on other platforms. But the fact that it has established its own game studio – headed by Jade Raymond, a veteran of game giants Ubisoft and EA – suggests that exclusive Stadia games will emerge down the line.

In the short term, the dispiriting prospect for gamers is a range of competing services, all with a few exclusive games we might want to play, all demanding a monthly subscription. Amazon appears poised to announce its own service soon, having spent years investing in games industry talent.

Play-anywhere subscription services may some day replace games consoles and physical game discs, but it is unlikely to happen for a long time. Hundreds of millions of people love their PlayStations and Xboxes and Nintendo consoles; they grew up with them. It will take more than a price advantage to convince them to jump ship.