Garena is quietly making India-themed games even as Free Fire's relaunch remains doubtful

Game studio Garena found itself in the middle of a geopolitical struggle when the Indian government banned its hit game, Free Fire, over national security concerns. Now more than two years later, Free Fire is still banned, but the publisher, a division of Singapore gaming giant Sea, has found another route to the market: TechCrunch has learned and confirmed with sources that Garena is quietly developing new games in India with local themes.

Last week, Versus, a 1v1 fighting game with a Hindu mythology theme, was released on early access on Google Play. Neither the Play Store listing nor the game explicitly confirms Garena's role in its development. However, TechCrunch found through regulatory filings that the studio behind the game — AstroTech Studio — is led by Harold Teo, one of the directors of Garena. Teo is also the global producer of the popular, banned battle royale game Free Fire.

People familiar with the company told TechCrunch that the studio's India team is based in Pune, and that it has been working on Versus for more than two years. Some gaming enthusiasts and people in the country's esports scene were given access to the title a few months ago before it was released on early access, the people said.

In addition to Versus, TechCrunch has learned that studio's Pune team is working on a game based on cricket, the biggest sport in India by far. The company is also coming up with a title based on the classic board game Ludo, which has found a popular incarnation as a smartphone game. This game is being developed by a team based out of Mumbai.

The discovery of the new studio and its titles highlights three things. First, India's bans can take a very long time to fix — if ever — which is a major problem for companies working in the fast-moving, fickle consumer market. Second, the most ambitious consumer companies will look for ways to work around this. Third, creating localized services could be one route to getting back into the market.

Garena does not allow its employees in India to manage its games and studios, and it therefore has executives from Singapore leading development, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. However, the company has employed a significant team in India to develop and market its titles locally.

Free Fire was a massive success in India before it was banned, with market research firms estimating it had around 40 million monthly active users in the country. Sea had announced it would relaunch the game in India last September, but the title never actually dropped.

Although the specifics of the reason for the ban were never spelled out, it was understood that it was allegedly related to national security concerns, because it used data centers in China. The company never addressed this, but at the time that it made the relaunch announcement, it said it would partner with Indian data center company Yotta Infrastructure for its cloud and storage needs.

During Sea's earnings call in March, group chief corporate officer Yanjun Wang said the company was still making changes to Free Fire to consider "users' preference locally," though he did not disclose a timeline. A person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that most of the changes required have now been integrated.

Sea and Garena did not respond to requests for comment.