If you thought computer games were all play and no pay – think again. Although, it takes a lot of sacrifice, just ask Evan and Shaz Greenwood, founders of Free Lives, who lived on instant noodles and steaks fried on a sandwich toaster as they built their digital gaming company. They made a game called Broforce and launched it in 2015. These days it’s worth more than $3.7 million – a gaming goldmine, they say.
“Broforce just keeps going. There is a lasting appeal. I think there is a community that’s driving it. Some of the people that play Broforce play it so much they keep evangelizing it to new people. It’s just at the top of their lists and they keep recommending it,” says Evan, founder and creative director of Free Lives.
It meant saying goodbye to penniless days sleeping on a couch under flickering florescent lights in a warehouse apartment in Muizenberg, near Cape Town. It has also meant hello to mansions on the winelands of Constantia; three-month workshops in Mauritius; and a full-time chef instead of noodles and burned steak.
“If left to my own devices I would never finish a game. It can always have more work done on it. It can always be better,” says Evan.
Behind closed doors and over the internet this little-known games industry has taken shape. If the names Broforce, Genital Jousting or Gorn don’t mean anything, they should if you like games. These quirky games have made Free Lives more money than most could make in several lifetimes behind a desk doing the bidding of others.
This is part of Africa’s $310-million gaming market, that is expected reach $642 million by 2021, according to the PwC report, Entertainment and media outlook: 2017-2021.
This dramatic acceleration in the South African video games market is a result of the emergence of cheaper and plentiful games. The challenge is for companies, like Free Lives, to come up with new ones.
Back in 2008, before Broforce was even an idea, Evan quit his job as a commercial graphic designer to pursue his childhood dream designing games.
“It wasn’t ‘til about 2011, that I’d made a game that really made a significant profit at all,” says Evan.
In April 2012, Broforce came about. While entering into Ludum Dare, an online ‘game jam’ competition where developers from around the world sit down and spend a weekend creating games based on a theme suggested by the community.
They feared their game based on action-hero characters from the 1980s, such as Rambo, BA Baracus and Chuck Norris, wouldn’t be cool. Turned out it was.
“Out of thousands of entries, it was voted number one in fun and third overall,” says Shaz, Evan’s right hand and the company’s producer.
“This was a project that had the right sense of humor, we had the right interests, we were passionate about it. It just got better and better the longer we worked on it,” says Evan.
The ticket to Broforce’s success was timing.
“Games in the 80s had been single person teams. In the 90s teams started getting bigger and bigger and budgets started creeping up and up. By the time I started wanting to build my own games, there were 50 to 100 person teams,” says Evan.
“What happened in 2007/08 was that process, the 100 person team process, could only make certain kinds of games. It had to make conservative decisions because budgets were enormous. They were making the equivalent of blockbusters. This meant there was an opening for making more niche games, more weirder experiences, more novel smaller experiences.”
At the time, technology was so far advanced that anyone who could get onto the internet could make their own game. It was also a time when digital distribution was kicking off, giving rise to online platforms like Steam, owned by Valve Corporation’s founder Gabe Newell whose net worth is $5.5 billion according to FORBES. Steam sells games around the world online, especially on PC and mobile, which means didn’t have to compete for shelf space with the ‘big guns’.
It’s a good position to be in if you are Free Lives. Millions across the continent are just waking up to what the PwC report calls ‘a seismic shift’ in the gaming market (primarily in the form of smart phone-based mobile games) which eclipses revenue from traditional PC and games console video gaming formats.
Among those to benefit are the online PC games. The report says casual gaming revenue more than quadrupled between 2012 and 2016 and will overtake traditional gaming revenue in 2017.
It was the bulging biceps of the 1980s and 1990s action movies and nostalgic games that made Free Live’s Broforce a success. They were able to stay afloat by selling it early on Steam, opening it up to gaming reviewers and beta testers, while still completing the game.
“Such a community rallied around it telling us they wanted more of it. We’re big on open development, constantly getting feedback from people who are really enjoying it,” says Shaz.
“A lot of games start off well but you don’t know how to follow it up… We were letting people play the early versions of games and using that as data that you can make better decisions on,” says Evan.
Not only could they pay themselves for the first time, but it also meant more comfortable accommodation – renting a double-storey house in Kenilworth, Cape Town, with one guy sleeping in the lounge and three others upstairs. They began to work in earnest.
“We’d originally moved into the house so that the guys wouldn’t drive home late at night at crazy hours. What happened was nobody went to sleep,” says Shaz.
Free Lives was far from being a success. Evan and Shaz were $70,500 in debt. They also didn’t want to take lousy publishing offers which would have cut into their profit margins – one company offered to help them in return for a 20% stake in the business. Instead, Evan loaned the money from his parents until they could get the game up and running.
“It wasn’t like they were rich, they used their retirement money. I don’t want to create that myth that if you just work hard, it will just work out. Without their support we wouldn’t have got far,” says Evan.
Just months before their launch, there was another snag when their lease in Kenilworth ran out. Whereas other people who are kicked out of their flat would have moved back into their parent’s garage, luckily the money was turning over. The team instead moved into a mansion on the hills of Constantia – it earned the company a legendary status among the gaming community.
“We walked into the place and were like ‘this is too cool, we have to do this,’” says Evan.
“It had an indoor Jacuzzi, an outdoor Jacuzzi, a sauna, a steam room and three waterfalls. It was the perfect environment for the guys in this final awful phase of game development,” says Shaz.
By the time they launched in October 2015, the gamble paid off. Since then, Broforce has brought in a whopping $3.7 million. In 2017 alone, Broforce sold over a million units on Steam.
So what does a dynamic duo, who forged a mini-gaming empire in less than four years on nothing but snackwich suppers, do with bucket loads of money?
First, they rewarded their team with a three-month vacation in Mauritius and invited some of the world’s creatives to come along and make more games.
“It’s another thing that happens in our industry – you release a game and very often small studios implode, because there is a depression you enter. You kind of go ‘who am I after this thing?’. There was also a fair chance of burnout. Taking everybody to this tropical island, taking their worries and saying ‘let’s just jam for three months’ was an incredible way of keeping this team together… and it worked,” says Shaz.
They also bought a six-bedroom bed-and-breakfast cottage, more modest accommodation than the mansion and lower down in the valley of Constantia, and turned it into their own gaming hub; complete with sound booth, VR testing station and a large kitchen with a full-time chef.
Evan and Shaz believe Cape Town is the African hub for game development because of its affordable lifestyle.
“The cost of living in New York is six times the cost here… Making it radical working here is a very good business case. We need staff retention. I think people focus on how to save money as being the most important business thing, whereas for us it’s more about our team,” says Evan.
From this house, Shaz and Evan hope to build their next hit. One could be the risqué Genital Jousting, an adult party game that leaves little to the imagination and has clocked more than 300,000 downloads since January.
Another winner, GORN, has 30,000 downloads since its release in July. Described as the most brutal and violent VR game yet, GORN is a gladiator conquest game set in the arenas of ancient Rome.
“I’m very sure that VR is the future of gaming. GORN is like Broforce in the VR world. The fanbase is rabid. It’s currently sitting at seventh on the list for VR games in 2017. I know it’s a small market right now, but if we can get to the top of the list, it’s going to stay relevant for the next five years,” says Shaz.
The increasing interest in gaming is also helping to fuel the rapid growth in the related segments of VR and eSports in South Africa. Combined, the gaming segments will add $225 million in consumer spend over the forecast period.
“I don’t know whether [VR] is the future or whether it’s the future in five years. Most of the skills you are going to learn are going to apply to VR and PC game development,” says Evan.
It’s a tough market to be in.
“There is an enormous difference between the games that have this kind of devotion and love and the games that are just a little less popular. They are not on the tip of people’s tongues, they don’t get recommended. When they start dipping off, they are much closer to disappearing,” says Evan.
“On mobile, there are 300 games a day being added and on Steam there are seven a day. It’s thousands of games a year per platform. Mobile is completely flooded. There is well over a million games on mobiles.”
The team at Free Lives is a big part of that and they aren’t working for free anymore.