In Africa, a new creative energy is seeing tech geeks give up their consoles and day jobs to take to full-time video game development. It’s not a level-playing field but they are engaging a growing hyper-connected audience.
THE YOUNGEST continent in the world has a new obsession – mobile gaming. What’s newer is local content created by Africans for Africa. Take 39-year-old Khumo Moerane, the developer of Kea’s World and founder of the Africa Space Programme Video Games Studio in Johannesburg, South Africa.
He is using a modern medium to tell old tales, celebrating and preserving African folklore among children and adults. Today, he solely designs and develops African video games. And has reached another level altogether. The scene was set in the late 1980s, in Ga-Rankuwa, a large settlement in the northwest of Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, when his parents bought him his first console, a third-generation 8-bit home video game called Sega Master System.
He was instantly hooked. “But back then, you were like ‘man, there are no South Africans or Africans that are making games’. So, in this sense, it was almost like a far-fetched dream; something that would never happen,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
But back then, you were like ‘man, there are no South Africans or Africans that are making games’. – Khumo Moerane
After studying graphic design, Moerane moved to Cape Town in 2012 where the gaming life found him again. With friends, he hosted monthly FIFA tournaments for gamers, playing for eight to 12 hours at a stretch. In 2017, Moerane quit his job as a graphic designer at news broadcaster, eNCA, and went on pursue a Master of Science in Video Game Enterprise, Production and Design at Birmingham City University in the United Kingdom under a Chevening Scholarship.
His very first creation, Kea’s World, is a free-to-play gaming app downloaded by users across the world. In May 2020, he was featured by Apple in its Africa Month Promotion and again on Heritage Day on September 24. Moerane’s aim is to continue to inspire and promote native languages and African folklore.
“So it’s like now how do I use games to inspire other people, inspire kids, but then we’re using characters that look like them. Because I think all this time we’ve been playing games with characters, but we can’t relate to them,” he says
ROOM FOR DEVELOPMENT
Like other sectors, the global gaming industry to lacks representation when it comes to women, Africans, and people of color. But beyond that, it is also difficult to. sustain a career in gaming on the African continent due to lack of funding and investment.
Sithe Ncube, the founder and director of Prosearium, an initiative to get 1,000 African women to create and self-publish their own games, says: “Sometimes you can see the common thread among communities across the continent, which is usually related to the lack of accessibility of resources when compared to the Western games industry… It is difficult to find local game publishers and financing options almost throughout the continent.”
Her journey with gaming began in 2013 in Lusaka, Zambia, post an inspiring meeting with a local game developer. She sought out more of them, which led her to host small events teaching the tools of game development to beginners. She slowly began to realize how significant the problem was for Africans keen on entering the field.
“Outside of South Africa, there are not many places one can study game development-related courses on the continent,” she says.
So in 2014, Ncube moved to South Africa to study computer science and entrench herself in the local game development scene. “In South Africa, there is an art focused and often experimental approach to game development that often mirrors what you see in other places outside Africa,” she says.
It is difficult to find local game publishers and financing options almost throughout the continent. – Sithe Ncube, founder and director, Prosearium
Michael Preece, an advanced gaming player based in Johannesburg, knows this only too well. He has spent thousands of hours playing hundreds of different titles across multiple platforms for over 12 years. Yet, of all the games he has played, only a small percentage of them are those developed in Africa by Africans.
“The sad reality is that most African-based gaming studios are rather small and don’t develop especially well-known IPs, [they usually develop] Indie and mobile games, which, to be frank, aren’t even remotely the biggest markets,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
The gaming market is competitive with established commercial game developers, yet, the cost to download content in Africa and the digital divide are crippling issues, making this field prohibitive for the talented few. But not all hope is lost.
African creators and game developers like Moerena are rising to take on the challenge to ensure there is more African representation. Ncube says that in West Africa, there is a proliferation of locally-created mobile games and therefore, a new talent pool of people developing related skills.
I also suspect there would be fierce competition among telcos who have been trying to get into the gaming business to try to fill the gap in distribution and sales.
In Cameroon, there are studios creating distinct intellectual property that tell local stories. In Zambia, there are young hobbyist individual developers creating and sharing games to showcase their skill. According to a report by the BBC in 2019, the video games market in Kenya was worth $50 million in 2016 and is expected to double this year.
“As industries become more visible, we’re bound to see more variety crop up around the continent,” says Ncube, full of hope.
ETHIOPIA’S ENDLESS CREATIVE INSPIRATION
In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, a young gaming enthusiast is bringing more visibility to the industry. Dawit Abraham is the founder and CEO of Qene Games. He is also a game developer and android application engineer.
“The industry in Ethiopia is still in its infancy with only a few active studios present. Ethiopia doesn’t have Google and Apple merchant accounts that would have allowed Ethiopian game developers to sell their games across the world. The industry is also yet to be recognized and supported by the government,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
University graduates are now actively pursuing game development as a career option. – Dawit Abraham, founder and CEO, Qene Game
However, despite these challenges, the industry is alive and kicking. “Gaming communities actively get together and build games on hackathons and game jams. University graduates are now actively pursuing game development as a career option,” he says.
“Ethiopia, as a country with more than 3,000 years of history and culture, has a large pool for creative inspiration. From the artistic styles that have been around for millennia, unique music styles, and many fascinating legends and folklore, our game developers have an endless source to feed their creativity and imagination.”
Hubs of creativity and inspiration thus make countries like Ethiopia great places to begin when seeking ideas for original and unique games especially against the backdrop of the continent’s burgeoning creative economy. Abraham believes that as more publishers become interested in the African market, the more game developers and games we will see.
“I expect that we would see a rise in the number of mobile game developers and also the quality of games coming out of Africa. I also suspect there would be fierce competition among telcos (telecommunication operators) who have been trying to get into the gaming business to try to fill the gap in distribution and sales,” he says.
Augmentative Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) gaming experiences are also great opportunities for the African tourism industry to explore. Companies such as Guzo Tech in Ethiopia have received grants for their work in AR tourism showcasing the country’s historic sites.
COVID AS A GAME-CHANGER
Meanwhile, another game developer is also representing his country in the global gaming arena.
Cordel Robbin-Coker is a Sierra Leonean who grew up in the United States. About three years ago, he launched Carry 1st, which is a leading mobile games publisher serving first generation African smartphone users.
“I never really thought it was conceivable to have a successful career in gaming so at some point I put my console away and got a job!” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
He spent the first decade of his career in corporate finance and private equity. Thankfully, Robbin-Coker found his way back into the gaming industry and is making a real impact through what he knows best. As featured in Forbes, his company raised $4 million to catalyze gaming in Africa.
Tapping into the smartphone generation was a smart move for Robbin-Coker as the African continent has the highest number of millennials and Generation Z compared to the rest of the world.
We have very social hyperengaged populations. Social gaming is a perfect fit. – Cordel Robbin-Coker
“As more of them get smartphones, there is an extraordinary demand for digital services, with entertainment and connection being at the top of the list. We have very social hyper-engaged populations. Social gaming is a perfect fit,” he says.
Over the last year, Carry 1st has been focused on completing the transition from a game studio to a regional publisher with third-party game studios. Their first publishing partnership was with Abraham’s Qene Games. With many big plans to expand, Robbin-Coker says that the pandemic has provided more opportunities to thrive than he ever thought possible.
“For our business, we transitioned from three offices to zero. Going fully remote has forced us to strengthen our processes and our dissemination of the company culture and values. We’ve been able to recruit top industry talent in Europe to complement our strong core on the continent. The pandemic has honed our focus on what matters most as a company and in our personal lives,” he says.
According to ironSource, a platform that builds technologies that help game developers take their game to the next level, there are 2.51 billion gamers worldwide and it is predicted that by 2022, 45.9% of the population will be mobile gamers.
The market of mobile gaming is predicted to be worth $56.6 billion by 2024 taking up 59% of the global games industry by 2021. According to the Africa Gaming Market – Growth, Trends, and Forecasts (2020-2025), mobile gaming is gaining popularity in remote parts of Africa.
“For example, more than 290 million people in North Africa use mobile phones. The mobile market in the region generates USD 90 billion annually,” the report states.
The scene is set in Africa, and the game has begun, with some clear winners emerging.