To many developers, the fine art of game creation lies strictly within the domain of the first world. Europe, America and Japan have all been sitting pretty with a very well-developed industry for a while. Other territories have recently hopped onto the bandwagon, of course: we have high-profile offerings such as the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series from Ukraine, and the more recent Zeno Clash from Chile. But in terms of pumping out loads of awesome games, not many people currently look to Africa.
Admittedly, it's naïve to assume that this view doesn't hold considerable weight. After all, Africa is a continent ravaged by the effects of past colonialism, corruption and poor access to resources. Everybody has heard the horror stories of civil unrest, starvation and even genocide that emerge from this continent. And in an industry which is littered with the corpses of high-profile studios and long-standing developers, the outlook seems bleak for African game development.
Still, the fact remains that it does exist, even if said existence is tenuous compared to countries which have been able to spawn giants such as EA and Activision. Locations as seemingly unlikely as Kenya have featured on the game development radar and sport professionals who are capable of making a gaming industry happen if the conditions are right.
South Africa, as one of the more well-developed nations on the continent, is flirting with the line between the first and the third world. On the one hand, it's still under the oppressive yoke of poverty, disease and a high crime rate. On the other side of the court, it possesses an infrastructure that far surpasses that of most other African countries, has attracted considerable interest from foreign investors and still stands as one of the few states in existence which underwent a completely peaceful revolution with the destruction of apartheid in 1994. It also has a small, but significant, gamer population. Along with that comes a surprising penchant for game development.
In his blog post on Gamasutra, Joshua Dallman painted a bleak, yet significant view of the South African gaming industry as a whole. Dallman is a fairly experienced indie developer who has produced a large number of titles for GarageGames and is now working through his indie studio, Red Thumb Games. He recently took a six-month trip to South Africa to develop games for a local contractor, and commented on the size – or lack thereof – of the local development scene.
Dallman's views are considerably more informed (and far less biased) than those held by a lot of assuming developers, but he still misses out on a lot of South Africa's game development history and a considerable number of companies that are still going today. Bigger groups such as Celestial (later known as Twilyt) were been doing the dev dance from as early as 1996. Celestial was one of the first "proper" game development studios in South Africa, their most well-known title being Toxic Bunny, a side-scrolling platformer comparable to Epic's Jazz Jackrabbit where players controlled a crazy, caffeine-driven rabbit as they navigated him through a psychedelic world.
Celestial also worked on games such as The Tainted and the cancelled Zulu War. They also had plans for Toxic Bunny 2 on the original Xbox, but these never materialised.
The company enjoyed moderate success at first – Toxic Bunny sold more than 150 000 units and was translated into several languages – but they suffered financially with failed ventures later on and eventually closed their doors in 2001. In a previous interview with Dev.Mag, Celestial's Travis Bulford related how difficult it was to be the first mainstream developer in a very young and uncertain local industry.
"It's damn nice to see so many people working towards game development in South Africa [today]," he said. "I can't help but wonder: if it was at this level when we stopped, it may have been just what we needed to carry on. It's terrible working on an island."
It's a cynical point of view, but Celestial's long-term success was never guaranteed: they were new, they were alone and they were inexperienced. All this at a time when the gaming industry itself was still far less developed than it is today. But even if they failed financially, they managed to prove a point before going under – South Africans had the potential to make big games. Where their studio fell, new ones quickly sprung up to have another go.
At roughly the same time as Celestial were trying to consolidate their place in the game development world, a pair of former DigiPen students were having lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Redmond, Washington, just a few blocks away from Nintendo of America's headquarters. Their names were Luke Lamothe and Dan Wagner. Their interest: setting up a game development studio in South Africa.
This was in 1998. Four years later, they released Chase: Hollywood Stunt Driver for the Xbox under the name of I-Imagine Interactive, a game development company that was, lo and behold, based in South Africa.
I-Imagine went on to release D.A. Dork for the Game Boy Advance and also worked on Final Armada, a project which was plagued by publishing difficulties and was eventually released with the news that I-Imagine was disbanding. The final nail in the coffin was the game's rather negative reviews in contrast to those enjoyed by Chase. It's not known what Dan Wagner and the crew are working on right now, as they're operating quietly. Indications are, however, that I-Imagine is set to resurface.
While I-Imagine was still getting their feet wet in South Africa, another major initiative was underway: the establishment of SAGameDev, South Africa's first fully-fledged game development community. Spearheading this effort were development enthusiasts Eric Grove and Dallas Goldswain, and they soon succeeded in recruiting a considerable number of like-minded developers to try unite the local scene.
SAGD achieved for the first time what should have been done from the start: they proved that local developers weren't alone. Popularity swelled and SAGD instigated several projects including Titanium3D, a built-from-scratch engine which could emulate Quake 3 Arena and even connect to Q3 servers – all this done before the source code for Q3 was even released. They also made themselves prominent in the local dev scene and attended major gaming events such as rAge, South Africa's first (and to this day only) annual gaming expo.
The community has gone through numerous structural and administrative overhauls over the years, but it's still going strong to this day with regular site updates and news posts. In several ways, SAGD has been the progenitor of modern game development in South Africa – a lot of today's SA developers have passed through the community at some point or another.
In early 2005, SAGD member Danny Day left the group to start up the Game.Dev group, evangelising the use of rapid game development tools such as Game Maker to demonstrate how the art of game creation could be both accessible and fun. What started off as a simple competition thread on a local gamer forum soon turned into its own community that boasted a respectable level of activity, bi-monthly competitions and – most importantly – a lot of new developers who wanted to learn.
In its first few tentative years of existence, Game.Dev grew quickly and became a mainstay at events such as rAge. Community members also organised several local developer LANs, and established ties with educational groups such as IT Intellect to establish training workshops and game development "hotlabs". On one or two occasions, sponsorship was secured from local groups such as Mindset Learn to hold competitions with a prize pool of R10 000 (approximately US$1000) to encourage local developers to up the ante.
Several small-scale projects emerged from these competitions, focusing on educational gaming. Mathstermind – originally a simple prototype that managed to secure third place in the Mindset competition – went on to become an educational mobile game. Another competition winner was snapped up by Savage Software and published as a game called Cartesian Chaos.
The landscape today
Dallman's Gamasutra post is correct in saying that South African game development is still lagging behind its counterparts in more developed nations, but local trends are becoming evident: South Africa is producing more local games at a far greater rate than it used to. South Africans are also starting to feature in global competitions.
The 2008 Dream Build Play competition received three South African entries – one of them was Ultimate Quest, covered in a Dev.Mag postmortem over here. The other two – Save Jack and SpaceHack – were placed in the DBP Top 20. The team members from Ultimate Quest and SpaceHack all stem from the Game.Dev community and both of these titles are undergoing further development.
Institutionalised support of game development is also on the rise in South Africa. The University of Cape Town, an institution ranked amongst the top 300 worldwide, is initiating its own game development education programme. Rhodes University is also starting an undergraduate game development course in August this year.
These courses are giving focus to game-specific design practices and, in the case of Rhodes at least, are making use of XNA Game Studio as a development medium because of the cost-effective nature of the Xbox platform.
In terms of raw effectiveness, local design company Luma has been enjoying considerable success on medium-scale projects by venturing into game development amidst its other products. Through its dedicated gaming sub-studio, Luma Arcade, the company has developed several titles including a free racing game known as Mini #37 and a few mobile game projects. Luma also offers handy game development wisdom via Luma Labs (one of their articles about the use of Perlin Noise has been reprinted in Dev.Mag over here).
The future of South African development
The progress made in South Africa is, realistically, quite negligible compared to the daily going-ons in the rest of the global community. The forums are smaller. The games are scarcer. The funding is limited. On top of that, a lot of South African devs feel discouraged when measuring up to the cream of the crop offered by today's international game creators.
A game development industry in Africa is, however, not entirely impossible. It just needs to work a different way, and one route was in fact suggested by Dallman himself: mobile gaming.
South Africa is limited by a telecommunications monopoly when it comes to issues such as line-based Internet and telephone charges. However, a side effect of this grip on local networking capability is the ubiquitous presence of mobile phones. Even in the poorest of South African townships, there is a high penetration of cheap, pre-paid cellphones. This offers mobile publishers a built-in local market that matches – and perhaps even exceeds – that of many more well-developed nations.
Aside from efforts made by the likes of Mindset and Luma, the idea of mobile gaming as a viable means of income has already been explored by local groups such as Smallfry Mobile. Mobile games are cheaper and easier to develop than bigger projects and still have reasonable potential for revenue in a setting such as the one offered by South Africa.
Another avenue for African developers is the online platform, particularly with regards to the new Xbox Live Community Games. Although there has been mixed news regarding the viability of the platform, the lower costs of living (and thus game development) in Africa may yet make this a viable means of income for locals.
Ultimately, one has to be sober about game development opportunities in South Africa. The community is a lot smaller than one would find elsewhere, and certain limitations may well mean that the dark continent will forever be playing a game of catch-up with the rest of the world's developers.
This does not mean that the formation of an industry is impossible – it will, however, be difficult, and it'll probably look a lot different when it finally matures. The next few years will be a crucial time for the country's developers – if they can't rise to the expectations of the international community, then they'll have to make an industry plan that works on their own terms.