African games sector stutters into life but needs some oxygen to help it breath

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The available African consumer surveys show there is an audience for computer and mobile phone games but there is little evidence that anyone is much focused on trying to produce local games. For the brave few games developers already doing it, the business model is both confused and constrained. Russell Southwood looks at how African gaming might get out of the box and talks to Kenyan developer Cliff Onyari of Virtual Designs.

African game developers may be out there in considerable numbers but they don’t have much presence. What’s described below is what I’ve collected and there may be more out there but they don’t make much effort to make themselves known. Ghana’s Leti Games has produced iWarrior/Kijiji and Street Soccer Apps. (According to a 2009 survey in Ghana, 14% played online games.) It is now working with Wingu Technologies, which has itself got developers who have produced games in the past.

Last year’s Mobile Entertainment Africa saw Steve McIvor of Tasty Poison  talk eloquently about making iPhone and iPad apps for markets largely outside of Africa. He also outlined the efforts made in South Africa with Governmental bodies to focus on growing the games sector, which sounded as if they were at a fairly early stage. Also at Mobile Entertainment Africa was Anne Shongwe, afroes who is developing a game supported by the UN focused on behaviours around HIV/AIDS. And errrrr….that’s it?

Well, there’s one more, Cliff Onyari, Virtual Designs who I talked to this week in Nairobi. Cliff took a diploma in Architecture at Jomo Kenyatta University and though he would use 3D Max to do architectural renders. But his real passion was games so he took a basic online course in game design from the University of Pittsburgh and decided with his co-founders to shift into games. 

Very early on, they realized that the games would have to be designed for mobile handsets to have any audience reach. So they have been developing a game called Tribal Scars that will be accompanied by an online TV series.

The teaser trailer, which gives clues on how to play the game, is up on the site run by Emma Kay’s organization of the same name. It went live two weeks ago and there have been 100 downloads. Small potatoes, you might say, but things have only just started. Virtual Designs and Bozza will split any advertising income. The game is aimed at 16-35 year olds. According to Onyari, Safaricom is developing an iTunes-type platform that will offer a 70:30 split to content providers which may offer another route to monetization. (That proposal has been in the works for some time.)

As Cliff Onyari describes the game it’s about “a campaign to fight tribalism in the country and we have approached NGOs to be the publishers. Not many people play games on the mobile bit the strategy is to use the online TV series to attract them to it. We also want to be able to sell merchandising like T-shirts.” All worthy and necessary stuff but the key test will be whether users find the game fun to play alongside competing delights from elsewhere. Donor money has a habit of backing the nice sounding things and “getting down with the kids” in a “Dad’s embarrassing” sort of way.

So how did Oyari get into game playing? “My Dad bought us an X-Box and that’s how we started. Most people play on PCs. The popular game is the FIFA series because of the interest in football.” Original games from developed country producers cost KS8,000 and pirated versions which are of reasonable quality only KS4,000. The former sell to people in more middle class neighbourhoods like Westlands. By all accounts, the main pirate figure can sell hundreds a day but the costs of pirating to some quality are also high. So there’s a market, it’s just that it exists at half the price the rights holders find attractive.

But when all else fails, Onyari and his friends get other friends in Europe and the USA to send them. So when Call of Duty 3 was released, they clubbed together to buy a copy which they shared.

Onyari sees many of the main constraints to the expansion of the games sector on the supply side. There are graphic and animations skills but few have specific game design skills or experience with rendering platforms. Also rendering engines are not cheap to buy, nor is the software required to produce the finished products. Even pirated versions are expensive and largely unavailable.  In South Africa there are proposal from the film support bodies funded by Government to buy the high-end animation equipment and let animators share it.

Onyari makes the point that the youth in rural areas follow all the global trends in music and know all the performers so there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be possible to make them a market for games. But “cost is a major issue.”

However, whereas the online, broadcast and film worlds globally are connecting with Africa at many different levels, the game companies seem (perhaps understandably) to have looked at the map and found “here be dragons.” And as with films, the levels of piracy would make any market entry extremely challenging. But as the mobile operators make content a priority in a more data-centric world, there has to be a way to create a market for games.

To follow the exchanges about this news, you need to be on Twitter. Follow us on @BalancingActAfr

This week on Balancing Act’s You Tube channel:

Editor of Stuff magazine Toby Shapshak on the changes in the use of devices in Africa

Philippe Jacquier, Orange Business on the launch of its cloud-based service, Flexible Computing

Dare Okoudjou, CEO, MFS Africa on selling mobile life insurance and the potential for mobile health insurance

Johan Nel, CEO, Umuntu Media on the launch of Mimiboard, an online pinboard for Africa

Roukaya Kasenally, Director of Comms, AMI on its new mobile news apps incubator

Ofer Ronen, Sales Director - East Africa, GilatSatcom on doing business in South Sudan