African videogames level up
New Nigerian companies are setting thumbs twitching across the continent with experiences that are uniquely African.
On a hot day in central Lagos, there's only one way to cut through the traffic: jump on a motorbike and whizz around oncoming buses, gaping potholes and street hawkers – all the while trying to avoid bribe-seeking policemen.
If that sounds too exhausting, an alternative is to stay home and play out the scene online. In Nigeria, game publishers are turning life into art with African-inspired games that have set thumbs twitching across the continent. In a global videogame industry worth $66bn (£42bn) – more than Hollywood – the market has so far offered few Africa-centric plotlines.
"We wanted to use game as an engine to share African experiences between ourselves and with the rest of the world through African narratives, sounds and characters," said Hugo Obi, co-creator of Nigeria's Maliyo Games, one of the first videogame companies in west Africa.
Maliyo's most popular offering is Okada Ride – the nickname for the motorbikes that dart cheerfully and dangerously through cities across the country. Its answer to Angry Birds is Mosquito Smasher, now in its fourth edition. Players battle against a villain who has mobilised the insects across the continent in an attempt to keep away tourists.
The appeal for new adventures has jumped borders. Nigerian company Gamsole, which became the first in the region to clock up more than 1m app downloads last month, said most of its enthusiasts log in from Brazil, India and the US. "Some people take the bestselling games and change them to African characters, but our approach is to create games that are uniquely African," said Oluseye Soyode-Johnson of Maliyo.
As sub-Saharan Africa becomes increasingly plugged in online, a growing middle class looking for entertainment has resulted in Nigerian movies and music sweeping across the continent; game publishers hope to follow suit. Leapfrogging PCs and consoles, the industry has exploded on mobiles in the country with the world's fastest-growing mobile internet usage behind China and India. "I like these games for the same reason why I like watching Nollywood [films] – everybody likes to see something they can relate to," said graduate Sule Elaigwu, who bought a smartphone for the first time last year, one of 21.5m mobile phones bought in Nigeria that year.
The mushrooming industry has surprised some in a country that cannot boast a single game design course, compared with 70 in California. "There's so much demand that isn't being met in Africa," said Lakunle Ogungbamila, director of Kuluya, which means "action" in the Igbo language.
There are signs that gaming is ready for the next level. Founded in a small Lagos flat, Kuluya.com's 13-man team secured funding of $2m after just six months. Its biggest hit cashed in on a growing love of social media.
In a morning interview, a Nigerian policeman unable to recall the police website address claimed he had to ask his "oga at the top" [his boss] for permission to divulge the site's name. The gaffe went viral on Twitter, prompting Kuluya designers to cobble together an eponymous game in which players navigate a bemused official through a minefield of questions. Within three days, it had 60,000 plays.
"The reaction was phenomenal. This was a game we put together in 24 hours and it just caught fire because of social media," said Ogungbamila.
The biggest hurdle may be plans to introduce virtual currency, which is used to pay for games, as online payment in Nigeria has been stifled by fears of fraud.
Despite glitches, the new crop of game publishers say their mission is far from complete. "We're arriving at the beginning of the wave. We're creating the wave and we're gonna ride it," Obi said.