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The South African Game Development Scene: Past, Present, and Future

The South African game development scene has had a turbulent history but is striving for a meaningful future; here, local Oliver Snyders examines the evolution of the industry over the past decade, by speaking to the principles and finding out the whole story.

While you may read and hear whispers about some or other game development effort on the African continent, with news occasionally coming from places such as Egypt, Kenya, and Morocco, there is one country in Africa that is desperately trying to wiggle its way into game development prominence -- South Africa.

With a handful of development studios making false starts over the years, and a passionate, if thinned out, development community, South Africans are working at laying the foundation for a vibrant local industry in the years to come.

When, though, did this work begin, what have been the results so far and where is it going? Several South African developers based in the country, and abroad, were kind enough to provide some answers.

It starts with a bunny...

In the early '90s, a computer programming enthusiast by the name of Travis Bulford had become involved in the local South African demo coding scene, which informed a lot of his assumptions about teamwork and game development. This lead to the development of his team's first game in 1994, an action platformer called Toxic Bunny, and the formation of game development company Celestial:

"From the moment I got my hands on a computer (that would be 1987), doing game development was my obsession," says Bulford. "I am not sure there was a specific plan at that stage, or rather that there was a new one each week."

"We [worked on Toxic Bunny] for one and a half years, the last six months of which we spent full time to finish. Of course, being so young we had no expenses to speak of, which really made it a lot easier."

pic001_toxicbunny.JPG
Celestial's Toxic Bunny (1996)

With the release of Toxic Bunny in 1996, Bulford and his development partners were on the road to making a career in game development a feasible prospect for other programming enthusiasts in the country.

The team soon began work on its second title, while they began actively encouraging and promoting the idea of game development in South Africa, based on the notion that there existed a great backbone of media and creative skills in the country, only without the necessary experience in the realm of game development to create a local industry, of which Bulford says:

"There is a great deal of enthusiasm here in South Africa -- I see it every day. The enthusiasm has to progress into financially viable results. We have the talent in all areas, but we need the structures and disciplines that can turn that raw talent into successful products."

While Celestial continued to work on establishing a foundation for themselves with the development of its new game, as well as building a foundation for future game developers in South Africa, plans were being hatched by a former South African, now living and working in the U.S., to establish a new game development company in the country to inject more energy and talent into the local scene.

The DigiPen Grad

In 1998, Dan Wagner, a graduate of the DigiPen Computer Graphics School (DCGS) in Canada, and now busy with contract development work in the U.S., was in the process of drumming up financial support for a development studio to be based in South Africa, his country of origin -- his home. He wouldn't be able to do it alone, though, so it made sense to bring with him former class and project mates from his time at DCGS to help found such a studio.

Luke Lamothe, a Canadian working as a teaching assistant at DCGS, as well as helping out at the newly formed DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond at the time, was one of those acquaintances contacted by Wagner with the prospect of building a development studio together, only not in his native country of Canada, but in South Africa. Lamothe, despite a future opportunity at Nintendo of America, and after some deliberation, decided to take Wagner up on his offer:

"I was pretty well versed at that time of the lack of a game development industry here," Lamothe explains. "It was actually quite exciting to think that we could have the chance to grow a new industry in South Africa."

After a successful meeting with their future financial backers, Lamothe, along with various other developers Wagner had met in the US ("[we] started out with a team of seven people, six of whom were not South African," reminds Lamothe), flew out to South Africa in late 1999 to set up their studio, I-Imagine, and began work on a stunt driving inspired racing game that was to become known as Chase: Hollywood Stunt Driver.

pic002_chasehollywoodstuntdriver.JPG
I-Imagine's Chase: Hollywood Stunt Driver (2001)

By the end of 1999, the development scene in South Africa had "ballooned" (a relative term) to two active game development companies, Celestial and I-Imagine, with two games currently in development, while the local gaming scene was also given a boost with the creation of South Africa's first locally, and professionally, produced gaming magazine, New Age Gaming, the year before.

The local development community, too, had begun to grow, culminating in the creation of the SAGameDev enthusiast developer website, acting as a meeting hub and forum for amateur game developers in South Africa to discuss the art and science of the industry, as well as share their own creations.

The question was, with this new energy and talent-base growing in the South African game development scene, could the momentum from the months and years previous be carried through to the new millennium, and continue to grow in the months and years to come?

The beginning of the year 2000 did indeed seem promising for growth of the South African game development scene, as not only would it mark the release of Celestial's second game, now known to be named The Tainted, but it also saw the I-Imagine team's first trip to E3 as a fully fledged company, ready with a game demo in tow to show their work to prospective publishers.


Speed bumps

The promise of the new millennium was short-lived, though, after Chase received a lukewarm reception from prospective publishers at E3 that year, although solid industry contacts were made at the event that seemed interested in the studio's future work. I-Imagine also continued to leak developers that year, as the U.S. citizens amongst the group began to yearn to return back home, or decided to change the direction of their career.

While these developers -- artists and programmers alike -- left I-Imagine, the company needed to replace them with eager individuals from the talent pool in South Africa at the time, which proved difficult in many ways:

"The difficulties," says Luke Lamothe, "were always about finding talented people (there were people around, but it wasn't easy to find them), and convincing publishers that they should do business with a country way down at the bottom of Africa, when there were so many other developers in closer parts of the world for them to work with."

"The big problem with programmers here, though," says Lamothe, "is that as game development in SA doesn't have big money backing it, they will always be able to get higher paying jobs working for big corporates (i.e. banks), or companies who are contracted by big corporates."

"They will be doing mundane and boring programming work," continues Lamothe, "but they can earn two or three times as much as they can by working for a game development company that only has a budget of R100k per month [$10 000+/- per month at the current Rand/Dollar exchange rate]."

pic003_thetainted.JPG
Celestial's The Tainted (2000)

As I-Imagine looked forward to the European Computer Trade Show (ECTS) in London later that year, the other official game development company in South Africa, Celestial, released its second game, a cyberpunk-inspired fantasy role-playing game called The Tainted, which turned out not to be the critical and commercial success that the company was anticipating -- nor was it the kind of success that the local development scene needed to grow.

What did help the local scene grow, however, was I-Imagine's successful hiring of additional South Africans to bolster the team, despite the problems finding them, as well as a week-long visit to the studio by Noah Falstein ostensibly to provide some design direction for the in-development Chase, as well as evaluate I-Imagine's progress thus far.

The tail-end of 2000 also provided a further confidence boost to I-Imagine, after a chance meeting with Kevin Bachus and Seamus Blackley at ECTS (two of the principles behind the creation of the original Xbox) resulted in I-Imagine's initiation into the Xbox Incubator Program, a Microsoft conducted program to help showcase and promote Xbox games created by smaller game developers without publishers. I-Imagine became the first such inductee in the world, as well as the first certified console developer on the African continent.

After such a privilege was bestowed on a South African game developer, and considering the continued growth of the SAGameDev community website, as well as the announcement of Celestial's third game, a promising looking strategy title based on the Zulu War (called ZuluWar), the year 2000 didn't look so bad for the local development scene after all.

The next few years turned out to be an important, pivotal and polarizing time for the South African game development scene, as Celestial changed its name to Twilyt Productions, but closed its doors in 2001, despite the promise of its strategy game, ZuluWar.

pic004_zuluwar.JPG
Celestial/Twilyt Productions' cancelled ZuluWar

"I know that before we closed Twilyt, we did have about 45 publishers approaching us," Travis Bulford laments. "They were interested in ZuluWar... because it was something only we could offer, as it was distinctly South African."

A positive milestone was achieved during this time, however, with the release of I-Imagine's first game, Chase: Hollywood Stunt Driver, on the original Xbox in September of 2002. The game met with some complimentary reviews, and settled on a 65% average review rating. After Chase's publisher, BAM!, went through financial difficulty, however, plans for further console ports and a sequel were halted, which left I-Imagine largely to its own devices again.

Over this period, much needed energy was forcefully pumped into the local computer and video game scene with the founding of the annual rAge Expo at the end of 2003, a gaming event that showcases all of the latest in tech gadgets, computer hardware, games and geek paraphernalia, providing the closest thing to an E3 event an African continent inhabitant is likely to experience.


Exiting Africa

The local development scene, on the other hand, was dealt another major blow in late 2004 without the community at large even realizing -- when an animation and computer graphics artist named Judd Simantov left South Africa for the employ of Naughty Dog in the U.S.

Simantov had begun work in the field of computer graphics after a friend introduced him to the 3D modeling and animation package 3D Studio Max. After toying around with the software creating miscellaneous projects, he switched to Maya and continued learning about the world of animation:

"After a short period, myself and my friend (Marko Misic) that had first introduced me to Max decided to start up a small studio doing commercial work," said Simantov. "I tried to mostly do character work, but character jobs were few and far between and so most of the time I got stuck doing orange juice commercials or logo animations. I got pretty frustrated with that and really made a conscious decision to focus on creating a demo reel that could get me a job overseas."

After working with a handful of animation studios in South Africa, Simantov was contacted by Naughty Dog. "I had always played games and once Naughty Dog contacted me, I realized they had made Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter," he says. "I had played both franchises and was interested in hearing how my skill set would fit into their pipeline."

"They flew me out here [Los Angeles] and showed me around the studio. This was at the start of the PS3 and my skill set was much more applicable than I had anticipated."

Simantov subsequently took an animation and rigging position at Naughty Dog, at a time when the studio was planning a project where his skills in high fidelity animation would be directly translatable, and would help bring to life the characters of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.

"It was actually an incredibly hard decision [to leave South Africa] and still is, on a daily basis," says Simantov. "South Africa is home and that's a really hard thing to replace. The lack of opportunities was definitely the primary reason [for leaving]. I was really getting frustrated not being able to apply all these new things I was learning."

With the South African game development scene leaking quality developers to overseas outfits, including developers from I-Imagine, more local developers needed to emerge to take their place. Grassroots community efforts such as SAGameDev, and a new online community, Game.Dev, help with that process.

Moving Forward

The beginning of 2005 brought with it a major boost of game development energy in the form of the Game.Dev forums, hosted on the New Age Gaming forum (which had since shortened its name to simply NAG Magazine after some confusion about the "New Age" portion of the title). To kick start the forums, a game development competition was held inviting would-be enthusiasts to create and enter a game of their own.

Behind the scenes of Game.Dev was one Danny "dislekcia" Day, a self-taught programming and game development enthusiast who was growing into a powerful personality amongst the South African developer community. While working on contract game design related work, he began to actively encourage and promote the ideals of game development, not only in the enthusiast community, but by appealing to local government officials to look into investing in the sector and to help build a real game industry here in South Africa.

The enthusiast developer community continued to grow with Game.Dev under the direction of Day, bolstered by regular themed development competitions to support creative game design, leading to the establishment of a monthly online game development publication called Dev.Mag at the beginning of 2006.

During this period, though, I-Imagine were trying to grind out its next game, Final Armada, through what proved to be a difficult time for the company, as Luke Lamothe explains: "After Chase was completed, I-Imagine went through a couple of years of trying to secure additional publishing deals and going through quite a bit of staff turnover (unhappy people, people emigrating, people leaving for higher paying jobs)," says Lamothe. "Eventually, we landed a deal for Final Armada (PS2 / PSP) that was completed at the end of 2006."

Final Armada, a futuristic vehicle-based action shooter, was released in 2007 to less than flattering reviews, largely as a result of its tumultuous development, which saw most of the I-Imagine staff retrenched. Work on the game was completed by Dan Wagner, Luke Lamothe, an art contractor, and Danny Day, the personality who had helped Game.Dev off to a successful start.

"One of the games I built for the community, Monochrome, got me some work at I-Imagine building the networking for a PSP title their publisher was insisting on (the original was a PS2 title, hence no networking)," explains Day. "I learned a lot at I-Imagine, and even got some of my design prototypes pitched at E3 in 2006, but the company went into hibernation [after Final Armada]."

pic005_finalarmada.JPG
I-Imagine's Final Armada (2007)

By the time development on Final Armada wrapped up, Luke Lamothe had managed to secure a programming job at a South African animation studio called Luma, which at the time was looking to broaden its media horizons by getting into game development and working under the name Luma Arcade.


Dan Wagner, meanwhile, found an opportunity to use his development skills and contacts as the Marketing Director at MI Digital, a distribution company responsible for bringing the Xbox 360, and awareness surrounding the console, to South Africa, while continuing to keep the I-Imagine embers burning.

The fact that such experienced local developers could find further opportunities in the field of games in their own back yard was surely a good sign that the game development scene in South Africa has room to grow -- despite setbacks.

Back in 2006, however, and encouraged by the apparent growth of the local development community, the online enthusiast developer website, SAGameDev, changed hands, leading to a renewal and reinvigoration under its new owner and long-time community member, Jacques "Korax" Krige.

Another self-taught programmer, level designer and game developer, Krige worked as a business applications programmer by day, and began working with level creation mod tools, as well as programming a mod for Hexen II called NewHexen, by night:

"I was more into the art side of game development in the early years than the technical side," says Krige. "Coming from a rural area where I grew up, I had little to no opportunity to meet people that shared my passion for aspiring to make games... no books, no money, no courses, no internet."

"Most of the time between 1993 and 1998 was spent working on levels for various games, most of them coming from id Software and Raven Software. During this time I authored close to 40 levels. I also dabbled with programming, but not on a large scale - only to satisfy my hunger for 'making things' related to games, like game cheat listing programs using Turbo Pascal 6."

During his time working on levels and mods, Krige began thinking about setting up a game development company of his own, but encountered difficulties while trying to drum up financial support:

"We tried to formally establish a game development company during 2002/2003 with the help of VC companies. We had a complete original demo game that matched [id Software's] id Tech 3 technology at the time, with a complete and sound business plan, and sadly, we still got shot-down at various VC companies because of the lack of such game development companies locally."

More recently, Krige quit his day job to set up an internet technology company, Business Gateway, with the aim of funding a future game development studio, Excentrax Games, instead of relying on venture capital to get started, and is currently developing his own engine for future game development:

"This technology will be used in Excentrax Games' own classic-styled, original FPS title," Krige enthuses. "I think the capabilities of [this engine] should match pretty well with the current skill level and the availability of skills in South Africa. It's a good starting point none-the-less."

While Krige toiled away at bringing SAGameDev up to speed in 2006 and 2007, Luma Arcade, the new kid on the local game development block -- now imbued with the talent and experience of ex-I-Imagine staffer -- Luke Lamothe, began work on its first game project, a licensed Mini racing game:

"Luma Arcade was established by the guys at Luma Animation / Luma Design, and was spearheaded by Dale Best," explains Lamothe. "What enabled it to actually materialize and not just be a dream for Dale was when he obtained the contract from BMW South Africa to create Mini #37 for them."

pic006_mini37.JPG
Luma Arcade's Mini #37 (2007)

"Once he had that, he assembled a team of five people, myself included, to create Mini #37 in about nine months from start to finish... Since Mini #37 was completed, we have also worked on and completed five cell phone titles, an online PC racing game called Blur for GarageGames, and an XNA-based 3D rendering engine for a joint-venture project with another South African company."

At the end of 2007, and after I-Imagine's decent into inactivity, the closure of Celestial/Twilyt years before and the continued loss of game development talent to studios overseas, it finally seemed as though South Africa's game development scene was starting to stabilize with a new, professional studio in Luma Arcade, as well as the persistent growth of the enthusiast developer community... and that assumption would be correct, for the most part.

Moving to the Present

From 2008 to 2009, work continued apace to grow the South African game development scene into a legitimate industry. While Luma Arcade worked on a variety of online and mobile games, Danny Day established Quarter Circle Forward Design to handle freelance game development consultation work. However, the company moved into development itself, releasing its first game, MathsterMind: Nautical Numerals, an education cell phone title that grew out of one of Game.Dev's development competitions.

QCF also had some success in Microsoft's 2008 DreamBuildPlay XNA competition, ranking in the top 20 best games with its SpaceHack entry, while another South African team, comprising an artist named Jarred Lunt and a programmer named Roger Miller, also placed in the top 20 with its entry, Save Jack.

The online communities SAGameDev and Game.Dev continued to grow, while Travis Bulford made public his intentions to port Toxic Bunny, the 1996 game from his company Celestial, to Java for free. Rumors also abounded about regarding the possibility that I-Imagine was in fact working on a new game to be released on the Xbox 360, despite the failure of the studio's prior game, Final Armada, on the PS2 and PSP.

pic007_spacehack.JPG
QCF Design's SpaceHack (2008)


2008 was also the year, however, that saw a talented and experienced programmer by the name of Damien Classen leave South Africa to take up a job opportunity overseas, marking yet another casualty of South Africa's fledgling game development scene. Compared to a majority of the prominent local developers, Classen took a different route in order to enter the world of game development:

"Getting a solid education was the first step," explains Classen. "I started off by getting my Bachelors degree -- one of my majors was Computer Science. After graduating I went on to the post-graduate level, and I acquired an Honors degree in Computer Science. I figured I was on a roll, so I decided to continue with my studies, and I pursued my Masters degree."

"This entailed spending two years working on various 3D tech demos and a small game," Classen continues, "and writing my thesis on the various programming techniques used in the game-dev and simulations industry. Those 2 years were where I really started to learn what I needed to know. The demos I put together during that time were vital to getting into the industry."

After using his spare time to work on personal programming projects, while working at an online casino and poker game developer called Derivco, as well as a mining and military simulation developer by the name of ThoroughTec, Classen received the opportunity to work at Digital Extremes in Canada, co-creators of the Unreal franchise and, most recently Dark Sector. Classen's reasons for leaving South Africa were very similar to those of Judd Simantov before him, in terms of opening up a wide range of job opportunity options, but those reasons were also tinted with the need for a better quality of life:

"Being able to work in the games industry was very appealing to me," says Classen. "There were definitely opportunities for me to use my skills in SA (ThoroughTec being a prime example), but perhaps to a lesser extent than over here [in Canada]."

"Any creative industry in SA, be it film, music or games," continues Classen, "seems to suffer from the country's geographic isolation from the rest of the world, which is why I think people in these industries often feel the need to migrate in order to achieve the kind of success they want."

"The problems currently plaguing South Africa," explains Classen, "also contributed to my decision to seek employment abroad... Living in the first world is definitely pleasant -- fast internet, clean cities, things are efficient etc. The cold takes some getting used to, but we're enjoying the snow."

So while the problem of talented South African game developers leaking to studios overseas is still a problem, what about the future of the local game development scene?

The Present Becomes the Future

Here in 2009, there seems to be more of a stable base for aspiring South African game developers to work on, with several opportunities to cut their teeth in the industry in their own country presenting themselves in the form of Luma Arcade, a small mobile games company named SmallFry Mobile and possibly I-Imagine in the future, as well as partnerships with developers that are making inroads on their own, such as Danny Day, Jacques Krige and Travis Bulford, while taking advantage of the growing (but disparate) online communities in SAGameDev and Game.Dev.

What needs to happen in South Africa in order to continue to grow and nurture the local, embryonic game development scene and ensure it has a future? There seems to be a measure of consensus on this topic, as Danny Day succinctly sums up all of the opinions shared:

"I think the largest problems are threefold," offers Day. "Our internet infrastructure is terrible. Telkom [South Africa's primary telecommunications provider] has done incalculable damage to the online business sector in South Africa. That seems to be slowly changing now, but the support for online-only companies isn't what it should be -- financial institutions don't understand internet-driven business models and we have very little online payment support. Not good news for indies."

"We're sorely lacking talent," continues Day. "This is something that will come with time as we raise awareness of game development as an industry. While programming is the traditional route to games, games aren't built by coders alone. We need a lot more artists and resource generators as well as business-related people."

"This goes hand in hand with a lack of understanding of the games industry in local business and support circles," says Day. "The local retail games market isn't huge, but its recent growth has gotten people more interested in games from a profit perspective. Attracting international attention is also difficult given our lack of size, but all we have to do about that is release a few amazing games and it'll come."

pic008_marbleblastmobile.jpg
Luma Arcade's Marble Blast Mobile iPhone port (2009)

Luke Lamothe also offers a final word on the subject, saying: "Until the local industry can have the cash injection required to make it a stable and growing environment, and until there is enough talent being produced via self-teaching or the university system to fill the voids that will come hand in hand with growth, the South African game development industry will more than likely remain in its current state."

"In order for true growth to happen," says Lamothe, "there needs to be massive job creation and long term stability offered so that more people will look at game development in South Africa as a realistic career choice."

South Africa is a proud nation, almost to the point of stubbornness, so it seems appropriate for a few of the more experienced developers to offer their advice to South African wannabe developers, so they will be able to add value and talent to their local scene, and continue to grow and nurture the fragile industry, without blindly blazing ahead, making the same mistakes of the past.

Judd Simantov from Naughty Dog provides some inspirational advice, saying, "Passion, passion, passion. Then throw in some hard work and the ability to listen and learn and you're well on your way." Luke Lamothe at Luma Arcade offers some practical advice: "Participate in the local game development communities like SAGameDev and Game.Dev. Think big but start small." And finally, Travis Bulford offers his advice: "Don't be discouraged, but don't be too stubborn that you don't learn either."

While the South African game development scene is relatively young, there exists a mass of passionate personalities, far beyond the few mentioned here, that will continue to seek out potential talent and grow the local scene into a viable local industry, by providing the frameworks and nurturing environments necessary, either in the form of online communities or a physical office building, to work in this exciting, creative field and explore the career of their dreams.

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