Game Design in South Africa

Yesterday I returned home from six months as a game designer in South Africa. I went there looking for job experience, not outback safari adventure, though got both. However, this isn't a travelogue, but an analysis of the game industry in South Africa.

Yesterday I returned home from six months as a freelance game designer in South Africa.  I went there looking for job experience, not outback safari adventure, though ended up with both.  However, this isn't a travelogue, but an analysis of the game industry in SA.

I was a game producer for the two years prior, though only produced games as a publisher, giving only design direction, not outright designing games.  The only games I otherwise designed were those for my own indie studio, Red Thumb Games, which could only make games on a project to project basis with out-of-pocket money, so my designer experience was limited to about a game a year, and I was hungry to learn and do more.

How did I find this job?  I sure wasn't looking for it -- it found me, as it typically goes with such unexpected opportunity.  As a producer, I worked on a project with a new South African game company, and being impressed with my work, they offered to hire me as a freelancer.  Reluctantly but supportively, my partner agreed to go, so we packed our bags and headed to mother Africa.  I knew no one and knew nothing about the country, and refused to read books about it before I left, wanting no bias but instead to learn from personal experience.  My partner had lived in Africa once before, but it was West Africa and the experience for her was very different from this more developed part of the continent.

The day after I landed from my 30 hour flight, I went to the country's premier (and only) game conference, called rAGE.  It was a game conference, not a game development conference, though there was a meeting area and some sessions for what few developers there are in SA.  Already, both were telling of the scene.

Game consoles in the US are expensive.  I don't own any, and if I did, it would be a business expense or luxury, not a household good.  Well, if consoles are expensive to me as an American, where the console prices are the lowest worldwide and incomes and standard of living are among the highest worldwide, you can bet they're even more of a luxury good to the typical South African, where poverty and unemployment are high and import taxes and exchange rates further bloat the already high prices.  There's enormous cost for individual console titles, already pushing $60 US.  Consoles are best suited for high-resolution TV's with a nice home entertainment center, and most people there lack those.  It all adds up to a gaping lack of interest in consoles in the SA market for the average gamer.  People have them, people play them, but they're not the dominant choice by far.  And unlike Mexico, which similarly lacks the wealth needed to support the console industry but has game cafés everywhere to play consoles by the hour, there are no such cafés in SA (or so few that I never found one).

By contrast, PC's are cheap and widespread.  They can be built with a hodge-podge of parts, upgraded little by little instead of a one-time huge investment in a console, have free software in the form of easily pirated OS's and games, and are standardized in the form of the Windows OS -- no multiple choice quiz of which of the big three consoles to get in order to play the game you want to play.  Macs are nearly nonexistent, suffering from the same problems that consoles have -- too expensive, and if nobody in general has them, you won't be able to play with others even if you have one too.  Linux is similarly non-existent, requiring too much technical knowledge for the average SA gamer.

Thus, at rAGE, PC games, accessories, and LAN parties dominated the show.

One highlight of the conference was a massive two thousand computer sized LAN party, where gamers bring their own rigs and spend 48 hours on site playing with others.  The view from above was absolutely staggering.  Clearly there are enthusiasts here, clearly there is a market.  Like any market, you just have to have to know your customer.

Of note is the age and capability of the typical SA gamer PC.  Windows XP is by far the dominant OS; few are cutting edge and geeky enough to have Vista.  But surprisingly, few are so old that they're still clunking away on Windows 2000 or Windows ME.  So if it's XP compatible, you're in good shape.

As for hardware, the market holds mid-range to late model PC's, with some having more cutting edge specs.  For years it's been important to me as a developer to design games with low target platform specs to support older PC's, and now to support that view is this whole country that wants to game but often has older PC's.  I have read this to be the case in other countries, notably Eastern Europe, India, and China, but to see it first-hand was invaluable to remembering it as a design note when starting new projects.  Gameplay over shaders.  Access to all over access to only the elite.  Make it fun, not the next realtime Pixar movie.  This is how you reach these gamers.

Anecdotally, a SA photographer I met lamented that his US counterparts in online forums are always able to buy the latest and greatest tech, gizmos, and upgrades, while they have to be creative with what they have, and get them second-hand years later.  We in the West are privileged to be able to upgrade so quickly, and often forget that others cannot keep up.  Let's not leave everyone else behind and cannibalize our own market in doing so.

Another market that quickly made an impression with me at the conference was the cell phone market, and indeed in the coming months half the games I designed for my client were for a cell phone platform.  The cell phone market is one that has never interested me before.  I wasn't turned off by the small graphics, limited input, limited processing power, or broad audience targeted games.  I was turned off by all those damn handsets

Who wants to design for 500 different cell phones and make 8 different versions with special patches for each individual phone that produces incompatibility?  Not me.  But here the market is so big that it cannot be ignored.  In a country that can't afford consoles, and where only few have PC's, and having never experienced the 80's arcade boom so having no physical arcades, cell phones are the mass market game platform of choice.

Almost everyone in SA has a cell phone.  The model is completely different from the US.  Even in poor rural areas with no electricity or running water in people's shacks, people have cell phones.  Trailers and shacks on the side of the road sell air-time and charge phones.  It is definitely a jarring image to see the bright, consumer sign of the cell phone company hanging outside a tin shack in the middle of nowhere.  But that's how it works. 

Nobody has contracts like in the US, instead you buy air-time, and use it whenever you like.  Further, you're only charged for outgoing calls, not incoming ones, placing the cost on the caller and not the answerer.  Some people often keep only a dollar's worth of air-time on their phone at a time (that's all they can afford).  But even then their phone never leaves their side.  It's SA's version of a PDA.  And it empowers people to connect and communicate, no matter how poor or remote they are.

Thus, the cell market cannot be ignored here.  And it's not just used for games.  SMS text messaging is used for everything, and I mean everything.  Instead of seeing website addresses in magazine ads and on billboards, since so few have PC's or internet, you see SMS messages instead.  Text this to this number for this info or service, and so forth.  Everything from a MySpace-like service for cell phones, to reporting crime to the police, to getting bank info.  SA should be studied as a textbook example of the variety and ingenuity of SMS based services that can be provided.  Since it was a weak area of my game industry knowledge, I was thrilled to fill the gap and learn more about it, and design games for it.

At the developer discussion room at rAGE, I saw how small the size of the industry is here.  Tiny.  Really, really tiny.  There's basically two companies.  One is only two years old, the other has yet to produce a single game.  Outside of that, there's a smattering of individual developers on discussion boards and informal social circles with an interest in game development, who aren't professional developers yet. 

There's one or two small companies that make cell phone games, one for a gambling-like platform, the other yet to be verified if it even exists.  There were maybe a dozen people in the room, half employed by one of the game companies, the others indie or aspiring developers.  There was nothing I saw that impressed me, except for the projects of the company that I was hired by. 

There are no game development schools, programs, or camps in SA.  There are no public funds to support the industry (as in Canada), and no tax breaks for new digital media companies (as in some states in the US).  There is nothing to foster growth here except the people already making and loving games.  There are many art schools in SA and are filled with talented aspiring artists, but they don't specialize in game asset creation per se and need to be trained for that as opposed to just straight 3D.  Skilled software engineers period are a rarity, and even more rare if looking for the skillset needed to produce games (3D graphics rendering, networking, etc). 

At the developer discussion at rAGE, I was told something I found to be very chilling: I was the only American game developer in all of Africa.  At that moment I felt very alone.  Developers need to be around each other to learn from each other, encourage each other's work, network, build ideas, and build an industry.  It's very hard for SA game companies to be so far from the core scenes in the US and Europe, and that's an added challenge to their growth and ability to produce cutting edge content and understanding cutting edge emerging platforms.

While the cell phone networks and coverage in SA rival those of the best in the world, internet access by contrast is extremely limited.  And in my six months there, I found that to be extremely frustrating.  Already isolated from game communities geographically, the lack of adequate internet further isolates developers.  Internet is slow, rare, and expensive.  Not a good combination for game developers looking to the internet as the future of the industry. 

I couldn't download games to keep current, I couldn't watch videos of games, I had trouble accessing simple blogs, I couldn't play Flash games, I had to access my email in "simple HTML" mode because the java proved too bandwidth-intensive, I had trouble downloading and sending attachments, had trouble with use of any non-standard ports such as those for FTP or CVS, could not do CVS updates over the internet for the code for my own game (2MB of code would take an entire afternoon or more to download), download reliability is poor making for error-prone and incomplete downloaded files that have to be re-downloaded multiple times or downloaded using a manager that checks the download against the original, and internet cafés are rife with viruses, spyware, malware, and employees and admins who don't know how to maintain their own systems due to lack of technical knowledge. 

It was frustrating as hell and the single reason I'd cite for never doing game dev in Africa again.  I struggled to keep in touch with my programmer and artist in Europe, and was often met with project delays due to simple bandwidth, reliability, and accessibility problems.  Wi-fi flows like radio airwaves around the US, but in SA you rarely find open hotspots, and even coffee shops charge for internet even with a coffee purchase, and not only that but charge by metering your download by the meg, unlike the unlimited supply of megabytes here in the US. 

My partner similarly struggled with internet here to keep in touch with friends and family, and had to cancel an online course she was taking.  I hadn't realized how good I had it back home.  Even my old 56k modem in the US was more reliable and fast than this.

Aside from development, from a consumer's standpoint this lack of internet puts the whole Western drive toward "online gaming as the future" in check.  Design games as online-only and you'll miss a whole continent that loves to game but has crappy internet.  A sure-fire combo to isolate yourself from this market is to produce games that require both high-end PC hardware and high-speed internet, of which the country is limited in both.

One advantage of the market in SA is that it's largely English speaking, so unlike Europe where you have to localize to French, German, Italian, etc., every Afrikaner I met here spoke perfect, fluent English.  There are a dozen other tribal languages here, but the game market is largely English, Afrikaner, and Zulu.  The British English used here varied only slightly and rarely from American English, with negligible differences.  For example they use "robot" instead of "stoplight," so the first time I got directions I thought I was hearing a story about a cyborg invasion.

Another advantage to doing business here is that like its Eastern European and Indian counterparts, since it's cheaper to live here, it's cheaper to make games here.  Probably not as cheap as those two by now infamous development outsourcing countries, but still a cost savings over doing it in the US to be sure.  And to a small or indie developer, that cost savings can be the difference between a project getting done or not.

Yet another advantage to doing business here is having artists and designers with a diverse and worldly perspective.  America is often characterized as a diverse melting pot, but the thing is, everyone melts into the same sterile, consumerist, mainstream dominant culture, characterized by celebrity magazines, the same movies in the theaters every year, and game sequel-itis. 

By contrast, South Africa is also hugely diverse, but those tribes and groups keep their identity instead of melting into the mainstream, while linking with others arm-in-arm to form a cohesive country.  SA has embraced diversity in a way that we haven't because they've had to in order to survive.  So a designer finds himself influenced by everything from graffiti street art to Zulu tribal warrior history.  South Africans are among the most worldly, sophisticated people I have met, but it's so normal and natural to them that they don't even know it.  What this perspective brings to their art could quite possibly be their greatest asset. 

South Africans are too modest about their talents, though that's coming from a "cocky" American perspective.  Still, if there's one thing they need to get better at, it's selling themselves to the rest of the world.

Crime is often cited with reference to South Africa.  SA is a young nation, only 15 years old since the oppressive apartheid regime was toppled.  It's still going through growing pains, integration pains, financial inequity pains.  My junker car had three car theft attempts in six months, and the last time (only last week) was at gunpoint.  I was safely inside the house - the street guard was the one held up - but we were still shaken as it was right at our front door. 

While in SA, I had to bribe police officers twice for imaginary crimes (once for supposed "public drinking" for carrying a beer home from the store, another for supposedly not having the proper paperwork on me when stopped at a routine traffic block).  Though only a $20 US bribe each time, that I had to bribe official police for crimes I did not commit was disheartening.  That I was thrown in the back of a police wagon the first time sucked. 

That I was there to help a young South African game company get on its feet didn't matter to these opportunistic officers.  They didn't care if I was there to help or hurt their country, they were only looking out for their selfish selves.  One friend who has a police officer friend told me first-hand that police can make up to $1,500 US a day in bribes for crimes both real and false.  Almost everyone in SA has a story about police bribery or corruption

The crime and lack of pursuit for actual criminals are a real problem for any company considering being physically in the country.  It is not enough to simply live and work in "good" neighborhoods - the whole country is corrupt in this respect, admittedly so by the highest officials, and there is no place to hide from this corruption.  Still, it was more of a nuisance than a setback, and that internet access proved to be a greater barrier puts it into perspective.

Now back in the US, I am grateful for the experience I had.  I designed ten games while there, something I could never have done back home.  The alluring call of Africa still sings in me, and I miss its diverse and beautiful people, its talented and creative populace with their unique and quirky outlook, its independence as a nation and a culture.  SA looks to the US for cues on how to move forward, and I hope that as the game industry there develops, it develops with respect to its own independence and assets, and doesn't simply parrot US game models and inspirations.  We are all a richer world for the people and cultures of South Africa, and we will all be richer as an industry if that same wealth is brought to games.

Do not forget South Africa as a market, as a business partner, or as an emerging game development scene.  The hits of tomorrow will come from new thinking, and there are few newer scenes than that of timeless Africa.

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