Gaming in the dark continent

Beautiful and dangerous, Africa is the second largest continent behind Asia, housing 15 per cent of the global population.

Yet in terms of the games industry, Africa may as well not exist. Aside from a handful of lesser-known titles developed in the territory (Toxic Bunny, anyone?), Africa’s biggest claim to video game fame is that Resident Evil 5 and Far Cry are set there.

But although the games market in Africa is small, and the development community even smaller, a market does exist. And it’s beginning to grow.

There are more than 40 countries in Africa and most of them have very small economies,” explains Wesley Kirinya, the CEO of Kenyan-based developer Sinc Studios. The games market in Africa used to be very small. This was largely because consoles were considered expensive, and people were reluctant to buy PCs because the internet infrastructure was not developed.

However, Kenya in particular has made good efforts when it comes to internet infrastructure, with the promise of cheaper bandwidth, and I expect the number of PC owners to increase by a large amount next year.”

There are currently just a handful of African game developers, while the general population has traditionally not taken the entertainment industry particularly seriously.

Yet one country in Africa that has enjoyed limited success in gaming is South Africa, one of the continent’s more developed nations.

A lot of African countries are still trying to cope with bigger problems than starting up a development industry – we’re talking about places like Zimbabwe, which now has a thoroughly crippled economy,” says Rodain Joubert, contributor to South African games magazine Dev.Mag.

I’m unaware of any game development in areas aside from Kenya and Ghana, and even then I’ve only heard of isolated products and developers.”

But in South Africa, we do have the groundwork in place. Several game development studios are in existence, while online we have one or two development communities comprised entirely of South Africans.

Right now we’re seeing a high level of progress from the independent sector, and most developers are targeting platforms such as Xbox Live. Communities, which didn’t even exist a few years ago, are now producing great games and Dev.Mag itself is also testament to the growth and unification of local developers.”
Quinton Davie, procurement director of South African distributor Apex adds: South Africans now have all major consoles available to purchase in local retailers, which 18 months ago was not the case. There is still a bit of jostling for top console, with the PS2 leading the race. PS2 software sales may have slowed in Europe, but it is still popular here.”

Although PS2 is leading the way, console sales in South Africa are weak (see Market Data, right), with low-end PCs and mobile phones the most popular formats. In fact, due to a monopoly on South Africa’s telecoms industry, a vast number of the country’s population own a mobile over a landline.

The mobile market is extremely significant in Africa,” says Dale Best, creative director of studio Luma Arcade.

Lower-end phones trickle down as hand-me-downs into even the poorest areas. It’s quite a phenomenon.

The potential for mobile games in Africa remains huge as cell phones do have the highest penetration of any electronic device.”

However, before South Africa can grow its industry, it has to overcome some serious challenges, including high distribution costs, piracy and a lack of home grown talent for developers.

Pirated goods can be bought at flea-markets for as little as R100 – which is roughly 8,” explains Dawid Venter, the digital editor of South African magazine PC Format.

The average income per person here is 540, so paying up to 75 per new game – if converted straight from Rand to Pound Sterling – is just too expensive for most individuals.”

Managing director of developer I-Imagine Dan Wagner continues: In terms of development, most local talent here do not have the experience that you would pick up in the US and UK. The next difficulty is keeping the talent; employees are always
attracted to working overseas.

Another challenge is the Black Economic Empowerment laws [South African companies are required by law to employ and promote a set quota of previously disadvantages groups, including Black and Chinese].

While one can understand the need for this law to correct the inequalities of the past, this can be a hindrance to a specialised industry such as games development.”
Indeed, although South Africa is perhaps the most ‘developed’ of the African nations, it stills suffers from poverty, high crime and disease.

And finding its feet in an industry dominated by Europe, North America and Japan is a tall order.

Yet the general consensus among South Africa’s development community is that there is an opportunity here. Due to the exchange rate and local costs, it is cheaper to develop games in the country than most European powerhouses. And South Africa’s massive population is a consumer base largely untouched by video games.

Joubert concludes: It is absolutely critical for developers to reach out to the international community. We have a small developer base. But we have an enormous potential audience, and if South Africans learn to sell themselves to the rest of the world, then we’ve already fought half the battle.”

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