Profile – Kayfo Game Studio

Founded by Ubisoft alumni, Julien Herbin, Senegal based Kayfo Game Studio was founded in June 2019. Born out of Dakar, the six person studio produces casual mobile games on African themes for iOS and Android platforms. This is their profile.

What is your role at the studio and could you briefly chart your entry into the games industry  as well as the formation of the studio?

I’m a former Ubisoft employee, I used to be an Online Programmer for Paris, Chengdu and Montreal studios. I’ve had the chance to work on various titles, going from a small web game to AAA games, like Watch Dogs, for the latest generation of consoles. Ubisoft is a great company, I’ve met a ton of incredibly talented people, and it’s been a lot of fun working there!

But after 12 years of service, I needed a new professional challenge, where I could be more creative and train the younger generations. My wife got a job offer in Senegal last year, that’s when I decided it was time to move on!

My official title at Kayfo is « Studio Lead », which I admit could mean pretty much anything! In the early days of the studio, I was doing the programming and was working with 2 artists only. But since then I’ve hired 2 gameplay programmers and 1 game designer (first girl in the team, yay!). So to this date, I would define my role as Creative Director/Project Manager on all our titles.

What is your connection to Senegal and why the decision to open the studio there?

I first came to Senegal in 2014, as my wife got a one year mission with an NGO. I flew to Dakar right after shipping Just Dance 2015, the second iteration of the title I’d worked for. It was a perfect time for me to take a sabbatical and volunteer half of my time for a small local NGO. I dedicated the other half of my time to a few personal projects, mainly video game prototypes.

A few months after my arrival in Senegal, a local phone carrier organized a mobile app development contest, and one category of app was entertainment. So I decided to show up, see if anyone wanted to develop a video game, and help them as a mentor. Turns out only one person pitched an idea for a runner game based on a local senegalese mini-bus. So I offered to sit down with him and help develop the game prototype. It was a great experience, and I was really happy with the prototype we put together in only 3 days of work. So we decided to carry on the development of the game, and a few months later, we released Da’karapid on iOS and Android.

This event was the key moment for me, when I realized the potential of young Africans, and the opportunity of starting a studio here. However, I did not consider opening a studio at the time, because I was going to join Ubisoft Montreal and achieve the dream of my life : work on a major AAA game. It turns out that I’m having much more fun working on smaller innovative projects here!

Could you briefly shed some light on the state of the Senegalese games scene?

In terms of game production, there is honestly not much to say about the Senegalese scene. A few mobile games have been released in the past decade, but most look more like prototypes than finished games. 

As of today, I think we are the only professional video game studio in Senegal, and I can’t wait to see other companies start making games!

Are there any local developers and gaming events you interact with?

We do have a Facebook and a WhatsApp group of game developers based in Dakar, and we’re trying to meet on a regular basis. For instance, our studio has just opened a location for the Global Game Jam 2020 that will take place from Jan 31st to Feb 2nd. And that’s definitely our intent to organize more events in the future.

There seems to be more and more events around esports as well, there are a few active communities. Football games are extremely popular here in Senegal. A young Senegalese actually won the Fifa contest at FEJA in Abjidan last year!

I’ve also made contact with a bunch of developers from West Africa, because we evolve in similar contexts, and share a lot of challenges. I’d like to put together a yearly event about game development in West Africa. But of course, we need to obtain some funding for that to happen.

What are the challenges of being a developer in Senegal?

I thought finding qualified developers and technical artists would be a real challenge, since there are very few video game development schools here in West Africa. But in fact, it hasn’t been too problematic for us at this point. I’ve hired people who were trained in Europe or North America, and some self-trained students. Of course, it would be nice to recruit people with more formal training, but we’ll need to wait for the education system to adjust.

Although being the only game studio in Senegal may sound as our main asset, it’s also a big challenge. We don’t get support from any kind of public or private entity. Many seem not to see the potential of the video game industry, the economical impact it will have. Some parents also don’t always see a future for their kids in our industry. So we need to convince a lot of people! 

Finally, our biggest challenge as a small game studio is reaching our public, attracting new players to our games. But we need to be patient, we are still a very young company, and we’re getting more and more attention. I’m convinced that if we keep raising the bar with our new titles, we’re going to become a reference in West Africa!

What areas of the scene are in need of maturing?

I think we need to raise the quality of games produced in Africa. Most of the games I see coming out are made by students or young professionals that don’t take the time to polish their games. We are in competition with the rest of the world here, we cannot propose low quality games on the ground that we make African games. Game makers in Senegal need to understand that, or they will quickly lose their motivation.

And it’s going to sound pretty obvious, but the industry here needs more investment. We need to develop education, create events around video game production and support the small studios like ours (taxes credits, grants…). Making games costs a lot of money, and it’s going to take a few years before we make a return on investments.

What is your and Kayfo’s definition of success as a studio?

My definition of success for Kayfo is simply to manage to build up a team of passionate people that can keep releasing games with a 4,5+ rating on the digital stores. Of course, there is also a business oriented definition of success, but it’s too early for us to define such a goal. Plus it’s hard to anticipate the success of a game, even the biggest game companies often fail to do it. I believe we’ll meet financial success by producing outstanding games, and that’s what we’re trying to focus on!

Are there any African studios and profiles you look to for inspiration?

There definitely are a few African game studios that have produced interesting games in the past years. I’m thinking of studios like Kiro’o Games from Cameroon or Leti Arts from Ghana for instance. Their work is inspiring for sure, but my inspiration comes from African art in a more general way, cause it brings something very unique to this world.

My references in terms of video games production are Nintendo and indie game developers. Nintendo, because they’ve always been able to come up with fresh and innovative gameplay concepts, to introduce game mechanics in subtle ways and create colorful universes that I loved as a kid and still love as a grown up! Indie game developers, because thanks to them, we get a constant flow of original games with new game experiences and themes.

If you could impart a word of wisdom to the next generation of African game developers, what would that be?

Like I said earlier, if you’re going to release a game, make sure it’s polished as much as possible. People don’t want to see another prototype, they want the full immersive experience! Also, test your games locally if that is your target, because your best feedback will come from players, so test early and test a lot. You’ll get an incredible amount of feedback, and it will allow you to significantly improve your game before release!

I think African developers have an uncharted territory in front of them, the industry is barely starting, and I can see so many creative and business opportunities here. I know there are not so many specialized schools, or that they might be too expensive for you. But you have no excuse if you are truly passionate about making games, there are tons of valuable resources on the Internet, more than enough to create good indie games. So, never give up on your dream of becoming a game developer, be ambitious and just… work hard!

What’s next for Kayfo games in 2020?

We are planning on releasing at least 3 games this year. One of them is a serious game about entrepreneurship in Senegal that we’re making in partnership with the French Embassy in Dakar. Second one is « Clean my Beach », a game about environment protection where players need to throw garbage found on the beach in trash cans that get harder and harder to aim at. With this game, we want to demonstrate that it’s possible to educate people in a fun way. I cannot tell you about the other games just yet, but we’ll announce them on social networks as soon as we have solid visuals to share. So… stay tuned 😉

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