The Great Divide

One of the common misconceptions about the African continent is arguably its most infuriating – that of Africa as a single entity. Despite it’s checkered, multi-faceted and exceptional cultural and linguistic diversity, Africa is more times than not indiscriminately presented talked about under the same label. For the many cultures and developers united by the length and breadth of this historical landmass such a perception has an unwanted splintering effect and in some quarters the need to adopt a siege mentality.

Whilst it would be easy to present a singular perspective as to the current state of things, I have invited some friends and prominent figures from within the community to share their thoughts on the continents great divide.

Limited spotlighting might lead most to believe that because they aren’t inundated with updates, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a non existent games industry.

Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan (Kiroo Games from Cameroon), Viscera Cleanup Detail (Runestorm from South Africa), Broforce (Free Lives from South Africa), Semblance (Nyamakop from South Africa) are some of the notable titles to have garnered relatively commercial and critical success in recent years. Largely thanks to the support of Western based publishers. However, the more astute of you would have picked up on the South African connection. 

Why is it that a continent on the verge of an industrial revolution seems only capable of producing acclaimed works from only a small part of the region? Nick Hall, a pivotal fixture of the South African scene, a key collaborator on the titles listed above as well as the founder of Playtopia/Make Games Africa, a Cape Town based annual B2B event offers some thoughts on the questions.

“South Africa has got an extremely active, and comparatively large community base that it can build from. Things like Make Games South Africa act as a focal point for the community, this helps make the community and its activities more visible, which helps mitigate against developers working alone in isolation. The community acts as a good knowledge base which allows new entrants to avoid making common mistakes and allows experience and mentorship to happen. 

He also added,  “Another major factor is that our local studios have seen commercial success abroad, while a lot of this is due to luck, it is also, I think because the ecosystem as a whole has focused on making games for international markets and has avoided trying to make games for mobile, which has reduced the risk of failure. As a result of the success the South African ecosystem has managed to start creating bridges to the international ecosystem, which has driven investment, publicity and knowledge and skills development. The fact that we have a few sustainable and financially viable studios who participate exclusively in the games industry (without having to rely on other work, such as animation or traditional software development to sustain themselves) means that that the South African ecosystem has a degree of resilience and continuity that is lacking in other African Ecosystems.”

Doubling down on Nick’s assertion that South Africa’s financial clout has had a positive turn on the local development scene is, Zambian developer and founder of Prosearium (an initiative that champions female developers), Sithe Ncube.

“First of all, South Africa has the second largest economy in Africa and a digital economy that is competitive on the global stage. I think that goes without saying that it puts the country in a better position to explore the game development industry. But also, South Africans take a lot of pride in both their traditional and digital arts which the country can see the commercial and cultural value of.

Speaking from my experience as a Zambian, it has been a struggle over the years to allow people to see game development as a meaningful activity that can benefit individuals and the country. There is support from both public and private educational institutions in South Africa that encourages the study and pursuit of game development. Finally, time is a big factor. South Africa has a history of game development that begins in the 90’s.

That history of game development is one that is virtually unknown outside the continents shores. Celestial was the first game development studio in South Africa and was quickly followed by the release of its first game in 1996 – Toxic Bunny

By the end of that decade, the industry had doubled in size to two. Fast forward to the present and the level of international acclaim achieved has been remarkable. It’s a history that has been mirrored in north Africa with both sharing one common trait – their connection and access to both the West and Middle East respectively.

Whilst East and West Africa have struggled to shake off the scars of their English and French post-colonial pasts, the North and South have flourished – relatively speaking. 

As touched on earlier, the availability of computer and technical infrastructure coupled with its ties to Europe sparked a game development renaissance in South Africa. With the country in the throes of Apartheid well into the 90s, white South Africans were able to use their higher socio-economic standing and access to investment opportunities to lay the ground work for an industry that continues to benefit from that stance today.

Meanwhile past the equator to the North, Ubisoft sensing an opportunity to tap into the well of riches available from the Middle East opened up Ubisoft Casablanca in 1998. Between 2008 and 2010, the studio also operated a campus that sought to train 300 game development graduates. Prior to its closure in 2016 citing a shift in the marketplace, the studio had employed 48 staff members and was the oldest video game studio in North Africa. Many of whom would splinter off to form a national gaming body and subsequently studios of their own.

The ground swell of interest from neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, a strong Arabic influence as well as an untapped pipeline to Europe have contributed to aiding the slow progression of the regions game development scene. North and south may be miles apart geographically, but are united in a gaming landscape refined by a financing pipeline and a plethora of IT and technical infrastructure.

Despite the economic and infrastructural disparity, the continents development community faces one primary challenge – significant investment.

“The entire continent needs to pay more attention to gaming. Governments should also start investing in video game studios like they do in other countries” SeifEddine Ben Hamouda, CEO of Tunisian studio said. Only then will the developers of Africa finally begin to fulfil their true potential. It might take a while, but it does appear, some governments are embracing the proactive approach.