The Great Divide – Nick Hall

Nick Hall is a seasoned veteran of the South African games industry. He has been a legal counsel for the majority of game development companies in South Africa as well as the founder of Playtopia/Make Games Africa. Here is an extended interview offering his insights on The Great Divide.

How would you describe the state of the South African gaming scene?  

In general, I would say we are doing well. Revenues in the local industry are growing at a good rate (on average about 75% Year-on-Year since 2014). We are seeing more and more locally produced games finding critical and commercial success on the international stage. While revenue growths are up, we haven’t seen it been matched in terms of employment growth or the number of studios being founded, which speaks to some of the structural difficulties faced by local development studios. 

Why do you believe the South Africa game development community is thriving as opposed to the North and other regions of the continent?

I think the South African ecosystem has seen better growth than in other regions due to several factors: – 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 a good knowledge base which allows new entrants to avoid making common mistakes and allows experience and mentorship to happen. It is also crucial that the community is active, by ensuring that monthly meetups happen in our major urban settings and ensuring participation in events like the Global Game Jam, the South Africa Game Jam, and Ludam Dare means that the community is constantly driving engagement with its members which ensures they extract value from the community and are compelled to stay apart of it.

– 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. 

– The local ecosystem also benefits from a strong infrastructure that exists in the country, our education institutions provide high-quality graduates, we have very strong parallel industries (such as film, animation and software development) which means we can attract talent from other sectors and build off the infrastructure they have built for themselves. A strong banking sector and confidence in the justice system (for commercial transactions at least) means dealing with international stakeholders is easier.
-Lastly, our services sector in the games industry is very strong, we have a number of studios who are working directly with foreign AAA and other large indie studios. This gives our developers access and experience working on international projects, exposes them to those networks in a relatively safe manner. It also has the added benefit of marketing South Africa as a game development destination in the global ecosystem, because key stakeholders in the industry are aware of the work South African studios are able to do they are more willing to deal with them

Are you aware of the existence of any collaborative initiatives between SA devs and other gaming hubs from the North, East or Western part of the continent? Why do you think it doesn’t exist? Please outline some challenges to this?

While there are things like the African Game Development community and initiatives like the Enter Africa and Digi Lab Africa I’m not aware of any other initiatives they are really focused on building ties between the different regional ecosystems. Africa Games Week, which is run in Cape Town, is about the only one that is starting to do this, it has the stated objective of acting as a focal point for international stakeholders who are interested in game development on the continent. Something the event is focussing on now that it has had a few successes under its belt is how it can involve the region’s different ecosystems more effectively, primarily by getting other African developers to the event. I think some of the challenges that have prevented these sorts of initiatives include: 

  • Lack of regional/country focal points. It is difficult to co-ordinate activities when there is no formal structure to engage with. Each country/region really needs some sort of body that has the mandate (and authority from the local ecosystem) to represent that regions/countries developers.
  • Existing initiatives tend to be biassed towards certain regions. Make Games SA is exclusively South African, the African Game Development community is heavily biased in favour (in terms of representation and activity) towards East Africa, and specifically Kenya

What levels of financial support exists for the local development scene? e.g government schemes and financial incentives etc.

In theory, there are a number of financial support structures that game developers can apply to. Unfortunately, most of them are unfit for purpose and so they are underutilised. For example, there are no fund or incentives for project or studio financing, however, something we have been able to capitalise on is funding for developers to attend international tradeshows like GDC and Gamescom. Government has also started assisting with funding for local events, for example, Africa Games Week has received funding from both national and city government to help run the event. I think it is important to note that this has only been possible due to a large amount of lobbying work done by the Industry Body, IESA (Interactive Entertainment South Africa) which has facilitated our relationship with the government and gives the local ecosystem legitimacy in the eyes of government stakeholders.

What challenges unite developers in the South with developers in North, East and West?

I think developers from South Africa have many of the same challenges that other developers on the continent, with the primary ones being lack of access to project and studio financing, lack of access to the international ecosystem and structures and lack of an adequate skills pipeline. Obviously there are unique challenges each country will face, and the overall difficulty of trying to build a tech-base company in a developing nation that is for the most part ignored by a broader ecosystem.

What factors do you think are needed to unite the continents gaming community?

I think first and foremost we need to start driving accurate data collection of the state of the continents different ecosystems. It is incredibly difficult to do anything without having hard and reliable numbers to base decisions and discussions on. A regional industry body to this end could be a useful starting point, but without strong representation in the actual countries, I am concerned it will not be effective. More regional focused events and communities are also good starting points, but again I think the focus always has to be on growing local capacity in individual countries. Steps need to be taken to professionalise the industry on the broader continent, and this can only really be done by ensuring we have investments being made at the studio (not project) level. 

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