The corresponding entry is from a series of tweets by Nick Hall, a founding member of Make Games South Africa the largest online community for game developers in South Africa
So I’ve been doing a lot of research into the South African games industry, and specifically have been looking at the issue of why, in South Africa, we have really struggled to get more BIPOC formally into the industry, both from an employment and ownership perspective.
But first some stats for context. There are an estimated 60 game development studios active in the country (at ANY given time*)
*This number has been fairly stable over the past 5 years, but the bulk of those studios close down in a matter of months and are never commercially viable, and never release a game
Of the 60 studios, only 6 employ more than 10 people. and of those 6, only 2 are primarily in the business of making their own IP (the others are all primarily services-based, some do their own IP development but it is not the bulk or major portion of their income).
The number of non-white owned studios, at any point, ranges between 1 and 3, and again we don’t really see massive deviation over time on this point.
The number of non-white employees has increased over time (but there is an interesting correlation, which I’ll get to later) with it currently sitting at about 18% of the formally employed workforce (as opposed to 13% in 2015) with 6% of the workforce being black.
Now an interesting question to ask is, WHO is employing those 18%, non-white employees? Some are freelancers, and some own their own studios, but the bulk? They work for one of the 6 companies employing more than 10 people.
In fact, if you JUST sample the 6 employing more than 10 people, you get an interesting stat. 35% of their workforce is non-white. And at least one of those companies has significant non-white ownership.
Conversely, if you look at the remaining 54 studios what do you find? They are overwhelming owned by white men. And they overwhelmingly employ white men.
If we look at the 54, another important thing to consider is this, the “average” studio size of the 54? 2 people. Looking closely we deduce that this means the only people “employed” are likely the founders.
Now it is tempting to look at this and conclude that the White Men founding studios are only employing other White Men. But this is not strictly true. They are in fact, not employing ANYBODY. What is true is that White Men are tending to only found studios with other White Men.
This I attribute to the fact that South Africa is still very much socially segregated (I’m looking at you Cape Town). People are founding companies with their friends, who for the most part fall within their race group.
What do those 54 Studios list as their primary business activity? Making their own IP. These 54 Studios are your “classic” Indie ‘Micro’ Studios. And if you look at the games they are making? Mainly small, bespoke, artsy or alternative games, for PC or Console.
Last thing. There is 1 publisher on the CONTINENT and it only does mobile games. None of the major platform holders has a significant presence on the continent (for Game Development that is, sure Sony and Xbox are present in SA, but they are marketing arms only).
Last last thing. Global research and data supports the notion that people are more likely to found a successful business; once they are older (over 35 seems to be a defining age) and have prior experience in the industry they are starting their business in.
We’ve got context, now some history. Game development in SA is thoroughly “Indie” and not indie in the way that they are self-published, but there is a VERY strong lean towards developers pursuing projects and games that are alternative/arty.
Most studios are being founded by devs who are making the games they want to make because they want to make them. They are not starting studios to be a business. They are being founded by artists, not business people (and there is nothing wrong with this btw!)
But it DOES mean that these studios have no intention of growing. A far too common trend we can see is micro studios finding a degree (or even significant success) but then…doing nothing with it. They stick to their founders and just continue to do what they do.
It should be common knowledge that small indie games…don’t do well. Or rather, statistically are VERY financially risky. So it should also be no surprise that the bulk of those 56 studios won’t be around by 2023.
Why is this so? The whole “Games are worth a Bajillion Dollars” quote gets thrown around ALL the time in local circles, especially at games adjacent events so why don’t we have more studios starting intending to be businesses?
I attribute this to 2 primary things. 1: The existing culture of the local game dev scene is very skewed towards the niche/alternative game style, and this, I believe has been heavily reinforced by events like Amaze which were such cornerstone events in the community for so long.
2: There is very little incentive to start a games business in the country (I have been quoted as saying, there is no good reason to start a game dev business in SA). There is no financial support (gov or otherwise) poor access to the international community …
… and poor to little industry infrastructure (publishers, platform holders, games funders etc). COVID has changed this somewhat, with more events becoming online and their entrance fee being reduced, the past two years has had more opportunity for local devs than ever before.
But it is too early to tell if this will lead to any significant change (by my own experience, these events, despite being more accessibly tended to be poorly attended by local devs).
So in summary.
1) A studio is statistically likely to be successful if it has been founded by someone who has prior experience in the games industry. The bulk of our studios are being founded by completely new entrants, most of whom are white males
2) Small niche games are the most likely to fail, and the studios making these typically have no intention of growing and thus to employ more people.
3) The larger a studio grows, (especially in the SA context) the more non-white people it will employ. It follows that these employees, over time will leave and start their own studios (which in turn are more likely to succeed)
4) If you want more non-whites in the industry, especially in the long term, we need to have studios being founded that intend to grow and employ more people. The current trend of producing niche/alternative games currently don’t fit this model.
Now you may ask the obvious question, why don’t we have more non-whites starting this small studios? Well we do, kinda, but much like all the others they are basically doomed to fail.
The other VERY important aspect here is a social-cultural one. The fact is, currently SA society only really allows white men to take the risk of founding a games studio (especially if they are recent graduates).
1) They are the only ones with $$$ to do it.
2) They don’t have the same pressure to support family that other race and gender categories do.
Because here is the thing. Those 56 studios? I can almost guarantee that most, if not all of them aren’t paying their “employees” (read founders).
If you HAVE to earn money to support a family you are gonna take a job that pays real-life monies, not revenue share that may never (and likely never will) materialize.
I maintain that if more JOBS where actually available in the local industry we would see WAY more non-whites start entering it (and then go on to start their own).
“But Nick!” I hear you say “What about all these great initiatives like the Humble Black Developers Fund which surely should make it easier for black-owned studios to start here, surely that will change things?”
To which I retort. “It surely will. But not in Africa.” See here is the thing. These funds? At the end of the day, they are likely to back studios with prior experience. Go look at the recipients. How many of them are actually from studios BASED in Africa?
Very few is the answer (though props to Sithe Ncube – who is doing amazing work to address this). One of the primary reasons (and a quick look at who is receiving these sorts of grants seems to confirm this) is that these are going to studios founded by people with prior experience
Which they are getting by moving to non-African countries and working at big AAA or very established mid size companies. And there very few, if any who are coming back.
Now the dedicated “Africa Games Prototype Fund” recently announced by “The Indie Houses” – will far more likely change this (and I’m super excited for it)
But I maintain it will only make real sustainable difference if the studios who get those grants have a growth mindset. And to be clear I’m not talking about “start-up” mentality here were we need to employee numbers going into the hundreds.
We need about 25 studios employing at least 25 people to give the local scene a sufficient bedrock to see real growth and expansion (which in turn will lead to more diversity in the workforce and ownership numbers).
But the studios, regardless of the founder’s race, needs to have this goal in mind when they start the studio if we want this to happen.
And I just want to point out that a lot of this is informed my looking at successful BIPOC owned studios overseas. How many of their founders have had experience in games (AAA or otherwise) prior to their founding? A lot. It is naive on our part to assume we can do the same
And if we REALLY want to drive transformation existing established studios need support to grow (and they should only get that support if they intend to grow) regardless of who the founder is.
There is actually a lot more nuance to this, so here I will do a self punt/promotion. If you would like to hear more on this topic and get into the real nitty-gritty come to @AfricaGamesWeek (online or in person) where we will be really going into it.
Last thing (for realz) I’m not advocating that we go all out and embrace services as the only business model. More that that we need own IP developers with a mind-set to produce bigger games.
But there is a lot of work still to do to enable that to happen (even if we did have willing founders with the mindset)