When compared to the rest of the African games industry, South Africa has always been rightfully perceived as being ahead of its contemporaries across the continent. However, whilst most discourse has revolved around financial, infrastructural as well as the strength of the studio structure, little focus has traditionally been given to the pivotal role played by support studios play in helping an industry properly establish itself. One such studio is Johannesburg based 24 Bit Games, whose CEO Luke Lamothe spoke to GIA about their early beginnings and their aspirations.
Could you briefly touch on the formation of 24 Bit Studios?
24 Bit Games was founded in 2012 initially as a personal vehicle me to pursue collaborative outsource work. I was fortunate enough to be able to build upon my dozen+ years of game programming experience and industry relationships to keep my ambitions afloat to the point where at the end of 2014, the number of incoming projects required me to start hiring additional developers to help out.
Fast forward 6 years and we are now a 40-person studio with employees located not only in Johannesburg, but in other cities around South Africa as well. We have two dozen talented Unity & Unreal Engineers and an experienced production team of over a dozen Project Managers and QA Analysts to go along with the executive and management teams.
Over the years we have worked on projects ranging from porting to co-development to tool production for Indie and AAA clients on such platforms as mobile, PC, VR, and both current and next-generation consoles for a client list that includes Annapurna Interactive, Devolver Digital, Fullbright, Free Lives, Disney, Landfall, Unity, and NaturalMotion to name a few.
A select few of our highest profile projects would have to be porting Broforce to Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch for Devolver Digital and Free Lives, porting TWELVE MINUTES to Xbox platforms for Annapurna Interactive, and co-developing Totally Accurate Battle Simulator with Landfall for PC as well as various console platforms.
Were there any similar outfits locally and internationally you looked to for inspiration?
No, not really. We very quickly focussed ourselves not as a one-size-fits-all outsourcing studio, but rather as a technically-focussed development team that specialised in Unity-based porting and co-development work.
Being located in South Africa isolates us from the majority of the international game development industry and allows us to focus on what we do best with the skills that we have cultivated over the years, instead of trying to mould ourselves to best fit what other service studios may be offering.
What challenges did you face appealing to clients initially as a South African based external development studio?
We haven’t had all that much trouble… that we are aware of at least! There were a few instances in the past, especially before we were able to prove ourselves sufficiently with shipped titles, where I felt that potential clients were writing us off for geographical reasons or a lack of understanding of the level of talent and experience that a studio such as ourselves, located at the southern tip of Africa, could bring to the table.
However, we were lucky enough that from quite early days we had the trust of companies such as Disney, Unity Technologies, and NCSOFT that allowed us to prove that we were just as capable as any development studio partner located in Europe or North America.
Apart from unquestionable technical expertise, what studio and personal traits would you say were essential to getting clients on board?
A: Communication communication communication! Having open and honest communication and consistent ongoing dialog with our clients is the cornerstone that 24 Bit Games is built upon. We make it a point to go out of our way and be proactive communicators who take ownership of as much as we can in our collaborations with clients.
On top of that, we also try to be as flexible as possible in regards to project scheduling. Games are often delayed for one reason or another, so we make sure to work together with all of our clients to tweak the scheduling of available team members as and when the needs of projects evolve over time.
Could you briefly expand on the process of acquiring devkits as well as recruiting technically proficient local talent?
Development kit procurement processes are down to the individual console platform holders, but each one essentially requires that you sign up with them and register as a developer with them. The requirements can differ slightly between platforms (such as the need for a static IP), but essentially they just want to know that you are real and that you will be using their hardware and software licenses to develop for their platforms.
Once approved as licenced developers, it is generally as easy as filling in hardware orders with the respective online ordering systems, paying via wire transfer or credit card, and then waiting a week or so for the shipment to arrive. I can’t speak for the platforms themselves in regards to other countries, but we have generally not had any issues with receiving development kits in South Africa over the past 3 or 4 years.
It’s always difficult to find good people, no matter where you are in the world. For us, an incredibly high percentage of people working at 24 Bit Games were somehow known to us in some way before being hired. Oftentimes we get introduced to good people via recommendations by an existing employee or educational institution with whom we have a relationship with. Additionally, we try to keep abreast of visible activity in the quite tight-knit local game development community to see who may be doing cool things and might also be looking for work.
One thing we are quite stringent about is our interviewing process, in that we don’t believe in asking people to solve technical problems on the spot. We treat interviews much more like first dates where we want to get to know who we are talking to, understand what motivates them and what they want to do in their lives and careers, and get a feel for whether or not they will fit into our company culture. We also want to make sure that the people we are talking to, properly understand what exactly it is that we do here and what their work-life will be like should they choose to join us, and if that is something that they are looking for in their careers.
Our focus is much more on hiring excellent people as opposed to excellent talent.
Apart from international collaborations, are there any local studios you have forged a close relationship with to aid 24 Bit Games goals?
Cape Town based Free Lives without a doubt. They are a team of incredibly talented designers, programmers, and artists who keep making hit after hit all the while keeping true to their own style… you always know when you are playing a Free Lives game! We have a great relationship with them and our skill sets are naturally complimentary, so it ends up being a fantastic fit for us to partner on projects together. Oh, and they are also just a fantastic group of people to work with!
Are you aware of similar development entities across the continent and if so, how do you navigate competing in a relatively small pool?
A: There are a few other South African service studios that we are aware of, but the international nature of the industry and client demand means that we are not ever really in any sort of competition for work from our experience.
Any ambitions to develop your own IPs?
Most definitely! 24 Bit Games is full of creative people who have the talent and ambition to work on a project close to their hearts. Ramping up this type of internal production is something that we are already preparing to do looking forward to 2022, but our number one priority is to be sure that we maintain the same level of service that our clients expect of us before we look ahead towards new ventures.
What areas of the local and continent’s ecosystem would you like to further developed?
As is the case with game development studios worldwide, we need a dramatic increase in diverse members of our industry, especially within South Africa. It is still very much a predominately white boys club, and 24 Bit Games is not really an exception to that. It is however something we are acutely aware of and wholeheartedly want to take action to remedy as we are able to.
In terms of the industry as a whole on the continent, I have long been a strong proponent of the need for multiple larger and well funded studios to be formed. These are the types of companies that can help to foster the aforementioned diversity transformation as well as advance the necessary skills development and experience needed for an industry to stabilize and grow so that game development can be a viable career path for anyone who dreams of it in Africa, and not just some lucky privileged few.
Oftentimes, when small studios have a breakout game success, which let’s be honest are few and far between, they don’t look to grow all that big because creating and running a company is a far different thing than creating a great game. Even if 10 small teams have monetary success and each one hires 10 people, that’s only 100 people added to the game industry… and that is assuming that none of those were hired from other studios. If we want to have a thriving industry on this continent that can provide stable career paths for students looking to study and join the workforce, 100 jobs isn’t going to cut it. We need thousands of jobs in game development to be available, and that just isn’t going to happen without large investment in stable companies that can afford to grow the skills of the people working for them.
Where do you see the company 5 years from now?
Being a positive force of construction for the African game development ecosystem by continuing to create as many game development industry jobs as possible in Africa, in a transformative manner, in order to help foster and grow the experience of as many African game developers as possible.