Kenyan developer, Mekan Games have been riding a wave of success since their hyper casual title – The President topped the mobile gaming charts in June. Reflecting on the studios success, studio CEO – Evans Kiruga spoke to GIA about his journey, the development and their ambitions beyond The President.
Evan’s game development journey started at the tender age of 17 when he was still in high school. He later went on to do a short course in application development for Android and Nokia phones. So by the time he was enrolling for a computer science degree at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) he already had a lot of practical programming skills up his sleeves.
This young award-winning CEO of Mekan Games is passionate about technology as a whole and as a creative, he is big on experiences and creating fun things for people to interact with. His joy emanates from seeing people enjoying the experiences he has created.
GIA had a chance to sit down and chat with him on a chilly Thursday afternoon in Nairobi. At the time of this meeting Mekan Games’ title, The President had just raked in a total of 8 million downloads worldwide. What follows are some highlights from our conversation.
GIA: Who are your influences in life right now?
Evans: In the hypercasual space there’s a studio called Estoty they are doing incredible work around hypercasual games. At the moment, I am drawn to people who are doing specialized work around gaming and creating great experiences. I am also drawn to merging games with humour but as you understand as a creative it’s never one thing, there is a huge spectrum of things that influence you and that you draw energy from but I think that is a good summary of what influences me at the moment.
GIA: Alright, and how was it growing up were you a video games fan as a child?
Evans: Yes, I was.
GIA: Okay, what were your favourite games?
Evans: So when I was growing up there was a very interesting transition that happened. This is because we had a huge leap in technology from the old Nintendo games to PlayStation 1. I equally enjoyed both of them. At that time you would buy a cartridge containing 100 different kinds of games. I remember playing those games from Super Mario to Contra. Then transitioning to PlayStation (PS), I remember getting a new PS2 and taking it to a technician so that I could play all sorts of games without having to buy the original copy. I played a tonne of games from Mortal Kombat all the way to FIFA. After playing a whole spectrum of games what stood out for me was Need for Speed because at the time it was one of the most polished games.
GIA: How has your journey been seeing that you started your career at the tender age of 17 what are some challenges you experienced along the way?
Evans: Honestly, it’s been a very interesting journey because as you can imagine the games space in Africa is very niche. Very few people in Africa are making games now and when I was 17, that was around nine years ago even fewer people were making games then. I remember one of the first things I did when I got into this space, I searched for how to make a video game because I was very interested in games. As a result of playing PS2, I got really interested in how games were made. I wanted to take FIFA 15/16 and have Kenyan politicians playing football. That was the entry point of my getting into gaming. As a result, I started looking at how to do it and it became a rabbit hole where I ended up getting fully into game development. It’s been a very exciting journey, to be honest.
The biggest challenge was how to make money from games. I think we exist in a space where people can make games but it is very hard to make money from them. If you are making a game that is African themed the chances of you making money are even lower and when making one that is global the chances of making money become worse because you are competing with international titles. So this issue of making money has been a constant battle.
As a result of trying to answer that question a lot of other challenges came about. As soon as I had familiarized myself with Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) the first thing I did was approach a few companies and try and make a few games for them. They seemed excited when they said yes, but I later realized it was because I was very young and they did not want to say no to me. They decided to keep me going round in circles until I gave up. It was a form of prolonging the blow for someone to realize that what they were doing was not going anywhere. I remember getting into a lot of those vicious cycles and it was very difficult because in essence I was stuck for a very long time.
Another challenge that was prominent is when it came to the quality of games I realized quite early on that trying to make games for Kenya and Africa is tricky. In order to succeed you are required to have incredibly good quality. Then came the challenge of trying to grow my skill and talent and learn as much as I could. So for many months, I spent time learning how to make games and making games.
Then definitely there was a whole different animal of a challenge that was trying to market video games to people. So you make a game that is very nice and only you and your family play it. And that was me. It was very hard trying to get people to play because you know if the quality was not good why would they do it anyway? So they end up playing international titles that are better made. It was really hard doing that and I ended up trying a lot of things and spending a lot of money while at it. Eventually, what worked was improving the quality of what I was working on. So those were some of the challenges I had.
GIA: Okay, I’m curious to understand what sparked the idea to create a game targeted at the US market and is this something you intend to continue doing?
Evans: That’s a really good question. The answer might sound simple but it took years to realize that this is the answer. The question I asked myself over and over again was how do you make money from games? I’d ask myself this question even when I was sleeping. And I realized that it’s hard to make games and it’s even harder to ask someone to give you money in exchange for a game. So I stumbled on ads as a way to make money, but the problem with ads is you need incredibly high numbers. You can’t make money if you have only 50,000 players you need millions to make money from ads.
So the question became can I attain millions of users? And the answer was no because I did not have the budget. And so that’s how I ended up targeting the US market because the US is a very interesting space where ads pay a lot more. This in essence means if your game is a hit in the US then you’re paid a lot more per user and so you don’t need millions of downloads to make money. There’s a quote that is said for every 1 million Kenyans who will play your game the amount of money you will get from them is equivalent to 100,000 Americans playing your games. So it’s like tenfold. It’s easier to get 100,000 Americans to play your game than it is to get 1,000,000 Kenyans to play your game. Long story short it is something that took years to realize.
GIA: How was your experience in JKUAT as a computer science student and how did you balance work and study?
Evans: I think the correct way to sum that is this phenomenon people call the butterfly effect. So that is exactly what happened when I was in JKUAT. When I finished high school I joined a school in Westlands, Nairobi that was teaching programming. It was during that buffer time between high school and university. It took about 8 months of learning about full stack development and many other technologies that were around. So by the time I was joining JKUAT to do Computer Science, I knew how to code.
What ended up happening was I didn’t necessarily have to attend the classes to pass them. In most cases, I knew a lot more than what we were being taught. The requirement was to attend two-thirds of the classes in person and as long as you’re performing well in your papers no one had issues with you. So that allowed me to do a lot of experimentation with games.
I remember even during the first year while my classmates were doing HTML, and trying to code websites, I was deep into game development and they couldn’t understand how I ended up there. The way the entire Tech space works is you can make a game and pass your programming class so that’s how it worked out for me and I spent my extra time learning more about games and doing more of what I mentioned early that is talking to companies and trying to see if I can make games and XR experiences for them.
So I remember my schedule was on Mondays I’m not in school, I was out trying to pitch an idea that can be sold. I would go back to school from Wednesday to Friday for the more serious classes and as a result, I would pursue the things that I really liked and also make sure that I was able to complete my degree because you always need a backup plan for things.
Mekan Games started then and it had a completely different team. At that time the company was not making money so we did a lot of research trying to find out how one could make money from games. That first team did a lot in growing the dream. Eventually, everyone went their own separate ways and I had to start from scratch but it really helped that in the beginning there were people to fuel the dream with.
GIA: What was the tipping point? When did you know that things are taking a turn for the better? It feels a little lonely now that everyone went their separate way.
Evans: Honestly it was lonely because throughout my journey up to this point there was always someone to walk the journey with as I tried to figure out how to make games. It was absolutely understandable why the team split because you can’t stick around when there’s no money. That was the tipping point, that is when it hit me that this dream I had was only mine.
This is also the time I realized that there was a way that you can make money from ads. It happened when I was doing some research as I worked on a project for a certain company. It was about monetizing through ads. I got to see how they move around ads and how they are able to work out the numbers and it hit me there is a way to make money.
I also had a chat with my mentor around this time and he told me that it’s really good that I’m alone in the team if it takes 100% from me for the game to work out then that 100% is dependable on me. It’s not dependable on a team. It’s all on me. Those are words that have stuck with me all along. That was the tipping point when I decided that I would go back to game development 100% committed knowing that I may not make any money, but it is what it is.
GIA: Wow! Congratulations on the success you’ve achieved so far because that was very bold of you.
Evans: Thank you and as a result now that there was no team I had to learn more things. Initially, I was just a programmer. So I ended up learning about design, sound and art. Those skills that I learnt at that time helped The President get to where it is right now. So it was a proper tipping point.
GIA: After all that pressure on yourself and The President getting to where it is right now. I’m curious to know how you usually reward yourself.
Evans: That’s an interesting question because since The President hit the top charts around July 13th 2022 things have been moving fast. So getting time to actually celebrate the game is a luxury. We do get moments where we look at it and say we created this thing that is bigger than any of the things we’ve ever done but honestly, we haven’t gotten proper time to reward ourselves. There’s always something because now we have a massive game that we need to keep on updating. Hopefully, soon in the coming month because things are dying down and we are getting to a normal working situation. Maybe we’ll get to do something really cool like travel somewhere. At the moment that is the situation. That is the downside of achieving something really big because you usually don’t know what it comes with.
GIA: How has your team evolved since the inception of Mekan Games? You mentioned there’s a time they went their separate ways but now you have a new one, let’s talk a little about that.
Evans: Winding back to the tipping point when it hit me that this was a journey that I was going to walk alone, I spent about a year working alone. During that time I tried a lot of different ideas and worked with a few companies here and there because you need money to survive. All the while I made sure if I am working 8 hours for Company X when I go back home I am transitioning and working on Mekan Games.
I did that for a while and then towards the end of 2019, I stumbled upon hypercasual games and it became the perfect equation. This is because all of a sudden now things made sense I had been looking at the ad economy and how people are making money from ads and now I was looking at a genre in gaming that is specifically driven by ads. Combining these two I started to see how I could make money from games.
I completely dove in 100%. I stopped everything I was doing and went into hypercasual because it felt like it made sense. I worked alone for 6 months and then reached out to a few publishers because I had learnt that for you to make money from ads you need a massive marketing budget. Some of them saw the incredible work I was already doing and so they retained me within their circles and they were willing to fund the studio. So we came to an agreement where they fund the studio and in return, I continue to make these cool games for them to keep trying the market.
So finally something gave, and I started looking at how to grow the team because there was some money coming in. It wasn’t a lot but it was enough to keep things running. I reached out to a few developers and artists and that is how I got the two developers who are currently in the team. For a year and a half, it was just the 3 of us with a few people coming in and going.
We learned a lot about the hypercasual space during that time and it’s the time we made around 83 different games within a span of 2 years, tested them out and checked if their KPIs were good. If they were not good we just kept killing the project at the point of identifying so.
Hypercasual is all about trying to find marketability in a game so we thought about the numbers way before thinking about the game. We used to work on these games for a maximum of 2 weeks then test them in the market if they were not good we killed them.
This is contrary to what people think is the right thing to do, it’s a bit controversial but it is what worked and what we feel should be the situation. Because if you spend 2 years working on a game and then when you finally test it in the market you find that it is not the one for you then you have wasted 2 years. So if you are to fail it is better to fail as fast as possible so that you get the one that works.
When The President hit the charts there was a lot more work that needed to be done. So the team has since grown from 3 to 9 we are still continuing to grow and hopefully, we will get to work on bigger games.
GIA: What sort of learnings did you get from doing all those different prototypes and what do you think helped you get The President to where it is right now?
Evans: There were so many learnings so I’ll focus on two or three. The biggest one and the one that I preach about every time I get a chance is as game developers we love what we do and we are emotionally attached to our work. Emotions and creativity go very well together they are like sisters and brothers but unfortunately how to make money from sisters and brothers is a whole different story. So they should not be connected. Emotions, money and creativity are totally different.
Many a time what will make you money is not what you think will. Therefore, we learnt quite early to leave emotions at the door and create what we were creating with a very clean head and mind knowing that the whole idea is to make money out of our creations. Creatives need to learn how to let go and focus on projects that make financial sense.
Another learning is as soon as you have something that you can show someone it is very important to test it in the market. Let go of the idea that someone might copy what you have because it is just an idea so test it out in the market. If you have a good marketability indicator then by all means invest your time in it. If not you are wasting time and it will probably frustrate you 4 months down the line when you realize that it is not going anywhere.
The third one is something I feel ended up being the best thing for The President. Always reach out to people who can do things better than you in the form of partnerships. In the case of The President and all those prototypes we created, we knew that we are not marketers and we know very little about marketing games. Since there are publishers out there who specialize in this we decided to partner with them. So chances are very high that things will come out of such partnerships because you are bringing 100% and they are bringing in 100% of what they know into this. Therefore, you start looking at a very optimized pipeline that will lead to success. Those are some of the biggest learnings so far.
GIA: Kindly share a few game mechanics that you used in The President that you think helped in the success of the game.
Evans: So the beauty of this game is that it is a narrative game. Then secondly each level is a different mini-game. So you’re always experiencing something new in the game. One day you’re being a president the other day you’re doing something else. So it’s always interesting to come back to the game and play a level that you have never played before. One of my best mechanics is on the level where we have lawyers coming into the office with new laws for you to make as President. It’s interesting because it gives you absolute power to accept or deny a law. Then if you think a law is dumb you have the ability to slap a lawyer. It’s one of those things you see in a game and it gets you thinking if I am seeing this now then what will I see in level 10 or 15?
There’s also another level where the president is donating money to charity and as the president, you have to open the office safe with a password then you have to arrange the money and the way you do it is through using a match mechanic where you match 2000 with 2000 to make 4000 dollars and so on. I found that to be a very satisfying mechanic.
There’s this funny level where the president is touring the streets and they notice that the people are poor and very unmotivated. So the president uses a money gun to blow money onto their faces. It just shows the president as extravagant and possessing the ability to do whatever they want with the money. The President has a lot of humour in it and I think that is what made it successful.
GIA: Thank you for sharing those. Also is it possible to get a glimpse of your Game Design Document (GDD)?
Evans: Unfortunately, it is not possible to share the GDD as you can imagine. It is a shared document between us and the publisher which is confidential because it contains levels to come.
GIA: Alright, that is totally understandable. And by the way, speaking about the publisher how was your experience working with Crazy Labs?
Evans: When we got into hypercasual a few years ago, I mentioned that we were fortunate enough to work with some existing publishers from Voodoo to Tap Nation. We worked with a majority of the biggest names in the hypercasual space. However, during that time we had never worked with Crazy Labs and Crazy Labs is one of the top 3 global publishers and it’s very hard to get their attention.
So late last year Carry 1st was organising an incubation hub in Cape Town where they wanted to bring in promising studios to take part in a 5-month programme where they will be making these prototypes and learning about marketability. What appealed to me was the fact that the programme was connected to Crazy Labs.
The arrangement was Carry 1st would host the studios and Crazy Labs would bring in the best of their best into the country to guide the studios through the process of making games. So, fortunately, I applied and I ended up in South Africa. During the 5 months, I was there, we were eating, breathing and interacting with games.
We learned so much, Crazy Labs brought in so much information on how the industry works. As I mentioned we had honed our skills as game developers so being able to access Crazy Labs at that level (their 100%) was what gave us The President. This is because the data that we got about creating a game on being a president was provided by Crazy Labs. It is incredible what we can create with partnerships. We came in being good at making games and they came in being great at publishing games with insanely talented marketers and great data. So when you combine those 3 elements you end up with a very high marketability index. That is how I can explain how the experience was.
They are still our publisher to date and we hope that we will have a long relationship with them. They are always willing to help, they offer advice and most importantly they understand what we are trying to do as a studio. They understand the vision we have for Africa and our plans to take over the world and they are really willing to help out in whichever way they can and we genuinely enjoy working with them.
GIA: Okay, you have mentioned that you are working on future updates for The President. I’m curious to find out if you’re also working on another title.
Evans: Yes, we are definitely keeping the president updated pretty much every week. We are also working on a few projects, not just one and the reason behind this as you can imagine is we believe we’ve done it once, we’ve seen what it takes to do it, we’ve grown the team and we’ve done our best as the 3 original members to make sure that the rest of the team understands what it takes to make a hypercasual game. And now we are preparing to redo the same stunt but even bigger this time.
We are definitely working on a few titles with a few promising ones, with hypercasual we make games pretty fast so hopefully, in a month or two, you’ll be able to see some of them.
GIA: Great! I’m looking forward to checking them out. I really enjoyed playing The President as well as watching some YouTube reviews on it. I’m happy to see how it’s growing. I’d like to know how your relationship with playing games has evolved over time.
Evans: I’d say we are lucky that in the gaming space we have thousands and thousands of games that one can check out. So when I’m playing a hypercasual game the chances of me enjoying the game are very low. I’m always looking at new things that we can take inspiration from and how the community is doing things. It is, therefore, very hard for me to enjoy a hypercasual game because I’m just studying literally even taking notes. I take notes as well as screenshots so that I can share them with the team.
This is something that we do in the office. We are always playing games and sharing ideas about games. But as I’ve said luckily games exist in the thousands so at the weekend when I have some free time at least I get to enjoy a game that is not hypercasual because it is not in my niche. It is also cool working with other creatives because we are always sharing the awesome games they played for me to try out.
GIA: I love the culture you have of playing games in your studio as a team and sharing your learnings amongst each other. Speaking of learning stuff what are you currently learning about career and life in your 20s?
Evans: In terms of career I’m learning how to work with a bigger team. I am coming from a small team of 3 to one that is about to hit 10 and it can easily get overwhelming. So I’m learning how to create structures within the company and make sure that everyone is sorted when it comes to giving them clear job descriptions. So I can say that what I’m currently learning in my career is organisational structure. It’s not something I necessarily enjoy but someone has to take care of that.
In terms of life what comes to mind is organisation because having made a big game, it has become very important to have some form of structure because it can easily get overwhelming. So I’m learning to take time off when I’m supposed to be off and not replying to emails because it has come at 8 pm. It is really hard but I am trying to create that balance.
GIA: As we come to an end I would like for you to share some words of encouragement to young game enthusiasts who want to join the industry or have already joined and want to have some level of success.
Evans: The most important thing is to keep experimenting do not specialize at first. Try different things until you find one you feel is good. I’m saying that because the alternative to that is something I did a while ago which was specializing in one thing and I got stuck trying to knock down a wall that would never get knocked down. So just keep trying different things and experiment as much as you can. Hopefully down the line, you’ll find something that works for you and that will unlock the door.
For those already deep in the industry and looking for a way to make things work, I’d say look into partnerships. It might sound like something everyone is always saying but look into partnerships. You need to understand that you are only good at what you are doing and there’s always someone out there who is good at the next stage of the door you are trying to unlock. Game developers in Africa should look into publishing because the chances of making a big game while working alone are very low.
GIA: Thank you for sharing that. Kindly speak a little about your Queen Young Leaders award and any other recognitions you’ve had.
Evans: One of the biggest recognition we’ve had as a studio is hitting the number one game overall in the US, so at that time the game was on top of Twitter, WhatsApp, and TikTok. It hit number one overall on top of all these apps. At the moment we have 1.2 billion applications on the app stores so to get to number one is hard. So that was really big. The game also hit number one on iPad and android something publishers call the trifecta it happens once in a blue moon and it happened to us. So that was our biggest recognition as a studio.
Queen Young Leaders was an individual award this was the Diamond Jubilee Trust Lead by the Late Queen of England and Cambridge University. Every 4 years they would look at the Common Wealth countries and they would pick individuals that are doing really well in their communities trying to better the lives of the people and fly them to Cambridge University in London for leadership training.
I was lucky enough to be runner-up for that award in Kenya. It was a great experience, to interact with people from 25 other commonwealth countries that were doing incredible things. I got in as a result of a game I made in 2017 which was called Lockout 2017 It was about the political situation in 2017 so the game was on Civic education. It is an award that I hold dear to my heart because we got recognized when we did not know that we were doing anything good. We just thought we were making games.
GIA: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Evans: Thank you as well for taking the time to do the interview. I think you were among the first people to reach out to me when we topped the charts. Getting that recognition is very important to us coming from someone who is around because normally it is very hard for the local press to notice these things and so we do not put much effort into it because it is really hard. So thank you so much for reaching out when you did.
GIA: You’re welcome thank you also for accepting. Yours is a lovely story and I’m happy we get to tell it.
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