Is SA ready for local game developers?

Nick Hall, chairperson of MakeGamesSA, demonstrates one of the locally produced games. Rage, the largest gaming expo in Africa was at the Coca-Cola dome in Johannesburg from 4-6 October 2013. Photo: eNCA/Scott Smith
Dominic Obojkovits, aka Pixel Boy demonstrates his own game. Rage, the largest gaming expo in Africa was at the Coca-Cola dome in Johannesburg from 4-6 October 2013. Photo: eNCA/Scott Smith
Nick Hall, chairperson of makegamesSA (L) plays a locally produced game with other local game developers. Rage, the largest gaming expo in Africa was at the Coca-Cola dome in Johannesburg from 4-6 October 2013. Photo: eNCA/Scott Smith
Steve Tu (C) chats to other local game developers as he plays his own game, Bear Chuck. Rage, the largest gaming expo in Africa was at the Coca-Cola dome in Johannesburg from 4-6 October 2013. Photo: eNCA/Scott Smith
Attendees of Rage watch a game demo on the main screen. Rage, the largest gaming expo in Africa was at the Coca-Cola dome in Johannesburg from 4-6 October 2013. Photo: eNCA/Scott Smith
Attendees of Rage enjoy one of the many games available to play at the expo. Rage, the largest gaming expo in Africa was at the Coca-Cola dome in Johannesburg from 4-6 October 2013. Photo: eNCA/Scott Smith
Rage, the largest gaming expo in Africa was at the Coca-Cola dome in Johannesburg from 4-6 October 2013. Photo: eNCA/Scott Smith
It seems local game developers are doing it for themselves at this year’s rAge expo that took place in Johannesburg this weekend. 
 
The largest gaming expo by far on the African continent, organisers expect numbers to top 30,000 this year, following an almost 10 percent consistent increase year on year in previous years. 
 
The expo delivers the latest technological developments, product launches, new and pre-released games on console and pc along with exclusive presentations by international game developers who are pulling a bigger audience every year. 
 
Senior project manager of rAge, Michael James, says, “The big players see us as one of the most important emerging markets. Overseas markets are saturated and the battle lines drawn, but here there is still ground to gain.” 
 
Recent statistics from Price Waterhouse Coopers, an international research company, reveal that the overall video game market inclusive of Europe, Middle East and Africa is anticipated to increase from US$18 billion (R180 billion)  in 2011 to $22.8 billion (R228 billion) in 2016; that is growing at almost 5 percent a year. 
 
South Africa’s video gaming market is currently worth around R1.72 billion, a figure which excludes digital game sales yet includes consoles and games on disc. This figure is also expected to grow year on year – making this a sector for big business, stakeholders and investors to keep an eye on.
 
James confirms that consumer levels are up and South Africa has a huge market for more hardware, more growth and ultimately more spending. 
 
“We are not lagging behind at all,” James continues, “We are right up there when it comes to the technology. We just lack scale.”
 
While he says the expo may have 30,000 people coming through its doors, a similar expo in Germany has 230,000 people with a much larger number of displays, consoles and launches but he assures that we have everything the larger international markets have. 
 
However, all this growth in the sector and obvious consumer interest in SA does beg the question as to whether all this money being spent will eventually turn into actual investment in our own home-coded games. 
 
Where are our local game developers?
The expo saw the head developers of the highly successful Assassin’s Creed franchise or the anticipated hacking game, Watch Dogs, showing off their creations, and while it is easy for games with budgets upwards of US$250 million (R2,500 million) to overshadow independent games, our local developers had a highly successful stand showcasing prize winning popular games. Such interest gives a good indication of just where South African gaming culture is headed and whether investment will trickle down to make a sustainable home-coded gaming business. 
 
Nick Hall, chairperson of Make Games South Africa, an association of professional, indie and hobbyist game developers, says he isn’t too concerned about the lack of scale in the country and is confident that SA could have a viable game development sector within a short period of time. 
 
A lawyer by trade, Hall gives a fair amount of his time to lobbying government to recognise the specific work that goes into creating a game. He does not want gaming to be put into the same basket as film when it comes to funding or grant opportunities. 
 
Hall says, “Everybody must understand what it takes to make a game and we are getting involved in that.”
 
He reiterates that the right support infrastructure will give developers the space they need to hone their skills and provide working opportunities. 
 
Hall says the country’s biggest problem is not a lack of talent but rather that this talent is being poached by the big production houses overseas. In fact, during the expo one of the local developers was approached by Nintendo. Hall feels a viable marketplace that produces work will help them stay. 
 
“In short, we don’t want our guys to leave SA”
 
Hall says, “A successful game is one that allows a studio to pay for itself and given the popularity of games, even in dollar means, currently being produced by South African developers this is certainly possible.” 
 
Can we do it in 5-10 years?
Gustav Correa, director of Learn 3D - a specialist in 2D and 3D animation and visual effects training with a strong emphasis on game development - feels, “Yes - the tools will be easier and the democratisation of games will develop to an ever greater extent and make the local sector much more viable.”
 
Hall also agrees, “We want sustainable games across all platforms. In 10 years we will probably have a sustainable industry employing 50-100 people. We are right on the edge now. We are coming out of obscurity.” But he reiterates how important it is to keep the intellectual property in South Africa to ensure this growth. 
 
James, although clearly supportive of local development and the sector, cautions again on the present scale saying, “An investment of $2 million will buy you one hell of a good indy game, but the new Battlefield is upwards of $300 million using 200 people. It is a different ballgame and I don’t see that happening here for many years. They [large studios] might come here and hire some talent for something, but you wont make the next Battlefield here.”
 
Big local hitters on the SA indy scene
Some examples of local big hitters on the indy scene that have already made a splash - and in some cases coming from successful studios - are Danny Day with Desktop Dungeons, BroForce which is garnering a lot of interest in France, and Dominic Obojkovits, aka Pixel Boy, whose work is attracting international interest. 
 
Studios that were represented at the home-coded stand at the expo include Free Lives, QCF Design, RuneStorm, RetroEpic Software, Manikin Games, Level 3, Giant Box Games, Rogue Moon Studios, retroFuture, Celestial Games, Steven Tu, Deciduous Games, Made with Monster Love, and Red Dot Lab.
 
As Steven Tu says, “It is better than TV.”
 
 
Besides the independent development scene the expo held a competitve gaming league called the Telkom Do Gaming League with this year’s prize winnings topping R3 million. Watch an eNCA piece on the African champion, Robert Botha or a broader follow up piece on the expo here
 
 

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