Home coded: SA indie game developers boot up

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Screengrab of the recently released South African developed Broforce from studio Freelives, Cape Town.

Screengrab of the recently released South African developed Broforce from studio Freelives, Cape Town.

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It’s art, but not as we know it

Build it and they will come. Or not

Show me the money

So now what?

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JOHANNESBURG - What looks like a bear, chucks boxes around, is stuck in the future aboard an abandoned spacecraft, in what looks like a dungeons and dragons remake but yet is really a parody for American imperialism and set in the Free State, South Africa, all the while looking for his wife with a laser blaster?

I have absolutely no idea, but someone does and they just made a game out of it. At least parts of it. 

Most people would think - what a waste of time, or what’s the point? But those who ignored such reality based questions are finding their momentum and with numbers like R1.5-million, R12-million, R2.6-billion, 126, 82%, to describe funding, sales, market value, games in development and annual growth in the last year, the real and imaginary are meeting as fast as a hyperdrive in the middle.

Small, indie game development studios in South Africa are finding ways to overcome obstacles. Money is starting to materialise. Some studios are already moving onto their new hush-hush projects following the international success of their first.

Enthusiastic gamers and developers are tripping over themselves to prove their skills, push the boundaries and make a go for that elusive hit. Game developers are coming out; virtual guns blazing, as it were.

eNCA spoke to some of the existing studios in South Africa to find out just what it took to not only make the game, but the hoops they had to jump through to make it work, make money, run a studio, put it out there and pay the bills.

In true indie hustling style, the answers are about as varied as the number of pixels on your screen.

 

 

It&39;s art, but not as we know it

 

Throw in design, narration, scoring, coding, and platform savviness you get to a very multifaceted art. One that has to entertain too. The creation of a virtual world, no matter its complexity, is hard imaginative work and to pull it off requires a multitude of inputs.

Games are really the sum total of every expressive medium of all time, made interactive, and indie developers throw their personalities into it, leading to the wide array of games and the unpredictability of what will actually work.

In the absence of a guarantee or done deal and only a long hard road of work ahead, one thing that was found that must be consistent in the developer, is passion.

Evan Greenwood, founder of Free Lives studio and maker of the recently launched Broforce is an example of a local success story and makes it clear, “You have to be passionate, and you need to make big risks...this is not a safe career path.”

 

 

The ‘just start’ perspective that is so necessary for starting any business appears to be the golden rule. No one is born with learning how to code. It’s all hard work, collaboration and making the mistakes as you fumble through finding the right kind of game for you to build, just like any creative product.

Steven Tu, founder of Two Plus Games is a great example of indie tenacity and a firm believer in the need to learn constantly. He says, “You have to get out of that mindset of ‘I am not good at that, that being programming, so I am not going to learn.’”

He reiterates that there are just too many tools available out there to have an excuse not to learn something. “I hate the guy who says he has great ideas - you make it (pointing to the developer).”

 

 

To put yourself into that kind of work means you really have to want to be a game developer. And as many developers will repeat - make it how you want to make it, not how you think an indie game should be. Often, the key is to create a game that you would love to play yourself. Keep it simple; be done, not perfect.

Chris Bischoff, one half of The Brotherhood, creators of another South African-made success story, Stasis, talks of his early phases of development. “I pretty much just Forest Gump’ed my self through it,” he says, “I did all art initially, tried to figure out programming and just went with it.” And he did that for up to 18 hours a day, 6 days a week, exclusively on Stasis.

 

 

There is no one type of game that seems to ‘make it’. There is no golden rule of thumb and in the absence of venture capitalists waving their cheque-book at local developers, you really have only your wits to rely on.

But that said, despite the competition being tough, the sense of community and the support that flows in this small creative scene is impressive. Most developers find that this community is essential in their game development.

 

 

Build it and they will come. Or not

 

Or, to take that idea further - you never know what you have until the community tells you what you have.

With the advent of Make Games South Africa in 2012, the centralisation of a supportive community and how-to guides ranging from best development engine to build your gaming world, to setting up a business and navigating the government needs for game registration, the lone game maker has a place to go to tap into a collective. And they use it, often.

Danny Day from QCF Design and co-maker of another local success story, Desktop Dungeons, says, “MGSA allows those of us that solve those issues one by one to share them with the rest of the local development scene. Kickstarter working locally, as well as getting Google Merchant accounts able to pay out to SA are our current targets.”

 

 

“We are all stumbling around in the dark,” says Tu, but it seems that it is better to do that together.

But the real value in the community lies in their feedback. Do they like your game or not is the real determiner of how you manage your time. Put your game out there to get feedback rather than slave away for a year or more on a game that no one will play, most developers say.

Tu puts in simply, “We make a prototype, chuck it online, and see what people say about it. We don’t have the resources to …test for a million hours,” he says in reference to the huge marketing and testing budgets of AAA titles such as Battlefield or Destiny.

A game often does not follow a typical product-to-market approach that appears in some finished form. Game developers often, “release as you work.”

“Whether something is good or not is not up to you to decide,” Tu adds. Everyone thinks their idea is great and they are the exception and their game is going to make a huge splash. But like most creative outputs, success is rare.

“The reason why she didn’t call you is she just isn’t that into you.” In other words, if it doesn’t work, let it go and start something new.

Day has a similar approach to development, saying that the mob has a kind of wisdom in this regard. He writes in an email in November 2014, “If it doesn’t catch on early on, it won’t later either, so adjust your output.”

“Whether we grow or not next year depends on what sort of reactions we get on our prototypes when we release them to the world.”

“We won&39;t invest in a game if people don&39;t already love the quick and dirty version.”

 

 

 

While different, there are other ways to validate your idea and make the decision as to whether you should carry on. Bischoff from Stasis tried things out a little differently. He wanted to be very clear about his vision and keep it very personal without being influenced by the community, but he did pursue money, and that means that even if a product is personal, it still needs to be marketable.

Stasis didn’t go directly to the gaming community and they didn’t exactly develop openly but he did have a working prototype and put some screenshots and video clips online to keep fans a little in the loop.

Luckily, their vision was validated, just in a slightly different way. A successful Kickstarter campaign, a platform to help fund and bring creative projects to life, gave enough indication as to its popularity so they could justify taking the time off from their already successful 3D landscaping business to go into full time development on Stasis.

“The idea was to make a game, but it wasn’t about the other people, it was about me,” Bischoff says.

“That has been a positive thing to the game, people have responded to how a personal game actually feels. I haven’t really made compromises. The games have come from in my head. A hand crafted experience.”

 

 

To echo the words of former NAG magazine editor and now game developer Geoff Burrows, “Money legitimises things.”

So, that’s settled, you have put in the hard work, you have determined that the game has some recognition and interest in the market, but how do you get the money?

 

 

Show me the money

 

Investors in indie game development is, as many will be quick to point out, although not quite non-existent, are hard to find. And there doesn’t seem to be any real ecosystem in which the creator and investor can meet either.

There is a growing trend of venture capital in South Africa and particularly within the technology sector. About R2-billion in assets under management in 2015 according to Southern African Venture Capital and Private Equity Association (SAVCA) but game development still seems to fall outside of that.

The returns on indie games are unclear in spite of the clear demand and consumer interest in the sector but the ecosystem appears to remain stagnant.

It is a high risk investment from the get go, from a studio financial perspective and the time involved to make a game ready for market; the returns are a big maybe. While there are ways to gauge the merit of a game through the community, it still remains risky to throw in a wad of cash.

But a view shared by many developers is that you cannot view it as a hobby, not if you are serious about building a studio. And if you are serious about a business, you need a business plan. Something easier said than done in such multifaceted industry.

A solution, just like your game, will be unique. So here is what some of the studios did to stay above the red line and keep developing their game to be the best it can be.

 

Creativity as a business

Just keep working and figuring it out is the mantra, and then ultimately the business plan and the way to make all of this work emerges.

Steven Tu from Two Plus Games says, “Indie doesn’t mean much beyond that it is not in a large company.” Costs can still be formidable, it is a marketing mission, an integrated business, and those costs need to be come back.

Tu puts it simply, “My ambition is to make something so good that people pay for it.”

Keeping other work and your contacts on the ready sounds paramount. Just keep making stuff is a sound business plan at this time. Keep your approach and logistics in order so you are ready for the big opportunity.

As already mentioned, developers are very conscious of the fact that you can’t decide when something will be a hit. You can’t plan or develop for it. So prepare the infrastructure around your creations so when something is a hit, you can maximise that.

 

 

 

Early access

A step up from just getting feedback from the community, is a game distribution platform by Valve, a game studio that brought you the international hits like Half-Life and Dota 2. Steam allows for what they call early access - allowing gamers and fans to play and comment on games still in development, providing invaluable feedback and money for studios.

Evan Greenwood’s Broforce hit ‘Full Release’ in October 2015 after lingering in Steam’s Greenlight and Early Access programmes for a good few years while its developers polished it to a shine. It started life as a prototype in April 2012 and has been in development ever since.

Greenwood, in a telephonic interview from their studio in Cape Town in November 2014 says the studio was initially a mobile entity but really got started after simply ‘taking a risk” and “big leaps of faith.”

He explains that at that time there wasn’t a tonne of evidence to allow them to make a clear decision to go for it. But once it was launched on Steam, it got some press and grew organically, saying it was a positive experience.

“We went early access sooner than we would have liked to, but it supports development. The point really is to just role,” Greenwood adds.

“Our success would not have been possible without Steam early access.”

 

 

 

He continues, “From September 2013, within two months of sales we had paid off all debts, had ten people in the studio and enough funds to finish off the year. Now, with a finished product, a financially healthy studio, that stability is set to be even more so.”

Praise for the platform and support for it as a valid way to give a studio a foothold while they are developing their game is a sentiment shared by Danny Day of QCF Design, makers of Desktop Dungeons.

Day writes in an email, “Desktop Dungeons wouldn&39;t exist without open development. The game was built with constant feedback from players and other developers.”

“I feel that anyone trying to build a game in secret and planning on releasing a fully formed game as their first reveal is committing development suicide. Desktop Dungeons used a pre-order and very long beta system.”

In sharing some figures, Day says Desktop Dungeons cost R1.6M to develop, started in January 2010, the full game released in November 2013. At the point of writing the email in October 2015, the game had sold 120,000 units. Since launch Desktop Dungeons has made more than R1 million in one day. Twice.

Right now, Day writes, “QCF is figuring out what to invest in next and building prototypes.”

But you can be sure those prototypes will be pushed out online to capture that most valuable feedback.

 

Crowdfunding

One reason why we have a finished Stasis game is the generosity of largely anonymous investors on platforms like Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects.

Chris Bischoff of The Brotherhood, makers of the acclaimed Stasis, states very clearly that although crowdfunding can be a good place to get that incentive to commit to your project, it is highly stressful and, “makes you put your money where your mouth is.”

Keeping it clear that it is not investing but more of a donation, he said, “It was essential to have had the alpha demo up and running. It was a way of saying, this is the game, it exists, I just need your help to finish it.”

They eventually raised $132,000 (about R1.5-million) on Kickstarter and then another $150,000 on Paypal pre-orders at the time of interviewing in November 2014 to commit and finish the game.

 

 

It should be noted that getting funding for an unfinished game, or at least one without a prototype on kickstarter is extremely rare. And to run a successful campaign and essentially to get the trust of people, you need to have shown them that you have done the work.

“Kickstarter proved to us that the market is there,” Bischoff adds. We had to ask ourselves, “What can we do with this money to be certain this number of people would be happy with the end product?”

Asking that question builds the pressure that will justify taking a year off to focus full time on a game to the possible slowdown of your breadwinning business, he says.

But that of course doesn’t work for everybody. An otherwise popular game with great reviews and now soon to launch on early access tried out a Kickstarter and failed, namely Cadence. The developers at Made with Monster Love struggled financially with Cadence for some time despite having community support and excitement for the game. But they regathered themselves and are looking to take the next step.

In short, there are no sure ways to build your indie game, always be on the look for more.

 

 

 

Direct investors

Ideally however, is winning the boss fight and having an investor just give you the money. But so far, this is very rare.

If you are lucky, like Geoff Burrows of the newly established Zero Degrees Studio and his game Among the Innocent: A Stricken Tale, someone has agreed to pay him a salary while working on his game. Keeping in mind of course, that this didn’t fall into his lap - as a former editor of the now defunct NAG magazine, he spent those years building his network and planning his move.

But there is a long list of developers who have tried to get direct funding from some semblance of an investor, or incubator, that has simply gone nowhere.

Day says they ended up self-funding. “Desktop Dungeons was self funded. We tried to get investment from local angels, VCs and startup funds. Getting investment for a game is really difficult in SA.”

Day adds, “The biggest issues these days are dealing with local infrastructure that doesn&39;t understand game development business models - it&39;s tiring trying to explain to your bank manager that you aren&39;t a franchise, that you own and produce IP that you sell to the world, etc.”

 

 

 

Although he writes that there were some opportunities to get a little finding here and there, they either took too long, or there was too much red tape, or they ultimately rejected the outside involvement since those factors forced them to find alternative means on a much longer road.

“We self-funded through pre-orders: We&39;d burned our war chest after 18 months, then Paypal launched in SA. One month later we were profitable. We updated that beta every week for over two years, the feedback and testing we got from that was invaluable.”

But although some factors eventually worked out for Desktop Dungeons, it is clear the general ecosystem to match up investors with developers just does not exist in SA, albeit it is improving slightly.

For example, at the playful Amaze gaming festival in September in Braamfontein, during a talk about the state of the local gaming industry, Geoffrey Scott from Global Innovation Resources was attending to see just how the local industry works and, “what kind of ecosystem can be created.” That is a rare, if not a first, for such an individual to be exploring the opportunities within the burgeoning gaming industry.

 

 

 

Government support

But where is government in all of this and what sort of opportunities for game developers are available?

Nick Hall, lawyer by profession and founding member of the Make Games SA community platform, along with Hanli Geyser, head of game design at the Wits digital arts department, are lobbying government to ease the restrictions on funding and pave a way forward.

“The SA scene is too small t o support a (multi-million dollar) game development studio but a lot of work is being done by Make Games SA to get the film and publications board to stand by their side and get some government funding on the go,” Hall says.

Game development appears to fall outside any of the industry boxes which are eligible for government funding being too technical for the arts and too arts for incubator and entrepreneurial investing.

Geyser, in an interview in October 2014 said, “It isn’t in the arts and it isn’t in tech”.

“We are lobbying for getting support. They think we are a sports club. Government is stuck between technology sector and arts sector. These are ideological decisions but they have real fiscal impacts - so which sector do we approach?” Geyser adds.

Hall jokes in an interview at the Rage gaming festival in 2014 that up until recently, gamers had to submit visual material along with proposal on the long-defunct video format VHS.

But there is hope that it will change sooner rather than later because the above isn’t the norm. In fact, it is in stark contrast to the United Kingdom. In September, the government there announced a video games prototype fund to the tune of R90-million that aims to give digital startups up to R550,000 each to help them compete with large companies.

The UK video games industry already generates more than R36.5-billion for the UK economy and directly employs about 19,000 people. In South Africa, things are not quite like this, our numbers are lingering a little more around R2.6-billion per annum, and the indie gaming contribution to that is tiny - about R53-million per annum and employing about 150 people directly according to Make Games SA.

So for the time being, although slowly getting better, going to the government is not really a good bet in securing funding for that game you are working on.

 

 

So now what?

 

If you have made it this far, it is time for the knock out. You have worked hard, your game is popular, money has come in - but are thing going to be better on the next level?

In short, it looks like it will. And not just from a numbers and economics perspective, but from a lobbying perspective too. 

Hall says, “South Africa may or may not see AAA studios on our shores within the next 10 years, but our talent is being snatched up left, right and centre which may make it viable given our cheaper living costs to make some pretty damn good games.”

According to a recent annual survey from Make Games SA, the 40 organisations who responded to the survey give an estimate industry value of R53 million in 2014, an 82% growth from 2013.

The survey also revealed that 67 games where commercially released in 2014 and some 126 games are currently in active development and will see release in the next two to three years. And these are the numbers that the MGSA knows about. As Geyser says, “We keep finding new ones.”

“I still feel we only represent one third of the people in the country. We just keep finding new people,” doing new things, great things, exciting things.

While many of those games are unlikely to make it past the development stage due to all the hurdles mentioned in this piece, it is good to know that the world can look forward to some South African commercially released titles in  the not too distant future.

The end goal for Hall is to up their employability, “A 1000 people employed, R500-million per annum in the next 2-5 years.” And although  he understands the barriers, he is confident that this is achievable. And with the ongoing interest in the field this might just happen.

Geyser says in the context of her gaming school unable to keep up with demand, “We are at a  tipping point...we should see exponential growth.”

But given all the problems above, why bother?

Well, because what might be better than immersing yourself in a beautifully designed virtual world where anything is possible, is immersing yourself in a real world that was expected to push past the $80-billion (R1.2-trillion) mark in global revenue in 2016.

As economist and author Edward Castronova puts it, “We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”

Around the world more than half-a-billion people spend a whopping three billion hours a week playing computer and video games for at least an hour a day, according to the author.

And indie gamers just have an interesting hook on it. Makes me think of the recent book by Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, gamification guru type person - perhaps have a look at building your business by approaching it like a game. See the challenges as quests.

It is afterall, only a game.

 

- Additional video treatment by Jesse D Mulder