Big Game: The birth of Kenya's games industry

How a group of game developers beat the odds to create the Kenyan game industry.
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There was no game industry in Kenya six years ago. Wesley Kirinya was one of the country's first game developers. Working alone, Kirinya created and released Adventures of Nyangi — a crude Tomb Raider rip-off with an African protagonist and limited sound.

He had no tools or mentors to guide him — just his drive, his passion and an internet forum filled with people from other continents. It took Kirinya three years of reading tutorials and importing expensive books from the U.S. just to learn the necessary skills.

He put the game online for $9.95, making headlines around the world, but there was a problem getting the game to people in his native Kenya. "The file was like 700MB," he says, "And internet — right now we have four, five [fiber] optic cables emanating into the country. But back then it was just satellite bandwidth." Few people could afford access, much less download such a large file.

Kirinya burned his game onto a CD and put Adventures of Nyangi in a local store, which stocked games from the U.S. and Europe. It sold barely more than a handful of copies, but still managed to be one of the four top-selling products in the store.

Still, even as he made inroads, Kirinya felt alone. He believed himself to be the only game creator in Africa. "It was extremely isolating and difficult because at that time it wasn't just — I mean, the challenge wasn't just making games; it was also the challenge of setting up a company," he explains.

"I was about 18. I had no experience in starting a business before. And the thing is, because there are no developers and companies, I had to start from scratch. I had to form my own company. It's not like I would go work somewhere in an existing game company and then do my own."

Other game designers have since sprung up around Kenya, and with support from both the government and private investors, the East African nation is quickly emerging as one of the continent's game development hotspots.

An African Tomb Raider

"I wanted to do something quite interesting as my first game," Kirinya recalls. "I was very inspired by Tomb Raider — I played it quite a lot. It had that adventure aspect to it, and I really liked adventure games, but then I also wanted to put an African twist to it."

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"I did it alone. I did the development by myself. I did the sound. Everything else I did myself."

He created a Lara Croft-esque character called Nyangi, who crawls, climbs, hangs, jumps and sometimes shoots her way through 10 levels in search of African artifacts. It was essentially a prototype for an African Tomb Raider, full of problems and sorely lacking features you'd expect from a full game. But Kirinya is still proud of the achievement.

"I did it alone. I did the development by myself. I did the sound. Everything else I did myself. The only part I didn't do was the modeling of the characters [which was outsourced to a man in the Czech Republic for $600]."

"So if I really look on it, it does feel like a prototype. It's a bit rough on the edges, and it does need a bit more. But for what it is, for one man, I look at it today and I still feel really impressed by it. But I would really like to go back to it and make it much better than what it is now."

It wasn't long until he started getting press coverage and interviews, with journalists and bloggers eager to champion the idea of a lonely African game programmer forging a brave new world.

Ghanaian developer Eyram Tawia, who had released his first game some months prior, soon found a newspaper article about the Adventures of Nyangi and got in touch. The two formed a quick bond. "We were both excited that at least there are two people doing this in the continent," Kirinya chuckles.

Tawia helped him get a job in biometrics in Ghana, working for a Norwegian software entrepreneur. After almost a year there, Kirinya joined forces with Tawia to form Leti Games. The pair split operations between Ghana, for art and design, and Kenya, for technology and coding.

They had a problem, however. "We didn't understand distribution really well," Kirinya admits. "We'd never released a successful game title — we were still fresh." Their lessons would come slowly.

Big dreams

Nathan Masyuko has big dreams, but he's in the habit of turning them into reality. "We're trying to design a league system," he explains at the beginning of an interview with Polygon. "Something like Major League Gaming for the Kenyan market." He runs NexGen, a company that has one foot in the retail market — selling custom computers to gamers and businesses — and the other in eSports and community events.

Masyuko always wanted to work in gaming, dating back to his first console experience on an NES in the mid-'90s. "I heard somewhere that 'if you think of the one activity which you do and look up and find five hours have passed and you did not even notice the time fly by, then that probably is your chosen path,'" he says. "For me, that was playing video games and watching cartoons."

His high school dream was to fly to Japan to study computer animation. "I had dreams of working under my hero Hideo Kojima," he says, "to develop the next Metal Gear game he made."

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"Sometimes you have to step into that gap and fill in the hole that you see — be the problem solver rather than just complaining about how something doesn't exist."

But fate conspired against him, and Masyuko's aspirations shifted to starting his own gaming center — what he describes as "a space where people come to play games and pay cybercafe charges." His parents didn't think he could get an undergraduate degree and build a business, however, so the dream was shelved.

After studying computer science at the Africa Nazarene University, Masyuko worked for a year on the night shift at a telecommunications company. His current business partner, Ayub Makimei, would keep him company, talking movies, games and anime.

During one of their idle discussions, the pair decided to combine Masyuko's dream of building a gaming center and Makimei's desire to sell computers. They quit their jobs to form NexGen in November 2007, drafting proposals and drawing up a business plan to make the dream a reality.

They hit a major snag, though, when it came time to raise the $200,000 needed to fund their gaming center. "We soon learned that no one wants to fund an idea," Masyuko says. They shopped it around to investors and financing institutions, but all said no. "In 2009, after having so many doors closed to us, we found the World Cyber Games online. I sent them an email and asked if we could join, and surprisingly they actually replied."

NexGen then hosted two video game tournaments — little more than LAN parties — and gained the sponsors that enabled the events to run. They also managed to send Masyuko and another player to compete in the Chengdu Grand Finals in China, with financial help from friends and family.

"It was like going to the mecca of gaming," Masyuko recalls. And it changed his life. "You're surrounded by people who have a similar passion for gaming as you do, who are taking it to the next level. You're meeting with young people who are earning a living from playing games.

"We pulled favors and started running video game tournaments at popular malls. And then we started hosting events at the iHub Nairobi ... I guess that's where we grew from." Now they're looking to expand to other venues that allow more events and bigger attendances than the 100 their space at iHub can fit.

"We're now trying to get a diverse variation in terms of the games we have people compete in," Masyuko says. "So we're going to do FIFA, we're going to do fighting games like Tekken and Street Fighter, we're going to do real-time strategy games like Starcraft and Warcraft, and racing games and first-person shooters as well, like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike."

And somehow, while all this is going on, Masyuko plans to revolutionize game distribution in Africa. "We don't have proper retail stores like App Store and iTunes Store in Kenya, where if you want something you just go to this one-stop shop," he explains. "We're trying to fix that issue now."

If they can't find an existing distribution channel that can be adapted for the purpose, they'll seek funding to build one themselves. You'd think that might be a daunting proposition, but Masyuko is unfazed.

"Sometimes you have to step into that gap and fill in the hole that you see — be the problem solver rather than just complaining about how something doesn't exist," he says. "So, God willing, if we get the funding, we can develop our own and see how it can [change things] — because revenue generation is one of the biggest obstacles to game development in Africa right now."

Changing perceptions

Kenya is a very different place now than it was when Masyuko couldn't get funding for NexGen's gaming center and Kirinya battled against the odds to get Adventures of Nyangi finished and distributed. "When I started, the fiber optic hadn't landed," Masyuko says, pausing for a moment. "So internet speeds were ... interesting — let's just put it that way. And basically online gaming was a dream."

That began to change in 2009 when Kenya laid the first of its undersea internet cables — bringing broadband within reach for millions more Kenyans. The government has since poured money into building infrastructure and reforming its institutions.

Masyuko notes a gradual change in external perception about his work. "Kenya's still adopting the ICT [information communications technology] things slowly," he explains. "Most people who are at the decision-making level in corporate business still have the traditional way of doing things, so it's a step-by-step process.

"But it's changing; perception of gaming is changing. People are taking it more seriously, and it's actually looking like a viable business now. And also we're seeing inroads in terms of government support and recognition for game development growth over the last couple of years."

Masyuko's gaming center dream proved a viable one, too. From just one or two retail stores that predominantly sold games in 2007, there's emerged a relative boom market. "We have retail stores coming up that opened three years back and already expanded to have more than six stores across the country, and all they do is sell video games," he says.

"We've also had places spring up where they have between 12 and 20 Xbox stations with 32-inch to 42-inch TVs, Kinect and all. People actually go and play — university kids actually go and play at these places and pay a fair amount of money just to kill time in between classes or when they are bored."

The market seems ripe for the picking, and Masyuko sees an opportunity for ICT companies to build their brand through gaming. He's campaigning to get skilled gamers sponsored as brand ambassadors. "I feel a gamer as a brand would be more logical than a different kind of athlete," he says, "because a gamer would actually be using the technology itself."

Angry matatus

Joe Murithi Njeru and Mwaura Kirore formed Planet Rackus in 2010 after hitting it off at their day jobs in digital advertising. They taught themselves through trial and error, gradually piecing together a team from their work contacts. They released their first game, Ma3Racer, on Nokia's Ovi Store, expecting around 10,000 downloads over a year.

Ma3Racer made that goal in just two days. It clearly struck a nerve with its primarily African audience, aping the style of early '90s arcade racers to recreate the experience of riding in a matatu — a minibus used in taxi services in East Africa that has a reputation for being driven with reckless abandon. One year down the line, Ma3Racer has slightly more than 900,000 downloads. Not bad for something its developers concede is "very basic."

Ma3Racer's success surprised the Planet Rackus team, but its ambitions and dreams quickly kicked into higher gear; we should see a remade Ma3Racer on Android later this year. Team members hope to run merchandising for the game, reaching a broad international audience with the quirky concept of angry matatu drivers swerving through traffic. But their heads are screwed on tight.

"We're on a three-year plan," says Njeru. "So even if it doesn't succeed commercially, we do have other story lines and ideas." They're in this for the long haul. "It would be fantastic if it's a commercial success, but if not, we'll pick up, we'll learn and we'll adapt."

Lessons learned

Making games is hard. A good video game takes a frightful combination of skills in design, coding, art, sound, writing, animation and much much more, all coalescing into a coherent, consistent, entertaining package. It seldom works out at the first attempt. There's a conventional wisdom that it takes 10 years to master a skill, and you'll fail many times along the way. Six years after Adventures of Nyangi, Wesley Kirinya finally feels like he knows how to be a success.

"The good thing is that we've figured out how to make money as a game development studio in Africa," he says. "I didn't think we would."

His company Leti Games priced its first game, iWarrior, at around $3 on the App Store, eager to learn about how distribution channels work. "By the time we were putting it on the App Store, the buzz was dying," Kirinya says. "We realized that to sell a game you probably need to sell it for, like, a dollar — you can't really sell it for more than that."

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A matatu — a minibus used in taxi services in East Africa that has a reputation for being driven with reckless abandon.

iWarrior earned about $2,000 — just enough to break even. Leti experimented with other mobile platforms, and tried to emulate Zynga's success with a Facebook MMO called Street Soccer Battles that picked up 5,000 users in a few months but never went viral. "We thought that people will just go liking and recommending and recommending and build up buzz and go viral because we could see the other games and thought that ours are as cool as those games are. But things didn't go like that," Kirinya says.

These failures were important; they taught valuable lessons about design, distribution and marketing. "Initially when I started off it was a huge passion — something I couldn't get out of my mind," he says, "[but later] I realized there's this other challenge of, 'How do you make money? How do I make money out of this?'

"I have a 700MB file — who's going to download it? Then the user experience and all those other soft things. Actually I think the user experience — all those things came about when we were doing the Facebook game. How to draw people in, how to keep them in. I started to realize that the game is just a small part — like the actual game, it's a small part of the whole thing. It needs money, it needs funding — so we've learned all that stuff."

Now the plan is to build a strong player base. "We're a startup, we've started making money, but now we want to be a real — a more concrete — business," Kirinya says. "One of the things that comes with that is we want to have numbers — say, 30,000-50,000 regular unique monthly players on our games."

From there, he hopes to turn his lessons to making an international success — a mobile game that more than 100,000 people play each month.

University of Games (UoG) learned similar lessons about user experience in beta testing its first game earlier this year. "We have strived to constantly improve the game any chance we get," says programmer and designer Brian Kinyua, "and the user feedback has been absolutely instrumental in achieving this goal."

Election Thief's default control scheme was consistently described by testers as awkward, a criticism Kinyua himself shared earlier in its development. "But after playing the game over a thousand times," he wrote in a blog post, "I forgot all this because by now I'm quite versed with the joystick." Rather than insist players learn a new system, Kinyua introduced a more conventional multi-touch keypad and re-tuned the virtual joystick controls.

Now he's preparing a revision to the checkpointing system, again based on player feedback, while work starts on UoG's second game. If all goes well, UoG will be expanding soon into a larger team — fresh from an encouraging local reception to Election Thief and entrepreneurship training awarded as part of a government grant.


Incubating success

The four-man UoG team was only able to make Election Thief because lead developer Brian Kinyua proposed a Kenya Game Developers Initiative for the Kenya ICT Board's Tandaa Digital Content Grants last year. Kinyua was one of eight grantees, receiving $10,000 in funding to get his dream off the ground. The team also received entrepreneurship training, with workshops in such business aspects of creative projects as project management and patent and legal issues.

Planet Rackus took a similar route to bootstrapping its business, entering and winning the Entertainment category in mobile startup pitching competition Pivot East last year with Ma3Racer. The team received a cash prize, but more beneficial were the bonuses. "We've got subsidized rates for our office," says Njeru. "We get access to training, we get access to meeting venture capitalists and it gives us a better profile in the community."

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"Software developers are difficult to find in Africa — let alone game developers."

Meanwhile, Gerald Kibugi of Elan Telemedia won a whopping $25,000 for taking the grand prize in the Safaricom Appstar Challenge for 2012. His game Tough Jungle beat out a math-education app for feature phones and apps from other African countries in four more non-gaming categories, granting him more money than any of the previous 100 apps he developed.

Much of the growth in Kenyan game development comes from opportunities created through the shared spaces, support programs and government grants introduced over the past few years. Nairobi's iHub stands at the center of this movement.

Since 2010, iHub has served as a physical hub for Kenyan ICT entrepreneurs. Wesley Kirinya speaks highly of its influence. "Software developers are difficult to find in Africa — let alone game developers," he says. "But then just being here in this space [at iHub], I can get guys I think are good enough and train them in the work I do."

International companies are taking notice, too. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visited iHub a few weeks before our interview. Other companies — such as Microsoft, Nokia and Samsung — also keep an eye on iHub's research and innovation labs. "This is where they come when they want to know about tech and what's happening in Kenya," Kirinya explains.

iHub isn't the only melting pot for technology entrepreneurs in Kenya, though. The GrowthHub, Praekelt Foundation, m:lab, Nailab, 88mph and Strathmore University's iLabAfrica all support startups through a mix of entrepreneurship training, research, funding, working spaces and mentoring. And there are others, too, with more springing up every year.

These incubators are driving innovation, Masyuko explains. "Young people who have brilliant ideas and a laptop can now get space, a desk and fast internet and conferencing facilities so that they are able to conduct their business, run their ICT ideas and upload and download their innovations as well as meet up in groups in these open spaces.

"That has also helped increase the penetration and development of the ICT industry at a very low level. So these kinds of things are shifting Kenya at a very unprecedented pace."

And there's no sign of it slowing down. As Kenya transforms further into an information and knowledge-based economy, strong initiatives in both the private and public sectors are driving growth. Kenya's exports of technology-related services, according to a report in The Economist, rose from just $16 million in 2002 to $360 million in 2010.

Much of this is in the mobile space. CNN reported in October that half of Kenya's GDP now moves through mobile payment systems, with 80% of the world's $170-billion-odd mobile transactions happening in East Africa. Innovation competitions such as Pivot East, together with research programs such as the University of Nairobi's FabLab and incubation hubs like iHub, are pushing innovative apps in information processing and all kinds of services — including managing supply chains, monitoring livestock, finding cheap fuel and much more.

The Kenyan government plans to harness this innovation as part of its Vision 2030 plan. The plan includes large-scale reform and development across three pillars — economic, social and political — targeted at transforming Kenya into "a globally competitive and prosperous nation." Crucially for Kenya's emerging games industry, it also involves construction of a $14.5 billion "Silicon Savannah" — Africa's answer to Silicon Valley.

This Silicon Savannah, located in Konza City around 60km (37 miles) to the southeast of the capital Nairobi, is expected to be a game changer for Kenya's economy, creating more than 20,000 business process offshoring (outsourced IT, mostly) jobs by 2015. And this means huge investment in ICT infrastructure, which draws foreign investors and promotes local talent that the games industry can benefit from.

Yet still Kenya lags behind much of the developed world in several key areas. The country ranks poorly on the United Nations Human Development Index — a composite statistic based on life expectancy, education and per capita income. Kenya's score of 0.519 puts it in 145th place out of the 186 countries listed.

World Bank data from 2005 estimated that almost half of Kenya's residents live below the national poverty line, with current data indicating that young Kenyans face the most hardships in finding work. "Each year, 800,000 reach working age, and only 50,000 new modern wage jobs are created," reads the World Bank's Kenya Economic Update from December 2012.

Would-be Kenyan game developers may have more than just their dreams laying on the line; failure could leave them jobless. But the future looks bright for ICT in Kenya, and Masyuko has noticed a trend. "When you see what people are going and studying in school," he says, "they're not studying IT and computer science and other courses just so they can develop a website now. They actually want to get involved with app development."

Making a difference

Anne Githuku-Shongwe left the United Nations Development Programme in 2008 before founding Afroes in South Africa the following year. She wanted to inspire conversations and actions of positive transformation to the youth of Africa. After releasing two award-winning games — Champ Chase and Moraba — about social issues in South Africa, she paid a visit to her native Kenya with a mind to establish a second base for Afroes.

One of her cousins introduced her to Nathan Masyuko, who joined forces with Wesley Kirinya and an artist called Chief Nyamweya to develop Haki: Shield & Defend — an Android game about environmentalism that encourages players to save the trees from illegal logging. "We were trying to pass along a simple message that saving trees is cool and makes you a hero," Masyuko says.

People loved it. "We got over 250,000 downloads — a lot of them from outside Kenya," he says. They won a World Youth Summit Award for Haki, which Masyuko collected in Montreal last year, and this year followed it up with a sequel.

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"No mob to back you up, no peers to cheer you on, just you and your limited lives. Maybe we should start taking the idea of solving societal issues with gaming more seriously."

Haki: Chaguo Ni Lako (Justice: The Choice is Yours) tackles the recent Kenyan election, urging young people to choose peace and tolerance — avoiding at all costs the horrific tribe-on-tribe violence of the 2007 elections.

It came out alongside Election Thief, the debut entry from four-man team University of Games, which promotes its message of peace through a fictional story of attempted electoral fraud. "We thought that chasing down an election thief was the right source of motivation for clearing the levels," designer and programmer Brian Kinyua says.

Kinyua sees games as a powerful tool for spreading knowledge. "Most games give you an environment where you have to tackle a problem by yourself," he wrote in a blog post. "No mob to back you up, no peers to cheer you on, just you and your limited lives. Maybe we should start taking the idea of solving societal issues with gaming more seriously."

If the primary revenue source of Leti Games — which recently rebranded as Leti Arts — is any indication, this is a trend already happening in Kenya. "We do contract development for serious games," Kirinya says. "There are some companies that want to use games to educate their employees, or there are organizations that want to use games as a learning tool."

It was the idea that games can be used as a learning tool that led UoG to integrate its in-game messages of peace with Twitter and Facebook, delighting Kenya's mainstream media.

Meanwhile, Nathan Masyuko observes a huge uptake in businesses embracing social media as ICT growth influences the country. "The Red Cross has been running such a good social media platform that if you tweeted that you need an ambulance, you'd get one at your location within 10 minutes," he says.

"That's a system in an African country where if you call you're usually getting someone hanging up on you and stuff."

African games

It's not enough just to make games for a living; these guys want to develop African games. But what is an African game?

"In terms of just the visual aspect of it, there are these color tones that really stand out a lot in Africa," says Kirinya. "The colors, the ambience, a lot of what people call earth colors — yellows, browns ... And then there's the sound part of it. There's a lot of percussion; the beat is a bit different. There's all these African sort of instruments."

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"If it's an Age of Empires of Africa, you would not see an army with a full suit of armor — a full-cast armor."

But more than that, an African game would tap into African cultural heritage. Which means fewer guns. "In the Adventures of Nyangi I used a gun because it was the simplest thing to put [in]," Kirinya says. "But then in a real African game there's less of guns and more of other kinds of tools to fight — like arrows and spears and shields. And even those look different from the ancient European ones.

"If it's an Age of Empires of Africa, you would not see an army with a full suit of armor — a full-cast armor."

It also means dealing with current social issues, as Afroes did with Haki: Chaguo Ni Lako and University of Games with Election Thief — two games about choosing peace and tolerance in Kenya's March elections. Or, less politically, it's taking a staple of everyday life, like Ma3Racer's treatment of matatu drivers, and using it as the centerpiece for a more traditional gaming experience.

An African game is not necessarily a mobile one, though, and it doesn't always have overtly African references. African game development is mainly mobile, Masyuko explains, "because mobile has the deepest penetration, and so that's where the widest market is — as well as the fact that mobile development has a really low entry point in terms of financing."

But there are studios in South Africa that work on console and PC games, Kirinya points out, such as I-Imagine Interactive, as well as a Moroccan wing of Ubisoft, which was responsible for Rayman 3D on the Nintendo 3DS.

In Kenya, the restriction to mobile platforms is mostly down to money and expertise — both are creeping along, but neither have progressed enough to stop Brian Kinyua saying, "I feel like we are at that stage where our main job is to convince the people that playing games is actually something of value."

International measures

Planet Rackus found great success for Ma3Racer on the Nokia S40 series feature phones, but the angry matatus concept needs work before it'll fly on more powerful smartphone platforms. "It's designed to be as simple as possible to play," Njeru says. But with dated graphics and weak presentation, the team realizes that it must be improved to grab attention on crowded iOS and Android platforms.

"We're striving for more of a world-class finish in terms of how the game looks and feels," Kirore says, "with improved gameplay [and] just enhancing various storylines within the game."

It's a common theme, this idea of rising up to standards outside Kenya. "We don't want to be favored just because we are from Africa," says Blaise Kinyua from University of Games. "We wanted to make a game that meets international standards."

Njeru echoes this sentiment. "Now what is left actually is for the developers and the content publishers to step up. We need to improve our quality," he says. "We need to get to improve our standards. So I think the environment is fantastic; now it's left on the individuals to take the next step. ... It's big shoes to fill."

Kirinya is more nuanced in his view. "There are some games out there, that if you compare to some of the ones that are being created here [in Africa], they match. But then the hugely successful games, the international games, they are much better in terms of quality and the packaging and execution and you know everything is done really well — not just development, but the whole business done around it.

"Here in Africa, we lack the people who have been experienced in those industries to give the kind of insight and thought and mentor people. So we learned that we lack money, you know — sort of a chicken and egg problem where you have to prove yourself before you can get more money."

For all of their progress, and the growth in support from within and without, Kenyan developers still need a breakout hit to be seen on the same level as their colleagues in Morocco, South Africa and overseas. "Our challenge is to be able to do that with a really small budget," says Kirinya. "[We] just need maybe one success which proves the point. And then probably we can get like bigger funding to create — to do even better." Babykayak




Illustration: Daniel Purvis

Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

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