Ruan Gates, a third-year game design student at Witwatersrand University, is lost in the dirt roads of Johannesburg. He’s trying to make it back to campus, where Wits is hosting a presentation on mobile game design. His GPS picks up the location, but each route it maps leads to a metal gate. He's in Northgate, an upper middle-class suburb. Every house is walled off and topped with barbed wire and advertisements for private security companies with names like “NYPD Security.”
Gates is enrolled in South Africa’s first dedicated game design program, and is among the very first to study it locally. On his way to downtown Johannesburg, he says gaming can seem niche in South Africa.
"Gaming is an expensive hobby," he says. "There are definitely more people who play games than you may first suspect, but even smart phones are a bit too pricey for your average South African.
Johannesburg, South Africa
"The closest thing I can think of to a game everyone played is a text-based game that was kind of an add-on to Mxit," he adds. "Mxit was sort of our own WhatsApp before WhatsApp entered the market. About seven years ago, it was huge. A big thing for our youth that everyone had access to."
In recent years, South African artists have gained prominence in the Northern Hemisphere, from Die Antwoord to Charlize Theron to Trevor Noah. Yet economic disparities and a lack of infrastructure still plague the nation of 52 million, which only officially ended racial segregation in 1994. As the barriers of entry into wealth fall for South Africa’s non-white majority, luxury industries like gaming will be large enough to support an industry. As of now, games that reflect South African culture are in short supply.
"I don’t think there’s been a truly South African game yet, a game that everyone here played," Gates says.
Until the Xbox 360 officially released in 2007, PCs and knock-off consoles dominated the market. Gates is optimistic, though, about what the increased availability of data-enabled phones and platforms like Steam implies for local game developers.
"We may now have a market here," he says.
And while the first console developers in South Africa were educated abroad, a new generation of developers is set to graduate from the country’s first dedicated game design program this year.
Driving from one end of Johannesburg to the other reveals a post-apartheid society that is still shattered, yet holds together like a comminuted fracture. Some neighborhoods resemble any city in Western Europe or the U.S. Others recall poverty in the developing world, with tin roofs, overcrowding and shipping containers retrofitted into shops and living areas.
Johannesburg is a city poor enough to lack reliable electricity and paved roads, with some residents affluent enough to have time to spare to sit around asking existential questions. Gates drives past dugout holes on the roadside, leftovers from Jozy’s mining city heritage, and pulls into a shopping mall-sized parking lot for students at Wits.
The presentation at Wits university takes place in a building with a steeple, dubbed the Nunnery, inside a small classroom with about 70 students from the game design program and an unreliable slide projector. Of the 70 in attendance, there are about 20 women and 35 people of color.
"We should be able to finish our next game without scraping for money ... That's everything I wanted and more."
Poland-based game designer Vincent Vergonjeanne, CEO of social game developer Everydayiplay, runs through a set of slides about Agile design principles ("think big, act small, fail fast, iterate rapidly"), how games that can’t be marketed to a specific gender are not profitable and how ad revenue works on various platforms. Vergonjeanne keeps speaking uninterrupted until he reaches a slide about how only users from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and Western Europe are really monetizable.
"What about China?" asks a student.
Vergonjeanne explains that advertisements only generate revenue when the audiences can afford the products, and that even as many as 10,000 daily active Facebook users from America would generate a tawdry $70. It isn’t what idealistic student game designers want to hear.
Some of the pioneers of the '90s South African industry, like Luke Lamothe and Travis Bulford, are in attendance. Lamothe is an elder statesman of console development in South Africa, having worked on Chase: Hollywood Stunt Driver, which released in 2002 on the Xbox, the first locally developed game to sell on a mainstream console. Bulford is the creator of Toxic Bunny, which was released in the mid '90s on PC and was the first South African game to sell over a hundred thousand copies.
Chase: The Hollywood Stunt Driver
Those moments have been since eclipsed, with online distribution models like Steam providing access to a global audience. Weeks after each of their recent respective releases, two South African games, the Contra-style ode to '80s action movies Broforce and the space janitor simulator Viscera Cleanup Detail made the top five trending games on SteamSpy, Steam’s analytics platform.
Broforce’s creative director, Evan Greenwood from Cape Town-based studio Free Lives says that his team sold over 45,000 copies in the first three weeks after the game launched out of Early Access.
"It’s pretty great for a small South African studio," he says. "We should be able to finish our next game without scraping for money, borrowing and stressing the way that we did for Broforce. That's everything I wanted and more."
Domestically, South Africa is still a small market for expensive consumer goods. In 2011, the World Bank gave the country one of the worst recorded Gini coefficients, a value used to measure economic inequality in a society.
The born-free generation, the name given to those born after the end of apartheid in 1994, now accounts for 40 percent of the population. With so much of the population college-aged or younger, the future of game development in the country is uncertain. South African democracy itself is only 21 years old, which means the people attending university are some of the first in their families to be able to do so post-apartheid.
The presentation ends and students begin to gather outside the Nunnery. The response to the various slides is positive, with some slight hesitations.
"I was initially taken aback by his comments about how cross-gender games or games made for a domestic audience aren’t commercially viable," says Raheel Hassim, a third-year student in the program. "But I get that he’s simply talking from a numbers point of view. Some of the presentation was useful. But we don’t have to follow the same rules of market segmentation via class or gender; we need games that unite. Even if I don’t sell my games domestically, I still want to make games that are culturally somehow South African."
This is a sticking point that comes up again and again over the course of interviews with the Wits students.
"I still live in Soweto," says Lucky Nkosi, mentioning the predominantly black township that lies southwest of Johannesburg. "I want to make games that are culturally resonant here."
To illustrate his point, he mentions the experimental games festival, A Maze, which held a pop-up arcade in his township. "Games are meant to make socially constructed barriers fall away," he says. "One game at A Maze that really did that was a racing game called Skadonk Showdown in which you race South African mini taxis against each other through Johannesburg.
"One of the kids at A Maze came up to me and said it was the best game he’d ever played," says Nkosi. "So I asked him, is it really as good as Grand Theft Auto? And he said, 'Yes, because the license plates say GP at the end,' for Gauteng Province.
"That game spoke to him in a way that other games don’t. Those are the kind of games that speak to me, ones that test how much games can make us feel and change the way we look at society as a whole."
For one student in the program, making games accessible to a South African audience is so important that he’d rather cut computers and consoles out altogether.
"A lot of indigenous games that we would play growing up have lost their history."
"I grew up in a very rural township area where people couldn’t afford digital games," says Tsitsi Chiumya. "We used to play board games together, like Maruba in play areas that were shared.
"I’d like to make a board game, maybe one that anyone can print out because video games have become too westernized," he says. "They are things you do by yourself made by developers who want to appeal to a wider, and whiter, audience."
Chiumya wears a big grin for his own turn of phrase before continuing. "A lot of indigenous games that we would play growing up have lost their history. We don’t know what those games were trying to say."
He has been testing his prototype for a board game where players are rival taxi drivers and try to compete for territory and fares. "Taxi drivers have a bad reputation in Johannesburg as ruffians or as very competitive with each other," he says. "Through playing my game, people slowly end up understanding what it’s like to become one.
"There’s still a market for board games, perhaps globally; we just need better themes," he says. "One of my dreams is to work for Hasbro."
He says that when he’s visiting his hometown, it’s impossible to explain what it is he studies at school.
"Actually, the way I got into this program was a mistake. My dad was trying to sign me up for architecture but somehow got the numbers mixed up. Once I found out what it was, and I qualified, I couldn’t go back."
"People will obsess and fef forever. Fef means to pick at something."
Hanli Geyser is the game design lecturer who helped spearhead bringing in the guest lecturer, and she is a member of MakeGames South Africa, a nongovernmental organization to help provide local developers with resources (which also serves as a message board and splash page that posts various alphas and betas of games). Sitting at a wooden table outside the Nunnery, she chain smokes and explains some of the hurdles holding game dev back in South Africa.
"There’s this feeling that there’s no truly South African market," she says. "You’ll find a popular myth that you can’t sell local. Many assume game purchases are merely limited to the upper classes, however the demographic goes much deeper than that. You’ll find makeshift arcades, or kids communally owning one PlayStation and an RPG, sharing a controller and sharing a single-player experience amongst 15 [people]."
Well-known South African games as they exist today, like Broforce, Toxic Bunny and Desktop Dungeons have an understated South African quality that is in contrast to the games developed in Nigeria and Kenya where locally created games are so culturally specific they couldn’t exist anywhere else. Highway Free, a phone game about sitting in a Nigerian traffic jam is one example.
"There is a market for games in Nigeria and Kenya because you can use your airtime — as in the cell phone credit you use to make calls — to pay for apps on your phone," Geyser says. "It’s a legal loophole they’ve shut down in South Africa because it can negatively affect a country’s currency. A lot of those games that are peddled to Nigerian and Kenyan markets are pretty terrible, though."
Geyser says South African developers are detail oriented to a fault, and end up never releasing games because of an obsessive nature which she maintains is woven into the social fabric. "People will obsess and fef forever. Fef means to pick at something. Because a game is not perfect, they won’t release it."
The energy on the Wits campus is palpable as students laugh about the exploits of a recent all-night game jam. Wits is no different than many top-ranking universities in America, reminding one of Rutgers or Carnegie Mellon. It is one of the most expensive local colleges to attend, and it is regularly the top-ranked South African university in the Center for World University Rankings global survey. Wits’ list of notable alumni includes a former Lord Mayor of London, a Nobel laureate and Nelson Mandela.
Yet there is a disparity when the racial demographics of the student body stack up against the racial demographics for the country.
Geyser still feels that the game design program isn’t growing fast enough, being that white people account for less than 10 percent of the population in South Africa but are still greatly overrepresented in higher education.
"The racial demographics of my program are very concerning," she says. "My students are 40 percent female and 45 percent non-white, yet almost 70 percent of my applicants are black. With the disparity of infrastructure between historically white versus black secondary and primary schools, most of them don’t make the entry requirements.
"Many student leaders feel they are not being listened to."
"And many who do simply can’t afford it."
Many of the problems that plague South Africa’s young game designers are much greater than the scope of game design itself. A week after the presentation at Wits, elected student leadership at the university organizes a shutdown by standing in Wits’ gates to protest a proposed fee hike of 10.5 percent.
"Many student leaders feel they are not being listened to," says Gates. To make matters worse, a recording emerged of police mishandling peaceful student demonstrators who were mainly black.
The #FeesMustFall protests have spread across the country, from the University of Cape Town, to the steps of the South African parliament building, where police have fired stun grenades to disperse protesting students who cannot afford any price hikes.
The movement is still ongoing, though it culminated in late October with President Jacob Zuma announcing that student fees would not be raised in 2016.
"Providing these students with a good education is one thing," says Geyser. "Making sure they have an industry to grow into is another matter entirely."
Nick Hall is one of the leading entertainment lawyers in South Africa to work in games. He is also a founding member of MakeGamesSA.
"We’ve got a couple of studios right now, who in the next couple of years could afford to take on four or five graduates of Wits’ each," he says. "But if 60 students graduate, there may not be enough jobs in the existing industry. Which means many will have to go out on their own, which is very risky.
"For students who are economically compromised, who can’t afford to live at their parents while they develop their first game, it’s going to be massively hard."
In 2016, Hall is looking to turn MakeGamesSA into a formal lobbying body for the game industry. While there are governmental rebates available for game developers, Hall says the process is complicated. PC and console games qualify for the same rebates movies do, but mobile games, which make up the bulk of the market, do not.
"We’re not at a place where studios can afford to hire lawyers to work through the process to apply for government rebates in their current form," he says.
According to Hall, one thing that could help grow the industry is making it easier to start a game studio. "In the U.K. for example, there’s been an investment of four million pounds that they’re calling the U.K. Games Fund which offers money to those who apply for it," he says. "I’d like to see something similar in South Africa, like, here’s 20,000 Rand to make your own prototype. That would create studios to absorb the talent."
Geyser, on the other hand, sees serious games that deal with education and therapy as a sector where young developers could carve a niche out.
"We’re buying educational games from Europe and America but they’re not for the local context," she says. "We also have an extremely high incidence of PTSD, a whole generation of men are veterans of the Angolan wars who could be using locally made games to treat their trauma.
"I get contacted an awful lot by educational and governmental people asking, 'Is this sort of thing out there?' It’s an opportunity, but games for entertainment is the bright light, the spotlight everyone is trying to get under."
The annual rAge games and entertainment expo takes place in Johannesburg and attracts 33,000 gaming enthusiasts into the Ticketpro Dome, a venue usually reserved for performances by big American pop stars like Katy Perry.
During rAge weekend however, the dome is filled with large booths by the likes of PlayStation, Xbox, Megarom, LEGO, Disney and various PC vendors. The convention, which has been going on since 2002, has been steadily becoming larger, also hosting large tournaments for PC games like Battlefield and League of Legends. Even cosplaying has grown exponentially, with this being the first year Legionink hosted a cosplay competition.
The night before the expo begins, a little less than 100 kids start camping along the side of the venue to secure good seats at rAge’s 53-hour, 2,568 player LAN party — one of the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. The competitive tournaments has 20,000 ZAR worth of sponsored prizes (approx. $2,000 U.S.) on the line for players.
"A lot of us start camping out here early with our laptops because it’s one of the only opportunities we have to play with a steady ping."
"We don’t have easy access to stable connections in general, which makes many games unplayable when you’re at home — especially if you’re playing against opponents who are in Europe or elsewhere," a young metalhead in a faded Iron Maiden T-shirt says. "A lot of us start camping out here early with our laptops because it’s one of the only opportunities we have to play with a steady ping."
During the expo itself, there’s not a lot to distinguish what’s happening on the 20,000 square foot floor of the dome from similar events in far richer countries. Throngs of cosplayers, geeks and families filter around tables of unlicensed geek wares on one end. Huge corporate installations for major PC and console companies and franchises flank the tables of wares — with their brand identities intact. For example, "cool" Sony had a booth that boasted an appearance by up-and-coming South African rapper, Stilo Magolide.
"I used to own and run NAG magazine [South Africa’s first glossy gaming monthly]," says Michael James, now senior project manager at rAge. "We initially began running rAge because we needed to grow the gaming community here in order to support our gaming-related pursuits."
In 2002, the expo counted a few thousand attendants. October of 2016 began with an announcement that rAge is going to proceed biannually, with a second expo taking place in Cape Town in March of 2017. "We’ve seen consistent growth on average of 8 to 12 percent a year, with a large 29 percent jump in attendance in 2014," says James.
James says he is most proud of the Home Coded booth, which showcases local developers’ games in some cases with a heavily discounted booth fee, and the adjacent NAG Jam exhibition — a line of PCs set up with playable entries in an Intel-sponsored game jam. "A big hurdle for NAG magazine was that there wasn’t a large enough community who liked games locally. It was a hobby seen for a select few."
"There wasn’t much diversity in the early days of rAge either, it was mostly white men. Frankly, it’s nice to finally see some women and some color in here," says James.
Battle Arena Drones
Many well-known indies featured their games at South Africa’s Home Coded booth. Travis Bulford, the creator of South Africa’s earliest major title, the Earthworm Jim-inspired Toxic Bunny (which was released first in 1996) is in attendance with a new game, called Battle Arena Drones, heavily inspired by the classic 3-D shooter Descent. Also present is his young, new development company — partly culled from the program at Wits — called Celestial Games.
"In 2001 I ran out of steam and the industry looked impossible to reach from South Africa," he says of his nine-year retirement from the industry. "Although it might have simply been that I was tired of trying for so long pretty much solo."
When asked if it is easier now to embark in game development than it was when he entered the scene in the '90s, he is cagey. "Assembling a team was easy both times," he says. "In 1994 I was active in the demo scene in South Africa — and also all the way through high school, it was all my friends and I did.
"Still, it’s great to have interns from Wits and get their energy. Ultimately, if you have it in you, you can make it work."
[Correction: This story originally featured photographs of Cape Town labeled as Johannesburg. We regret the error.]