South African game developers ready to punch above their weight

South African game developers ready to punch above their weight
(Photo: Stefani Reynolds / AFP)

It takes more than just having a great game to find the success Wordle has.

Software designer Josh Wardle created Wordle, the simple word puzzle game, for his partner. After he released it to the world, the web-based game took off and was bought in January by the New York Times Company for at least $1-million.

“I think as game designers, we are students of play, in the same way a photographer is a student of framing and light and colour. Game designers create little gifts of play for players,” says Ben Myres, CEO and creative director at Nyamakop.

Ben Myres. (Photo: Nyamakop)

The mechanics of games such as Wordle are relatively simple and common, says Danny Day, the CEO of independent studio QCF Design. Although some of the parameters, like the spoiler-free visual sharing and daily game limit, may have helped the game succeed, he emphasises that this is not an easy phenomenon to replicate.

“It sounds flippant, but the major factor is, unfortunately, just luck – the game had the right ingredients at the right time with the right experience. Someone enjoyed it and it snowballed from there.”

Mark van Diggelen, founder and CEO of GameZBoost, which focuses on providing a casual game tournaments platform, adds that it is not just the excellence of a game that guarantees success. Great games, including those from South Africa, have not succeeded as they could have “as they just don’t get traction from the right audience or didn’t have a marketing budget”.

He notes the importance of remembering that Wordle was a passion project and was not necessarily created with a business strategy in mind.

“Monetisation of a game like that can either be through advertising, which is definitely not loved by gamers, and/or power-ups.” Power-ups are in-game purchases, for instance to unlock multiple games a day.

Myres says Wordle, in a business sense, is almost nostalgic: “It harkens back to a time when we did not have these aggressive monetisation models, when Flash games and web games were all the rage, and just things were popping up all the time.”

Mark van Diggelen. (Photo: GameZBoost)

On an industry level, the game’s trajectory also reflects an acquisition trend in the games industry of companies buying games.

“Games are going through a lot of mergers and acquisitions now, and the New York Times has had a wonderful word game section for a long time, so their acquisition of Wordle also makes sense.

“Everyone’s just fighting for time and mental share… And games are a good way to possess more of that.”

South Africa has had a number of its own viral game success stories. Day’s studio won an award for Excellence in Design at the 2011 Independent Games Festival.

When the Cape Town studio Free Lives released its game Broforce, it sold about two million units worldwide, Myres says. Semblance, by his studio, was the first game developed in Africa to be released on any Nintendo console.

“There is only a very small set of developers in South Africa, but they achieve a lot,” he says. Myres says humour and parody in game content are strengths of the local industry. “Typically, the games that come out from South Africa are quite funny and that seems to resonate well with a lot of our customers in the West.”

Second, because of relatively lower costs of living, South African developers tend to be able to afford working on a game for longer and thus be more affordable.

That local tertiary institutions are increasingly offering game development qualifications is an encouraging sign of progress,  Van Diggelen notes. It should be remembered, however, that aptitude is crucial for success, not just because “it comes across as a sexy career”.

Myers is positive about the future and continued growth of the game industry in South Africa.

“I’m optimistic. South Africa is almost like a Goldilocks zone in terms of making games – if you can get above the initial difficulty curve of making games professionally.

“If you can get above that, South Africa, in my opinion, is one of the best places in the world to make video games. We just have to get the momentum to get more companies and studios started.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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