March 25, 2017 6:40 PM | Lena LeRay
South Africa's video game development scene has been through a lot of ups and downs since it got started in the mid-90s. The indie scene in particular got its first big break in 2010, with the entry of Desktop Dungeons on the world stage. Events like A MAZE. / Johannesburg have helped the scene grow. The community is still small and lacks diversity, but that is slowly changing.
Ben Myres fell into game development after his father signed him up for a course in game design at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and quickly became deeply involved in the South African indie game development community. He taught game design at WITS University until recently, in addition to holding the Program Director position for A MAZE/Johannesburg and working on Semblance, a puzzle platformer due out later this year.
Myers' position as a lecturer at WITS University was a bit unusual, having been granted to him straight out of college. Myers agrees that it's weird, but also believes it makes sense. "The course I did was the first Game Design course in Africa," he explains, "and we were the pilot class. Because of that, there's not much in the way of lecturers to go around that have both a good theoretical and a good practical background. So the one reason is just, 'there are no lecturers' put together with 'you make games and we know you have the theoretical background because we taught it to you'. "
His practical experience comes largely from game jams. For Global Game Jam 2014, his team made a serious game that they were invited to show at the Games for Change Festival. "At the festival, I got to listen to Ian Bogost, Leigh Alexander, Margaret Robertson, and Jesse Schell talk about video games - it was pretty amazing. I continued to do a bunch of game jams after that - particularly Ludum Dare," Myres says.
He hasn't spent as much time making games as he could have wished, but that's because he's so focused on working with the indie game development community in South Africa.
For a detailed look at the history of the South African video game industry, Myres recommends reading this 2009 Gamasutra article. "South Africa has been generating games since around 1996 and even tried its hand at AAA development at one point. It was all a bit up and down, with some hits and a lot of misses," he summarizes. "It means we have a surprising [number] of experienced creators around, though."
Myres believes that South Africa's indie game scene really started to develop around 2010. "In 2010 Desktop Dungeons won the IGF Design award, beating out both Minecraft and Super Crate Box," he says. "That moment was, of course, very special for the community. It proved that South Africans could compete with international developers, while still living in South Africa.
Make Games SA is an online space in which South African game developers can hang out. Myres considers this and other online communities that came before it very important for the scene, since successful games including Desktop Dungeons, Broforce, Stasis, and Viscera Cleanup Detail were all posted there for feedback before being released into the world. It's also a place where novice game developers can learn from veterans, enabling them to grow more quickly than they could on their own.
In Myres' eyes, however, A MAZE. / Johannesburg may be the most significant thing to happen to the South African indie games scene in the past five years. His understanding of how it came about is that Thorsten Wiedemann, the festival director, met a member of the South African games press in Berlin. After learning about the South African indie game development community, Wiedemann contacted WITS University and Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, and with their help put on the first A MAZE. / Johannesburg in 2012.
A MAZE. / Johannesburg invites game developers from around the world to exhibit their games, give presentations, and run workshops. "This knowledge exchange has catapulted the scene forward many years," says Myres. "We also get a collection of African game developers coming every year. So we interact and share knowledge within the continent, while also finding out about other African perspectives games."
Wiedemann has also helped South African game developers go to A MAZE. / Berlin, building a two-way bridge. "They get to meet some of the best indie developers in the world, and get feedback on their stuff. I know Evan Greenwood, the Creative Director of Broforce, went on such a trip before the game really took off," Myres says. "Last year, 15 South African game developers visited the Berlin festival of their own accord."
The event also brings the indie developers of South Africa together. "The scene is quite spread out across the country, with a lot of it in Cape Town," Myres explains. "But every year, about 20-30 developers from Cape Town, and others from around the country, take the pilgrimage to A MAZE. / Johannesburg. It's a yearly celebration and embrace of the games and things we've achieved as a community."
According to Myres, another big benefit of A MAZE. / Johannesburg is that it's a place where weird and artistic games can be shown in South Africa. "Most of these games aren't really commercially viable, so it's amazing there's a reason for them to be made and an opportunity for them to be played. Before A MAZE. / was around, I don't think very many games like this were being made in South Africa," he says. "Locally, an 'A MAZE game' is a proxy term for anything bizarre, magical and off the wall."
Myres notes that the South African game industry is quite small. He estimates that it's comprised of fewer than 250 people. Although there is an industry body, Interactive Entertainment South Africa (IESA), which lobbies the government for funding, the industry's small size has made it difficult to get government funding.
He also says that as with most of the rest of the world, the game developers of South Africa are predominately straight, white males. "Luckily, I think the local indie games scene is hyper aware of such issues," Myres says, "and tries to be self-critical and friendly/encouraging to minorities entering the industry. It's still very slow - too slow - but we've seen a small number of women and people of color entering the industry in the past few years."
Local efforts to improve diversity amongst game developers in South Africa include: crowdfunded scholarships; the Amber Key Collaboratorium, which teaches game development skills to women in Cape Town; and 67 Games, an organization aimed at encouraging SA game developers to make games for learning, targeted particularly at young, underprivileged black children in South Africa.
Education is key, Myres believes. "At the WITS game design course, the number of white males per year is dropping from the high percentages previously noted," he says. "I think a few of the years are almost 50% women. The number of black africans is increasing rapidly too. The long term effects will be huge, but it'll take a while to see them."
He's seen positive benefits from international initiatives, too. "Because of a program Rami Ismail ran, two friends of mine, Sithe Ncube and Tsitsi Chimuya, were able to go to the Game Developers Conference this year," Myres explains. "Another friend, Raheel Hassim, was able to go because of an IGDA Women in Games scholarship. Two out of the three are now employed in the game industry locally. I think targeted interventions like this are important."
Myres has a lot of predictions for how the next five years will shape up. He says the scene is currently in a lull, with all the big games having launched. It's his hope that a second wave is on its way, with the number of graduating students increasing every year at WITS University. "I do hope we'll start receiving some more critical success too," he says, "rather than just financial success."
"Cape Town will become a popular indie dev visiting destination," Myres suggests. Recently, some of the international developers who go to A MAZE. / Johannesburg have been staying after the festival to visit with the Cape Town indie community. "We've had about 10-20 in the last couple years, I think. As part of this, I would love to see another major indie games event happening every year, in Cape Town."
"I also hope we'll start being able to produce South African themed content. Right now you can't afford to sell only to a South African market, and there's scant evidence an international audience wants games themed that way," Myres laments. "I think the local indie consumption will grow a bit, and maybe someone will take a risk with a commercial scale South African-themed project and it'll be a hit."
Lastly, Myres hopes that government support for the local gaming industry will increase. The IESA has gotten some money for Paris Games Week, and Cape Town's regional government has funded a serious games competition. "Personally, I would love to see games getting more arts funding locally," he says. "Exhibitions, commissioned works, big games, social impact games and so on."
When asked his favorite thing about being a South African game developer, Myres couldn't settle on one thing. From a purely financial perspective, Cape Town and Johannesburg are among the cheapest cities in the world to live in. Revenues from overseas can stretch quite far, and the developers in Cape Town created an infomercial about why making games there is great.
The small size of the industry means that it's a tight-knit community. "Being friends with such talented [developers] when you're just starting out is a big privilege," he says. "Being able to get feedback on your work from a creator who has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of their game is not a common thing, I would imagine. But here, it's easily accessible if you're starting out."
Finally, Myres points out that there are many untapped stories and perspectives in South Africa. "I really want to make games about South Africa," he says, "and I think if they're done well, they'll feel very new and fresh, because there's no one doing that yet."
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