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African studios make play for world markets

African studios make play for world markets

Computer game developers in Africa hope to tap into a worldwide appetite for locally created digital content. 

Nigeria’s Danfo minibuses are famous for their creative interpretations of traffic laws, weaving through gridlock at breakneck speed. Thanks to a Lagos-based gaming startup, ChopUp, more than half a million people have had a chance to drive one – or at least a simulated version – playing as lead character Kunle in Danfo and its sequel Danfo Reloaded.

ChopUp is one of a growing number of African computer games studios building games brands based on local stories and uniquely local experiences, capitalising on the spread of smartphones and tablets across the continent.

“Africa is rich in culture and stories,” says Zubair Abubakar, co-founder of ChopUp. “Games are made from stories.”

Consultancy PwC is forecasting significant growth in the gaming industry’s major markets. South Africa – the most developed market on the continent – is predicted to grow from $204m in 2013 to $314m by 2018. Kenya, which is dominated by mobile gaming, could grow from $44m to $103m over the same period.

Nigeria, which has seen an explosion in digital businesses, from film distributors to e-commerce, could grow from $71m in 2013 to $176m by 2018 – a compound annual growth rate of 20.1%, PwC says.

While the South African market is still oriented towards international best-selling games, consumers in Nigeria and Kenya are buying into home-grown titles.

These local studios are attracting investors who are hungry to tap into Africa’s digital consumer opportunity. ChopUp itself has raised $100,000 in funding from venture capital investors.

Another Nigerian development studio, Gamsole, which focuses on producing mobile games for Windows-phone devices, received seed funding from accelerator 88mph and follow-on funding and mentorship from Microsoft’s “4Afrika” initiative.

In Cameroon, Kiro’o Games has raised $142,000 by selling 180 shares – even though it has yet to release a game.

Guillaume Olivier Madiba and his team have created the first gaming studio in the country, and their debut title, Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan – is still in development. Based on local legends, the game is unusual in that it is being built for PCs, rather than mobile devices.

Mobile first

Africa’s digital revolution has, largely, been tied to the spread of cellphones.

Fixed-line internet connections represent a small fraction of the total penetration of the internet, for example, and most users’ principal interaction with data comes through a handset.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, there are around 67m smartphones on the continent today, rising to 360m by 2025.

Although Kiro’o Madiba believes that the industry will grow across all platforms, there is a consensus in the industry that mobile games are likely to be the fastest-growing, and ultimately largest market on the continent over the next decade.

“Currently ‘hard-core’ gamers have already adapted to playing games on console, but the future is mobile as more and more casual gamers are coming up as a result of the increase in mobile penetration in Africa. This, in turn, will lead to a huge growth in the industry,” says Abiola Olaniran, CEO of Gamsole, whose games have been downloaded more than 9m times.

However, developers caution that the evolving internet infrastructure – which is, in many countries, still slow and expensive – threatens to slow the rise of the African gaming market. McKinsey estimates that overall penetration is still only around 16%. This, combined with the absence in most countries of formal support for start-ups, means that entrepreneurs often face an uphill battle.

“The digital divide is a real problem,” says Madiba. “Very few countries in Africa have access to quality internet; this is a big obstacle.”

Access to talent, as well as to distribution channels for games, are also a major barrier, and developers can struggle to get their titles in front of consumers.

“When games are developed and released getting players to know about them can be difficult and expensive,” ChopUp’s Abubakar says.

Despite the difficulties, these early entrants to the African gaming industry are confident that the future is bright. Abubakar compares the industry to Nigeria’s world-famous film business, Nollywood, which is a multibillion dollar industry that has spread across Africa and throughout the African Diaspora worldwide.

“To a large extent, it’s still early days for African gaming companies, I believe just like Nollywood is now achieving international success, African games will also do the same and probably even better, it’s just a question of time,” Abubakar says.

At Gamsole, Olaniran agrees that the global market has demonstrated that it has an appetite for African stories, as long as they are well told.

“The opportunities are there; the same way award-winning African authors have been able to tell African stories, and the way the African movie industry has been doing,” he says. “Gaming can go bigger than literature and movies as there is no such thing as language barrier when it comes to games. African gaming companies can get international success through quality game development.”

Gabriella Mulligan

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Written by Gabriella Mulligan

Gabriella Mulligan is a journalist with a special interest in business and legal issues, having come to journalism following a successful career in consultancy. After completing her legal education at the esteemed law school at Cambridge University, and prior to that at the University of Kent, Gabriella went on to work for a “Big Four” financial and business services firm. She now enjoys writing on topical issues that affect businesses and the economy today. Gabriella is British and Hungarian. She has travelled widely, but harbours a passion for Africa and has made Nairobi, Kenya her home.

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