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The Great Divide: A look at Africa's very different dev scenes

Creators discuss what separates the continent's South and North from its East and West, and what unifies them

One of the common misconceptions about the African continent is arguably its most infuriating - that of Africa as a single entity. Despite its checkered, multi-faceted and exceptional cultural and linguistic diversity, Africa is more times than not indiscriminately talked about under the same label. For the many cultures and developers united by the length and breadth of this historical landmass, such a perception has an unwanted splintering effect and in some quarters creates the need to adopt a siege mentality.

While it would be easy to present a singular perspective as to the current state of things, I have invited some friends and prominent figures from within the community to share their thoughts on the continent's great divide.

Limited spotlighting might lead most outside observers to believe that because they aren't inundated with updates, there's no games industry to update people about. But this isn't necessarily the case.

Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan (Kiroo Games from Cameroon), Viscera Cleanup Detail (RuneStorm from South Africa), Broforce (Free Lives from South Africa), Semblance (Nyamakop from South Africa) are some of the notable titles to have garnered relatively commercial and critical success in recent years, largely thanks to the support of Western-based publishers. However, you might have noticed three of those four came from South African developers.

"South Africa has got an extremely active, and comparatively large community base that it can build from"

Nick Hall

Why is it that a continent on the verge of an industrial revolution seems capable of producing acclaimed works from only a small part of the region? Nick Hall, a pivotal fixture of the South African scene, a key collaborator on the titles listed above, and founder of Cape Town-based annual B2B event Playtopia/Make Games Africa offers some thoughts on the questions.

"South Africa has got an extremely active, and comparatively large community base that it can build from," Hall says. "Things like Make Games South Africa [a game developers association unrelated to Make Games Africa] act as a focal point for the community. This helps make the community and its activities more visible, which helps mitigate against developers working alone in isolation. The community acts as a good knowledge base which allows new entrants to avoid making common mistakes and allows experience and mentorship to happen."

He added, "Another major factor is that our local studios have seen commercial success abroad. While a lot of this is due to luck, it is also I think because the ecosystem as a whole has focused on making games for international markets and has avoided trying to make games for mobile, which has reduced the risk of failure. As a result of the success, the South African ecosystem has managed to start creating bridges to the international ecosystem, which has driven investment, publicity, and knowledge and skills development. The fact that we have a few sustainable and financially viable studios who participate exclusively in the games industry -- without having to rely on other work, such as animation or traditional software development to sustain themselves -- means that that the South African ecosystem has a degree of resilience and continuity that is lacking in other African ecosystems."

Doubling down on Hall's assertion that South Africa's financial clout has had a positive turn on the local development scene is Sithe Ncube, Zambian developer and founder of Prosearium, an initiative that champions female developers.

"Speaking from my experience as a Zambian, it has been a struggle over the years to allow people to see game development as a meaningful activity that can benefit individuals and the country"

Sithe Ncube

"First of all, South Africa has the second largest economy in Africa and a digital economy that is competitive on the global stage," Ncube says. "I think that goes without saying that it puts the country in a better position to explore the game development industry. But also, South Africans take a lot of pride in both their traditional and digital arts which the country can see the commercial and cultural value of.

"Speaking from my experience as a Zambian, it has been a struggle over the years to allow people to see game development as a meaningful activity that can benefit individuals and the country. There is support from both public and private educational institutions in South Africa that encourage the study and pursuit of game development. Finally, time is a big factor. South Africa has a history of game development that begins in the '90s."

That history of game development is one that is virtually unknown outside the continent. Celestial was the first game development studio in South Africa and its formation was quickly followed by the release of its first game in 1996: Toxic Bunny.

Cover image for YouTube video

Fast forward to the present and the level of international acclaim achieved has been remarkable. It's a history that has been mirrored in North Africa with both sharing one common trait - their connection and access to both the West and Middle East respectively.

"Governments should also start investing in video game studios like they do in other countries"

SeifEddine Ben Hamouda

While East and West Africa have struggled to shake off the scars of their English and French post-colonial pasts, the North and South have flourished, relatively speaking.

As touched on earlier, the availability of computer and technical infrastructure coupled with its ties to Europe sparked a game development renaissance in South Africa. With the country in the throes of Apartheid well into the '90s, white South Africans were able to use their higher socio-economic standing and access to investment opportunities to lay the groundwork for an industry that continues to benefit from that stance today.

Meanwhile past the equator to the North, Ubisoft sensed an opportunity to tap into the well of riches available from the Middle East and opened up Ubisoft Casablanca in 1998. Between 2008 and 2010, the studio also operated a campus that sought to train 300 game development graduates. Prior to its closure in 2016 citing a shift in the marketplace, the studio had employed 48 staff members and was the oldest video game studio in North Africa. Many of those developers would splinter off to form a national gaming body and subsequently studios of their own.

The groundswell of interest from fellow North African countries Tunisia and Egypt, a strong Arabic influence, and an untapped pipeline to Europe have aided the slow progression of the region's game development scene. North and South may be thousands of miles apart geographically, but are united in a gaming landscape refined by a financing pipeline and a plethora of IT and technical infrastructure.

Despite the economic and infrastructural disparity, the continent's development community faces one shared challenge: significant investment.

"The entire continent needs to pay more attention to gaming. Governments should also start investing in video game studios like they do in other countries" SeifEddine Ben Hamouda, CEO of Tunisia's Newgen studio said.

Hamouda added it might take a while for that to happen, but noted some governments are embracing a proactive approach, like Egypt's recent initiative to train 10,000 game and app developers in the next three years.

Vic Bassey is the editor of Games Industry Africa. He also currently works for Raw Fury and has previously held positions with Might and Delight AB and Paradox Interactive, among others.