The Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, California is one of the biggest industry events — and for some attendees, it’s indispensable. For South African developers, it’s a rare opportunity to get face time with publishers, platform owners, and other devs. It’s a huge commitment that can cost an enormous portion of their annual salary just to attend.

At GDC, I went to the South African booth to learn more about what it’s like to create games in that emerging market. I sat down with a few developers — Nyamakop founders Cukia “Sugar” Kimani and Ben Myres, artist and designer Dorian Dutrieux, and Nick Hall from the trade association Interactive Entertainment South Africa (IESA).

It’s not the first time any of them have attended GDC, but it’s the first time South Africa has had an official booth, though Hall’s organization has previously set it up at Gamescom and Game Connection Europe in Paris.

“[Gamescom] draws from the Americas, Europe, and Asia as well,” said Hall. “If we can only do one, it’s the one to go to. It’s in the same time zone as us, and it’s significantly cheaper for us to get there. GDC has always been the target, though.”

That’s because GDC has networking opportunities and myriad panels that provide knowledge and tips for developers — something that’s crucially lacking in South Africa. A few game design programs have popped up, like at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, but many developers are self-taught.

Myres and Kimani are developing Semblance, a jiggly puzzle platformer where players mold their Jell-O-like environment. The studio has showcased the game at events like PAX East and the Leftfield Collection at EGX Rezzed, and it’s earned accolades like a nomination for the Gamer’s Voice Award at SXSW. Publisher Good Shepherd Entertainment picked up the game and it will be launching later this year on PC and Nintendo Switch.

Dutrieux is the background artist with the indie studio KopSkop Games, which is developing the retro side-scrolling beat-’em-up Shattered RealmsIts free demo got some love on the indie platform Itch.io, but it’s a niche genre, and they and the team have had trouble drumming up interest from publishers. If it can’t find someone who bites, the developer might go the crowdfunding route.

“We have some really positive feedback from people who are in the industry,” said Dutrieux. “They do this for a living. They say the combat is amazing, the game is phenomenal. It’s a 15-minute demo level at the moment. We know it’s solid. It’s not just our own opinion. But it’s this strange place where everyone says, ‘It’s not really our game.’ It’s fine. We’re going to figure it out.”

State of arts in South Africa

Kopskop's Shattered Realms is a side-scrolling beat-'em-up inspired by classics.

Above: KopSkop’s Shattered Realms is a side-scrolling beat-’em-up inspired by classics.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

“The way I like to say it is South Africa is a growing star. It’s in the early stages, like any star when it’s being born. It’s hot. It’s dense. We’re all close together. It’s only going to get bigger and brighter. Like any star,” said Kimani. “You have the African culture, and then a lot of Western influence. Making games in that space, a lot of innovative stuff keeps coming out of there.”

South Africa has a rich culture and a long history with games — board games, specifically. Digital games as an art form is newer, though the country has made inroads with the animation industry. It boasts rising talents like Triggerfish, which produced the Adventures of Zambezia and generated $35 million at the box office. Video games have gotten a later start.

“Animation has a more easy transferral of skills,” explained Dutrieux. “We have university courses in graphic design. We didn’t have any game design courses until quite recently. So there’s an element of, we don’t have anyone to look up to from a previous generation. We don’t have any triple-A studios that I know of. We have this element of, we don’t have a previous generation to teach us on the ground. We don’t have university courses to teach us. But animation is something that has trickled through. We have a lot of outsourcers.”

In comparison to animation, Myres says that games require so many different skills to develop, from design to music to programming, so “you need a lot more infrastructure to make games.” More developers are now coming out of South Africa because of free game engines like Unity and Unreal, which democratized the tools needed for development. And on top of that, platforms like Steam make it easier for folks to self-publish.

“The growth of digital distribution and the opening of platforms to smaller developers has had a huge effect,” said Hall. “In the early ’90s, all things were pretty much physical. You were shifting boxed copies. To do the logistics of that from South Africa would be incredibly difficult.”

But even though developers now have these new opportunities, they still face challenges. For instance, Hall notes that South Africans had trouble generating revenue from mobile games because, until recently, they couldn’t include in-app purchases or set a price point for their games on Google Play. Apple enabled South African developers to monetize their games on the App Store in 2012, but most people use Android devices in the country.

“It’s only since November of last year—that’s the first time when we could actually sell games on the Android store,” said Hall. “We have a lot of guys coming to us and saying, Hey, we’re looking for mobile games. Well, we don’t have any mobile games because we can’t monetize them, or we haven’t been able to monetize them.”

Before these marketplaces opened up to developers, their only way of generating revenue was through ads, which don’t pay out very well because advertisers devalue clicks from African consumers. Being unable to monetize on mobile is a big deal, because it’s such an enormous market. In 2017, people spent $48.3 billion on mobile games worldwide, up 30 percent year-over-year.

The challenge of reaching a global audience

Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan

Above: Kiro’o Games’ Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan is an African take on the fantasy action RPG genre.

Image Credit: Kiro'o Games

Hall says that South Africa’s “local consumer market is far too small to support an industry,” so developers can’t depend on just making games for local players. Countries like China and the U.S. have booming markets — in 2017, China generated $32.54 billion and the U.S. came in second with $25.43 billion, according to market researcher Newzoo.

As a continent, Africa generated a little over $519.5 million last year, according to market analyst SuperData Research. So it’s imperative for South Africa to reach players around the world.

“A lot of the problems also stem from the fact that, at the global level, Africa is a black hole and no one gives a fuck,” Hall said. “That makes everything we do difficult. We don’t have any publishers, even the big guys. Xbox, Sony, Nintendo, they don’t have physical offices or representation in South Africa.”

Because of the small market, platform representation is virtually nonexistent on the continent. And because of that, it’s difficult getting dev kits. Myres says that even if you manage to get in touch with a platform holder, sometimes red tape prevents them from sending kits anyway.

In addition to these technical issues, creators have run into obstacles in trying to market African products to the world. Myres points to Cameroonian studio Kiro’o Games‘ Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan as an African game that’s gotten a lot of attention. It received press from Western sites like Kotaku, Polygon, and Destructoid, which praised its beautiful African fantasy world. But its sales flagged. A year after its 2016 launch, the developer reported that it had sold 60,000 copies.

“I was speaking to a TV production company, and they were saying games are really good, because you can get away with making a game in Africa and it doesn’t look like it’s African,” said Myres. “You can sell that internationally. But if you’re making TV or film, the actors sound African. It’s hard to sell it internationally because that’s what matters to people.”

That’s not to say African game developers aren’t working on projects for the local market or for the sake of artistic fulfillment. But in order to be financially successful — and in order to grow their local industry — they have to reach beyond their borders and sell to the wider global audience.

“You just have to find money to travel to an event,” said Myres. “The advice is basically that. You just have to go to a GDC or a Gamescom. I don’t think I know anyone who’s made it in games in Africa who hasn’t been to events abroad. It’s borderline impossible. It’s just a bottleneck.”

It all comes back to events

Free Lives' Broforce is a cheeky run-and-gun.

Above: The over-the-top run-‘n’-gun, Broforce, by Free Lives.

Image Credit: Free Lives

Dutrieux worked as part of a small five-person team in Cape Town called QCF Design. The studio developed Desktop Dungeons, a roguelike that favors quick, addictive sessions. After a long time in beta, it launched in 2013. And when it won the 2011 Independent Games Festival’s Excellence in Design award, it put South Africa on the map.

“There’s not a recognition of the fact that one success in the country is actually good for everyone else, and you should be celebrating that success even if it’s not you,” said Hall. “We’re not fighting against each other. We aren’t each other’s competition. Any success from South Africa is good for everyone in South Africa. To a large extent, actually — certainly this is true of the work these guys are doing – we can bring that leverage to sub-Saharan Africa as well. The guys from Kenya and Nigeria and Ghana. That effect is a huge effect even on us.”

And a lot of these successes happen at events. Myres shared a story about Free Lives, the developer behind the tongue-in-cheek run-‘n’-gun Broforce. One of its team members met publisher Devolver Digital at the A Maze indie festival in Berlin. Because of that meeting, Devolver signed Free Lives on and Broforce has gone on to be financially successful.

“It’s just getting access to people,” said Kimani. “The people who are funding games, writing about games, all those people aren’t close to you. Even getting [Nyamakop’s] publishing deal, you can send a lot of emails, but until you meet someone and sit down and have a conversation, you’re fighting an uphill battle. It’s the networking part that’s important. Even just finding the money and stuff, because we’re still a young country, not a lot of people actually know how to make games.”

But coming to GDC isn’t so simple for South African or African developers. Dutrieux says that it costs a staggering amount of money to make it to the event — a third of their annual salary. And possibly more for others.

“As an individual, what I earn is enough to cover my rent. I have a two-bedroom place near the sea. My cost of living—I’m pretty privileged where I live,” said Dutrieux. “But to come to GDC costs a third of my annual [salary]. If some senior dev on a global platform like Twitter says, oh, as a developer you’re not really serious if you don’t go to GDC, I want to smack him. That’s not fair. I’m a privileged person being told, give up a third of your annual.”

“That also indicates that there’s other opportunities for them to go to,” added Hall. “They can go to PAX. One of the nice things about GDC is it is business-to-business focused, which does allow you to do a lot of things. But it’s not just there. You can go to the big consumer shows and do OK.”

Through IESA, Hall is able to bring South African developers to up to five events for the fiscal year. It’s a hard-earned number of festivals because the organization had to first prove that developers were signing deals and making business happen at these events. At first, IESA prioritized Gamescom for the previously mentioned reasons — it draws a wide variety of attendees from Europe, the Americas, and Asia, and travel to Cologne is cheaper than to get to the U.S. But Gamescom isn’t without its drawbacks, at least for African developers more broadly.

“Something like the EU, for the visa situation — South Africa, to a large extent, we’re quite privileged to have strong collaborations with a lot of countries,” said Hall. “It’s easy for South African citizens to travel. For a guy from Nigeria? Trying to get somewhere? It’s just not going to happen at all.”

And of course, visa issues happen with GDC as well — like the ones Rami Ismail ran into for his 1ReasonToBe panel.

New opportunities and resources

Adoné Kitching's Human Resource started as a game jam game.

Above: Adoné Kitching’s Human Resource started out at a game jam, and her team is now developing it as a full title.

Image Credit: Adoné Kitching

This year, Hall has his eye on a mix of events that incorporate networking as well as learning opportunities for developers. He’s looking at Gamescom, Paris Games Week, Digi Lab Africa as well as Games for Change in New York. It’s difficult for South African developers to find funding, but education is also of utmost importance.

“We don’t have a way of connecting yet with other individuals in the industry, or mentors, or any of that. So GDC, while it is a business-to-business thing, having it settled together with the sessions makes it so much more valuable to us just as growing game developers,” said Dutrieux. “Most of us came into this industry sideways through animation or graphic design or programming. It wasn’t games. Compensating for our lacking education is a huge component of coming to GDC.”

However, the panels and discussions at GDC don’t always benefit African developers. Hall calls out how “Western-centric” a lot of the advice and topics can be.

“There are so many assumptions that they make,” said Hall, citing an example of a policy meeting about loot boxes. “[The meeting] was pitched as a global event, and there were lawyers there from Australia and the U.K. and France, South Africa. But the assumption was that this was an American problem that could be solved by Americans and the rest of the world could follow. The talks here, the content is obviously useful, but how applicable, how practical is it for a lot of what we do? How cognizant is it of the reality we operate in?”

Myres points to Hanli Geyser‘s methodology as an example of a game design course that’s germane for South African developers. She’s the head of division of digital arts at Wits University, and she designed her course starting with board games. This skips the — often incorrect — assumptions that a Western lecturer might make that everyone grows up with access to video games.

“The way it’s designed is, the first year is all board games. That’s a very specific cultural decision, because board games have this massive long history in Africa. Even to this day, culturally, a lot of people grow up with traditional board games that they play,” said Myres. “But they don’t necessarily have a huge technical background from their upbringing. She designs the course so they learn how to design board games, because they have points of reference with that, and then slowly get embedded into games and game design culture before they get introduced to the technical side.”

This idea of relevancy is part of the reason why IESA has set up Africa Games Week. From November 26 to December 1, Cape Town will be home to game demos, workshops, panels, and business meetings. The indie festival A Maze Cape Town (which was previously in Johannesburg) will also be sometime in November. And the six-day event won’t just be “copy-pasting” what GDC or Gamescom is doing, said Hall.

“We’re looking to bring a lot of the big guys, international investors, publishers, people who have an interest in finding new content,” said Hall. “We can have workshops and things like that as well. But the goal, as the people curating the content, is that we want it to be relevant to us.”

IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at stephanie@venturebeat.com.