Cukia “Sugar” Kimani is a creative engineer with computer science and digital art degrees. He works primarily in games but also other creative digital projects. Kimani is the co-founder and former technical director of the award-winning African gaming studio Nyamakop.
In 2015, one of his games, Boxer – described as stripping out “the boredom of boxing” and giving you “what you really wanted to see in any boxing match” – won the inaugural A MAZE. / Johannesburg Award.
In 2018, the Nyamakop team launched Semblance. It became the first African IP on Nintendo platforms. Said to be “a game that asks, what if you could deform and reshape the world itself?” Semblance has been exhibited all over the globe, at consumer shows such as E3, PAX East, Gamescom, and EGX. Additionally, at more than a dozen intimate arts festivals such as Slamdance Film Festival, South by South West (SXSW), A MAZE and Out of Index.
Kimani currently works as a freelance engineer and producer.
In August 2023, Kimani joined the IQOQO Sessions to share how his passion for gaming began and shared a few highlights from over a decade in the industry.
Cukia “Sugar” Kimani: For my seventh birthday, my parents got me a PlayStation – the very first PlayStation. I remember putting in the disc, closing the lid, and turning it on. As the TV lit up, I saw magic. At that moment, I turned to my mom and said, “People do this? People make video games as their job?” She said, “Yes.”
That was the moment I decided that making games was my life’s mission.
At the time, I lived in Kenya and, from what I could see, games were made in either Japan or the US, so I was going to keep dreaming. I went through primary school. I got into high school and one of my friends gave me a nugget of what I needed to know: he said that I had to learn how to programme.
I didn’t even know what that was, but what he told me was that it had something to do with telling a computer what to do. It didn’t matter, I had something, and coincidentally, at the time, I was moving to South Africa, and they offered a class in I.T.
I read the description and saw “learn to code”. There we go. That’s my ticket to making video games.
I got to my first class. The teacher walked in, picked up a whiteboard marker and wrote “public, static, void, open bracket, string, args”, and then looked to the class and said, “You have to remember every single one of those words exactly and in this right sequence if you want a computer to work.”
I’m looking around because that is not even a sentence! How am I going to remember all of that? That didn’t matter, I had a dream. I was going to make video games.
Grade 10 went by, and I failed. Grade 11 went by, I failed again. My teachers sat me down and said, “Hey, Cukia, maybe you should reconsider this programming thing.”
I was like, “No, no, no.” I want to make video games and this is my ticket. In my final year, grade 12, matric. I spent every free moment I had in those computer labs, learning how to code. Every time I had free time, I was there. After rugby practice, I was there.
And for the last and final practical exam I wrote, I got 100% – a perfect score.
The beginning of Kimani’s journey into video games reads like an epic tale; following a dream, persevering down the path, and never giving up when failure hits.
Cukia “Sugar” Kimani: Through sheer determination and grit, I was able to get myself on the trajectory of making video games.
As I’m entering university, at Wits, I am looking for anything that has to do with video games but, at that time, they didn’t offer a game design course.
So, I took the second best thing – computer science. I thought I might as well learn how to code better, and hope that somewhere along the line, someone would tell me what to do to make these video games.
The first year goes by, no video games. The second year goes by, no video games.
As I got to the end of my third year, I realized I was still not making video games. I turned to my friend, Kevin, who was just as interested in making video games as I was and told him, “Bro! We’re still not making video games and we’re nowhere closer to making video games than when we started this course. We’re about to graduate, we need to get on this ASAP. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves in some bank somewhere writing ATM software, and I didn’t go through this pain to do that.”
We opened up Google and searched for how to make a video game. We picked a tutorial and started, got through it, and it was amazing!
It felt like we were inventing fire and the wheel, all at the same time. Even when we were just moving squares around the screen, it didn’t matter. We were on our way.
Having found the “university of YouTube”, and with a solid background in coding, Kimani could now really start experimenting with making games.
Cukia “Sugar Kimani: Every time I think back to that moment, I ask myself, “Why didn’t I do that earlier? Why don’t I just start?”
I think it’s because of this narrative I told myself, and I think many of us do – where we say that we need to find THAT school, we need to go to THAT place, or we find THAT person to tell us what to do. In reality, with access to the internet, you can get started today. And through starting, you’ll find the community that you’re looking for, that will accelerate your learning.
We started making big things.
By the time Kevin and I graduated, we had the prototype of a game, that we thought we were going to be the next big hit on mobile, but we were told about these things called game jams.
A game jam is an event where game makers come together and make a game in 48 hours. Normally over a weekend. You’re given a theme and you build a video game that interprets that theme.
I said, “Cool! Let’s go to our first one.” Kevin and I had laptops in our bag, newly minted computer science degrees, and a case of Red Bull.
It started jamming and we got to the end of the weekend. Highly educated individuals and now [at the time] highly caffeinated. We still had no game. I’m looking around and see kids, and hobbyists, and they all have video games. I thought, “What’s going on here?”
This did not stop Kimani from chasing his dream.
Cukia “Sugar” Kimani: I remember going back home disappointed in myself, but even more determined to continue learning.
I was starting my first job at Microsoft at the time; and again, every free moment I had, I decided to dive into learning how to make games.
Any article I could find on the internet, I read.
Any Twitter thread that I saw from any game maker, I read.
I was going to go to every game jam I could and make as many games as I could in that year, and that is what I did.
Kimani found that there was still so much more to see, learn and experience. And he embraced every opportunity to do so.
Cukia “Sugar” Kimani: During that year, I came across A MAZE festival. It’s a festival that celebrates the wonderful and weird world of independent games. Just going through the exhibition alone blew my mind because up until that point, I only thought about games as entertainment commercial products. Going through that exhibition, I saw games that told stories that no other medium could, and weird mechanics that would never be on the app Store or consoles. And it hit me: games are art.
I could functionally put together a game, but I didn’t actually appreciate what game design was. What makes the game fun? What keeps the player coming back again and again to the game?
So I decided to go back to Wits, and they did have a game design course that second time around. I didn’t care about the degree, to be honest. What I cared about was being part of a community of people who shared the same passion at the same time of trying to make games.
One of my classmates at the time, Ben Meyers, who I had seen around different game dev meetups in Joburg, was also there. The guy seemed to know what he was talking about. I thought, “Let’s hang around him.” And that’s what I did. Any time I had, we grabbed coffee and he told me about game design. I even say that I learned more about games talking with him than I did in class.
We eventually got to start working on a project together. It was our final university project. Our external examiner was a former technical director at a large US games studio. When he saw the game and said, “Hey, this is cool. We should make this the real thing – a commercial game that we could sell to the world.”
Ben, Judd, and I started our first company, Nyamakop. The university project turned into our debut title, Semblance.
We were still here in Joburg. We are miles away from where games get made: the US, Japan, and Europe. So we turned on what I like to call “the African hustle”. We took any opportunity we could in applying for residencies, scholarships, and talks that would fly us places; because it was, again, to continue that learning journey from further experienced industries.
With that hustle, we were able to get funding.
With every African hustle, there is one particularly memorable story. Which one was the highlight of Kimani and his partners’ journey?
Cukia “Sugar” Kimani: We were at a conference trying to score a meeting with a funder, but we couldn’t get that meeting. So, putting on that African hustle, we walked up to their booth and said, “We have a meeting with Paul.”
They said, “Hold on for a second.” Paul came out and said, “Cool, let’s have the meeting.” There was no meeting scheduled. And that’s exactly how we got that funding.
There is a tenacity that you’ve got to have while chasing those dreams, and always striving for that learning experience wherever you are.
Through the journey of developing our first game, Semblance, we have gotten a few awards. One of them is even from Kyoto, Japan – the birthplace of Nintendo.
We were admitted into the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.
I made it.
I’m a game developer. I’m a game maker now, and I’ve got the receipts.
Every creator dreams and screams about making it in their field. What does making it mean for Cukia “Sugar” Kimani?
Cukia “Sugar” Kimani: The funny thing was that even after releasing Semblance with critical acclaim, I was stuck. I said, “Okay, now what? Do that again?”
I then realised that I had been chasing a destination, when it was actually about appreciating the journey.
I was in this place where I was unsure about where I wanted to go and where I wanted to take my career.
And I took a step back and left Nyamako because Ben, at the time, had a great vision for the next game he wanted to make, and I didn’t want to hold him back.
In that cloud of uncertainty, my partner, Riker, and I came up with this new challenge: Twelve and Twelve. It was a challenge to make twelve games in twelve months, I mean, we had just spent two years making one game…
We did that. It was a practice to get better and to be more deliberate in terms of what we are trying to achieve. I understood, at that point, that game-making is not just a career, it is a practice. One that you try again, and again, and again. The more you do, the better you get.
The way we formulated this practice was with three key ideas. You set an intention – we would gather our friends or people who were part of the challenge, and everyone would say what they wanted to make and be very specific about it. The second bit was production – we would spend a whole month working on that intended idea. Thirdly, at the end of the month, we got together for reflection – looking at what we made and what we learned.
We did this every single month, for a whole year.
And at the end of that year, I was back. I was excited!
In the process of finding joy in the journey, rather than the destination, Kimani wondered if game lovers online could also get enjoyment out of it.
Cukia “Sugar” Kimani: My paradigm had shifted, because I started to think about one of my biggest fans – my mom. She was not going to play all my games, but she will watch them.
I started thinking about making games as content, more or less. Content that is playable and watchable.
In these creative fields, there is always an urge that everything has to be commercial, and certain games just can’t be.
They can be about the journey. The story behind them: why the mechanics exist and why the developer decided to make them is interesting in and of itself.
This year, I took that idea and put together a short series of each game on TikTok. Up until this point, it’s close to a million views, so I think my thesis is right – in terms of the content that we work on as game makers. It doesn’t always have to be something that has a barrier of entry with a controller or how things work. There are interesting stories about the development.
And as I stand here today, thinking about the journey that led me to this point, it is one that I know is always about learning and the joy of finding like-minded individuals to keep you steady and focused on your dream.