What the game development sector in South Africa looks like varies greatly depending on who you ask. There have been standout successes like Nyamakop’s debut game, Semblance, which was the first African game to appear on a Nintendo console. The studio Free Lives created Broforce, which has sold over 1 million copies, and they have invested a significant amount of time, money and energy into the South African game development sector. There do, however, appear to be significant challenges that need strategic and sustained energy and investment from the sector and government to solve.
Recent studies and significant challenges in the sector
Tshimologong Precinct at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) commissioned a study on the gaming industry in 2022 titled ‘For the Win: Developing a strategy to grow and transform the South African Game Development Ecosystem’.
The gaming sector, when compared to other sectors in the creative and cultural industries in South Africa, is tiny. At the time ‘For the Win’ was conducted, the researchers found that there were an estimated 60 studios active in the industry. Of these, the majority were microenterprises employing five people or fewer (often only one person). They found that only six of these microenterprises employed ten people or more.
This research found this to be a significant opportunity for growth in the sector: large (or anchor) businesses are needed to drive growth and revenue. Medium-sized businesses are much more likely to become large businesses than microenterprises are. A goal that the researchers set for the sector is 25 businesses employing 50+ people in the next ten years.
Another finding is that many game developers start their own businesses, yet don’t have any prior knowledge or experience running a business. A strategy to grow the industry should be focusing on bringing in experienced founders (either from the gaming sector or from parallel industries) with the explicit goal of growing an SMME (small, medium and micro enterprises) or large company.
Significantly, a lot of South Africa’s senior gaming talent has started to explore international opportunities (both immigration and work-from-home opportunities), leaving a concerning gap in the sector. Poland faced a similar issue a few years ago, and they circumvented it by bringing in skilled talent from other countries – although this may not be the right solution for a country like South Africa with an unemployment rate of 32.7%.
Interestingly, despite most South Africans having access to a mobile phone, most game development studios in South Africa are focused on PC and console games. ‘For the win’ found that “no company had built itself upon mobile work nor generated their revenue streams exclusively from this.” The reasonsbehind this are complex, and include, in particular, difficulties surrounding the current monetisation models for mobile games.
This is definitely something worth further investigation and development. A study by Newzoo and Carry1st in 2021 revealed that Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the fastest-growing mobile gaming regions in the world. Total gamer numbers in Sub-Saharan Africa grew from 77 to 186 million people between 2015 and 2021. This rapid growth has been accelerated by increasing digitisation, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, and is largely driven by mobile gaming – 95% of gamers across the region play on a smartphone or tablet, as opposed to consoles and computers.
Transformation and access
The ‘For the Win’ study also found that the sector is significantly less transformed than many of its counterparts in SA’s creative and cultural industries, although they did note slight shifts and improvements from past sector surveys. Currently, 82% of the workforce is white and 83% of the workforce identifies as male.
Gaming is not yet an accessible hobby for a large majority of the country. Internet costs are high and cell towers often do not provide the speeds required to play a game online. A hope is that the rollout of 5G towers will see a much-needed increase in speed and make an impact on data costs. Computers (particularly ones specced for gaming) are expensive, as are Playstation and Xbox consoles. Many console games also carry a heavy price tag (often R1 000+ for a new release). South Korea faced a similar challenge and created gaming spaces similar to internet cafes, where consumers could pay per hour to play. This has been experimented with in some of South Africa’s larger townships and could be a successful model if security issues could be resolved.
The number of game development degree programmes and courses has risen substantially in the last five to ten years. The Digital Arts Faculty at the Wits School of the Arts is closely linked to Tshimologong and offers a Game Design degree. Private colleges like IIE-Vega, The Open Window and Greenside Design Center also offer degrees and diplomas. Due to the small size of the industry in South Africa, however, a degree is no guarantee of a job and some of our respondents suggested that if you’re passionate enough to teach yourself, a degree isn’t entirely necessary.
A significant challenge for the gaming sector is the lack of a professional sector organisation. Interactive Entertainment South Africa (IESA) was formed to lobby, develop policy and help grow the South African games industry. Despite significant gains, IESA is severely underfunded, understaffed and lacks a mandate from a lot of the participants in the industry. A contributing factor to this could also be that there isn’t a specific government department that “claims” the gaming sector, which makes it difficult to find someone within government to champion the sector and its needs.
As there is a fair bit of overlap in skills (and challenges) between animation and gaming, Animation SA is now also starting to play a role in trying to bring cohesion to the sector. A study by the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) in 2019 found that 46% of companies producing gaming were also doing animation work.
Despite these challenges, there is still a sense of community and connection within the sector. For example IESA’s Make Games SA is an important forum that many local developers are active members of.
Funding in the sector
Funding is a major issue for the development of the sector. With so many other funding needs in the country, gaming falls quite low down on a very long list of priorities. Local private investment is also scarce – games are seen as incredibly risky to invest in as it is still very hard to predict what will be successful among consumers. Most game developers who are getting funding in South Africa are receiving it from international sources. The ‘For the Win’ study suggested that in order to fill this gap, investors need to be educated on the value that the game sector can provide, and founders need to be taught how to create “investable” businesses.
Cultural institutions like the Goethe Institute, the British Council and the French Institute in South Africa are strong supporters of the gaming sector and regularly initiate projects, hackathons and events that aim to grow this sector.
As it is such a young and small sector, funding models that look beyond immediate return on investment should be investigated. As one of our interviewees pointed out, the sector has such potential for global reach that it is an excellent opportunity to begin implanting South African characters, cultures and stories into the global zeitgeist in a similar way that games like Pokémon have for Japan.
Poland, India and Brazil are all developing countries that have managed to significantly grow their gaming sectors. In all cases, government played a pivotal role, especially in Poland. Funding, incentives and strategic policy frameworks are key.
Events in the gaming sector
In terms of events, Games Week Africa has brought significant energy to the sector. As has Playtopia. Comic Con Africa provides an important platform (although it is quite international in its offering), as do rAge and the Business of Gaming Forum. Tshimologong’s Fak’ugesi Festival creates needed opportunities that drive innovation within the sector, through talks programmes, hackathons and other programming.
International fairs, while not always accessible to South African developers, play an important role in helping to reach international audiences. Some of these include Game Developers Conference (GDC), Gamescom, The Global Game Jam and Amaze – Berlin.
The future of gaming in SA
While there are significant challenges and a lot to be done to grow the gaming sector beyond its current infancy stage in South Africa, there are significant areas of potential growth and opportunity.
For example, a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report in 2018 found that South Africans spent R3.060 million on gaming. While this only made up 2.37% of South African media and entertainment spending in that year, the video games sector had the fastest year-on-year growth (16.8%) in 2017 compared to any other media and entertainment sectors in South Africa.
Gaming also has massive potential in education. Those of us who grew up in the 1990s (and were privileged enough to have access to computers) had the opportunity to explore science and geography through The Magic School Bus game or learn parts of speech through JumpStart Second Grade. Although these are international examples, there is so much that gaming can do to make learning fun, or tackle serious social issues in engaging ways, for South African children. A significant step in the right direction was Regina Kgatle’s Educade, an educational arcade machine loaded with games that support the primary school curriculum. Unfortunately, it appears that this initiative is no longer running.
There has also been a rise of eSports players and competitions in South Africa. eSports are organised, multiplayer video game competitions. While not necessarily linked to the game development side of the industry in South Africa (these competitions usually involve international games), there could be potential for eSports to begin creating a greater interest in South African games and bringing more young, black game developers into the industry. For example, South African rapper Nasty C recently announced a partnership with Call of Duty: Mobile – it will be interesting to see how this develops and what impact it will have.
The South African Cultural Observatory also suggested in their 2019 study that tax breaks for small businesses may help to grow the sector, or even targeted support like the film and television rebates offered by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition.
The gaming industry is brimming with so much potential, and appears to be on the verge of maturing into an important sector for job creation and economic growth in South Africa. There are a few key stumbling blocks that, collectively, the sector (with the support of government and investors) will have to work to overcome or minimise.