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The Struggles of South African Indie Game Development

Breaking into the game industry is a daunting endeavor. Often times independent solo developers feel isolated from everyone else and their perception of how things work is easily shaped by public discourse and their own expectations.

Breaking into the industry from South Africa is even tougher since you’re an entire continent away from the main hubs of the industry and much of the information gathered from the public isn’t contextualized for people like Ben Myres and Cukia Kimani of Nyamakop.

“When we started making “Semblance,” our goal was to break into the industry. We had assumptions about how to make games based off public perceptions,” Myres said at their panel at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “Those perceptions were often wrong and we probably wouldn’t be where we are today if we followed them.”

Those assumptions included the idea that Myres and Kimani would be able to build a large fan base, get great preview and review coverage from the press and YouTubers, win awards, get a publisher, and watch the money come flowing in after the launch of their first game.

Kimani and Myres achieved a lot of what they thought they would do. They received preview coverage from major outlets like GamesRadar, IGN, and Rolling Stone, won awards and official selections for shows like PAX, Bitsummit, and SXSW, got a publisher in Good Shepherd, and racked up impressions on social media and steam. Everything pointed to “Semblance” selling well once it launched in July 2018.

“We did not get rich, we have not yet recouped any money from ‘Semblance,'” Myres said. “The writing was on the wall. We saw from research that debut games rarely do well, that’s just how it is currently.”

While Myres and Kimani originally believed they could hit the ground running and release a successful debut game, they quickly learned that their chances were slim. “Nyamakop is not dead though, even though we didn’t get sales,” he added. “We leveraged our development time in a lateral way to continue making games.”

Mryes and Kimani realized they needed to completely change how they viewed the game industry. They created lateral pillars that helped them adjust how they viewed their careers in game development. Those pillars included the idea that they should be

  • Be ready to succeed but prepared to fail.
  • Redefine how they measure success.
  • Have a long term vision.
  • Be visible, reputable
  • Carve a contextual path

Everything the duo did at that point was part of their long term vision. They traveled to shows all over the world, had an active presence on Twitter, made themselves available for interviews, and focused on avoiding issues that other first-time game developers make.

“Semblance” originally started as a University project, but after some encouragement, they continued working on it after graduation.

“We were trying to create a game with no money,” Kimani said. “Much of the advice that was prevalent didn’t apply to game development in South Africa.”

While some South African developed games like “Visceral Clean Up,” “Broforce,” and “Genital Jousting” have seen success, the challenges of developing their’s outweighed the benefits.

South African game developers can’t raise funds via Kickstarter since you need an American bank account, there are few government funding programs since the

“Different way of thinking about success, not purely about sales,” Myres said. “We defined them by making a name for ourselves with our debut title, we’re not trying to make one game we’re trying to make many. That’s why we were able to say “Semblance” was a success.”

“Everything was about long term decisions,” he added. “Making choices today that will help us tomorrow.”

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