By Kendal Makgamathe
Like most kids who grew up in a township in the 90s, Mxolisi Xaba spent his days after school, honing his skills as a gamer. If it wasn’t feeding coin after coin into a hungry slot in an arcade game, it was swooping on his opponents ‘cows’ in a game of Morabaraba. Little did he know then, that the countless 50 cent coins and hours that he whiled away at Mampuru Hall in Dube, Soweto would end up laying the foundation for his career as a game developer, UX designer and digital entrepreneur. Back then, when he was first exposed to the world of games, it was a communal experience. Friends would go to the ‘shops’ together to play games or they would meet there to try and at least get in a few games before the local champion showed up. There was always that one guy who had the High score that everyone else tried to beat; the guy who would arrive with just two or three 50 cent pieces yet would play the game the longest as one after the other of would-be challengers stepped up to the controls. Each contender trying to knock him off his perch merely funding his afternoon of diversion as he pulled trick move after trick move, blowing everyone away, building up a following of admirers with some even a little envious of his prowess.
And then came TV games. Then instead of gathering at an arcade, the games were then being played at home. So, games went from being communal to being more private. Even then, friends and cousins were invited over to play but interest in outdoor games and activities started waning. Kids stopped making and flying kites, playing with tops and marbles. Thus, it was, that the modern gamer was born, tucked away in their parents’ lounge, or in their own bedroom, the gamer world became smaller and more private and less and less involved with outsiders and outdoor games.
With this as a background it is little wonder, then, that Mxolisi would find himself, thinking about and working on the game mechanics for a Video game called, “Teka Champs”, less than 10 years after finishing school. Led by founder and CEO of AFROES Transformational Games, Anne Githuku-Shongwe, the game which was her response to what she saw as the dearth of positive messaging in the games of the day. She premised the game on several different African footballer’s narratives, looking at their journey to stardom and global sporting domination. Mxolisi’s old game experience came into play as he applied the principles of, “Ping Pong” an old computer game, to introduce a logical game design that was true to life in terms of skills sets that players would have, dependent on the position they played in the team. His time spent as a gallery curator after graduating with a BTech Fine Arts from TUT also allowing him to apply an approach that was both methodical and which also made for interesting game play.
The positive response to this, the first game he had ever worked on, gave him the validation that he needed and he remained in the gaming space as AFROES decided that Social Impact Games were the chosen path of development. At first planning on developing for release on Sony XBOX, they quickly realised that a shift to mobile based games from the traditional console and video games was imminent as access to smartphones increased. Coupled with decreasing data costs and improved connectivity to the internet, a new market of gamers was suddenly emerging. It was during this phase of transition from console-based development that AFROES stumbled on an opportunity of a lifetime. Having developed “Haku 1”, a game for the Kenyan market, they released it on a global platform. Much to their surprise they found that while the numbers locally, in Kenya were sub-par, in Indonesia, the game had garnered over the same period, over 150 000 downloads!
Not being prepared for it and lacking at the time, the know-how on how to the potential windfall, it became an opportunity lost and a source of deep insight and introspection. The upshot of it was a clear understanding that for Gaming to succeed on the continent the reach had to be further than a region or a country – it had to be at the aimed at the entire continent. Which is exactly what Mxolisi and AFROES have been doing since then – creating content that targets the entire continent and brokering access to skills and talent from the across Africa for clients. Right now, there is a budding alliance of gamers that spans from South to East and West Africa. Gamers, developers and promoters of gaming events and E-sports tournaments from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe work closely together creating access to markets and opportunities. Creating distribution networks to allow the developers to generate sufficient income to survive, is but one of their endeavours that underpins their efforts to foster common purpose for themselves. A common story amongst them is that the great majority of Game developers moonlight after hours and on weekends in order for them to feed their passion, which is gaming and producing their own games.
Coming back to South Africa, Mxolisi’s story is by no means unique. Neither are the industry demographics nor the revenue split. Described as white, male and Cape Town based, the local Gaming industry has also been likened to South Africa’s untransformed film industry 20 years ago. That our TV and Film industry is flourishing, producing content that is acclaimed worldwide, in recent years, speaks volumes of what transformation and inclusivity will do for Gaming. The South African Cultural Observatory refers to a finding made by Make Games SA Founder and CEO, Nick Hall, that in 2017, of the approximately 11 million gamers in South Africa: 78% of them are black; 8% coloured; 3% Indian and 11% white.. These gamers power an industry that is valued at R3,5 Billion and expected to rise to R5,4 Billion by 2023. This fast growing, yet still niche, industry is could very likely be Africa’s next Content Creation Frontier.
It is clear that we have not fully tapped into the possibilities of what can be done in terms of the South African, let alone the continent-wide Gaming industry. That it is almost exclusively a male experience, is just as evident. With so much potential, there need to be interventions to help build the industry and keep the likes of Mxolisi engaged in gaming, both as developers and as gamers. To encourage those with interest and skills to stay in the industry, acting as torchbearers for those that come after, they need to be incentivised. Structures and processes should be put in place to assist them in going to market. Business skills and support need to be part of the armoury of any developer. Access to other ancillary skills required to build a business, create and test product is just as important. By building the marketplace where gamers, developers get to meet and interact, it creates an outlet for creativity and innovation. The interest and drive to make it in the gaming industry exists as is evidenced by the tenacity shown by Mxolisi and many others like him. Removing the need to focus on non-essential elements like food and shelter, the developers can just focus on what they are good at – developing games.
A second intervention, which is just as important as the first one, is to encourage skills acquisition through a services industry approach. Through working on games or elements of games commissioned by a Top Gaming company from the west, the developers get to hone their skills even as they earn income through servicing the global industry. These are but two possible ways in which the growth of the industry can be curated, nurtured and guided, possibly even impacting on the growth forecast for the industry – from an impressive 9% to a whopping 15 or even 20%.
Developers like Mxolisi Xaba form part of the bedrock of South Africa’s gaming industry. They have been in the trenches, designing, creating and coding games for a decade. They have made mistakes, missed opportunities, gained invaluable insights, grown networks that stretch across the continent. Created games that resonate with gamers halfway around the world and continue to shape this new frontier in the tech and digital innovation space that is Gaming. They deserve to know that it has not all been in vain and that they do not have to chip away at the rock face alone anymore. Their efforts are appreciated and help is on the way.
 South African Cultural Observatory (2019) Unlocking the growth potential of the online gaming industry in South Africa: Challenges and Opportunities, https://www.southafricanculturalobservatory.org.za/download/458/d07e70efcfab08731a97e7b91be644de/Unlocking+the+growth+potential+of+the+online+gaming+industry+in+South+Africa%3A+Challenges+and+Opportunities
 Statista.com, Value of the video games market in South Africa from 2014 to 2023 (in million South African rand), https://www.statista.com/statistics/517310/south-africa-video-games-market-value/