South Africa is finally seeing the game developer equivalent of rock stars emerging, writes Arthur Goldstuck.
Toxic, the gun-slinging coffee addict bunny who starred in South Africa’s first successfully exported computer game 18 years ago, is back. An updated version of the game has been released by Celestial Games as Toxic Bunny HD, for Windows 8 and Windows Phone, and will soon be available on the Android platform for Gamestick. A PS Vita version is also in the works.
After its release in 1996, the game sold 150 000 units in German, English, French, Dutch and Polish. In South Africa, it briefly became the best-selling game in most stores where it was available.
"There was a lot of hard work but in the end there was also a lot of luck involved," says Travis Bulford, one of four developers who spent two years creating the game. "We were not the first company to release a computer game in South Africa – we were second by a month or two – although arguably we were the first to do so successfully."
It has taken almost two decades for that early success to evolve into a local game development industry. But, suddenly, the game developer rock stars are everywhere.
On Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform for start-ups to get financial backing for their ideas, an adventure game called Stasis has raised $132 000 after setting a target of $100 000. The funding means that Stasis’s creator, Johannesburg 3D artist Christopher Bischoff, can focus full-time on developing the game.
A Cape Town game development studio, Pleasant Company Games, set a more modest target of $10 000 on Kickstarter, yet raised $27 000 to fund Ancient Terrible Things, a "pulp horror dice game".
In the years between Toxic Bunny and Stasis, says Bulford, South Africa has seen a steady increase in the number of games coming out and, more important, the local teams getting recognition on international platforms.
"What hasn’t happened yet is that same measure of recognition and support from local platforms. Ultimately it was the support of a local company, Vision Software, which was later bought out by Electronic Arts, that got Toxic Bunny into the international market. We desperately need local business to support the growing games development industry."
That's one of the missions of a developer community called Make Games SA, an association of "professional, indie, hobbyist and student game developers, artists and designers". It has an objective to "assist game developers in establishing sustainable businesses in South Africa … and promote proper game development education".
Bulford points out that a successful game has the potential to bring millions of dollars to the local economy, and "can do that in a day".
"My feeling is that the South African games development community is on the verge of just such an event. The skills are there; the local community is mature and hungry enough to do the hard work needed. The technical and artistic support structures are in place. We just need a killer local game that gets exceptional international attention."
Some of the most recent South African games success stories include:
Desktop Dungeons won the excellence in design award at the 13th Independent Game Festival in San Francisco in 2011. The game was officially released on Steam, one of the world’s largest online gaming communities, with more than 40-million users, in November 2013. Mobile versions of the product are now in development.
Bro Force has been "greenlit" for inclusion on the Steam distribution platform. Being greenlit means that Steam's owner, Valve Corporation, works with the developer to bring the game to the Steam marketplace. The demo version of Bro Force, funded from sales of a previous mobile title, has been downloaded more than a million times. The game will be ready to ship in the next few weeks.
Viscera Cleanup Detail was created in 10 days as an internal team jam, and the game was greenlit in record time. Since then, another RuneStorm game, Rooks Keep, has also been greenlit.
Pixel Boy started out as a matric project by programmer Dominic Obojkovits and artist David Nickerson and has been developed to the point where it has been greenlit on Steam. Giant Box Games has also secured a publishing deal with Nintendo to bring the game to the Wii U later this year.
"Tasty Poison has too many titles to choose just one success story," says Bulford. Their successful games include Pocket RPG, Rhino Raid, Neon Shadow and Dig! With new PC titles on the way and their own development kits for Sony’s PS Vita, it is regarded as one of the most successful game studios in South Africa.
Bladeslinger, developed locally by Luma Arcade, was featured by TouchArcade, which covers iOS gaming, as one of App Users' top ten most anticipated upcoming games, and named one of the best games of 2012.
"There are in fact many other games and success stories," says Bulford. "These show the various ways we are tackling the market and how diverse our young games development industry is." – Gadget.co.za
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee