03 May 13

Free Lives and Game Dev in South Africa


When parts of QCF Design went to good ol’ San Fran for this year’s GDC, I opted to stay on my home continent due to a combination of local life admin and an extreme hatred of sleeping in airport lounges between flights.

I spent a lot of that time working in the office of another South African game dev studio known as Free Lives, the chaps responsible for the ever-excellent BROFORCE. They’re a great crew and I really like what they’re doing for South Africa’s presence in game development (Evan Greenwood – God King And Ex Chief Beard Cultivator of Free Lives – just recently presented a talk at A MAZE in Germany). But although this blog post was originally going to be about them, I realised after a draft or two that my time spent with these guys has inspired me to talk about the broader dev scene in our country and what I consider to be our primary challenges as a group of developers trying to build momentum in Africa.

In a nutshell, precious few game devs in South Africa have any idea what the rest are doing or how they’re doing it. It’s all delightfully (distressingly?) ad-hoc, and hopping between offices is an interesting and educational experience because everybody is trying something different according to their own mixture of global industry knowledge, local industry knowledge and gut feelings. QCF Design, despite the success it has enjoyed so far, is still struggling to figure out a lot of stuff. So is Free Lives. And the same goes for everyone else who tries to start a company here.

It makes for some rather weird game studio structures – at QCF, our freelancers and correspondents heavily outnumber the humble “in-office” crew of three programmers (all other talent being distributed across some rather radical geographic extremes). This means that the heart of our studio is surprisingly detached from the majority of our studio, which causes all of the communication and workflow hassles one would expect. Free Lives expanded from a lone developer to a crew of six (plus freelancers) in the space of a year, all working in half an office room (shared, interestingly enough, with former employer and fellow game studio Tasty Poison).

South Africa still has a little trouble supporting and legitimising its own game developers. The industry is small, poorly-recognised and rather heavily misunderstood by anyone in our country with the actual means and capital to financially back a big studio (“Wut are gaemz?” asks many a local venture capitalist). Practically everyone is indie – companies who try to build something bigger with the standard model of publisher support tend to struggle as much as any game developer would, with the added burden of working not only against the standard industry demands, but their own relative isolation.

Stuff that seems to work just fine overseas often turns out to be a really, really poor bet locally. In South African game development, practically everyone is still a newcomer, practically everything is untested, and our own government still classifies games as films due to a rather bizarre set of technicalities put in motion by bureaucracy years ago (you don’t want to know how much legal awkwardness this causes). We have to take these things into account when we make decisions about anything.

Want to be an engine coder? You’ll probably need to adjust your attitude or go overseas. Want to work on the AAA MMO of your dreams? We don’t have unlimited time, resources and support for something like that here. One needs to be prepared for workarounds, new ideas and plans of action that make sense uniquely for South African devs.

But perhaps the most fixable (and therefore frustrating) problem of our relatively young industry remains that fractured nature amidst devs. Our recent formation of a legally-recognised game development body in South Africa is promising, but does little to help the surprisingly isolationist policies of many local studios – every month, we discover new game development groups that have been labouring for years without contacting local organisations. Of those, many will pop their heads in briefly only to return to relative solitude and obscurity. Developers often have no idea what’s going on just half a country (or even half a city) away, and scores of South Africans still participate in global events with the belief that they’re alone in their passion.

It’s a puzzling culture – one that continues to bewilder us as formal South African game development gets bigger and bigger – and is most often summed up in the words of the isolated devs themselves when they unveil their grand plans:

“I want to show the world that South Africans can make games.”

The world kinda already knows that we can make games. Sure, people may not consciously realise that a product is South African, but we’ve definitely taken to the stage. It doesn’t actually matter if our audience pays much attention to our nationality, but it seems odd that local devs themselves have little to no understanding of this country’s international impact, or its growing, formalised community, even as they spend years toiling away on that One Great Project that will supposedly change the local scene forever!

It’s a funny country we live in. As successful as we’re collectively being on a global front, there’s surprisingly little internal communication among our professionals. I find myself wondering: is this a South African thing? Is it a developing industry thing? Or are we actually just getting our dose of a problem that has always affected everyone and will continue to do so until the end of time?


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