Home coded: SA indie game developers boot up

What looks like a bear, chucks boxes around, is stuck in the future aboard an abandoned spacecraft, in what looks like a dungeons and dragons remake but yet is really a parody for American imperialism and set in the Free State, South Africa, all the while looking for his wife with a laser blaster?

I have absolutely no idea, but someone does and they just made a game out of it. At least parts of it.

Most people would think – what a waste of time, or what’s the point? But those who ignored such reality based questions are finding their momentum and with numbers like R1.5-million, R12-million, R2.6-billion, 126, 82%, to describe funding, sales, market value, games in development and annual growth in the last year, the real and imaginary are meeting as fast as a hyperdrive in the middle.

Small, indie game development studios in South Africa are finding ways to overcome obstacles. Money is starting to materialise. Some studios are already moving onto their new hush-hush projects following the international success of their first.

Enthusiastic gamers and developers are tripping over themselves to prove their skills, push the boundaries and make a go for that elusive hit. Game developers are coming out; virtual guns blazing, as it were.

eNCA spoke to some of the existing studios in South Africa to find out just what it took to not only make the game, but the hoops they had to jump through to make it work, make money, run a studio, put it out there and pay the bills.

In true indie hustling style, the answers are about as varied as the number of pixels on your screen..

Throw in design, narration, scoring, coding, and platform savviness you get to a very multifaceted art. One that has to entertain too. The creation of a virtual world, no matter its complexity, is hard imaginative work and to pull it off requires a multitude of inputs.

Games are really the sum total of every expressive medium of all time, made interactive, and indie developers throw their personalities into it, leading to the wide array of games and the unpredictability of what will actually work.

In the absence of a guarantee or done deal and only a long hard road of work ahead, one thing that was found that must be consistent in the developer, is passion.

Evan Greenwood, founder of Free Lives studio and maker of the recently launched Broforce is an example of a local success story and makes it clear, “You have to be passionate, and you need to make big risks…this is not a safe career path.”

The ‘just start’ perspective that is so necessary for starting any business appears to be the golden rule. No one is born with learning how to code. It’s all hard work, collaboration and making the mistakes as you fumble through finding the right kind of game for you to build, just like any creative product.

Steven Tu, founder of Two Plus Games is a great example of indie tenacity and a firm believer in the need to learn constantly. He says, “You have to get out of that mindset of ‘I am not good at that, that being programming, so I am not going to learn.’”

He reiterates that there are just too many tools available out there to have an excuse not to learn something. “I hate the guy who says he has great ideas – you make it (pointing to the developer).”

To put yourself into that kind of work means you really have to want to be a game developer. And as many developers will repeat – make it how you want to make it, not how you think an indie game should be. Often, the key is to create a game that you would love to play yourself. Keep it simple; be done, not perfect.

Chris Bischoff, one half of The Brotherhood, creators of another South African-made success story, Stasis, talks of his early phases of development. “I pretty much just Forest Gump’ed my self through it,” he says, “I did all art initially, tried to figure out programming and just went with it.” And he did that for up to 18 hours a day, 6 days a week, exclusively on Stasis.

There is no one type of game that seems to ‘make it’. There is no golden rule of thumb and in the absence of venture capitalists waving their cheque-book at local developers, you really have only your wits to rely on.

But that said, despite the competition being tough, the sense of community and the support that flows in this small creative scene is impressive. Most developers find that this community is essential in their game development.

Or, to take that idea further – you never know what you have until the community tells you what you have.

With the advent of Make Games South Africa in 2012, the centralisation of a supportive community and how-to guides ranging from best development engine to build your gaming world, to setting up a business and navigating the government needs for game registration, the lone game maker has a place to go to tap into a collective. And they use it, often.

Danny Day from QCF Design and co-maker of another local success story, Desktop Dungeons, says, “MGSA allows those of us that solve those issues one by one to share them with the rest of the local development scene. Kickstarter working locally, as well as getting Google Merchant accounts able to pay out to SA are our current targets.”

“We are all stumbling around in the dark,” says Tu, but it seems that it is better to do that together.

But the real value in the community lies in their feedback. Do they like your game or not is the real determiner of how you manage your time. Put your game out there to get feedback rather than slave away for a year or more on a game that no one will play, most developers say.

Tu puts in simply, “We make a prototype, chuck it online, and see what people say about it. We don’t have the resources to …test for a million hours,” he says in reference to the huge marketing and testing budgets of AAA titles such as Battlefield or Destiny.

A game often does not follow a typical product-to-market approach that appears in some finished form. Game developers often, “release as you work.”

“Whether something is good or not is not up to you to decide,” Tu adds. Everyone thinks their idea is great and they are the exception and their game is going to make a huge splash. But like most creative outputs, success is rare.

“The reason why she didn’t call you is she just isn’t that into you.” In other words, if it doesn’t work, let it go and start something new.

Day has a similar approach to development, saying that the mob has a kind of wisdom in this regard. He writes in an email in November 2014, “If it doesn’t catch on early on, it won’t later either, so adjust your output.”

“Whether we grow or not next year depends on what sort of reactions we get on our prototypes when we release them to the world.”

“We won’t invest in a game if people don’t already love the quick and dirty version.”

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