The worldwide market for digital games is immense, with an annual turnover in the tens of billions of dollars. Much of this is hogged by extremely high quality (rated AAA) titles from companies like Gameloft and Nintendo, whose sheer financial muscle makes them not just invincible, but also capable of regularly churning out realistic and addictive graphics.
But, aside from these top companies, there is a vast community of people who develop indie games. Their titles may not be backed by big money, but they are supported by the love of droves of fans. Sometimes the games coming out of this group achieve commercial success, but for the most part, it is just for fun. Africans have been largely absent, not only from the commercial segment, but also from the indie game scene.
Recently, though, I found my little brother playing a game on the smartphone he bought with his savings. It was a first-person shooter, with all the blood, gore, gizmos, explosions and rat-tat of gunfire typical of the genre. Until he ran out of bullets and the narrator’s voice came on to alert him.
No, it was not the typical modified American voice shouting, “Take cover!” or “Reload!” It was a different voice. It was calm and steely. And it was saying, “Ni kubaya buda. Kaa rada!” This is Kenyan slang, or Sheng, for “Things are not looking good mate. Be careful!” Not believing my ears, I looked over his shoulder and saw, splayed across the tiny screen, the familiar landmarks of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, interspersed with some futuristic structures.
He was playing a Kenyan game. Launched in July 2015, Nairobi X, as it is called, was the first 3D-game ever developed in Kenya (and Africa). It features Otero, an elite paramilitary officer, who has to save Nairobi from an alien invasion. The game, initially available for KES 30 ($0.3) across Android, iPhone and PC, was an instant hit, attracting thousands of downloads, reviews and criticism both from Kenyans and from across the continent.
Andrew Kaggia, its creator, is a specimen of a growing breed of young Kenyans. Ambitious, sharp and animated by an incredible love for computers, he says he developed the game over many weeks, often losing track of time and missing his meals. Since Nairobi X, a number of other 3D titles have been released by this budding group.
Some have even come together and launched gaming companies. For instance, Mekan Games, a company started last year by a group of university students, released Wings of Fury 3D later the same year. The aerial dogfight game has since been downloaded by more than 25,000 people, mostly in Kenya and Nigeria, and been featured on many blogs and news websites.
Evans Kiragu, the brains behind it and the CEO of the company, insists a zombie game he made earlier, on a whim, was the first Kenyan 3D game. According to him Andrew Kaggia’s claim to that position was only accepted because he received more publicity both before and after releasing Nairobi X.
The second title from Mekan Games, Craving Carrots, was released in August, this year. It is a silly little game, with an amateur storyline, but is extremely funny and addictive. Earlier in the year, while still developing the game, they landed a spot in a morning show on national television. Their interviewer had a hard time keeping his hands off the keyboard. The game is 2D, but it still manages to captivate.
Other titles like “Kade, Ule Mtoi Mrui” from Urbandesignkings and “Bungoma Hangman” from developer Frank Tamre, among many others, have also been kindling and catering to appetites for local games. Many of them feature locally relevant storylines, some of which are pretty hilarious.
“Bungoma Hangman” for example, is based on the true story of a man from the western Kenyan town of Bungoma who recently clung onto the landing gear of a helicopter while it was taking off. He sustained minor injuries when he jumped off, but his story was the subject of countless memes.
It might still be small, young and under-funded, but the gaming scene is taking shape in Kenya. The same is true of Nigeria. Down in South Africa, the situation is much more mature. The South Africans have been making games for a while longer. Some of the studios there have even collaborated on some AAA titles.
But it will take a while for Africa’s footprint on game development to start showing. Nevertheless, that does not dampen the spirits of the pioneering young men and women who continue to regal local tastes and put Africa’s story on the console. The best part is knowing and even being friends with the people whose games one plays.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya