World Cup opens door for African game developers

Mobile devices provide a tempting platform

Vodacom recently launched its multiplayer, mobile-phone-based game "Legends of Echo,"

Vodacom recently launched its multiplayer, mobile-phone-based game "Legends of Echo,"

The upcoming FIFA World Cup is expected to raise the profile of Africa's game developers, as more companies invest in gaming platforms and more people go online to play.

Companies have invested in gaming Web sites and mobile-phone-based games, hoping to cash in on interest in the World Cup and hopefully sustain the user base after the tournament. South Africa has been gripped by euphoria as it prepares to host the event for the first time in Africa, in June.

"The World Cup serves as an opportunity to tap into a new market already familiar with the Western aesthetic of gaming and animation, and give them a taste of what flavor we have to offer," said Mark Kaigwa, creative director at Mosaic Ltd., a video game and animation consultancy firm. "People want to experience gaming in Africa by Africans, and there's no better time to do it than right now. There's heightened expectation all around and we can hope to see even international companies commissioning projects to put African games on the market."

Vodacom recently launched its multiplayer, cell-phone-based game "Legends of Echo," which is location-based and blends elements of the real and virtual worlds.

"The players are divided into 5 bloodlines -- Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Industry; each bloodline has two allied bloodlines and two mortal enemies and as players try to thrive in the Echo they will need to make complex political alliances to get the stuff they need -- Elements," said Vincent Maher, Vodacom portfolio manager for social media, in a blog post explaining the game. "Elements are the lifeblood of a bloodline. You need them to build weapons, buy weapons, gifts and other items that you need to survive."

Vodacom has been working on the game for the past 16 months, and the complexity of the game and the investment has signaled that African gaming is on the rise.

"The game is built using Java and uses Vodacom's existing location-based social network, The Grid. And this kind of investment, especially with their timing and audience in mind, tells their long-term ambitions," Kaigwa said.

The World Cup is expected to raise Africa's gaming profile and attract international gaming companies and audiences into Africa. In the past 12 years, World Cup hosts have benefitted by launching games that keep the memory of the tournament alive.

"Companies have realized that the only way to keep a World Cup 2010 forever in a country or continent is through games with a lot of players who will still play World Cup 2010 five years down the line just like how we still remember the France '98 World Cup game," said Eyram Tawia, co-founder of Leti Games.

The mobile phone has become an important platform, given that there are more mobile phones than PCs in Africa. Nokia has invited game developers to upload their games to the Ovi store, providing a significant marketplace and audience for African gamers.

"Handset manufacturers can also scout the continent for good content that could be pre-installed on all phones shipped to Africa," added Tawia.

Leti Games developed iWarrior, the first African-themed game based on the iPhone, and although the game was well-received, the lack of Internet payment gateways in many countries meant that the game was not as extensively downloaded by Africans as would have been expected.

Apart from high Internet costs, game developers in Africa have had to deal with other challenges, such as funding and licensing, in some platforms.

"We had to develop on Macs for iPhone and get a license before we could even test the game on the device itself; this process is quite easy for developers outside Africa but trust me, this was hell for us and it took us a long time to get the license," added Tawia.

How games are marketed to the public also matters, since in most African societies, games are considered to be something for youths and young adults.

The World Cup will provide the avenue for game developers to showcase their talents and for users to taste what is available, but for the industry to develop, it will have to address issues concerning affordability, relevance in the local settings, and the type of handsets used. For instance, "Legends of Echo" works on Symbian Series 60-based smartphones from Nokia and Sony Ericsson, which are beyond the reach, in terms of price, of many users outside South Africa.

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