On the expo floor, Thor battles Loki, Wonder Woman and Alice in Wonderland swoop to the rescue, and the crowds cheer. And that’s not even on the myriad video screens where gamers battle for survival in dozens of fictional universes.
The annual rAge gaming expo has breathed new life into technology fairs in South Africa, attracting thousands of serious and occasional gamers, along with wannabe superhoes in the form of costumed characters mingling with the crowds.
The headline attention goes to the big new games for PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo consoles. The opportunity to play games that still can’t be bought online or in stores is irresistible to the gamer. The history-based hardcore Assassin’s Creed Unity and the gentle spin on third-person shooters given to Splatoon – a compelling paint-shooting game for the Nintendo Wii U – are two sides of the same coin: ever-more spectacular games that appeal to all segments of the gaming market.
There is a downside to the noise and spectacle, though. It drowns out the emergence of a small but healthy local game developer community.
According to a survey by the Make Games Soutb Africa association, 32 game development companies are active in South Africa. While their impact on the economy is invisible – they employ 240 people between them, and generate only R30-million in annual revenue – their potential is immense. Half of the companies are young start-ups, created in the last two years.
“The industry is still tiny, but with the early access release of Broforce by Free Lives and Vicera Clean-up Detail by Rune Storm Games, we’re expecting a 130% increase in the value of the industry for the 2014 financial year,” says Make Games SA chairperson Nick Hall. “We’re hoping that these success stories will give local entrepreneurs the confidence to enter the industry.”
Entrepreneurs like Steven Tu, co-founder of Twoplus Games. He’s just quit an advertising career of eight years to go full-time into game development. At rAge’s Home_Coded stand, his company demoed two games, an “anxiety-inducing” one-key zombie game called Dead Run (play it online at http://www.playdeadrun.com) and the puzzle game Beat Attack (play it online at http://www.twoplusgames.com/beatattack). Dead Run is waiting approval in the Apple App Store, with an Android version on the way.
Of course, these games cannot compete with the multi-million-dollar budgets of what the gamers call the AAA titles – the mega-hits that generate more profits than Hollywood blockbusters. And, as much as rAge focuses on those titles, it also gives the little guys a platform.
Steven Tu of Twoplusgames at rAge, with one of the games his company developed.
PIC: Arthur Goldstuck
“What an opportunity this is for us indie game devs!” enthuses Tu. “Games are all about engagement and interaction, the two-way dance between player and system.
“Playtesting is the most important thing that we can do with our creations. Being able to put our games in front of a great variety of people to watch how they interact with it is invaluable. If they don’t get it, you can figure out why, and you can fix it. If they love it, that is the greatest reward known to a creator.”
Hall agrees: “rAge gives us the opportunity to address these issues by allowing the local consumer market to experience the quality of local games as well as raise general awareness of the industry.”
And now his association want to take it further.
“Make Games, along with key partners like the Department of Trade and Industry and the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering, is hoping to start an incubator in Johannesburg as well as Cape Town within the next year to assist start-up studios in becoming sustainable. We already have a community-funded bursary that has allowed two students to study Game Design at Wits University, and we’re hoping to expand the programme.”
South African hardware also made a big spash at rAge, with the global launch of the Sci-Ryder, an ergonomically designed seat and framework with fully adjustable arm, foot and head rests, as well as screen-mounting positions.
“Together, these unique features provide users with a comfortable and customisable personal gaming environment that significantly reduces the impact on their muscular frame,” declared its inventor, Gavin Mills.
The device measures 1.5m x 0.6m of floor space, occupying half the space of a normal desk, and sells for a neat R18 000 (visit www.sci-ryder.com). Despite this, it drew crowds of onlookers, and queues of aspirant test-pilots.
One can’t quite picture a businessman in a suit in the Sci-Ryder or at the Home-Coded stand, but the local industry is slowly becoming a serious business.
The local games on display at the Home-Coded stand at rAge:
Agent Unseen, by Clockwork Acorn
Alien Lobotomy, by Soup With Bits
Cadence, by Made With Monster Love
Beat Attack, by Twoplus Games
Dead Run, by Twoplus Games