Sun, Sep 29, 2013 - Page 14 News List

African video game makers level up with localized plotlines

By Monica Mark  /  The Guardian, LAGOS

On a hot day in central Lagos, Nigeria, there is only one way to cut through the traffic: Jump on a motorbike and whizz around oncoming buses, gaping potholes and street hawkers, all the while trying to avoid bribe-seeking policemen.

If that sounds too exhausting, an alternative is to stay home and play out the scene online.

In Nigeria, game developers are turning life into art with African-inspired video games that have set thumbs twitching across the continent.

In a global video game industry worth US$66 billion — more than Hollywood — the market has so far offered few Africa-centric plotlines.

“We wanted to use game[s] as an engine to share African experiences between ourselves and with the rest of the world through African narratives, sounds and characters,” said Hugo Obi, co-creator of Nigeria’s MALIYO Games, one of the first video game companies in west Africa.

MALIYO’s most popular offering is Okada Ride — the nickname for the motorbikes that dart dangerously through cities across the country.

Its answer to Angry Birds is Mosquito Smasher, now in its fourth edition. In the game, players battle against a villain who has mobilized the insects to keep away tourists.

The appeal for new adventures has jumped borders. Nigerian company Gamsole, which became the first in the region to clock more than 1 million mobile application downloads last month, said most of its enthusiasts log in from Brazil, India and the US.

“Some people take the bestselling games and change them to African characters, but our approach is to create games that are uniquely African,” MALIYO’s Oluseye Soyode-Johnson said.

As sub-Saharan Africa becomes increasingly plugged in online, a growing middle class looking for entertainment has resulted in Nigerian movies and music sweeping across the continent, with game publishers hoping to follow suit.

Leapfrogging PCs and consoles, the industry has exploded with mobile phone users across the country, which has the world’s fastest-growing mobile Internet usage behind China and India.

“I like these games for the same reason why I like watching Nollywood [films]: Everybody likes to see something they can relate to,” said graduate Sule Elaigwu, who purchased a smartphone for the first time last year, one of 21.5 million mobile phones bought in Nigeria that year.

The mushrooming industry has surprised some in a country that does not boast a single game design course.

“There’s so much demand that isn’t being met in Africa,” said Lakunle Ogungbamila, director of Kuluya.com, a game developer based in Lagos.

There are signs that gaming is ready for the next level. Founded in a small flat in the Nigerian cpaital, Kuluya’s 13-man team secured US$2 million in funding after just six months. The companies’ biggest hit so far, Oga @ The Top, has cashed in on a growing love of social media.

The inspiration for the game came from an incident in which a Nigerian policeman, unable to recall the police’s Web site address during a morning interview, claimed he had to ask his “oga [boss] at the top” for permission to divulge the site’s name.

The gaffe went viral on Twitter, prompting Kuluya designers to cobble together the eponymous game. Within three days, it had 60,000 plays.

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