Kenya: Ahead of the Game in Gaming

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A few years back, gaming was considered a pastime activity, with some considering it a waste of time.

However, times have changed. The global gaming industry has grown in leaps and bounds and as of 2020, was worth more than $152.1 billion, employing thousands of people.

As much as Kenya was late to ride this wave, we are not far behind. The country’s continued surge in smartphone users has created a market for locally developed games, and Kenyan game developers are quickly rising to tap this potential.

This week, we speak to such people who are on the frontline of game development in the country, ensuring that if someone plays a game on their smartphone, it is one made in Kenya.

Calvin Nathan Lichungu

Calvin Nathan Lichungu is a game developer with a wide range of skills ranging from animation, illustration and even coding.

He is the brains behind games such as Maasai Mkali and Chukua Mbuzi, a hexagonal puzzle game where you have to help a butcher capture a goat by placing a limited number of rocks. He has also worked on educational games such as Tuhesabu Bano, Sort it Out and Spell-o-rama, all of which can be found at tizi.com <http://tizi.com> , a platform for educational games tailored for the Kenyan curriculum.

“Even before the advent of mobile games, I had been introduced to digital games such as Sega and other cartridge console games that my mother got me. I particularly enjoyed games like Super Mario, and wondered how they were made. That question was answered years later during my multimedia class at the Technical University of Kenya, where I was pursuing technology in design. In those classes, I learned that I could make my artwork move with a bit of code.

For me, that was mind-blowing, and I decided to delve deeper into ActionScript, the scripting language for adobe flash, now rebranded to Adobe Animate,” he says.

“In university, I enjoyed the design aspect of our course, and assignments were surprisingly fun for me. As a result, I chose to major in interactive design, and my final year thesis was a game called Baamukoya where a young Luhya boy goes to save his family while collecting banana coins.”

Calvin set out to gain meaningful work experience as a game developer with a game in his portfolio.

Initially, he worked as an intern at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development(KICD) before moving to Infoney Solutions. He worked as an animator before venturing out as a freelancer.

After two months of freelancing, he landed at Alif Homes located in Diamond Plaza 2, where he made stills for billboards, animation and 3D renders for digital advertising. It is here where he walked into his most significant role as a game developer out of boredom.

“One day, I was bored at work and sat staring at Diamond Plaza One. I noticed an orange spiral tunnel at Diamond Plaza One and investigated it during my lunch break. To my surprise, it was the Nairobi Game Development Center, where I was warmly welcomed and even met the founder, Jay Shapiro.

After showing him the game I had made, he challenged me to do another project, which became the game Maasai Mkali. That accidental meeting resulted in me getting a job there,” he says.

“Coming from an artistic background, I could illustrate, animate and also code. This initially made choosing a definitive role hard, but as the company grew, I got into the technical side, where I code more than I draw or animate.

Currently, I work with game designers to flesh out the game. My work involves making things work as they should.

If a button is meant to bring up more options or take you to a different level, it is up to me to figure out how to do that and also figure out what game engine to use and what platform to target.”

According to Calvin, infrastructure and insufficient capital are two of the biggest challenges you’ll have to deal with as an African game developer. In his words, some tools such as Virtual Reality headsets, which you’ll need for game development, are costly to acquire.

Additionally, the software required to make everything work doesn’t come cheap. Even if you decide to take a more straightforward approach and use free and open-source software, you’ll still have to pay for hosting and game assets such as 3D models, sprites, sound effects, music, and code snippets. Regular power outages are also something you need to prepare for.

Regardless of the challenges he has faced in his line of work, he still recommends game development as a career to anyone with an interest in it.

Denis Odera

Denis Odera’s earliest memories of when he developed an interest in gaming and game development are full of recollections of numerous defeats at the hands of his brother. In his words, his elder brother always bested him in every video game they had, every single time they played.

Whereas a never-ending string of losses can be discouraging, the losses opened Denis’ eyes to what needed to be done to win the games.

“From playing video games, I realised that to win in the games, I had to understand them. That desire to understand them led me to the United Kingdom to pursue a three-year course in Computer Games Enterprise at the University of Portsmouth.

The three were crucial in moulding my understanding of the gaming industry and helping me put into perspective the difference between the gaming industry in developed nations and an industry in its infancy in developing nations.

Upon completing his studies, Denis returned to an almost non-existent gaming industry in Kenya and continued networking with other game developers to create awareness of game development in the country. It wasn’t long before his efforts and expertise piqued recruiters’ interest and thus began his career as a game producer at Usiku Games.

“Being a game producer requires excellent people and time management skills, experience in leadership and good organisation. As a game producer, my job is to facilitate the rest of the development team to make the game by organising schedules, sorting out resources to developers, managing teams and ensuring everything goes smoothly. Additionally, I monitor live projects.”

“Although I work every day knowing that we as a team have to meet specific client deadlines and timelines, I am always more interested in how my team members have learnt, grown and succeeded in each project they undertake. In the gaming industry, team growth and improvement are always better than individuality.”

Whereas Denis is an avid gamer himself, he never plays the games he has helped develop. In his words, gaming is an active learning process aimed at widening his knowledge of the industry, and the thrill of a new player’s experience is something you won’t get in a game you’ve worked on right from when it was just a concept.

“The gaming industry in Kenya is rapidly growing. I’m constantly surprised to see how quickly it is all happening and how fast the gaming industry’s scale and potential are getting Kenyans’ attention. However, the industry still needs to be accepted by the older generation. We need to reach the stage where we can say that playing games isn’t a sign of being antisocial; it is useful, enjoyable and educational just as any other activity.”

Denis is full of optimism for the gaming industry in Kenya, he notes that creativity is lacking. According to him, a lot of things being done in the Kenyan industry are unoriginal.

There’s a need to break that trend and believe in our own talents, uniqueness and creativity.

Until that is achieved, Denis intends to focus on making a difference in his own ways.

“My plans for the future involve making Usiku Games the number one gaming company in all of Africa. I intend to achieve this by being the best producer I can be and getting the best out of all the team members to create quality mobile games. I foresee a day where Usiku will be recognised on a global scale.”

Moses Mbugua

Even without a university education, Moses Mbugua has found enormous success in game development.

In just five years, he has grown from designing interactive experiences for digital marketing purposes, animating films to now working as a full-time game developer and even owning his own studio, Mesmerise Studios Kenya.

“Unlike what is often portrayed in movies, game developers don’t spend entire workdays playing indoor games with little time to work on actual development. In reality, game development is a very intensive job. There are occasions where you lose sleep and spend countless hours…

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