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Africa makes a play for billion-dollar gaming industry

posted 13 Nov 2012, 05:15 by Mpelembe   [ updated 13 Nov 2012, 05:16 ]

With a largely youthful population, widespread access to mobile technology and an estimated market of 735 million subscribers - Africa presents a great opportunity for the powerful gaming industry. This emerging market is not only a target for well established multinational companies, but also increasingly an opportunity for young African developers to create and sell games made by Africans, for Africans.

 NAIROBIKENYA (RECENT) (REUTERS) -  At a hideaway in Nairobi's Kibera slum, young gamers thumb away on hand held consoles in a battle for top-score bragging rights.

Kenya's urban youth like their counterparts in the US, Europe and Asia, these days, spend much of their free time indoors, playing computer, console and mobile games.

For 2 Kenya shillings a minute, about 2 US cents, youth in this neighbourhood can sample the latest series of video games the multibillion dollar industry has to offer.

"I like FIFA, FIFA 13 for PS3. I've liked games since I was a kid, that's just something that comes. If you start playing, you can't stop. It's kind of addictive," said Collin Okumo, a gamer.

Evans Odhiambo, the owner of Heiley's Den which with three PlayStations is one of the biggest in Kibera, says teenagers spend hours on games.

"I have around 200 to 250 people that come and play during the weekend, because they don't have anything to do outdoors. Like today, they come and play indoor games, like PS2," he said.

Leisure habits of young Kenyans, and young Africans elsewhere, translate into a fast-growing industry, whose potential is fast becoming of interest to international investors.

Worldwide, the gaming industry's revenues reached 67 billion US dollars in 2012, which is more than the revenues of movies and music industry combined, according to a Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) report published in The Economist.

These revenues are expected to grow to over 88 million US dollars in 2016.

Nairobi, the self-appointed 'Silicon Savannah' of the IT industry on the African continent, last month hosted the first Demo Africa Conference, where young IT entrepreneurs from all over the continent had a chance to present their ideas to sponsors.

Oluseye Soyode-Johnson, founder of Maliyo Games, a games design company from Nigeria, believes that growth in the gaming industry will come predominantly from mobile gaming.

Consoles, although increasingly popular among middle-class kids, are still too expensive and PCs are still mostly used only at work.

Accoring to Soyode-Johnson, the potential of casual games for mobile has been demonstrated by the run-away success of games such as Angry Birds by Rovio, which saw over 12 million downloads worldwide.

"Traditional PlayStation sales have gone down 30 percent year on year for the past two years and the reason for that is that casual gaming is eating into that because now non-gamers are coming on board. You know, the 35-year-old women who play Farmville, the 40+ guys who pick up their mobile and try to beat their children's scores, because they have downtime. They worked, they are retired, they are all playing games. And we that transfers to Africa," he said.

Maliyo Games is one of the most successful of the many indigenous African games designers who hope that their local know-how will give them an edge over well-established international companies.

Maliyo's arsenal features games titles like Mosquito Smasher: Sheer Annoyance, where the player has to smash the malaria-bearing mosquitoes. They've also got Okada Driver, where the player has to drive a motor-bike taxi - a popular means of transport in many African cities - through traffic and pot-holes.

"African consumer wants content that is of high quality, that is relevant to them, that is compelling and most of all that is localised. Now, they all consume content from the US, from Hollywood, JZ and all that but as I said before, something magical happens when it's localised and it's of that kind of quality. So we want to give more of that," said Soyode-Johnson.

Market analysis indicates there are over 735 million mobile subscribers in Africa, with 20 percent year-on-ear growth.

Internet in Africa is also predominantly accessed via mobile. Almost half of the mobile subscribers usesmart phones or internet-enabled feature phones that allow them to browse, or play online games.

Africa is also the world leader in mobile payments, thanks to the wide-spread use of groundbreaking technologies such as M-PESA, capturing over 36 percent of global transaction value.

However, producing games for mobiles in Africa has its own challenges.

A variety of devices and operating systems, such as AndroidApple iOS, RIM (Blackberry), and Symbian means that mobile games require more skill and expertise to design than your average programming.

Wesley Kirinya, the founder of Leti Games, a Kenyan-Ghanaian cooperative, whose headquarters are inNairobi's iHub, a space where technology buffs come together to share ideas and solutions, says funding is also a major hurdle.

Leti Games makes most of its profits not from advertisements or consumer payments, but from tailored orders for games from companies or NGOs who want to use games to raise awareness about their products or goals.

"One of the big challenges here is how do you get money from people, how do you get your revenue. When you look at the kind of content [we make], especially mass-market kind of applications and content, when you target people the question at the end of the day is how you get money from them. In US and Europe you can use credit cards and you can do small transactions and that can work but inAfrica credit card uptake is very small, it's almost negligible," says Kirinya.

That's where International IT giants such as Microsoft come in, providing community support and social gaming platform solutions that would enable independent designers to monetise their products.

Microsoft representative for East AfricaDele Akinsade, says that while Microsoft Games is not planning on releasing any games targeted specifically towards African audience, its goal is to help local designers who do.

Providing training, technical documentation, cloud services and know-how ensures that local designers can make games compatible with Microsoft-powered devices, of which they estimate are over a 100 million across Africa.

"Our involvement is to put technology in the hands of these young innovators so that it can be an enabler to them. We have programmes, and Microsoft being a company that it is with a global reach, we have partnerships with other organisations, other start-ups that have gone through similar things, where we want to make sure that they have an opportunity to learn from those," Akinsade said.

While gaming in African cannot yet match Asia - which raised 3 billion US dollars last year - African games designers say they are prepared to wait and grow together with the mushrooming innovations and technology industries.