To the moon and beyond
Despite some formidable challenges, local developers are tapping into our growing addiction to socially fuelled mobile games.
People love to be entertained. From bankers to bus drivers, everyone enjoys a moment or two of escapism. And as people grow increasingly attached to their mobile phones, they become more interested in mobile entertainment. This entertainment is available at anytime, anywhere, fuelling the growing appetite worldwide for increasingly sophisticated and socially minded mobile games.
Recent data out of Juniper Research forecasted that, by 2017, 64 billion games will be downloaded onto smartphones and tablet devices. This is over three times that of 2012, which saw roughly 21 billion downloads. Jupiter attributes the massive growth to the increasing number of free-to-play releases and the worldwide uptake of smartphones.
Locally, mobile phone users are no less addicted to the hits of dopamine that come from reaching the next level of Moonbase (a locally developed mobile game), but the growth of the South African market is inhibited by a number of factors. For one, SA is a largely prepaid cellphone market, which makes it a tricky task for developers and distributors to create sustainable revenue streams. Another factor is the ubiquity of feature phones as opposed to smartphones, and the complex question of distribution.
With the South African market being so much smaller than international markets, and the lack of local app stores, it's been difficult for local developers to gain traction here.Angus Robinson, NATIVE
"The feature phone market might well be huge, but it's crippled by fragmentation that pushes up development costs exponentially, and by poor monetisation potential through carriers that just aggregate as much product into one shotgun-style 'store' as possible," explains Danny Day, co-founder of local game development studio QCF Design. "It's really not worth developing for feature phones unless you have deals with the networks."
Angus Robinson, director of mobile for digital agency NATIVE, adds: "With the South African market being so much smaller than international markets, and the lack of local app stores, it's been difficult for local developers to gain traction here."
Finding an audience
These challenges haven't held back local game development studios, however, and some, including QCF Design, Luma Arcade and SkillPod, have made impressive inroads into international markets.
For local developers looking to tap into the South African audience, arguably one of the best routes is via Mxit, the mobile messaging platform that has around seven million active users. Apart from getting immediate access to the vast user base, Mxit works on more than 3 000 different devices and on all operating platforms. Some locally developed games such as Moonbase, Battle Trivia, Tuneit and Ask.Kim have gained loyal fans in the hundreds of thousands via Mxit.
It's very hard to get noticed on most of the app stores, which is one of the advantages of becoming part of the Mxit platform, where it's still very early days for games.Andy Volk, Mxit
"Once a game has been developed, one of the major challenges is standing out from the crowd," explains Andy Volk, VP of apps and developer relations at Mxit. "It's very hard to get noticed on most of the app stores, which is one of the advantages of becoming part of the Mxit platform, where it's still very early days for games."
In addition, Mxit uses the local prepaid model to its advantage. Users are encouraged to spend only small amounts of money (or Mxit currency, Moola) within the apps at a time. "In doing so, we're plugging into the prepaid mentality by creating engaging games that encourage small spending now and then," says Volk.
One of the first locally developed games to take off was the strategy game Moonbase, out of Blue Leaf Games. In Moonbase, players compete for dominance of the moon using various means, from managing resources to investing in new technologies and engaging in massive multiplayer wars. At its peak, Moonbase had close to one million players and expanded to other social networks such as Facebook, but in recent years, the lunar game has lost its following to newer releases.
Other local hits include Battle Trivia and Ask.Kim. Battle Trivia, released by Bazooka Games, allows users to play in multiplayer trivia rooms, competing for points by answering trivia questions. Carel van Wyk, a developer at Bazooka, says Battle Trivia attracts around 100 000 unique users per month. "People love the social aspect of the game, and the fact that they can compete against their friends and match up their skills," he says.
Ask.Kim, developed by Kazazoom, is by far the most popular female-oriented game on Mxit, and has more than 500 000 fans (April 2013). "The game is designed to be highly interactive, with tongue-in-cheek quizzes that give you a personalised response and a set of 'results' at the end," explains Kazazoom developer Eric Clements. Another hit out of Kazazoom is called the Love Doctor, which uses a similar Q&A format and has grown to be the top-ranked 'romance portal' on Mxit, with more than 680 000 current subscribed users.
With local game developers becoming increasingly attuned to what hooks users into their games, as well as how to monetise them without driving players away, the South African market for mobile games is certainly showing a great deal of promise.
First published in the July 2013 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.