Digital battle for African phones

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AfricaWorld

Safari the warrior crouches in the bush – a digitised heroine from the new cellphone game “Afro Fighters” that its Nigerian creator hopes will soon rival the likes of Clash of Clans or Angry Birds on world handsets.

To achieve this, Olakunle Ogungbamila is preparing to take on a line-up of challenges as daunting as any of the muscular opponents on his new app, even the game’s arch foe the Dark Lord of Oti.

Industry analysts have long hailed the explosive growth of mobile telecoms in sub-Saharan Africa – 635 million subscribers by the end of this year climbing to 930 million by the end of 2019, Ericsson reports.

But size isn’t everything. It is the quality of those cellphone connections, subscriptions and surrounding infrastructure that is holding up Africa’s nascent games development industry, not the quantity of handsets.

The number of expensive smartphones that can run sophisticated games and apps is low. They will account for only 14 percent of African mobile connections by the end of this year, about half the global average and less than a quarter of the penetration in north America, research group Ovum says.

“That is the number one obstacle. It is changing rapidly though,” Ogungbamila at his Kuluya Games in Lagos.

He would like more deals with telecoms firms to let him process payments, more skilled developers, better, cheaper mobile broadband and, one day, more funding to make full-blown console games for the Xbox and PlayStation.

He would also like his customers to have bank cards and accounts, to make it easier for them to send in small payments for charge-ups and extra characters in games. “Collecting money is still an issue,” he said.

Around 80 percent of Kuluya’s revenue came from making branded mini games and apps for other firms, rather than adverts and purchases in its own titles, Ogungbamila said.

On the other side of the continent, in the office of Nairobi’s Planet Rackus, Mwaura Kirore splits his time between designing games and running an advertising company. Those well-paying advertising clients get the bulk of his time at the moment, he conceded.

“I don’t think anyone in Kenya can make a living out of gaming yet… We’re just at our infant stage… But we are in for the long haul.” Planet Rackus’s game MA3Racer sends rickety minibus taxis zig-zagging across a motorway next to a lion-infested park.

Kenya’s careering “matatu” taxis are a national institution and the game’s name plays on their nickname stemming from the Swahili word “tatu” meaning “three”, which derived from either the number of fare coins or seat rows, or both.

Planet Rackus’s first edition of MA3Racer, a 2D mobile game, had more than a million downloads on Nokia’s Ovi platform, reflecting strong demand.

The firm’s designers are also working on a new sci-fi adventure where the evil lords will have character traits of African strongmen past and present, including Uganda’s Idi Amin, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Kuluya’s website lists just short of 50 titles. Highest ranked in the Google Play Store include Afro Fighters, Keke – where you guide a rickshaw taxi down a dirt road, a big hit in India says Ogungbamila – and the adventure game Masai.

Ghana’s Leti Arts offers mobile comic strips combined with games – Africa’s Legends, staring Pharaoh and Shaka, and Ananse: The Origin, based on a character from West African folklore. The idea is to lure local players with local content, always looking out for a storyline that could turn into a franchise popular enough to cross borders in Africa and beyond.

If possible, they also want to change the way Africa is portrayed when it does appear in Western games – generally as a bloody backdrop for shoot’em-ups – such as the excursion into the Niger Delta in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.

“In the West, they take Greek history or Greek mythology and they spin it into multi-billion-dollar entertainment entities,” Kuluya’s Ogungbamila said.

Leti co-founder Wesley Kirinya said: “There are lots of African stories that haven’t been told. With Ananse, you have a very cunning character with spider-like powers from the days of ancient Africa… before Spiderman existed.”

For all the challenges, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. One is the spread of cheaper smartphones. An iPhone 5 or a Samsung Galaxy S5 may be out of reach for many. But a Chinese-made Tecno M3 handset, with Google’s Android operating system, was on offer for 13 000 naira (R849) at Abuja’s open air Emab shopping mall.

In February, Chinese chip designer Spreadtrum Communications unveiled the innards of what would be a $25 (R267) smartphone. But many of the cheaper smartphones still lacked the power for more ambitious games, Ogungbamila said.

Even the cheaper smartphones are still out of reach for the vast majority of customers with small incomes and pre-paid mobile accounts – many of them charging up call by call on scratch cards. Ovum puts average revenue per user in Africa at $6 a month, compared with $48 in north America.

But Africa’s economic growth should lead to a bigger middle class with more money and time to sit back with handsets and push pixels for fun.

“African games developers have to gamble on the growth of smartphone devices – and that growth is there,” Ovum analyst Thecla Mbongue said. “But there are challenges. Is the future bright? I would say it is mixed.“ – Andrew Heavens and Drazen Jorgic from Reuters


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