Amid the explosion of free mobile games worldwide, South African developers are going for a commercial ride on their own games, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in part 2 of a 3-part series on gaming in SA.
An innovative war game set in Vietnam. A puzzle game that composes original music as one connects the dots. A creepy cabin with clues to be solved. A fantasy game involving an alchemist and an inventor.
These are a few examples that reveal a vast variety of themes, topics and interests driving the South African game development scene. No one is getting rich yet, but some of the game-makers are attracting serious attention globally.
Every Single Soldier may not sound like the name of a serious software development house, but then neither does one expect a former banker to be making games. Johan Nagel, who spent 25 years in banking, rising to a senior position, eventually decided to pursue his passion full-time – but with a twist.
“I did board war-gaming for three decades, specialising in the 2nd World and the Napoleonic Wars, but it became the same build-up of forces, crossing borders, and destroying the enemy. How many simulations can you have of D-Day?
“I looked for something different, and had a real interest in post-World War II battles, so I decided to start a company called Every Single Soldier and create a counter-insurgency game. Vietnam-65 is a turn-based strategy game, but it’s about winning the hearts and minds of the local population, so it has very different mechanics.”
The game has proved a hit in the United States, which has generated about 80 per cent of its 20 000 unit sales, amid positive reviews of its fresh approach from across the globe. The game sells for $9.99 on the Steam gaming platform and the iPad App Store.
The publisher, London-based Slitherine, has already bought Nagel’s sequel, Afghanistan-11, and he is working on two further military simulation games. While five people worked on Vietnam, he has an outsourced team of nine completing the new game. He feels strongly about treating game development as a business.
“What’s missing in this industry is a businesslike approach. It’s more like a bunch of hobbyists tinkering around, and they never close a game. I’m aiming at producing four games a year. I’ve identified four studios in South Africa that are classy enough to produce decent games, and I’m popping one game into each studio.”
He is not shy about sharing the studio names, either, in case others want to follow his route: 24 Bit Games, Celestial, Retro Epic, and Render Heads.
“What Johan is doing is really great because it brings a lot of business sense to gaming community,” says veteran developer Travis Bulford. One of the grand old men of South African gaming, he was responsible for the original hit game from this country, Toxic Bunny, which sold 150 000 units in the 1990s. A high-definition version released in 2012 added another 10 000 sales.
“I ran out of steam and got married, so my focus changed. It was a game aimed at 10-13-year-olds and there’s no way to target 10-13 in the digital market.
I had to find a different way to do this.”
Bulford is about to become prolific again. His company Celestial Games is working on a psychological thriller called Montez and a horror game called Muti, while trying to raise funds for a Zulu War strategy game. Its next big thing, however, is “a bit of a cheeky game” called Battle Arena Drones (BAD), which embraces the clichés of the first-person shooter genre, but with attitude. Each drone is customisable, and each character lends capabilities to a team, forcing team play.
By the time the game was previewed at the rAge festival in Johannesburg in October, 400 beta testers had been signed up, with Bulford aiming at a thousand players to test the game.
“We need to test various technologies, graphic cards, processors, and Windows installations, for example. We also have a large drop-off, so a thousand becomes a lot less for final testing. Because it’s PvP (Player versus Player), we need more players to balance, find exploits and close holes. (prospective testers can sign up by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit battlearenadrones.com).”
BAD will enter full beta testing in the first quarter of 2016, with a “soft launch” four months later on the Steam platform and for PCs – with a Mac game a possibility.
“It’s a free-to-play game, you never have to spend a cent, but the drone appearances are cycled and, if want to play any drone any time, you have to unlock it, and that costs currency. So do decals and paint jobs to make them look different. There’s no pay-to-win scenario, but you pay to control the experience better – and to brag!”
Meanwhile, Bulford keeps going by running a commercial business, Data Stone, which offers enterprise and mobile development. It has also produced an insurance system for capturing policies on Android devices, connecting to insurance companies’ back-end systems, and a project for the UNHCR called Refugees United, to help refugees find their lost families.
Clearly, it’s not all fun and game. But then, it’s not all hard work either, says John Nagel: “I’m trying to build it up to be a full day job. Four games will keep me busy. I came from a hectic job in the banks, and I’m enjoying this and feeling guilty because I’m enjoying it so much.”
IoT at tipping point
We have long been in the hype phase of IoT, but it is finally taking on a more concrete form illustrating its benefits to business and the public at large, says PAUL RUINAARD, Country Manager at Nutanix Sub-Saharan Africa.
People have become comfortable with talking to their smartphones and tasking these mini-computers to find the closest restaurants, schedule appointments, and even switch on their connected washing machines while they are stuck in traffic.
This is considerable progress from those expensive (and dated) robotic vacuum cleaners that drew some interest a few years ago. Yes, being able to automate cleaning the carpets held promise, but the reality failed to deliver on those expectations.
However, people’s growing comfort when it comes to talking to machines and letting them complete menial tasks is not what the long-anticipated Internet of Things (IoT) is about. It really entails taking connectedness a step further by getting machines to talk to one another in an increasingly digital world filled with smart cities, devices, and ways of doing things.
We have long been in the hype phase of IoT, but it is finally taking on a more concrete form illustrating its benefits to business and the public at large. The GSM Association predicts that Africa will account for nearly 60 percent of the anticipated 30 billion connected IoT devices by 2020.
Use cases across the continent hold much promise. In agriculture, for example, placing sensors in soil enable farmers to track acidity levels, temperature, and other variables to assist in improving crop yields. In some hotels, infrared sensors are being used to detect body heat so cleaning staff now when they can enter a room. In South Africa, connected cars (think telematics) are nothing new. Many local insurers use the data generated to reward good driver behaviour and penalise bad ones with higher premiums.
The proliferation of IoT also means huge opportunity for businesses. According to the IDC, the market opportunity for IoT in South Africa will grow to $1.7 billion by 2021. And with research from Statista showing that retail IoT spending in the country is expected to grow to $60 million by the end of this year (compared to the $41 million of 2016), there is significant potential for connected devices once organisations start to unlock the value of the data being generated.
But before we get a real sense of what our newly-connected world will look like and the full picture of the business opportunities IoT will create, we need to put the right resources in place to manage it. With IoT comes data, more than we can realistically imagine, and we are already creating more data than ever before.
Processing data is something usually left to ‘the IT person’. However, if business leaders want to join the IoT game, then it is something they must start thinking about. Sure, there are several ways to process data but they all link back to a data centre, that room or piece of equipment in the office, or the public data centre down the road. Most know it is there but little else, other than it has something to do with data and computers.
Data centres are the less interesting but very essential tools in all things technology. They run the show, and without them we would not be able to do something as simple as send an email, let alone create an intricate system of connected devices that constantly communicate with each other.
Traditionally, data centres have been large, expensive and clunky machines. But like everything in technology, they have been modernised over the years and have become smaller, more powerful, and more practical for the digital demands of today.
Computing on the edge
Imagine real-time face scanning being used at the Currie Cup final or the Chiefs and Pirates derby. Just imagine more than a thousand cameras in action, working in real time scanning tens of thousands of faces from different angles, creating data all along the way and integrating with other technology such as police radios and in-stadium services.
As South Africans, we know all too well that the bandwidth to process such a large amount of data through traditional networks is simply not good enough to work efficiently. And while it can be run through a large core or public data centre, the likelihood of one of those being close to the stadium is minimal. Delays, or ‘latency and lag time’, are not an option in this scenario; it must work in real time or not at all.
So, what can be done? The answer lies in edge computing. This is where computing is brought closer to the devices being used. The edge refers to devices that communicate with each other. Think of all those connected things the IoT has become known for: things like mobile devices, sensors, fitness trackers, laptops, and so on. Essentially anything that is ‘remote’ that links to the Web or other devices falls under this umbrella. For the most part, edge computing refers to smaller data centres (those in the edge) that can process the data required for things like large-scale facial recognition.
At some point in the future, there could be an edge data centre at Newlands or The Calabash that processes the data in real time. It would, of course, also be connected to other resources such as a public or private cloud environment, but the ‘heavy lifting’ is done where the action is taking place.
Unfortunately, there are not enough of these edge resources in place to match our grand IoT ambitions. Clearly, this must change if we are to continue much further down the IoT path.
Admittedly, edge computing is not the most exciting part of the IoT revolution, but it is perhaps the most necessary component of it if there is to be a revolution at all.
Don’t panic! Future of work is still human
The digital age, and the new technologies it’s brought with it – blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, augmented reality and virtual reality – is seen by many as a threat to our way of life as we know it. What if my job gets automated? How will I stay relevant? How do we adapt to the need for new skills to manage customer expectations and the flood of data that’s washing over us?
The bad news is that the nature of work has already changed irrevocably. Everything that can be automated, will be. We already live in an age of “robot restaurants”, where you order on a touch screen, and machines cook and serve your food. Did you notice the difference? AmazonGo is providing shopping without checkout lines. In the US alone, there are an estimated 3.4 million drivers that could be replaced by self-driving vehicles in 10 years, including truck drivers, taxi drivers and bus drivers.
We’re not immune from this phenomenon in Africa. In fact, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that 41% of all work activities in South Africa are susceptible to automation, compared to 44% in Ethiopia, 46% in Nigeria and 52% in Kenya. This doesn’t mean millions of jobs on the continent will be automated overnight, but it’s a clear indicator of the future direction we’re taking.
The good news is that we don’t need to panic. What’s important for us in South Africa, and the continent, is to realise that there is plenty of work that only humans can do. This is particularly relevant to the African context, as the working-age population rises to 600 million in 2030 from 370 million in 2010. We have a groundswell of young people who need jobs – and the digital age has the ability to provide them, if we start working now.
Make no mistake, there’s no doubt that this so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is going to disrupt many occupations. This is perfectly natural: every Industrial Revolution has made some jobs redundant. At the same time, these Revolutions have created vast new opportunities that have taken us forward exponentially.
Between 2012 and 2017, for example, it’s estimated that the demand for data analysts globally grew by 372%, and the demand for data visualisation skills by more than 2000%. As businesses, this means we have to not only create new jobs in areas like data science and analytics, but reskill our existing workforces to deal with the digital revolution and its new demands.
So, while bus drivers and data clerks are looking over their shoulders nervously right now, we’re seeing a vast range of new jobs being created in fields such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), data analysis, computer science and engineering.
This is a challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa, where our levels of STEM education are still not where they should be. That doesn’t mean there are no opportunities to be had. In the region, for example, we have a real opportunity to create a new generation of home-grown African digital creators, designers and makers, not just “digital deliverers”. People who understand African nuances and stories, and who not only speak local languages, but are fluent in digital.
This ability to bridge the digital and physical worlds, as it were, will be the new gold for Africa. We need more business operations data analysts, who combine deep knowledge of their industry with the latest analytical tools to adapt business strategies. There will also be more demand for user interface experts, who can facilitate seamless human-machine interaction.
Of course, in the longer term, we in Africa are going to have to make some fundamental decisions about how we educate people if we’re going to be a part of this brave new world. Governments, big business and civil society will all have roles to play in creating more future-ready education systems, including expanded access to early-childhood education, more skilled teachers, investments in digital fluency and ICT literacy skills, and providing robust technical and vocational education and training (TVET). This will take significant intent not only from a policy point of view, but also the financial means to fund this.
None of this will happen overnight. So what can we, as individuals and businesspeople, do in the meantime? A good start would be to realise that the old models of learning and work are broken. Jenny Dearborn, SAP’s Global Head of Learning, talks about how the old approach to learning and work was generally a three-stage life that consisted largely of learn-work-retire.
Today, we live in what Ms Dearborn calls the multi-stage life, which includes numerous phases of learn-work-change-learn-work. And where before, the learning was often by rote, because information was finite, learning now is all about critical thinking, complex problem-solving, creativity and innovation and even the ability to un-learn what you have learned before.
Helping instill this culture of lifelong learning, including the provision of adult training and upskilling infrastructure, is something that all companies can do, starting now. The research is clear: even if jobs are stable or growing, they are going through major changes to their skills profile. WEF’s Future of Jobs analysis found that, in South Africa alone, 39% of core skills required across all occupations will be different by 2020 compared to what was needed to perform those roles in 2015.
This is a huge wake-up call to companies to invest meaningfully in on-the-job training to keep their people – and themselves – relevant in this new digital age. There’s no doubt that more learning will need to take place in the workplace, and greater private sector involvement is needed. As employers, we have to start working closely with should therefore offer schools, universities and even non-formal education to provide learning opportunities to our workers.
We can also drive a far stronger focus on the so-called “soft skills”, which is often used as a slightly dismissive term in the workplace. The core skills needed in today’s workplace are active listening, speaking, and critical thinking. A quick look at the WEF’s “21st Century Skills Required For The Future Of Work” chart bears this out: as much as we need literacy, numeracy and IT skills to make sense of the modern world of work, we also need innately human skills like communication and collaboration. The good news is that not only can these be taught – but they can be taught within the work environment.
It sounds almost counter-intuitive, but to be successful in the Digital Age, businesses are going to have to go back to what has always made them strong: their people. Everyone can buy AI, build data warehouses, and automate every process in sight. The companies that will stand out will be those that that focus on the things that can’t be duplicated by AI or machine learning – uniquely human skills.
I have no doubt that the future will not be humans OR robots: it will be humans AND robots, working side by side. For us, as businesspeople and children of the African continent, we’re on the brink of a major opportunity. We just have to grasp it.