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Gaming rAges on in SA (Pt 2): Developers get their game on

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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 info@celestial-games.com, 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.”

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

Africa News

Smart grids needed for Africa’s utilities

Power utilities across Africa should rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem, says COLIN BEANEY, Global Industry Director for Asset-intensive and Energy and Utilities at IFS.

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Africa’s abundant natural resources and urgent need for power mean that it is one of the most exciting and innovative energy markets in a world that is moving rapidly towards clean, renewable energy sources. The continent’s energy industry is taking new approaches to providing unserved and underserved communities with access to power, with an emphasis on smart technologies and greener energy sources.

Power systems are evolving from centralised, top-down systems as interest in off-grid technology grows among African businesses and consumers. And according to PwC, we will see installed power capacity rise from 2012’s 90GW to 380GW in 2040 in sub-Saharan Africa. Power utilities are needing to rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem.

Energy and utilities providers are transforming from centralised supply companies to more distributed, bi-directional service providers. They can only achieve this through the evolution of “smart grids” where sensors and smart meters will be able to provide the consumer with a more granular level of detail of power usage. This shift from an energy supplier to “lifestyle provider” will require a much more dynamic and optimised approach to maintenance and field service.

African companies must thus embrace digital transformation as an imperative. This transformation begins by embracing enterprise asset management to improve asset utilisation. The subsequent steps are enhancing upstream and downstream supply chain management; resource optimisation; introducing enterprise operational intelligence; embracing new technologies such as the Internet of Things, machine learning, and predictive maintenance; and becoming a smart utility.

Embracing mobility to drive ROI

Getting it right is about putting in place an enterprise backbone that accommodates asset and project management, multinational languages and currencies, new energies and markets, visualisation of the entire value chain, and mobility apps. Mobile technologies that support the field workforce have a vital role to play in driving better ROI from utilities’ investments in enterprise asset management and enterprise resource planning solutions.

Today’s leading enterprise asset management solutions feature powerful functionality for mobile management of the complete workflow of work orders – from logging status changes and updates, from receiving and creating new orders to concluding the job and reporting time, material and expenses. Such solutions are easy to deploy and intuitive for end users to learn and use.

Importantly for organisations operating in parts of the continent with poor telecoms infrastructure, connectivity is not an issue. The solutions work offline and synchronises when network connectivity is available. Users can work on any device—laptops, tablets, and smartphones—commercial or ruggedised.

By ensuring that field technicians have easy access to information and processes, the mobile solution enables technicians and maintenance engineers to easily do the following tasks:

·         Create a new work order on the fly and log new opportunities

·         Access both historical and planned work information when requested

·         Permit customers to sign when the job is completed

·         Capture measurements and inspection notes on route work orders

·         Create new fault reports on routing

·         Facilitate documentation through photo capturing

·         Provide easy access to technical data and preventive actions.

The power of mobility allows the engineer to be the origin of all data capture on a service event. They can easily inquire on asset history, record parts used or parts needed for repair, record labour hours, and expenses as they occur, and any notes of repairs performed. When coupled with workforce management tools, such solutions unlock significant productivity gains for utilities who are trying to get the most from their workforce and assets.

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Brands fall for app vanity

The experience of a mobile screen full of icons, representing independent apps that your need to open to experience them, is making less sense. Instead, businesses should serve customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the digital platform they already use, says PIETER DE VILLIERS, Group CEO at Clickatell.

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Many brands remain obsessed with creating mobile apps. This not only defies trends that point to increasing consumer app apathy, but can exclude a sizeable portion  of your customers in emerging economies. Companies need to engage with their users where they are rather than forcing them onto an app, in what can only be described as brand vanity. 

In 2017 there were around 2.2 million apps available in the iOS app store and over 3 million on Google Play. And, while the number of apps being downloaded continues to rise, analysis shows that consumers are only using 30 apps per month and accessing just 9 on a day-to-day basis. 

While these numbers still seem attractively high, in reality the majority of the apps we use are for messaging (like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat) and our social networking, gaming, leisure, dating or utility activities. 

Despite the facts, the application strategy as the holy grail for digital transformation is still being pushed even within large progressive brands. What’s more, some advertising agencies and digital consultants are still pushing apps as the best means for companies to connect with their customers. This has resulted in some organisations stubbornly doubling down on app strategies which are simply not showing return on investment (ROI). 

It’s not immediately clear to us whether the fascination with apps is a roll-over from long overdue projects or whether brand owners equate a mobile-first strategy with a mobile app. Mobile-first in 2018 means customer first, and therefore embracing chat commerce in order to deliver services with convenience and simplicity in mind. 

Why apps won’t win the internet

The problem with apps goes beyond user fatigue. In the first instance, many apps are poorly designed, assuming technical sophistication which may not match reality for the average customer. Poor user interfaces and attempts to provide complex engagement can result in even the best ideas missing their targets due to lack of engagement. 

Secondly, we all know that economic realities drive consumer behaviour. In Africa, new mobile phone users typically opt for feature phones over smartphones. With a longer battery life and a much more accessible price point, feature phones still allow for a basic internet connection, chat platforms like WhatsApp, and call and message functionality. In these regions, the cost of an app – even if it’s free – goes far beyond installing it. Constant updates require reliable and cheap access to the internet. For the average phone owner in an emerging market, this can be a serious challenge. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, apps must be relevant to their intended market. Frequency of usage is a key measure of relevance. 

Apps which are used on a daily basis, like health and fitness trackers, enjoy constant engagement. New features which are added are eagerly awaited by users who are happy to update their apps. 

However, users may well question the relevance of the app if they are required to conduct updates on a monthly or even weekly basis when they are only making use of the app once or twice a year. 

On average, I download one app per quarter. Some I use more frequently than others, but all of these apps need to be regularly updated to maintain security, update features, and fix bugs. Many apps are pushing out updates much more frequently. I noticed over the past year that I could go from having all apps updated, to 32 apps requiring an update in five days.

When it comes to a customer-first digital strategy, companies should be asking themselves if an app is really the best way to reach their target audience. 

In fact, at the end of 2016, Gartner predicted that by 2019, 20 percent of brands would ditch their mobile app. What’s more, in its 2018 predictions, the company forecast that by 2021, more than 50 percent of corporations would spend more per annum on bots and chatbots than on mobile app development. 

So, we need to ask, what is the alternative for CIOs, CDOs, CMOs, and digital leaders who are looking for ways to reach, retain and grow their customer base? 

The logical app alternative 

The old battle advice goes: fight your enemy where they are not. Military strategists agreed that having your enemy come to you and fight you on your own terms was preferable. In a world where customers have access to thousands of offerings and millions of deals online, we need to flip that idea to Meet Your Customers Where They Are. 

Any marketeer will tell you just a how difficult it is to drive app downloads. Development, cross platform testing and user interface aside, the marketing campaign required to get customers to download the app can swallow entire annual budgets and still come up short. 

Looking at the facts, it makes infinitely more sense to work within the digital platforms already being used by your target audience. 

Clickatell is already enabling chat commerce for some of the leading global brands with its Touch solution. This allows organisations to serve their customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the chat or browser platform of their customer’s choice (Twitter, Facebook Messenger, etc.) 

Brands can now send an actionable Touch link such as ‘find the nearest ATM’ or ‘reset my password’ within a chat stream that will open an intuitive touch card without the user having to download an app to perform the action. Services can also be linked to the in-app experience for brands not looking to abandon their app efforts. 

Working with our clients, many of whom are global innovators and thought leaders, we’ve found that having the courage to design with an ‘end user first’ approach and dealing with the back-end complexity behind the scenes results in cost efficient customer delight and ROI. 

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