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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

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Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults

An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.

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By 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.

These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.

Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:

  • The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
  • The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
  • The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
  • The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
  • The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
  • The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.

The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been. 

“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured.  The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.

“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’. 

“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves.  Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).  

“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”

For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.

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How load-shedding is killing our cellphone signals

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Extensive load-shedding, combined with the theft of cell tower backup batteries and copper wire, is placing a massive strain on mobile network providers.

MTN says the majority of MTN’S sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on site to run the system for several hours when local power goes out and the mains go down. 

“With power outages on the rise, these back-up systems become imperative to keeping South Africa connected and MTN has invested heavily in generators and backup batteries to maintain communication for customers, despite the lack of electrical power,” the operator said in a statement today.

However, according to Jacqui O’Sullivan, Executive: Corporate Affairs, at MTN SA, “The high frequency of the cycles of load shedding have meant batteries were unable to fully recharge. They generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category, and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge.”

An additional challenge is that criminals and criminal syndicates are placing networks across the country at risk. Batteries, which can cost R28 000 per battery and upwards, are sought after on black markets – especially in neighbouring countries. 

“Although MTN has improved security and is making strides in limiting instances of theft and vandalism with the assistance of the police, the increase in power outages has made this issue even more pressing,” says O’Sullivan.

Ernest Paul, General Manager: Network Operations at SA’s leading network provider MTN, says the brazen theft of batteries is an industry-wide problem and will require a broader initiative driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors to bring it to a halt.

“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the back-up power. This is due to the fact that any coverage gaps need to be filled. The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load shedding.”

Loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people. On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost.

Click here to read more about efforts to combat copper theft.

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