18 September 2008

Kenya: Making Video Games for Africa

Wesley Kiriinya's advice for ICT entrepreneurs.

Nairobi — If the content of video games is relevant and African, there will be a market for them throughout the continent, game designer Wesley Kiriinya tells AllAfrica's Katy Gabel. Kiriinya used to have his own company, Sinc Studios, which developed games. He now works for a company in Ghana, Genkey Africa Limited, making biometric software, which is used by security companies, banks and governments to digitally identify customers by physical attributes.

My interest has always been in software development. I was also interested in creative things, so I did some web site development and database building…. I worked for my former high school, managing their IT structure and also developing some software for them. They had an Internet connection, so I could do some research on programming languages and the software field in general.

During that time I was mostly teaching myself. In high school we were taught Pascal, a programming language, but I wanted to do more. The colleges which I might have joined could not offer me exactly what I wanted. I would have had to go through from the beginning, doing elementary, simple things before I could get to what I really wanted to do. So I decided to do my research on the net – there are nice tutorials on the net. That's how I started learning real programming.

Later I was accepted at the University of Nairobi for computer science, but I changed my course to actuarial science. I did it for the challenge. I felt I knew a lot about computers, and I wanted to do more with math and databases. As I worked on my degree… I developed software. I developed the Kenya Catholic Directory – a directory to maintain information for the Catholic Church in Kenya.

But my ultimate goal was to develop games. [Once] I decided I was ready to start working on my first video game, it took about three years of reading tutorials and manuals just to have a good idea of what is needed. I studied math and physics for 3D (three dimensional) graphics. But tutorials on the Internet can only take you so far. I had to buy books from the United States. I would ask anyone I knew coming over from there to bring me some books. It's too expensive to order from Amazon.com and have them shipped here. The books alone are 60 to 70 dollars each, and shipping by air is 30 dollars per book.

When I made my first video game, I first wanted to test whether people in Kenya would pay for it. What I can say is that, yes, there's a market here, but it's not as big as in the U.S. or Europe. It's the sort of market that grows with your product. But if I made a video game, it wouldn't be just for Kenya. I could sell it all over the continent, especially if the content is relevant and it is African.

The field of biometrics, in which I am working now, is also extremely interesting. For me, something must be new, challenging and fun. Video games encompass all of that. It's the ultimate goal for me. But it's difficult to get started here.

It's tough to find the people with the necessary skills to program a video game. It's like you're designing a whole virtual world. It takes skills in physics and math, and a video game is nearly a real-time application. Whoever is making it has to understand that, and has to build things that are really optimized for the PC the game might be running on.

The second problem is finding capital. Video games can take one to two years to make. That means one to two years without generating money. The only way to operate sometimes is to take people on a reduced salary or stipend with the promise of a large bonus after the game is created.

It's also… difficult to get the exact machine you want from computer dealers here. The kind of computers I need to buy cost about 200,000 Kenyan shillings (about U.S. $3,333). Then add another 50,000 Kenyan shillings (about $833) to ship them. Then you have to clear them through customs. The entire process from purchase to use can take months. Those kinds of delays can cause you to lose morale. So when we want to use the same machines as guys in the U.S. or Europe, we're already at a great disadvantage.

Piracy is a major problem here. I'm looking to get around it by developing online games [where] authentication happens on a server, so it's very difficult to copy them. That model can work here, rather than selling discs. But whatever games I make have to work with the bandwidth that's available.

[For bandwidth] the good thing is now you have things like Safaricom, which has launched its wireless service and is leading on the Internet side. Telkom, Wananchi and Access Kenya are trying to roll out home Internet. I think all of this competition will help bring down the cost and improve on infrastructure. Locally, I think the bandwidth will be good enough for live online games even one and a half years from now.

I can sell my games online through money transfer services like M-Pesa, as most Kenyans don't have access to credit cards. There's also an e-commerce Bill that's being worked on in Parliament right now, and I hope by the time that comes out, hopefully within a year, it will be easier for us to do transactions on the Internet and there will be some form of structure to it.

There should be more incentives to make entrepreneurs' lives easier. There are few incentives and information from the government is difficult to get. For ICT to grow here, we really need some government support. We need to encourage a culture of innovation. With every new product, there's a period of uncertainty. The sector shouldn't be taxed until it matures, and then it should be taxed responsibly.

We have something called the Youth Development Fund [a government funding initiative for young entrepreneurs] but I don't think it's too useful…. [Funds] should go to more structured projects, like hosting conferences on programming and business skills development. The whole idea of business – taking what you have and making a business out of it – is still not there. When you teach people these things, it's easier for them to go to a financial institution and apply for a loan. Giving money doesn't help in the long run. People need support and training.

Watch scenes from Wesley's first video game on YouTube

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