How the government could help SA game development

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This week in htxt.africaland we’re gearing up to coverage of South Africa’s biggest single event about videogames, the rAge at the Northcliff Dome this weekend. And it got me to thinking about what could happen to make the games development industry in South Africa an even better place than it already is.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the A MAZE Festival of Games and Playful Media in Joburg few weeks back. There, I discovered many interesting things about making games that I didn’t know before. And those things aren’t sexy, they’re more to do with the operational nitty-gritty that nobody who plays games really thinks about, but which quickly become rather large challenges once you turn your hand to making games for a living. Or at least, trying to.

For instance, from some quarters it appears our government doesn’t really understand what games are, or how they are sold, or why government should support growing the industry – yes, even with taxes.

The answer to that last one may seem clear to any gamers reading this: games globally are bigger than movies, and the fastest growing sector of the creative economy here. Potentially, games studios could train and employ thousands of young students. But to a government whose internal structures and legislation have been put in place to handle the import and export of physical goods, and physical goods only, it’s understandable that the concept of having an overseas company sell videogames – which aren’t even a physical thing – on a local studio’s behalf might seem a little, um, foreign.

Let’s put that in a simpler manner. Right now, even selling locally-made games through popular digital distribution platform Steam is a challenge, and Kickstarting games can’t happen unless your game studio is incorporated overseas for financial reasons.

Danny Day, one of the developers of the successful PC game Desktop Dungeons, explains how the South African Reserve Bank “freaks out” whenever Valve – the company that owns Steam – sends his studio (QCF Design) royalties. It’s simply because the reserve bank’s internal workings aren’t set up to accommodate payments to local companies for digital goods.

Just imagine not getting paid for your hard work, especially when it’s this good.

Should the company produce boxed copies of the game and sell them in brick and mortar stores, that wouldn’t be a problem – but it doesn’t. QCF Design gets more money per digital copy than it would per boxed copy, because not having to create a physical product means its costs are so much lower.

The big problem

Part of getting government on board is convincing it that games are a worthwhile investment for the country, and herein lies an even bigger problem: to justify getting grants or tax breaks with which to grow the industry, says Nick Hall from MakeGames SA, the industry needs to be bigger but it won’t get bigger fast enough without those grants and tax breaks.

And grants are sorely needed right now as many developers are passionate part-timers who work day jobs to pay the bills, and grants would allow them to do what they love full time. They would also inspire more entrepreneurs to form game studios, something the Swedes who attended A MAZE mentioned as being vital to growing the industry here.

It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario, but the same thing is happening in the animation industry which has been identified by the DTI as a lucrative source of revenue and employment if nurtured correctly. And happily, someone is working hard to try and make it happen for games too.

What we need is a body

MakeGamesSA is the organisation that works to unite, help and promote South African game developers, and the man at the head of it all is Nick Hall. He’s an intellectual property lawyer from Cape Town who, in his spare time, works hard to help government get its collective heads around exactly these sorts of obstacles. He’s been doing it for four years now, and he says while he hasn’t had as much success as he’d like, headway is definitely being made.

Right now, games are shoehorned in with movies from the government’s perspective. Movies have their own Film and Publication Board that handles much of the legislation around them, and since both are entertainment products that involve a creative process, government feels they belong together.

While that makes sense on a certain level, Hall is fighting tooth and nail to get games into a separate classification because “the support structures for film are fundamentally different to those needed for games” as games are so much more technically complex and require a far more diverse range of skills to make.

The problem isn’t government itself

Hall made sure to emphasise that the problem isn’t government itself, because he’s met a lot of people from the various departments he’s dealt with that are very enthusiastic about getting involved, but he says ultimately they are unsure how to proceed as government has no real guidelines on what to do with games. They also don’t know exactly which department should be dealing with his queries, and as a result part of the problem has been being shunted from pillar to post. These issues, along with the fact that changing legislation is a very slow process, mean progress has been slow.

Lastly, timing has also played a part. Hall told me that a lot of his conversations with government took place before the 2014 elections, and many of the people he dealt with didn’t want to commit as they weren’t sure they’d have jobs after the elections, a fact that understandably got in the way of him making significant headway.

Gov’t is trying

Before you get too down on the SA government, though, know that these sorts of problems are faced by studios across the globe, including in countries that aren’t dealing with the issues ours is, and that genuinely understand what gaming is.

Which is why having a significant Swedish contribution at A MAZE is such a boon – their 20-year history of making really successful games and dealing with similar issues will prove invaluable to local developers facing the same challenges.

In the meantime, however, to avoid the pitfalls facing local developers and to facilitate the smooth transfer of funds, some South African game creators are incorporating their companies offshore as is the case with Giant Box Games (Pixel Boy, incorporated in Canada) and Made with Monster Love (Cadence, incorporated in the UK).

Fortunately one third of the Pixel Boy development team lives in Canada.

The goals

So, for government to help local game development, Hall says we need the following:

  • The streamlined handling of international payments for locally-made games is an absolute must. If we achieve nothing else in the coming years but this, that’s fine.
  • Grants for studios with solid business plans, bursaries for underprivileged students interested in studying disciplines relating to game development like programming, digital art, sound design, game design and others.

These are the goals Hall is actively working towards. Once the (really impressive) revenues of games like BroForce hit the industry’s 2014 balance sheet, the potential for the kind of money gaming makes possible will become even clearer, which Hall says should provide extra motivation for government to help.

Government’s response

I sought out Themba Khumalo from the Department of Trade and Industry. He’s the director of the ICT Services Sector within the DTI’s Industrial Development Division, and it’s his job to engage with players all in the country’s ICT industry to see how and where government can help, with the ultimate aim of encouraging growth and economic health.

His side of the story was pretty interesting, and not to mention entirely reasonable. He basically said government has both the willingness and funds to help the local gaming industry out, but in order for them to do so gaming industry representatives need to approach government with proposals and business plans. He says that essentially they haven’t yet made a proper case to the department.

As to the point about Hall’s desire for gaming to be separated from the Film & Publications Board, he said government is entirely open to the idea, but again, the motivation needs to come from the South African game development industry by way of proposals and presentations outlining their position. They need to point out how they are not being supported within the current policy interventions, and make suggestions as to how government could adjust it – or even create new legislation altogether – to accommodate them. Should they succeed at making a strong enough case for their own governmental department, he says that will definitely be considered.

The same applies to problems with the reserve bank struggling to process international payments for digital goods – they need to be made aware of the issue and have measures proposed to address them.

He told me that the local games industry has taken the right first step by creating an association of game developers – MakeGamesSA – as that gives government a firm idea of who and what they are dealing with, and it’s now just a matter of that organisation putting proposals together and talking to the right people within government to address their concerns. When asked point blank if he was the right governmental representative to talk to, Themba told me he “…is willing to be the contact person within the DTI to co-ordinate activities that can help resolve these issues”.

I have his contact details, so if you’re part of the local games development scene and want to talk to the DTI, drop me a line and I’ll share them with you.

The message I took away from my meeting with Khumalo was surprisingly hopeful: government is not ignorant of the economic potential of games, whether they’re for PCs, consoles or mobiles, and is definitely interested in helping the local industry grow. But quite reasonably, they need to be made aware of the challenges facing local developers in order to affect the legislative changes needed to make life easier for everyone involved.

Follow-up with Nick Hall

Of course, armed with this new information I followed up with Hall. He confirmed that he’d been told very similar things about the required proposals in the many consultations he’s had with government, but the most persistent problem he’s faced is finding out who, exactly, to pitch those proposals to.

I look forward to reporting on further progress in the coming months…

[Main pic – Shutterstock]

Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.