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The South African Game Development Scene: Past, Present, and Future

August 3, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

While you may read and hear whispers about some or other game development effort on the African continent, with news occasionally coming from places such as Egypt, Kenya, and Morocco, there is one country in Africa that is desperately trying to wiggle its way into game development prominence -- South Africa.

With a handful of development studios making false starts over the years, and a passionate, if thinned out, development community, South Africans are working at laying the foundation for a vibrant local industry in the years to come.

When, though, did this work begin, what have been the results so far and where is it going? Several South African developers based in the country, and abroad, were kind enough to provide some answers.

It starts with a bunny...

In the early '90s, a computer programming enthusiast by the name of Travis Bulford had become involved in the local South African demo coding scene, which informed a lot of his assumptions about teamwork and game development. This lead to the development of his team's first game in 1994, an action platformer called Toxic Bunny, and the formation of game development company Celestial:

"From the moment I got my hands on a computer (that would be 1987), doing game development was my obsession," says Bulford. "I am not sure there was a specific plan at that stage, or rather that there was a new one each week."

"We [worked on Toxic Bunny] for one and a half years, the last six months of which we spent full time to finish. Of course, being so young we had no expenses to speak of, which really made it a lot easier."

Celestial's Toxic Bunny (1996)

With the release of Toxic Bunny in 1996, Bulford and his development partners were on the road to making a career in game development a feasible prospect for other programming enthusiasts in the country.

The team soon began work on its second title, while they began actively encouraging and promoting the idea of game development in South Africa, based on the notion that there existed a great backbone of media and creative skills in the country, only without the necessary experience in the realm of game development to create a local industry, of which Bulford says:

"There is a great deal of enthusiasm here in South Africa -- I see it every day. The enthusiasm has to progress into financially viable results. We have the talent in all areas, but we need the structures and disciplines that can turn that raw talent into successful products."

While Celestial continued to work on establishing a foundation for themselves with the development of its new game, as well as building a foundation for future game developers in South Africa, plans were being hatched by a former South African, now living and working in the U.S., to establish a new game development company in the country to inject more energy and talent into the local scene.

The DigiPen Grad

In 1998, Dan Wagner, a graduate of the DigiPen Computer Graphics School (DCGS) in Canada, and now busy with contract development work in the U.S., was in the process of drumming up financial support for a development studio to be based in South Africa, his country of origin -- his home. He wouldn't be able to do it alone, though, so it made sense to bring with him former class and project mates from his time at DCGS to help found such a studio.

Luke Lamothe, a Canadian working as a teaching assistant at DCGS, as well as helping out at the newly formed DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond at the time, was one of those acquaintances contacted by Wagner with the prospect of building a development studio together, only not in his native country of Canada, but in South Africa. Lamothe, despite a future opportunity at Nintendo of America, and after some deliberation, decided to take Wagner up on his offer:

"I was pretty well versed at that time of the lack of a game development industry here," Lamothe explains. "It was actually quite exciting to think that we could have the chance to grow a new industry in South Africa."

After a successful meeting with their future financial backers, Lamothe, along with various other developers Wagner had met in the US ("[we] started out with a team of seven people, six of whom were not South African," reminds Lamothe), flew out to South Africa in late 1999 to set up their studio, I-Imagine, and began work on a stunt driving inspired racing game that was to become known as Chase: Hollywood Stunt Driver.

I-Imagine's Chase: Hollywood Stunt Driver (2001)

By the end of 1999, the development scene in South Africa had "ballooned" (a relative term) to two active game development companies, Celestial and I-Imagine, with two games currently in development, while the local gaming scene was also given a boost with the creation of South Africa's first locally, and professionally, produced gaming magazine, New Age Gaming, the year before.

The local development community, too, had begun to grow, culminating in the creation of the SAGameDev enthusiast developer website, acting as a meeting hub and forum for amateur game developers in South Africa to discuss the art and science of the industry, as well as share their own creations.

The question was, with this new energy and talent-base growing in the South African game development scene, could the momentum from the months and years previous be carried through to the new millennium, and continue to grow in the months and years to come?

The beginning of the year 2000 did indeed seem promising for growth of the South African game development scene, as not only would it mark the release of Celestial's second game, now known to be named The Tainted, but it also saw the I-Imagine team's first trip to E3 as a fully fledged company, ready with a game demo in tow to show their work to prospective publishers.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Brandon Sheffield
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interesting article - it's rare to be able to discuss/learn about a development scene at such a microscopic level. This sort of thing is only possible in really small development communities!

Danny Day
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Dev.Mag needs more pimpage: it's where Game.Dev's collective effort is going these days. Well, there and making really cool games, naturally...

Oliver Snyders
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Too true, Brandon... too true... ;)

Travis Bulford
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Nicely put together Oliver.

Oliver Snyders
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Thanks Travis!

Johan Strydom
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Congratz Oliver! Nice read and well put together. :)

Jacques Krige
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Congratualtions Oliver on a great article!

I can't wait to see the follow-ups. :)

Most of the time we don't pimp SAGameDev as it grows on its own, in its own time.

Its great to hear about other game companies in South Africa. We are planning to set-up a game development studio (SAGameDev's parent company) in Pretoria East around end October this year as an independant self-funded company and hire our first people to work on the project that are already in development.

Sven Bergstrom
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Nice article Oliver, great to be reading a history and actually being a part of the growth. GO GO Luma Arcade. , kick a lot of ass.

Rodain Joubert
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It's always refreshing to see a balanced, well-researched and informative article about SA game development! Kudos for putting effort into this one, too many writers out there assume such a naive view of the country.

Oliver Snyders
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Thanks for the great comments guys!

This comments section looks like the start of an SA game dev convention!

Luke Lamothe
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Great write up Oliver!

I'd like to add some reference to another game development studio based in South Africa, namely Web & Circus ( who are the SA arm of a Scandinavian studio.

I'd also like to shamelessly pimp our latest iPhone game, Marble Blast Mobile, a bit more here by providing a link to its App Store location (
=314781633&mt=8&s=143441) ;)

Jacques Krige
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Marble Blast Mobile looks awesome, Luke, you shoud get some screenshots of it posted on SAGD's Gallery. ;)

Matt Benic
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I really appreciate the mention of Smallfry, but I have to say I don't know if it deserves even that these days, it's been dormant for well over two years now.

I-Imagine on the other hand.. well as always NDA holds but we can say we are about to release a new title on XBox 360. It's reeeeally close ;)

Kevin Wolmarans
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It lifts my heart to hear that in the short time that I've been studying game development here in the states that so much progress has been made back home. When i decided to study in the us i had no idea of the scope of the industry back home already. This article is the best type of motivation for someone like me who just needs to develop a decent portfolio now. I'm all charged up now again.

Leslie Young
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Great article Oliver. It is nice to read how the SA gamedev scene progressed.

I would like to tell everyone about another gamedev community site for SA developers at

Shmit Lorrie
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I've seen some of the demo reels coming out of the tech colleges there, there is some considerable talent being produced! I hope this can be a boom industry over there, it's a great niche to fall into.

Jonathan Hau-Yoon
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I'm so ridiculously late to the party, and it's such a fail to have read this only now...

...but great article, Oliver!

Uwais Asmal
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I know it's literally a year late, but brilliant article! I just decided to do some research on Game Development and I really spent the whole night reading and learning more about it on a whole and in SA. I must admit it's shocking yet amazing how close knit the entire community seems to be! I'm really keen on the idea now of taking a path in Game Dev, I know that's not enough to get me through, but I hope it's something to really in build on in the near and distant future, thanks to everything I've uncovered so far.