The career of Rex Bowden has centered on development of exporters and market access for two decades. In addition to inspiring entrepreneurs and interdicting companies to international buyers, Bowden is passionate about video game development throughout Africa. Wanting to create a space in which African game devs and studios could network with one another as well as global partners, he co-created Africa Games Week. Wanting to learn more about his career and game production throughout Africa, I was able to interview for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some video games you loved playing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Rex Bowden: I was never a massive gamer but Street Fighter was probably the most exciting for me … I think the crazy characters from around the world really made me want to play the game and continues to bring me back to play the game with my kids nowadays.
Yanes: Though video games are global, countries tend to have their own gaming culture. With that said, what are some video games uniquely popular in South Africa?
Bowden: Africans play 1% of the games made in Africa … 99% of the games made here get played in Europe, US, Asia etc. Local gamers are heavily into Fortnight, Fifa, Minecraft, Apex Legends etc.
However, in the indie scene here Broforce is a game which I think a lot more gamers should know about and be playing.
Yanes: A reason investors support video game startups is to build up the studio in order to sell it to a larger company. What are your thoughts on M&A in African gaming markets? Are there specific opportunities and obstacles you have noticed?
Bowden: The biggest issue in Africa is capital. Games take 2 years plus to develop and take to market and having enough capital behind you before investors come onboard make it quite restrictive and limited to previously advantaged people. There is this huge attraction for developers to move to Europe or into other mainstream technology companies … however in the past few years some amazing publishers have descended on Africa discovering amazing talent … people like Devolver, Landfall, Ubisoft, Focus, XBOX, Playstation and SpielFabrique who are developing co-production games. Keeping people in Africa making games and building the industry is key to the future of the African game industry.
Yanes: Another reason VCs invest in gaming startups is to gain access to underlying and cutting-edge hardware or software. When you think of ground breaking gaming technologies and services being developed in African countries, what are some of the companies and regions that come to mind?
Bowden: For me the exciting opportunity in Africa at present is serious games (games made for enhancing your life) … these are getting sponsored by banks, insurance companies, charities, healthcare companies, etc. and are very specifically made to meet the needs of the users. African users are obviously very different to European or American users and this space is thus where African developers have the upper hand. Developers like Leti Arts Ghana makes fun to play games but their backbone is making serious games as there is funding from African institutions for this … Sea Monster is another serious game company and they have made games for Pick n Pay the largest retailer called Super Animals and weirdly this game was downloaded 900,000 times from people in Poland as was super unique … but this just shows you how games like this can gain massive international attention and as are very different. This is where VCs should be looking at as these are products made for waiting clients and a captive audience.
Yanes: Gaming sectors in the United States tend to be around universities known for computer science programs. What are some of the education institutions in Africa known for producing game developers?
Bowden: Over the past few years quite a few new institutions have opened. Friends of Design – Academy of Digital Design in Cape Town and WITS University in Pretoria were for ages the leading two institutions and continue to be, however we have new educators like VEGA and Open Window in South Africa, NetInfo Tunisia, ADMI Kenya and large studios in Nigeria and Ghana are now running game development courses to grow their teams.
Yanes: I’ve been covering game dev throughout Africa since 2015. When did you become interested in video game sectors throughout Africa? Was there a moment in which you realized there was untapped or growing economic potential?
Bowden: My co-founder (Nick Hall) and I were leading a group of South African companies to shows like GDC, Gamescom and Game Connection and people were always amazed that games were made in South Africa let alone in Africa and suddenly it dawned on us that we are not going to make these publishers understand the talent and industry by just hoping they meet with 10 random studios, we need to get the open minded, interested people to come and meet 100+ studios in Cape Town from across Africa and properly discover the game dev industry. After the game, Gorn (Free lives), was signed at our Africa Games Week 2019 event we realized we were onto something and some amazing signings and partnerships have formed since then.
Yanes: Since Africa Games Week has started, what do you see as the biggest changes in video game markets in Africa?
Bowden: The rest of the world now sees that there are games being made in Africa and great ones too. We have had winners of the Nordic Game Developer Contest 3 times from African studios and massive international studios and publishers are adding Cape Town to their travel plans as they are finding out things happening in the industry that don’t happen anywhere else in the world and games made that are unique and super creative. Games all started in Africa so it is great that we are again getting recognized as a game developer continent.
Yanes: There is a lot being written on crypto and blockchain development in Africa. Have Africa Games Week participants been working with this technology?
Bowden: Yes, there is a lot of this going on in Africa. We are not really working in this space as regulations are very vague on this and fluid so rather stick to fun to play and serious games at present.
Yanes: In an interview for SABC News, you touched upon how people from across the world should go to Africa to learn about African games. What are some video games you think of as being uniquely African?
Yanes: Fast forward to 2028, what are your dreams for Africa Games Week?
Bowden: Africa Games Week is an umbrella event for many conferences and we now have 5 conferences lined up across multiple focuses during our next edition in December 2022.
By 2028 we want to see more of the world coming to Cape Town to discover, design and publish games. We hope to see a lot more co-production, investment into game dev education and more African governments connected and supporting the industry.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Bowden: We are full steam ahead for Africa Games Week 2022 in December and have some amazing things lined up. Our partner event Playtopia will come back with us, Game Camp Africa will happen, driving teenage developers to consider gaming as a profession, and all our conferences will bring in more awesome people from around the world to experience what Africa has in store for the future.