Video game culture takes hold across Nigeria

Many games — from steering through Lagos' notorious traffic to fighting Boko Haram — have a distinctly local flavor

Attendants play various video games at the inaugural WAGE 14 (West Africa Gaming Expo), Dec. 20, 2014.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

LAGOS, Nigeria — Three times a day, seven days a week, Favour Anane punches, kicks, hacks, slices, electrocutes, beheads and disembowels anyone who gets in her way.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the 22-year-old sat in front of a flat-screen TV at a shopping mall in the middle-class neighborhood of Surulere, passing the time at a small gaming center wedged beneath a staircase outside a public restroom.

Anane, who lives with her parents and six siblings in the Ajegunle slum, works at a nearby kiosk recharging mobile phones. During her breaks she slips off for a frenzied dual to the death in “Mortal Kombat,” jerking and twisting in time with her on-screen avatar, which after a few bloody bouts that afternoon went down in a digitized blaze of fireballs and lightning bolts.

“I’m not good at it,” she said, “but I like to play.”

Gaming culture has found a solid foothold in Lagos, where for under a dollar, young Lagosians gather at informal gaming centers for head-to-head competitions in fighter games like “Mortal Kombat” or soccer games like EA Sports’ “FIFA” franchise and “Pro Evolution Soccer.”

In recent years, though, a growing number of Nigerian developers have been trying to cash in on that popularity by producing games with a distinctly local flavor. The goal, according to Hugo Obi, CEO of Maliyo Games, is to grow the local gaming community by finding “narratives relative to our environment” and telling stories that appeal to Nigerians.

“It’s easy to build a shooting game or … a puzzle game,” said Obi. “But is that the best content for this market?”

A screen from "Sambisa Assault," which draws from the real-life assault of armed group Boko Haram
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

What that means for developers like Obi is trying to “gamify [the] reality” of Nigerian life by translating its perils and pratfalls into pixels, bits and bytes. One of the company’s first hits, “Okada Ride,” transforms the notorious chaos of Lagos’ rush hour into a game in which players steer a motorbike — known as an “okada” in Nigeria — through the city’s streets. In “Kidnapped,” players attempt to free a couple who are being held for ransom. “Ole,” by the gaming firm Kuluya, puts users in the shoes of a thief fleeing across the rooftops of Lagos. Even the insurgency of armed group Boko Haram has been spun off into a game, “Sambisa Assault,” by Chopup with players hunting down members of the armed group in their jungle stronghold.

While the Nigerian gaming industry is still small, with roughly half a dozen companies leading the way, developers hope to eventually launch an unexpected hit along the lines of Zynga’s “FarmVille,” which at its peak had more than 80 million users logging on to milk their cybercows and tend to their virtual crops; or “Angry Birds,” which raked in more than $200 million for the Finnish game developer Rovio last year and boasts more than 200 million active users sling shotting surly birds through the air on company time.

If Nigeria is going to have a gaming boom, the timing couldn’t be better. Thanks to the growing penetration of smartphones across Nigeria and the rest of Africa, and mobile broadband access that is both cheaper and faster than it was just a few years ago, it’s become possible for developers to get their games into the hands of consumers scattered across a continent that is young and increasingly tech-savvy.

Darasimi Lanre Ahmed plays “The Adventure of Tortoise” video game at an arcade.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

“Africa is mobile first,” said Kunle Ogungbamila, CEO of Kuluya, which began making browser-based games in 2012 before switching its focus to mobile apps earlier this year. According to a 2012 report by the World Bank, there are 650 million mobile-phone subscribers in Africa. Close to 20 percent of those subscribers use smartphones, with the International Data Corporation expecting that figure to double by 2017.

Leading the way are Asian companies like Tecno and Huawei, which have been flooding the African market with low-cost smartphones priced for the growing ranks of middle-class consumers with purchasing power that doesn’t quite translate into a new iPhone.

The space they’ve created for mobile-game developers in Africa is vast. The tech-research firm Gartner estimated that the global video-game industry would be worth $111 billion by 2015 — with mobile games occupying the fastest-growing segment of that market. The company expects mobile-gaming revenue to balloon from $13.2 billion in 2013 to $22 billion by next year.

Foreign game developers are taking note: The Paris-based company Gameloft inked a deal with the telecom giant Orange in 2012 to push its mobile games across Africa, while the American gaming company Electronic Arts has moved into the region as well. Tapping into that market in a meaningful and profitable way, though, has so far vexed Nigerian game developers.

“The ideas are everywhere,” said Obi of Maliyo. “It’s just that the execution is the challenge.”

Part of the problem is the high cost of creating games for mobile. Since there’s no one-size-fits-all app for all mobile phones, every game has to be built from scratch for each platform. As a result, said Oluseye Soyode-Johnson, a former executive at Maliyo, “Android is king in Africa.” Microsoft’s purchase earlier this year of Nokia — which has long had a dominant share of the African mobile-phone market — has helped to boost the Windows platform, while Apple’s iOS still lags far behind.

Developers behind the game "Highway Flee," inspired by Lagos' notorious traffic, sit at their booth at the WAGE 14 gaming expo.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

Once a game is launched, competition is fierce: In the wilds of cyperspace — and in the Google Play store — games like “Kidnapped” and “Sambisa Assault” join more than a million other apps jostling for a consumer’s eyeballs. “You put a game there and it basically just disappears,” said Ogungbamila, of Kuluya.

Breakout hits for the industry have so far been few and far between. When ChopUp signed a deal with Nokia last year to promote its new game, “Downfall,” it went viral and was downloaded more than half a million times. But most Nigerian games can only boast of a few thousand downloads — not nearly enough to woo top advertisers, who pay premium prices for popular games in more developed markets.

In the United States, most mobile games are packaged as part of a “freemium” model, in which free downloads offer a way to draw in customers who are then encouraged to make small in-app purchases to unlock added features — something that’s led to the success of games like “Candy Crush Saga” and “Clash of Clans.” But so far the freemium model has failed to catch on in Nigeria. When ChopUp introduced a way to buy virtual currency with cell-phone credit, it found that less than 15 percent of its customers were willing to pay — and few became repeat customers.

“Once they hit that wall, it meant that we’re losing 85 percent of our players,” said co-founder Bayo Puddicombe. “Monetization via in-app payments may not work as well here as it does in other markets.”

In a country where less than a quarter of the population has access to the formal banking system, such growing pains could be expected. But mobile banking was only introduced in Nigeria in 2011 — four years after its introduction in Kenya, the global pioneer — and many expect it to transform the way Nigerians live and shop in a country that already boasts more than 130 million registered mobile-phone users. Throw in a controversial new biometric I.D. that will be required by everyone over the age of 16 by 2019 — part of a partnership with MasterCard that will allow holders to make electronic payments from prepaid accounts — and tens of millions of Nigerians, buying a mobile game will soon just be a few clicks away.

In the meantime, Nigerian game developers are showing their global aspirations. According to many, the biggest market for local games is overseas, particularly in India, Russia and Brazil, with Ogungbamila estimating that more than 60 percent of Kuluya’s downloads come from outside of Nigeria.

Abiola Olaniran, founder of Gamsole, said his company’s business model is built around foreign consumers. Unique among the country’s top developers, Gamsole’s products have no discernible Nigerian DNA, with games like “Candy Connect” and “Birds Republic” drawing inspiration from recognizable Western prototypes like “Candy Crush” and “Angry Birds.” Not surprisingly, Gamsole has a customer base that stretches across more than two dozen countries, with a quarter of its 9 million-plus downloads since April 2013 coming from Latin America.

“We don’t see it making sense for us to design for Nigerians alone,” said Olaniran. “We couldn’t have gotten that 9 million downloads in Nigeria.”

Growing the local customer base won’t happen overnight, but Obi and others believe the country’s population of 160 million-plus will someday embrace Nigerian video games with the same fervor it has for locally produced music and movies — the latter of which are at the core of a $5 billion industry.

“It’s a long-term play,” said Obi.

Time, after all, may be on the industry’s side. Nigerians are young — more than 60 percent of the population is under 25, and the average age is 18 — and like young people the world over, many of them are bored.

At the shopping mall, Anane disappeared to attend to a customer; when she returned, she was again dispatched by an opponent with a few swift finishing moves.

Asked after the latest loss if she might consider another hobby, she shrugged.

“It’s just to keep me busy sometimes,” she said.

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Africa, Nigeria
Video Games

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Video Games

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