We sat down with the founder of the TechVillage, Takunda Chingonzo and spoke to him at length about the gaming accelerator Tech Village and Elevate partnered on last year. The expectation on our end was that we would see games out the of the accelerator but this was not to be for a host of reasons which we finally got to discuss below.
Takunda Chingonzo (TC): I believe that Game On was successful in a number of areas that we honestly had not planned for, and not the areas that we needed successes in. We received over 60 signups from developers (either as individuals or as teams.) These developers went on to submit 30 game briefs and we received 21 games at the end of the initial 4-week program. The people who signed up are great and talented developers who came up with some really unique and interesting concepts. Why are we discussing all of this? Because we believe that ecosystem builders must be held accountable by the communities that they serve. We also believe that the industry needs more players and so if other people put together similar programs, then it is in all our interest that they learn from our mistakes and this do things better that move all of us forward. Our successes included the following;
Well, firstly we actually came to the realisation that we actually have a lot of creative developers in Zimbabwe and that those developers are also on a very wide spectrum, from some experienced devs who have both the logic and storytelling down, to those who are still starting out with the various game development environments.
The Need for Key Infrastructure
From the many frustrating conversations with our partners and key stakeholders, we came to the realisation that over and above the money and generic technical resources, there is some very key infrastructure that has to be built in order to sustain game development in Zimbabwe.
We got the plug
We have been able to plug into the greater game development ecosystem across the continent and are looking to leverage on more developed programs to help edify what we have started here with Game On.
We also got a more precise understanding of the nature of skills that we have locally and the areas that need a whole more consideration and attention. I tell you copywriters/storytellers are the most under-appreciated and underrated people…who are key in this space, its really function without form, elegant code without them.
We managed IP!
One of the biggest challenges when working with people and their ideas is the feeling that those Ideas might get “stolen…” More so when the program then fails to deliver or doesn’t work out as initially planned. So to start with, we made sure that this was well communicated with the participants and then also made sure that we carefully managed all submitted information (treating it all as confidential material.) Despite having had failed with the initial program, we are happy that we haven’t had a single IP related issue and while most might think this is insignificant…it is important in our innovation ecosystem, where trust and confidence are a real currency.
More importantly, let’s talk about some of the things we failed at and why that was the case…
TC: We didn’t meet the program goals for conversion
To start with, we failed to produce the minimum commercially ready games by the end of the program, which is why it didn’t go on to the second and third phases.
More than code, its storytelling
We also assumed a lot about game development and the process of developing a really engaging game. I remember part of the feedback we got from our beta testers was that, while the logic was great, some of the games didn’t have an engaging enough storyline. Game Development is more than elegant code and pristine environments, it is, at its core, a deep form of immersive storytelling.
Building on that point, we didn’t do a good job at attracting the right kind of talent sets. We had a tonne of great developers with way too few designers and storytellers. We discovered that the best games that came out of the program were from teams that had at least one storyteller. (This was either a marketing person, a copywriter or at the very least someone with a strong creative inclination.)
Simple wasn’t simple enough
So the idea behind the very short time period was to encourage developers to build very simple games. I mean tic tac toe levels of simple. We didn’t get simple, we got amazing and intricately complicated games with a tonne of functionality and… let’s just say that when completed, those games would be worth way more than the acquisition price that we had set. I think this in part speaks to the enthusiasm, talent, determination and raw passion that our developers have in Zim.
Right Partners, wrong stage
We didn’t do enough foundational work prior to the launch of the accelerator. Our goal was to get to a point where we were able to output simple games for acquisition. We failed to get to that number that were commercially viable by the end of the period. Our partners were great and really supportive, we just set that bar really high, an assumption based on the really high quality of developers that we have in Zimbabwe.
All or nothing, not for this stage
Based on our assumption of the state of the industry, we built a commercialisation-oriented program where we needed to get the stipulated number of commercially viable games in order to convert to the second stage. I mean…given the very high quality of developers we have here, plus 30 game briefs…it seemed pretty obvious that we would achieve our minimum number, right? Wrong, and because of that, the structure of the program had the effect of penalising the few (3 or 4) that actually produced commercially ready games in that really short window. This isn’t to say that we had sh*tty developers in the program…no. It was a perfect mixture of limited time, plus more complicated than expected games, plus not having access to some of the basic tools, licenses, skills and raw processing power to work as efficiently. These are some of the things that we are working to now change.
TC: Well, we are doing it again; we are relaunching Game On soon in a different gaming-centric outfit called ShiftSpace. So, I guess my responses here are more of “what are we doing different”;
Building a dedicated team for this.
Owing to the nature of work that has to be done in the game development space, we decided to move it from just being “one of the programs” that we run, to being housed in a completely different outfit that focuses only on gaming and that is external to the TechVillage. This means that we will have actual gamers, game developers, designers and storytellers on the team, managing this. It has to be run by gamers.
Involving Gamers in the feedback loop
So a lot of the feedback that we got was from current gamers. Instead of us receiving this and parcelling it out to the developers, we want gamers to provide this feedback directly to the developers during the development process. User/Market validation throughout the development process is key. We do this with any other kind of development project, it should apply here too. This is the reason why we set out to build a local gaming league called Mutambo, to build a community of local gamers that can help shape the growth of locally developed games.
Plugging into the greater ecosystem.
We have game development ecosystems out there that are way more mature and have made a lot more progress. We are already plugging into those networks and ensuring that we learn from their experiences as well as leverage on resources and knowledge that they have amassed over the years.
Moving to a more developer-initiated approach
Instead of stimulating development through programs like this, we will instead attract projects that have already been started by developers and work with those to get them to market. It’s essentially taking what has worked in startup oriented programs and applying it to this space. What we ran (and mistakenly called an accelerator program) was really an industry activation program, similar to what hackathons are supposed to do (but aren’t doing) for startups. We know better now, so this next iteration will be better.
Building/Availing Infrastructure for Development
There are a tonne of things that aren’t available for game development in Zimbabwe, starting off with the basic monetization infrastructure (let’s not even start with the high costs of access for customers…the high data tariffs.) We are working on availing some of this, we hope that this will reduce the development costs and turn around time for developers. For one, Mutambo is actively building a captive audience for local developers…we want to do more.
Translating “gaming” into “corporate”
We have seen a sudden surge in interest from corporates when it comes to innovation. A good number now have internal innovation teams as well! There has been some interest in this “gaming” thing, which in truth, very few actually understand. (I mean even we didn’t completely understand it at first.) So going forward we are going to develop a toolkit and opportunities for corporates to plug into this new and growing industry more easily. Its not just about throwing money, corporates can actually plug in across the development process and positively influence this industry. We know that they will eventually figure it out on their own, its just that, there is a faster way (with less blood in the water) and that is the route that we want to take.
We were in a position to provide some mentorship around locally specific areas and then leverage more on international partners for the core areas around building and successfully launching a game. The TechVillage has never built and launched a game (that second part is actually a mountain on its own, many things have died sitting on 127.0.0.1.).
That mentorship is now going to evolve into specific parings with game devs who join the new outfit as well as then being parcelled out in bite sizes through monthly webinars screened during the monthly meetups.
TC: First of all, I am very much aware that the 60 or so developers that signed up for the program aren’t entirely representative of the entire industry. A lot of higher-end developers (and studios) didn’t join our program because the $1 500.00 was peanuts to them. However, I believe that Zimbabwe has a whole lot of potential, we have an amazing skill base and also have a tonne of locally relevant narratives to build games off of. Potential is an oversold thing, so more than that, I believe that we are primed to build an industry that this continent will marvel….in the next 10 – 15 years. (Yes, let’s manage expectations please.) So, our building this new outfit is really a long play. There is a lot of work that has to be done, foundational infrastructure that needs to be built and resources that need to be brought into play. We have a lot of developers, what we need now is to bring some structure to the industry, we need to celebrate the small wins and be real about quality and user/market expectations.
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