Meet Kenya's indie gaming pioneers

"Game development 'til death do us part!"

Want to know which games are big in Kenya these days?

"Call of Duty," says Joseph Kariuki when we chat over Skype. "FIFA of course. Assassin's Creed." He pauses for a second, presumably lost somewhere on the rooftops of Jerusalem, Rome, Boston. "I love Assassin's Creed."

"Super Mario," says Blaise Kinyua. "I finished that game with my brother Brian and that's one of my favourite moments."

Ah! Here's Brian now, in fact: "Company of Heroes," he offers. "After playing the game I actually felt I was there: that's a really powerful way to tell a story."

Mario, FIFA: the usual suspects. I should probably have been expecting that, really. Part of the reason I'm talking to these guys is that there hasn't been a great deal of home-grown game development in Kenya to date. That might be starting to change, though: Kariuki, the Kinyua brothers and Herbert Mbuthi make up the team at University of Games, one of the country's first indie developers.

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Left to right: Herbert Mbuthi, Joseph Kariuki, Blaise Kinyua, Brian Kinyua.

Are they really among the first? Who else is making indie games in Kenya? "Nobody! No-one at all," laughs Blaise, who is the studio's in-house marketer. "There are some game developers perhaps, but they're whole big teams. But for us, we wanted it to be a mainstream thing. We want it to be our main thing, in fact: our bread and butter. When you wake up and you kiss your wife goodbye in the morning, you're going to make games. That's the kind of thing that we want."

The team, who are all in their mid-twenties, met at university a few years back. "What happened was Brian, our lead programmer, he started developing games on his own when he was at school," explains Kariuki, the project manager. "It was like his hobby. We all had the love for games, so that's how we started. There was one time we were sitting down in class and we came across some kind of game engine. We saw things people had made with it and we just got so passionate about it. We thought: why can't we do something like this? Why do we have to be the game players rather than the guys who develop the game?"

Armed with a government entrepreneur grant and bolstered by pooling their savings, University of Games got to it. Toiling part-time on the project, fitting in development duties around day jobs - Blaise, for example, works in a bank - but making sure to always meet up in person every Friday, a project called Election Thief was soon taking shape - a platformer for Android devices that sees honest voter Omu chasing a ballot-fraudster across a range of deadly levels.

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There are plenty of ballots to track down.

"The mechanics for the game already existed," says Blaise. "The guy jumping from platform to platform across the screen to reach the goal. What we felt would bring value to the mechanic was a nice story."

"A nice relevant story," chimes in Kariuki. Blaise laughs. "We looked around, and we thought there were actually quite a few elections happening over the period of the last few years - America, Kenya, many places were having elections. We felt we could make a fun story that would work to make people play the game, while also resonating with what people are feeling at the time."

This last point is important. Back in 2007, an election left over 1000 Kenyans dead as violence broke out over the polling. Was there lingering tension leading up to this year's vote?

"Yes! Oh yes," says Blaise. "That actually provided quite a bit of the motivation too, as the game was actually a tool for spreading the peace message. Having at the end of every level a random message of peace that can be spread through social media worked really well with that."

2013's election seems to have passed a little more quietly - although the runner-up has filed a petition disputing the results. While the University of Games team waits to see how that unfolds, they can enjoy the fact that their debut game has been released to the public.

"The launch was very exciting," says Kariuki. "Have you seen Indie Games: The Movie? The part where the guy explains it's like having a child who's going to school for the first time. You're excited, you're also scared: something like that. For me, that guy explained it very well - I felt exactly the same way when we released our game."

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University of Games is a virtual studio, but the team meets face to face at least once a week.

"Officially we finished making the game in February, but up to today we're still implementing updates based on the feedback we're getting," adds Blaise. "Development is continuing. People are liking the game, but the past week we joined a forum for hardcore game developers and game players where we got more objective feedback." He laughs. "With that, it's been a tough love kind of thing: we'll get more feedback from them, and implement changes based on that, too."

Tough love or not, it's true that Election Thief can be fairly clunky to play. Its virtual control stick feels oddly placed and is lacking in feedback, and the platforming can be imprecise. After we chat, Blaise IMs me to inform me that the team's also discovered that people find the game incredibly difficult, and the studio will be trying to fix that, too. This stuff is so much harder to gauge when you're the pioneers of a country's entire indie scene.

Regardless of the rough edges that come with any debut project, it's hard not to feel that this is the dream of modern development: off-the-shelf tech and increasingly open platforms meaning that digital gaming's genepool can benefit from new creators and new perspectives. A platformer about stolen ballots in Kenya! Nobody was making games like this a decade ago: who knows what's next?

In other words, Election Thief is just the beginning. "We have to be positive," says Blaise. "In Kenya, there's no game development community. The feedback we got from that forum, most of them are professional. They're actually professional game developers. They're like our teachers and we're learning from them. Isolation was originally one of our challenges. Now we feel like that community has embraced us. Before that, our friend was Google and YouTube."

Speaking of Google, how big is Android and smartphone gaming in Kenya? "People are playing it, but it's not as prevalent," says Kariuki. "The game playing communities I know, we're all console gamers at heart," agrees Brian. "There's not as notable a mobile gaming community yet, but it's picking up now. We want to show people the value in that kind of things. It's very exciting and very challenging."

"And we are definitely working on another project too," concludes Blaise. "We have a very long list of games that we want to develop. Game development 'till death do us part. You'll be hearing from us again soon. We want to be making games for a living."

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