by Mandy de Waal (@mandyldewaal) Danny @dislekcia Day is sitting in The Cape Quarter — that old part of Cape Town that’s been gentrified. It is a crisp winter’s afternoon and there’s something wildly alive about the game designer’s charcoal eyes. The reason for this could be what’s happened during the last few years since we’ve talked.

Desktop DungeonsClose on four years ago I last wrote about Day who, together with Marc @AequitasZA Luck and Rodain ‘Nandrew’ Joubert (@RodainJoubert), created a computer game called Desktop Dungeons.

The game is now winning awards and taking the ‘indy’ world of cyber-play by storm. It is the new local-to-global computer-game success story.

“What is Desktop Dungeons?” you may ask, dear reader who doesn’t play much more than Candy Crush Saga online.

“Why, young Padawan,” I reply. “For the uninitiated, this is that most perfect tool of procrastination. Desktop Dungeons is a space where you get to kill goats [goats, yes goats — who knew there’d be quite so many goats?], slay dragons, steal loot, and go on infinite quests.”

And if you have a job and you must still work, you can play this PC or Mac game in short bursts. As in during a 15-minute coffee break.

[On 28 May 28, the roguelike should have become available on iOS and Android, meaning that gamers who can’t get enough of Desktop Dungeons are able to play it on their tablets as well. Which means you’ll be able to get in a quick game during comfort breaks.]

The game that Day, Luck and Joubert made is a fighting, exploring, thieving, and strategy immersion mashed with incredible humour which means much, much fun. The more you play, the smarter you can get — and the smarter you get, the more fun you can have.

Minecraft acquired for US$2.5bn

Why is it important for you to know about a game called Desktop Dungeons? The answer in one word is Minecraft — that cubist virtual world in which people play by breaking and building things. A computer game created by Swede, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, Microsoft acquired Minecraft in September 2014 for US$2.5bn.

The stats for Minecraft are stupefying. At the time of writing this, some 19 642 382 people had bought either the PC or Mac version of the game. In the 24 hours before, 7 915 people bought the game.

Similarly, the international gaming industry is beyond huge — bigger in revenues than the US film industry, earning an estimated US$76bn per year. In SA alone, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that R1.4bn is spent on video games for computers, cellphones, tablets and consoles. And there are people in the local computer/video game sector who contest PwC’s figures.

South African game developer Danny Day by Jon Pienaar
Danny Day. Pic by Jon Pienaar.

Day cautions that PwC’s numbers are no real indication of the current state of game development in the country. “Of that R1.4bn, none of it goes into the local scene,” he says, adding: “It’s all going to big international corporations — big international distributors and hardware sellers. Very little of it actually stays in the country, even in the retail space, because your mark-ups are so small.”

Big money

The big money for local game devs is coming for those who crack it on curated game portals.

Make Games South Africa (MGSA), the association of independent game developers, ran a survey this year to get an idea of the size and scope of the local industry. There were 40 active game-development companies that responded, which overall have directly created 253 jobs, showing a 5% growth from 2014. Together the organisations released a total of 67 games in 2014, and the declared value of these organisations is about R53m, an 82% growth from last year.

But let’s get back to Desktop Dungeons, the indy game that could.

Desktop Dungeons was conceived in early 2010 when Joubert put a rough prototype of the game on a local game development forum. The game was an immediate hit with the other forum users, and it exploded outwards from there. Day and Luck, who also frequented the same forums, took notice, and realised the game’s potential. They invited Joubert to join their game-development company, QCF Design, so together they could finish the game, and take it to the next level.

Desktop Dungeons paladin swamp gorgonThe alpha version of Desktop Dungeons was completed at the end of 2010, and the three decided that the company needed to attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles to showcase and raise funds for further development.

“Begged, borrowed and stole (air-miles)”

“We begged, borrowed and stole other people’s air-miles until we could eventually afford one ticket,” Day says, who was chosen to go to the expo.

PayPal had recently launched in SA, so the decision was made to put a pre-order on their site. “By the time I got off the plane in Dubai, we could afford the entire trip. By the time I had completed the leg to Los Angeles and dashed to E3 to start demoing the game, we could pretty much afford to continue developing the game for the next year,” he continues.

“The pre-orders worked well for us and we turned this into an open beta, and for the next two-and-a-half years we released a new version of the game every Friday to our beta subscribers. People could buy the game for US$10, or US$20 if they wanted to support us. Some 13 000 people bought the game that way,” Day details.

At E3, Desktop Dungeons was spotted by a game scout for Steam. A digital distribution company based in the US, Steam is the world’s largest online distributor of video games for personal computers. Some 4 500 games may be found on Steam, which boasts a community of 125m active users, with anything from 6m to 9m people playing concurrently.

Dream distribution network

For game developers, this platform is the dream distribution network. What Netflix is to movies, or Amazon is to books, Steam is to games.

Desktop Dungeons kingdom sceneNow let’s look at Desktop Dungeon’s numbers. Day says that 13 000 people bought the game on pre-order over the two-and-a-half years of beta testing. “But we sold more than that on Steam in our first week of release… in our first month I think we did about R1.4m in terms of revenue, and it just kept growing from there.”

To create ‘spikes’ of interest, Steam holds regular promotions. Says Day: “We were on sale as part of the Steam holiday sale on the first of January 2014, and I think we did R1m in eight hours.” Day is characteristically disarming about this success, saying, “I was a little bit freaked out. But that’s the dream, and that’s why I say that building your own IP is way more lucrative than doing other things.”

Now let us start thinking about a ‘moral’ for this story.

Put the ABCs aside

Traditional advertising agencies, researchers and media types are still crunching the numbers from television, and billboards and print. Perhaps it is time to put the ABCs aside for a bit, to start hanging around Steam and trying to find out how the game ecosystems work. Hook up with the peeps from Super Friendship Arcade who are promoting local indy games. Or connect with Make Games South Africa.

For marketers, the portable, video and computer games world is going to be a tough nut to crack, and the sooner you enter and try to understand this world, the better. Future marketing will include games, but unlike the other media, the game devs, the online markets and the players will be the gods of those worlds — they will determine the rules for entry.

For those brands that make the effort, the reward could be legion. There will be goats, and many, many more rewards. So be curious and go play. You’ll be glad you did.

Mandy de Waal


Mandy de Waal is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow her on Twitter at @mandyldewaal or at MandyLdeWaal [@]


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One reply on “Africa Dispatches: Agencies, got game?”

  1. This has definitely been an area that advertising and marketing agencies have been neglecting, focusing instead on “gamification” approaches that perhaps seem less scary to the brand managers.

    We – at RetroEpic – have made a number of games for clients to promote their brands. We’re always looking for new opportunities so those marketers and brand managers who are brave enough to get in ahead of the curve should get in touch :)

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