The Quest for an African RPG

The Quest for an African RPG

A rookie team of Cameroonian developers is adding a touch of Africa to the action-RPG genre with a title more than 10 years in the making.

Olivier Madiba loves Final Fantasy VII. As a 14-year-old, he often obsessed over it. It was the sort of experience that made him want to make video games of his own.

But as a student in Cameroon, Madiba's options were limited. He was far from San Francisco and other game development hubs, and there wasn’t even a studio to be found in his home country when he was a teenager in th late 1990s and early 2000s. So Madiba did what any aspiring entrepeneur would do in his situation: he set out to create a studio of his own.

"It seems obvious now that, yes, you can open a video game studio in Central Africa, because we make it," Madiba reflects. "But even one year ago it was a dream—impossible." At the time, his inner voice spoke plainly to the reality of the situation: "Yeah yeah, you're dreaming. It's not possible. No one can open a studio with this lack of electricity — lack of everything."

Cameroon had neither the precedence nor the infrastructure to support a games industry, he felt, with its high poverty rates and predominantly rural population. Around a third of the country lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. Nevertheless, Madiba wanted to make video games, and he’s found a way, having gone on to become the co-founder and CEO of Kiro'o Games. His goal: to make the RPG that he’s dreamt of since picking up Final Fantasy VII for the first time as a teenager.

Head in the Cloud

Like so many other gamers, Madiba has often wondered if he could make his favorite game better. On his fifth or sixth playthrough of Final Fantasy VII, he remembers, "In the fight between Cloud and Sephiroph — the final one — I always wanted to see [something] more dynamic, more epic, and I started to imagine how I would have created this part with Sephiroph refusing to die."

He continues: "I started also to imagine if Aeris was not dead, etcetera etcetera. I wanted to make someone else feel what this game made me feel at the time. I finished this game over and over and over, [and] I still wanted to play it again."

Olivier Madiba. Photo courtesy of Kiro'o Games.

He eventually conceived of his own game in 2003. Titled Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, it was to be the tale of an outcast prince and his bride as they search the world for a mystical energy that provides its bearers greatly increased power and fighting ability. "I got the idea when I was 17," he explains. That was his first year of university, where he studied computer science. "At the first attempt it was just Dragon Ball Z with a black guy, with no real originality, but we [had] already introduced the concept of the Aurion as a force of power infused by your ancestor during fights."

Even now, years later, one gets the sense that Madiba is still very much intent on capturing in his own creation the essence of what he loves about each of his favorite games and expanding on it in one fell swoop. He talks of making all battles like the boss fights in Naruto Ultimate Ninja, which are characterized by outlandish multi-hit fighting game-style combos and acrobatic stunts, but also of aping the presentational style of Valkyrie Profile.

The first version of Aurion even had quick-time events, although they weren't drawn from God of War — which didn't yet exist in 2003 — or Shenmue. Rather, it was Final Fantasy VII that gave Madiba the idea — once again in thinking about that epic final battle. "I was asking myself, what if Cloud and Sephiroph can have counter," he says. So he developed the idea in Aurion. "We call it tactical counter because you have to make a good decision — when your enemy makes a move, time freezes [and] you have to make a good decision. Do you choose to counter? Do you choose to block?"

Prior versions also provided a top-down viewpoint during exploration and a side view for battles, a la Tales of Destiny (or any of the multitudes of other console RPGs that have done much the same). But the top-down view was eventually dropped in favor of a permanent side-on perspective, albeit with a touch of verticality inspired by the likes of Genesis beat-'em-ups Streets of Rage and Final Fight.

Exactly how well all these elements will gel in the final version isn't clear, especially with the game's African influences thrown in to the mix. But if nothing else, it will be different to the usual RPG fare. Aurion's visual stylings owe much to African art traditions, with bright earthy colors and beautiful hand-drawn backdrops, while its main narrative concerns the crown prince Enzo Kori-Odan and his bride Erine Evou as they travel the world in search of support for their bid to retrieve the throne after being exiled by a traitorous brother-in-law on the day of their coronation. Along the way they discover a dark history of conflict and deep-seated ideological differences between the six ethnic groups of the planet Auriona.

"The inspiration of the story is—in fact, I have taken all of African history and our challenges for the future and made a story that symbolizes this," Madiba explains. "But not as a victim saying oh no we have been colonized. No, no. We don't like this interpretation." There are themes of colonization and geopolitical oppression drawn from 19th and 20th century African history, but Madiba hopes the narrative will be relatable to people from all cultures.

"We want to make a universal thematic game [sic] but inspired by African stories," he says. "We are a little bit in the center of the world when you see the world map, and we have been colonized — especially in Cameroon, where we have been colonized by France, England, Holland, and now we are diplomatically involved with China. It's the reason why we understand everyone, you see—that's something I want to put in the game."

Madiba wants to present you with the dilemmas we face in the world— things like racism, religious and cultural oppression, warring ideologies, massive wealth inequality — and to engage you to reflect on what is good, what is bad, or what the solution might be. He's trying not to fall back on standard tropes. "There is no chosen one, waited for so long in the prophecy," he says. "No. We want to make a game about the fact that everyone guides himself in the contradiction of the world and chooses his way for the better."

"We are a little bit in the center of the world when you see the world map, and we have been colonized... It's the reason why we understand everyone, you see—that's something I want to put in the game." - Olivier Madiba

It's an idea rooted in tradition. It's about stories and parables from the wise elders — from history — told to help make sense of your surroundings. And it's specifically intended to transcend cultural barriers. "I think that when [Akira] Toriyama created Son Goku [of Dragon Ball fame] he was not only — he did not decide that black people will not read this manga," Madiba argues. "So we want to create games in African fantasy with black people but where everyone can feel himself. And why not? We want the American [and] Japanese studios to make African fantasy games [too]."

Madiba has continued to work on his game over the year, along the way writing a novel, Jour et Nuit (Day and Night), to hone his scenario design and dialogue skills. In 2007, at the tender age of 22, he co-founded an IT company called MADIA Group — the name being a portmanteau of his surname, Madiba, and his business partner's, Mamia.

"It was kind of boring for me," Madiba admits. "And the business market there is not very good. You can make a good job but you will be paid [little]… I was thinking about leaving business to search common jobs somewhere else, and I told myself that I have tried to be realistic. It's not working."

Amid these doubts, his game continued to grow, going through multiple ground-up rewrites and prototypes. Eventually, he took a leap of faith and set out to create Kiro'o Games: "If I have to leave the dream of creating my own company, I must try my real dream for once and give it all — give everything about it. And that's what I did at the end of 2012, I think. Through all the year of 2013, me and the team give all our life to make it happen."

His gamble has thus far paid off. With the help of 20 professional coders and artists, Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan has progressed from its initial amateur RPG Maker effort to a mostly-finished action-RPG crafted in Microsoft's XNA framework. And for his part, Madiba is closer than ever to his dream.

Representing a Continent

For Madiba though, it's also about more than just making a game. For him, the pressures on to make good on his vision for the studio and also the entire continent. For such a populous region, Africa has only a handful of game developers. Among them, South Africa's I-Infinite Interactive, Giant Box Games, and Celestial Games, plus a few others, have carved out a solid indie-focused local industry that has produced international successes Pixel Boy, Toxic Bunny, and Independent Games Festival 2011 winner Desktop Dungeons. Nigerian company Maliyo Games has turned into a web and mobile social games powerhouse, with Ubisoft's Casablanca studio in Morocco being responsible for Rayman 3D and Rayman Fiesta Run. There's also Leti Arts, split between Ghana and Kenya, and maybe a dozen more lesser-known developers clustered primarily in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa.

Most African developers work solely on mobile, focused on African and niche international audiences, but Kiro'o Games has its sights set firmly on PC and consoles and on exposure in more mainstream avenues. Madiba feels the weight of responsibility. "It's clear that if we are creating a bad game everyone will be deceived. They will think Africans can't make games after all."

Succeed and they may kickstart African game development; fail and he fears they may delay progress, stunting growth and limiting international exposure for future efforts — as happened with African cinema and music, long stuck in limbo when it comes to reaching wider audiences.

Madiba likens the situation to soccer. Cameroon made history in the 1990 World Cup by becoming the first African nation to reach the quarter finals — a feat made yet more remarkable by the fact that the team beat reigning champions (and later runners up) Argentina in the opening match and then, spurred by the heroics of its 38 year old star forward Roger Milla, topped their group. Kiro'o Games will do the same in the games industry, he believes; his studio will prove "the first to go that far," thereby paving the way for others on the continent to emerge as internationally-popular developers.

Kiro'o Games's large development team sets the company even further apart from other indies. Madiba leads a team of 20, many of whom are artists drawn from outside the games industry. "When we started in December," he says, "the guys knew how to draw, how to paint, but they didn't know the process in game design." They'd settled into the groove within a couple of months, yet still everybody lives in the studio Monday to Saturday, sleeping and eating together in between 15 hours of work a day.

It's not just for dedication to the idea and a drive to lead African game development. Kiro'o Games skates on thin ice when it comes to funding. After a failed crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in August and September last year, which earned a measly €1,328 (roughly $1,800) of their €75,000 ($100,000) goal, and repeated disinterest from local banks, the company turned to a novel model of fundraising wherein anybody around the world can become a shareholder of the studio.

It worked, with enough funding to enter full production in December and 30 investors to date dropping $830 a share on around half of the 300 shares made available thus far. "It was kind of hard to raise funds," Madiba says, "but when we started to go outside and when we started to explain our plan and how we structure it, foreigners — businessmen and enterprises see that we are very proficient in what we want to do."

Now Kiro'o Games must execute on its vision, to take the cautiously positive feedback from fans and (predominately French) press and shape and polish Aurion into something great.

If Madiba gets his way, he'll have more than just a successful studio to his name. It's all about the big picture—to put Africa on the map as a rising star in game development, destined to produce a major international hit, and to make games deal with African themes and mythology not as a sidebar to Western colonialism but as a core tenet of the design. Ninjas and Vikings and space marines have had their moment in the sun; Africa has a rich history ripe with thousands of ethnic groups and some of the greatest ancient civilizations. Survive this first game and Kiro'o Games will have many tales to tell.

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