South African game developers won’t publish in their own country — here’s why

South African game developers are being discouraged from publishing their games in their home country due to the frustration and cost involved with applying Film and Publications Board (FPB) age restrictions to their work.

This is according to Pieter Koornhof and Nick Hall from Interactive Entertainment South Africa (IESA), who appeared before the Competition Commission as part of its Online Intermediation Platforms Market Inquiry earlier this week.

Koornhof is the chief operating officer at 24-bit Games and Hall is the business development manager at Renderheads.

Hall told the Competition Commission that the process of being FPB approved is incredibly frustrating for many developers.

The legal ramifications of publishing a video game in South Africa without FPB approval are so severe that many developers avoid the process entirely.

This results in many studios developing games locally that will only be published to the global market due to these restrictions, and as such these games are never available to play in South Africa.

Some well-known games released by large, multinational publishers obtain FPB ratings. These are displayed on platforms such as the popular PC video game marketplace Steam.

However, the smaller independent outfits that many South African video game studios publish through do not feature FPB ratings.

State of South Africa’s gaming industry

Koornhof and Hall discussed the South African video game industry’s current status, particularly the issues the industry faces relating to digital marketing platforms.

Hall began the presentation by giving a brief overview of the South African video game industry. He stated that the local industry is roughly 25 years old, which is relatively immature compared to the global industry.

South Africa has approximately 60 active video game studios, although most of these studios are hobbyists or micro-enterprises consisting of 1-2 members.

There are roughly 250 full-time employees in the local video game industry, and the local industry is mainly focused on developing for consoles and PC.

The local video game industry also sees little to no income from the local market, but rather 99% of revenue is due to exports.

The estimated annual revenue of the local industry is R300 million, with the majority of this concentrated among six studios.

Competition within the industry

Hall stated that games inherently do not compete within or across genres. However, consoles such as PlayStation, Nintendo, and Xbox do.

As a result, this can often lead to platform exclusivity, with certain platforms vying for certain titles exclusively to attract more customers to their platform over others.

According to Hall, the global market is currently “dominated” by a few large companies, including Ubisoft, EA, Activision Blizzard, King, Rovio, Zynga, and Tencent.

There is also currently a relatively high rate of mergers and acquisitions by larger companies to acquire smaller studios.

Online distribution platforms

One of the significant points of discussion was how online distribution platforms are suited for the distribution of South African developed video games.

Some of the discussed platforms include Steam, Epic Games, Google Play, and the Apple App Store.

Two of the issues brought forward were the visibility, ranking, and featuring of South African developed games on these platforms and the commission charged by these platforms to developers.

In terms of the visibility of games on these platforms, it was said that when these games are targeted at a global audience, they have to compete with the worldwide industry to be seen.

Unfortunately, when targeted at a specifically South African audience, the games and apps are seen on the platform, but the local market is not big enough for solely targeting towards them to be a feasible option.

Hall stated that a reduction in the cost of platform commissions would not necessarily result in growth in the industry and that there are other considerations more pressing, such as the lack of availability and price of development kits in South Africa.

Local challenges

According to Hall, some of the most significant barriers and challenges faced by South African game developers are:

  • Funding: The cost of developing video games is inherently high, and in the South African context, many developers do not have access to the funds needed to create and produce games of a high calibre. There is also a lack of seed-funding systems that are prevalent in the global industry.
  • Film and Publications Board compliance: The process of having a video game approved by the Film and Publications Board, many developers have found to be a difficult one. There are also strict penalties for publishing locally without this FPB approval.
  • Acquisition of external talent: The South African visa system excludes bringing in professionals with specific skills that would benefit the industry. The country does not currently see these skills as necessary or in-demand skills.

Update: FPB responds

The Film and Publications Board dismissed IESA’s complaints about its process being frustrating.

“The FPB works closely with industry in order to understand their needs when designing the Classification Regulations, Guidelines and Tariffs. Regular dialogue and training sessions are conducted with industry,” the FPB stated.

The organisation said its current Tariff Model came about through this consultation and listening to the needs of industry.

“As such the FPB does not have a blanket tariff for all game distributors but employs a stratified model whereby the tariff is adapted to the size of the distributor,” it explained.

“In other words, smaller game distribution companies pay less to classify their materials than the large local or international distributors.”

It also said that the processes at the FPB have been streamlined in the past to accommodate an easier content classification process, for game distributors especially.

This includes the use of a Content Rating Analysis Matrix — The game distributor can elect to sign a Co-Regulation Model, where they classify their own material based on the FPB Classification Guidelines and Content Rating Analysis Matrix. Classification training is provided for distributors signed up to use this model.

The FPB said that once new regulations are published in terms of the amended Film and Publications Act, which was signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019, it will accredit foreign classification systems on application from distributors.

“This will further open up the market and allow for compliance with the objects of the [Film and Publications] Act,” the FPB said.

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South African game developers won’t publish in their own country — here’s why