Vodacom and the local dev springboard

Local Internet-lands have recently been abuzz with stories of a game called Legends of Echo. It’s a bit of good ol’ South African produce which uses the local Grid network to create a mobile, location-based MMO. The “mobile” bit means that it can be played on a cellphone (though models seem limited to Nokia and Sony Ericsson) and the “location-based” bit means that your real-life game spot is mapped to a unique place in the fantasy world of Echo. Swashbuckling adventures and epic battles await.

Legends of EchoFunnily enough, I didn’t hear anything about the game until its actual launch day, but its explosive arrival holds promise — especially since it’s backed by bigwigs like Vodacom and a the power of a “lower seven figures” budget. They’re naturally hoping to make a great deal of dosh from this — micro-transactions (such as the described ability to exchange airtime for “Elements”) as well as the oft-overlooked charge for data transfer should mean that all three mobile operators in this country will have something valuable to gain from the experience.

Some people may be tempted to roll their eyes at this whole thing and call it an evil corporate plot with the sole aim of getting us to spend more money on frivolous activities, but the fact is that local game developers really need big companies like Vodacom to agree with more initiatives like this. It makes a startling amount of sense for everyone involved: getting “the suits” to cough up funds for (potentially profitable) game projects gives budding developers a grand opportunity to cut their teeth and build up capital in an otherwise destitute local environment. Setting up a game studio — particularly in South Africa — can be a horrendously difficult task without external assistance or a nice whack of cash. Offering one’s talents to a corporation interested in advergames or other promotional projects may not sound like the most inspiring line of work, but it’s a far safer route than immediately diving into your own big game project.

Legends of EchoIt’s quite a pity that the Legends of Echo team decided to outsource their work to devs in Bangladesh instead of drawing on additional local talent, but it’s still a grand opportunity to take a long, hard look at how co-operating with big businesses can work to our advantage. It remains to be seen how successful Echo will actually be, but the fact remains that Vincent Maher and Nic Haralambous were given over a million rand and eleven months to make a game with.

It may sound like a once-off matter, but other local developers have also benefited from the idea of piggybacking “non-gaming” entities. Luma Arcade, for example, is a local game development company which just recently showed off a preview title for Microsoft’s XNA-based mobile games. It started off as a small side project of its parent company (a more generic graphics studio) with just a few employees and a budget supplied by the non-gaming ventures of the broader company. Indie developers QCF Design also began building themselves up with advergames for companies like Colgate and Tropica (as well as unrelated web design projects) before moving on to self-funded game projects.

It’s not the most glorious model, but it’s one which appears to be doing some good — advergames and sponsored opportunities are a viable way to give small-fry developers a foothold in the local market, and may soon become an accepted stepping stone for people looking to cut their teeth on commercial game development.