AiW Guest Tessa Pijnaker
This third post in Africa in Words’ series about African superheroes is based on an interview with Akdogan Ali in April 2018. Ali (29) and his partner Umusu Samson Iruo (31) are the founders of the Nigerian game development studio Black Ring. After three years of production, they released Throne of Gods in July 2017. This mobile fighting game allows players to select different characters based on African mythology to battle against each other. For instance, the character Shango is inspired by Nigerian Yoruba god of thunder and lighting, Akonadi by the Ghanaian oracle and goddess of justice, Ikenga by the Nigerian Igbo god of achievement and time, Bull is presented as to come from Sudan, and Yurugu is inspired by the Malian Dogon god of chaos (see image 1).
After a career as a film and video producer in Nigeria’s booming movie industry, Ali worked on the animation side of the game. Iruo, a software programmer and website, mobile app and mobile game developer with a degree in Computer Science from the National Open University of Nigeria, worked on the programming of the game. During our conversation, Ali and I spoke about his motivations to produce Throne of Gods, the production and distribution process, the role of African mythology in character development, the importance of quality and the future of the African videogame industry.
Tessa Pijnaker for Africa in Words: Could you maybe start by telling me what motivated you to develop a game inspired by African mythology?
Akdogan Ali: Well, one reason has to do with my personal background: I am more or less a nerd. I grew up with comic books, action figures, superheroes and the rest, and videogames most especially. I played fighting games like Killer Instinct, Street Fighter and Mortal Combat. I played these and other games as long as they were enjoyable, entertaining and of good quality. At the time, I did not yet check if they had African content in them or not. It could be a story about anything, as long the quality was good I gave it a shot. I also had a group of friends that gathered comics together, would discuss them, and we would give ourselves deadlines and work on projects together. However, growing up, gradually life got in the way and little by little my friends started to drop these activities. To an extent, this also happened to me: for a long time I wanted to draw comic books professionally, but eventually I got into 3D animation and 3D modelling.Around 2006, 2007, 2008, I made a first attempt to develop a videogame, but this was a disappointing experience due to lack of a good internet connection. When I would go online, I would see outstanding, marvellous, amazing characters in 3D moving and jumping and flying. I wanted to make something like this too but had no idea how to do that by myself. All I could make on my computer was a little box or a chair or a ball, but I had no clue how to make that ball evolve into this flying character. At the time, there were no schools training people in these things in Lagos, and internet was not fully accessible yet to gather this knowledge either. There was also no community of people to share experiences with or to teach each other, so I got disappointed and frustrated, dropped everything and went into film and video production. It was only years later, in 2013, when there was the revolution of the mobile devices and I found out about mobile games, that I came back. Especially when I learned that these games were not only made by large companies but also indie developers I got hope. Maybe if these guys can do it, we can do it, I thought to myself.
So, at that time, I traced back games such as the old Streetfighter on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis me and my friends grew up with. The main reason to decide on developing this kind of fighting game is that I felt they were easier to make. Through a mutual friend who knew about the project I had in mind, I heard about Samson. First, we spoke about my idea, after which I went to the drawing board to show him some 3D animations of my ideas the next time. When I showed that to him he got interested and we kicked the project off together.
However, initially the story was not about Africa, but mainly about warriors from different ages and regions fighting against each other. I wanted to do modern day stuff and something epic with heavy content. With epic I mean that I wanted the game to feel massive, to give people a ‘wow’ feeling. So I don’t mean epic as in ancient, but as in outstanding, with lots of sorcery, magic and action. But one day this changed, when I was researching African mythology and learning about African deities. At the time it was unchartered land to me, but soon I realized that it actually fit really well with my desire to make epic, heavy content. I felt that as an artist, you could really explore the art and culture these African characters belonged to and go far with their designs. You can combine them with monsters and creatures of imaginations, so that was one reason why I chose African mythology. I also felt it provided both an opportunity to educate ourselves and to entertain people. I feel that what I learned about West African, East African, Northern and Southern African mythology for this project has enlightened me a lot.
Another reason to choose African mythology was to give the game and the game development studio a clear identity when coming out, which people would recognize. If you think about what kind of games the world already has, it is saturated with a lot of content. For instance, there are already so many games and films about the Greek, Norse or Egyptian mythology. While in this part of the world, we don’t have much games coming from or being about Africa. Thus, there is so much African content that we have in Africa and have not unravelled yet. I feel as developers we really need to create this identity before we can actually further develop our games and the gaming industry. If we would have just made a game about some generic story or a generic character, it would just have gotten lost in the ocean of games. It would not have had something that made it stand out, or situate were it was coming from, within the global competition. I think that with games there is a bench mark, people really want to see quality. So I felt that to achieve that quality we should start with Africa, make stuff from this part of the world that identifies with who we are and speaks to this part of the world. It is fresh, it is just there, it is interesting, so why not use it. And after we get attention or maybe get more financial room, we could start integrating characters and stories from other continents.
TP: How did you decide upon the characters that are featured in Throne of Gods?
AA: Well, first of all I did months of research online, checking links and research. I did not want the characters to come from one part of Africa, so one of the things I was looking for was a balance between characters from the East, West, North and South. I made an initial list of stories and characters I wanted to put in the game, and picked the first ten, to add the rest later as downloadable content. The first ten that I picked seemed the most interesting and unique to me. For instance, what I really liked about Akonadi is that she is the Ghanaian goddess of justice and protects women and children. With others, I found similar key words that made them sound like characters I could well translate into a videogame. Those key words could refer to characters’ personality, like with Akonadi, but could also refer to appearance, thus giving clues how to visually represent these characters. For instance, descriptions like ‘this character has eight heads’, ‘this character lives under water’, ‘this one represents fire’, all seemed to me like they could be developed into visually interesting videogame characters. However, it was sometimes challenging to decide upon how to visually represent these characters, because for some of them their stories were not well documented. While Shango is very popular and has a lot of documentation about him, about some characters I could just find two or three sentences. This made the design process more challenging to me than actually picking out the characters. I really had to combine my research with my imagination.
Images 5a, b and c: These images show different stages of the development of the character Kuanja, Goddess of Hunting from Angola. Image 5a features one of the initial designs of the character in September 2016. Image 5b and c show her design a year later. While her general muscular composure has remained the same, the shield has been removed and the character was given more colour and detail. In the final design she has red hair and a red headdress, a yellow or pink hide body suit, yellow or red leg protectors and white spots on her body and bow. These images illustrate how constant adjustments and alterations were part of the design process.
TP: I noticed that most of the characters in Throne of Gods are very big and muscular. How did you decide upon a specific style for the characters? What inspired you?
AA: My version of growing up with comic books was kind of different from most people, because I did not really focus on the superheroes, but was very interested in the artists drawing the comics. I was able to look at comics and recognize who drew it from the drawing style. So from a young age, I have been inspired by this comic book drawing style. When I was younger, I admired a lot of comic book artists, like Jim Lee, Joe Madeira and John Buscema, who used to draw the Conan the Barbarian series. Lately, I have been reading a lot of Buscema’s work, because I use it as inspiration for the next project I am working on. Currently though, I mainly just focus on finding great art and do not really follow names as much anymore. Also, from an early age the huge characters you saw in comic books were kind of my thing, I especially really liked the characters who looked like brutes. For Throne of Gods in particular, I got a lot of inspiration from the Street Fighter V art style and used a lot of references from the Warcraft and World of Warcraft series. I really liked the way they designed their orcs as all huge, brutish and primal, with this intimidating feel and look. Even the orc women looked kind of big. I never played the Warcraft games though, but I did follow their media footage and 3D and 2D designs. So, because of that, I really wanted a brutish look for my characters. Furthermore, while doing my research, I noticed that while there is a great variety in looks for male characters, women often looked quite similar and stereotypical. So, for females, we wanted to do something different, create a big boned African woman kind of look.
Images 8a and b: The superpower of Shango shows clear similarities with the superpowers of Rye in Street Fighter V. Both powers are visualized as blue and white thunder/electricity.
TP: On your social media and in the game I also noticed that the voice acting of the characters is very important to you. Can you maybe tell a bit more about that?
AA: The fighting games that I grew up with that we used as inspiration for Throne of Gods, mostly featured characters that at best said some Japanese words, but most of all seemed to be speaking gibberish. While it did not make much sense, it still sounded nice. So inspired by that, I wanted the characters to speak their native language when they fight. I was really set on their native language because this seemed to make more sense for mythological characters from a specific region. They probably would not have spoken anything different than their native language. Also, I liked the idea that someone who is playing the game might understand it and relate to it. So Shango speaks Yoruba, while Akonadi speaks Twi.
TP: And which kind of software did you use and how did you acquire the skills to use them?
AA: The game engine we used for the programming of the game was Unity 3D, which is one of the most popular gaming engines for game development, both used by large and independent game development companies. We mainly chose this game engine because compared to Unreal Engine or any other gaming engine, it is widely accepted and very accessible. Online you can find a lot of tutorials on Unity, and at tech events here in Lagos there are also often some Unity representatives, so the use of that engine seems pretty widespread in Africa. For the arts, animations and design of the 3D characters I used 3DMAX, ZBrush, XNormal and a little bit of Adobe Premiere Pro. I am self-taught: most of my skills and knowledge came from the internet and constant practice and learning. My partner who worked on the programming is also largely self-taught.
TP: Did you face any challenges while making the game? And if so, what kind of challenges?
AA: Well, first there was the issue of the design of the visual elements. Because it was my first game, the characters went through a lot of alterations. It was really a process of design, destroy, redesign it, destroy it again. Second, sometimes we were not able to let things we visualized come out in the programming in the exact way we wanted, because we did not have the experience or mastery of that skill yet. For instance, we had this idea for a cinematic camera in the game showing some astounding moves and executions of the characters, but it was so difficult and took too long to get this right, so we had to move on from that, also because the project already took way longer than we imagined, causing us to lose momentum. Third, the project was independently funded by us, so we had to work with limited resources and our own limited experience with game development. At some point we did look for investors or crowdfunding, but eventually we ended up financing most of our game through our work as freelancers.
Images 9a – f: These images show the transformation of the character Akonadi during the development process. In earlier phases, she wore a Nigerian gele (headscarf), a blindfold, and a short blue skirt. Eventually she ended up bald, with three eyes, and a white, blue and yellow dress. Two things that remained consistent were her body shape and her huge sword.
TP: Let’s talk a bit more about the audience and reception of the game. Did you have a specific audience in mind when developing the game?
AA: Yes, young adults and teenagers. Also, we were not focusing on casual gamers, but on people who had a bit of background with gaming and played videogames at some point in their lives.
TP: Did you execute a specific marketing strategy when the game was released? And how was the game received by the audience?
AA: Until the game came out, we generally just did social media promotion. When the game was finished, we were so exhausted that we did that a bit more and started to think about a new project to work on too. What also really helped with the promotion of the game was the support of the organisers of events such as the Lagos Comic Con and the West African Gaming Expo, who invited us to exhibit and talk about our game at their events. Next to this, a lot of people wrote about the game, with or without reaching out to us. Surprisingly, when the game was released, we got a lot of feedback from people outside of Nigeria, mostly from people in the United States, who seemed to be really interested in the African theme. Most of our downloads are from Africa and the United States, though there are some from Europe too.
TP: What are your goals when it comes to your career as a game developer?
AA: We have just added a new member to our team, a programmer who is really promising, to help out with the development of our next game. We are hoping to finish that game this year. We already have most of the mechanics for the fighting system and just need to polish it and need to create a lot of assets, like the environment. The game is supposed to be set in an African village and to be kind of an adventure game, with a warrior. It is still in development, but it is looking good thus far.
When it comes to other things I would like to achieve as a game developer, I feel it is something that is beyond just me. At some point in this country, the music industry just flourished and erupted. In my opinion, the movie industry is also heading into that direction. The quality is getting better and better. The music industry has really helped the country, it created jobs for a lot of people. I have worked in the music industry a bit myself, gained some experience and benefited a bit from what this industry has to offer.
However, I feel that the gaming industry in this part of the world is yet to be born, and that that is beyond me making a game, or beyond what Black Ring can do. While I know a lot of young people who want to head into the direction of game development, they face a lot of negative feedback, get discouraged, which ruins their opportunity to make a living and a career of it. So, I feel people need to wake up, change their attitude, need to start to consider gaming another way to help more people and create jobs. Next to this, I feel the gaming industry really needs quality content, even more quality content, and consistency. A lot of people start projects, but never finish them – I see a lot of great ideas go down the drain just because they take too long. Next to that of course there are certain things that could be improved, like access to financial resources, knowledge and skills, access to the right people and good working relationships. So, while Black Ring can only do so much, my personal goal is to not only make games for me or with my team, but to start a movement with every other talented artist and professional out there in this country who is trying to do the same thing. I think that it is necessary to keep this movement going and to develop it into a force to reckon with. When we are consistent and produce quality, it will turn heads, and eventually it will turn the right heads. Plus, we need to kick the gaming industry in Africa off with games that have a strong identity, that is the way I see it.
TP: What do you mean with quality content?
AA: Well, when we produced Throne of Gods we faced many challenges, and we could have easily said to ourselves: ‘this is too difficult, let’s kill the project or make something very, very simple’. We could have made something simple that would not push us, did not feel challenging, that we would not really be proud of. What I mean when I talk about quality is that when it comes to skills, results and what you have in mind, no matter how difficult it is, we have to aim for what could be better, how a game could look and feel better. We should never settle for less but aim to stand up and do something. After Throne of Gods was finished, I looked back on the development process and the final product and saw many things that could be improved. I see that as the way forward to grow in this field. That does not mean that I am not happy with it – I really am – I am just not satisfied. I want it to look better, sound better, play better, so for the next project we have set ourselves to do something even bigger and better. Regardless of issues with manpower or skillset, regardless of everything, we always have to aim for something better than we already did. That is what I mean with aiming for quality and consistency.
Throne of Gods can be downloaded from the Google App Store.
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 Segaretro. “Street Fighter II’: Special Champion Edition.” https://segaretro.org/Street_Fighter_II%27:_Special_Champion_Edition
Tessa Pijnaker is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate in African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham, UK, researching self-styling and the design of mobile applications by technology entrepreneurs in Accra, Ghana. In 2014 she did a five-month internship at the Ghanaian-Kenyan game development studio Leti Arts in Accra, Ghana, as part of her fieldwork for the research master Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. Her thesis based on this fieldwork was rewarded an honorary mention by the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities and the SIDN Fund as part of the Internet Thesis Awards 2015. She also holds an MA in History (Cum Laude) from the Free University of Amsterdam. Her thesis for this master’s about UNESCO’s the General History of Africa was awarded the third prize as part of the De Volkskrant – ISSH History Thesis Award 2016.