The Guy Who Is Creating Kenya’s Own Super Mario Bros And Pokémon Go
With a constantly ballooning fan base and boutique events springing up on all corners of the country’s major cities, Kenya is not new to the gaming culture. The same cannot be said of game development. The majority of the games consumed in Kenya (both mobile and console) are foreign made. But one man is on a mission to change that.
Daniel Macharia creator of Navana, an adventure game android app that launched this past August under his Mashariki Mobility Company, has as unique a story as they come. And oh, the small matter of having one of Kenya’s first ever mobile phone games on the Google Play Store. He is a true Kenyan pioneer.
Tell us about your background.
I’m a former banker and I found myself disinterested in the job, so I quit and decided to teach myself programming. That was in 2014 and started learning programming at the beginning of 2015. I picked two projects that I set as goals to prove to myself that I could create something with programming- and not just learn programming for the sake of it.
The first one was a news app called Povi that I was able to publish to the Google Play Store within three months of my learning. Next was to try my hand at game programming, which is a completely different kind of programming- very difficult and challenging on many levels.
Povi (positive vibrations) is a news aggregator app that curates positive news only from publishers all around the world
It took some time to find someone who could do my graphics because I don’t have the skill. And when I did, we had to discontinue the project because he had to leave the country, which was a downer. I did manage to find a second very talented guy who was initially charging a bit expensively. I’m unemployed at this point and obviously can’t afford his price but we managed to reach an agreement.
All a breeze then, right?
At this point I’m still not conversant with all the different aspects of game programming because it’s very broad. You have to incorporate a lot; images, music, sounds and graphics. And part of our agreement was that I first deliver a fully functional level to prove that this was a worthy project for both of us.
This was mid-2015. It took a while for me to get the hang of it, with lots of setbacks. And by December 2015 I was ready to give up because whatever I was trying wasn’t working. The graphics designer had already delivered on his part with all the artwork, but I was letting him down on the programming side.
In January 2016 the graphics designer abandoned the project, and that’s of course after I had already paid the full amount. I guess I had underestimated how much work it would take to build a game because within three months of my programming lessons I had built my first app Povi. It gave me a false impression. So there I was, everything falling apart.
How did you manage to launch Navana only six months later?
I had to compromise. Remember my initial goal was to learn every aspect of programming, not to build apps. In that regard I was trying to build everything from scratch which was what was proving to be difficult. In February I decided to scrap that plan and opted for an open source framework (where the fundamental programming is already done for you).
Then things started to fall into place very quickly. I used the original artworks I had but still had to get another artist to design the backgrounds for the additional levels. The game was complete by June. I did a soft launch where it was only available to select people. This was for purposes of feedback and identifying any bugs. This phase was quite important and made the game better.
Tell us about Navana.
The title is Navana - Safari Ya Amani (Journey of Peace). It’s a fun game targetted at both adults and the kids. It showcases the best of what Africa, with very little resources, can offer in terms of game development. I’m really proud of it. Especially it being a multi-level game. Most other African-built games that I’ve seen- from Nigeria and Ghana- are single level. So Navana is a step up.
What video games did you play as a kid?
The most fun was Super Mario Bros. In fact its the inspiration behind Navana, in terms of jump and pick play mode. The main difference is that mine has an African setting with a lot of traditional artefacts.
What did your family think of your career move from banking to programming?
Wow. It wasn’t well received. At all! Unfortunately we still have that mentality that if one’s not employed at a big company then they’re a failure. So it didn’t fly well especially with my parents. It was a great source of friction and I had to move out of their house which I’d move back to when I quit my job. It was a difficult period. Eventually we were able to put it past us. My mum still takes every opportunity to tell me to find a job. Haha.
Did you receive any support?
My friends have been instrumental. My girlfriend especially has been a pillar. She provided me with the funding to sustain the project. There wouldn’t be Navana without her.
What makes someone quit a comfortable corporate job to pursue something they had never tried before?
The need to explore different possibilities. Wanting the story of your life to be out of the ordinary. Being uncomfortable with your comfort zone. I just want to encourage anyone that thinks they are not making as big an impact as they would like in the world. I want to show them that they can spread their wings too.
Do you think African consumers are ready to accept African developed content?
Interestingly, most of Navana’s downloads so far are from Europe and I’m getting great feedback from there. Kiro’o Games, a Cameroonian video game studio is also making waves internationally. I think the rest of the world is curious to see what Africa can come up with.
It will take some time for Africans to buy into our own games which is understandable because we grew up with international games which have kept getting better by the year. But perceptions are changing. I’m giving it until the end of the decade and we’ll see a huge shift where Africans start consuming African products.
What’s next for Mashariki Mobility?
Eventually I’ll need to grow my team. There are certain ventures that you can only take on as a team. I plan to develop a game for PlayStation within the next four years. Before that I want to get into Augmented Reality (AR). The enormous success of Pokémon Go forces one to look up and realize that it’s the way to go. And Navana is properly primed for AR too.
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