game development south africa

Joining the A MAZE Train Jam in South Africa – a personal account

HOW THE VERY FIRST A MAZE. TRAIN JAM SOUTH AFRICA MADE HISTORY WITH 1 TRAIN, 30 GAME-MAKERS & ALMOST 32 HOURS FROM JOHANNESBURG TO CAPE TOWN

This is my personal and honest account of the historic A MAZE Train Jam South Africa.

I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. I was just a quiet Twitter user who enjoyed lurking on the timeline when I came across an interesting tweet from A MAZE :

Was I in any way shape or form a game developer? No.

Playful media creative? No.

So I did what any reasonable person would do – I applied for a spot to be a part of something I was totally unqualified for. But to be fair, I mentioned that I cannot do any of these things, but that I am a passionate gamer who also loves to write about games (I am sorry for those who probably possess actual talent and couldn’t make it).

In the weeks that passed by, I had surgery and eventually forgot about it, until something magical happened. I got an email requesting my T-shirt size (totally unsuspicious right?). I stared at my screen for a few minutes trying to figure out where this mail was from and who on earth was Thorsten S. Wiedemann? Upon a successful Google search, it finally dawned on me that this was about the A MAZE. Train Jam South Africa and I was selected along with 19 other lucky candidates (who were actually qualified)! Over the following days I would be in communication with the man himself, A MAZE founder and artistic director, Thorsten S. Wiedemann. I would go on to meet the likes of Steven Tu as well as get to know a bit more about the 6 year partnership between A MAZE. and the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg that made the game jam on a train possible.

As soon I stepped foot aboard the Shosholoza Meyl from Park Station in Johannesburg to Cape Town on November 27, 2018, it was crystal clear that this journey would be a life changing one for a little ole gal like myself.

With the very first Indie Game Jam having taken place in 2002, 16 years later and more than triple the number of Train Jams, South Africa was ready for its maiden 30 hour creativity voyage from the 27th to the 28th of November 2018 aboard the Shosholoza Meyl.

More than 20 game makers from different walks of life as well as different roles in game creation gathered. These included artists, programmers, game designers and sound producers. There were also international participants from Germany and Canada, including veteran Train-jammer Robin Baumgarten from London who was attending his 51st game jam and brought his interactive sensory game hardware along. The goal was to turn strangers into teams and have them collaborate with their various skills to create inspired games on the more than 30-hour train ride from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

I got to meet a lot of interesting people that I may have never met in my day-to-day life, mainly because their trade and gaming itself is more an indoor sport. This was the first Train Jam for every South African creative there. We were all so excited, and there was more than enough food to ensure that our brains were kept alive and to avoid episodes of being hangry. Everyone introduced themselves and eventually shared their ideas for games that could be created in line with the given theme – nature. Ideas came gushing; from a nudist being chased by an angry mob of prudes, to herding independent sheep from one side of the screen to another and even a point-and-click meditative pond. The teams assembled to embark on this great quest and friendships were formed.

Now was it all smooth railing? No. The train ride started with an almost 3 hour delay, more than a six hour power failure in the game jam cart, crazy heat that made us sweat through our toenails and the occasional traumatic experience of seeing an out-of-order toilet. Our game makers took it all in stride and just adapted to finding carts with working air conditioning and electrical supply to keep making games.

Thorsten made sure that this experience would be a memorable one for us, and so we had a party that night after some hard work. Needless to say, it went down that night. My migraines betrayed me and turned me into an old lady who had to leave the party early. But, my investigative skills were able to get a clear playback of the events that transpired the night before. I don’t want to give away too much, but, you see that episode in Adventure Time where the ghost was addicted to playing a game called “Drop Ball”? Well, we had bottles (and yes, there is video evidence, but highly confidential).  The night grew cold, fast. Thankfully some of us had the sense to order blankets earlier in the day. Quick story: One of my bunkmates, a lovely chap really, figured he may not need his blankets later on so he gave it to another train jammer. Moral of the story: it’s okay to let someone else freeze as long as you’re warm because the Karoo is crazy cold in the night.

The views were spectacular, from Worcester to the Ceres Farm. It was wonderful to see the very inspiration for the games that were being created. At 19:00 the next day there was a showcase of the games for all to play. All the games created were exhibited at the Playtopia festival in Cape Town and are also now available to play on Itch. The exhibition also showcased international game developer releases such as the trippy garden game experience called “Alea”, by Paloma Dawkins from Canada, now based in New York. The Train Jam not only provided South African artists and developers a platform to create, but also the opportunity for them to interact with international developers and experienced industry creatives. This was one of the many sponsorship perks that came with being a part of the Train Jam. Everyone got all-access passes to the Make Games Africa 2-day conference as well as delegate passes to the Playtopia Festival all held at the Cape Town Castle of Good Hope. Here, we got to get first-hand accounts of game developers’ experiences in the gaming industry, advice that ranged from game design, acquiring government funding, self-publishing opportunities on PlayStation and even the thought-provoking talk by Wits Head of Digital Arts, Hanli Geyser, titled, “Decolonising Games Education.”

I got the rare and wonderful opportunity to sit down and chat with the genius behind the A MAZE. Train Jam, Thorsten S. Wiedemann, on the last day of the Make Games Africa. We spoke about a lot of things, from how A MAZE. started, his vision for the platform, his highs and lows as well the reason behind the cancellation of the highly successful A MAZE. Johannesburg Festivals that took place from 2012 until the more recent one in 2017. One of the main reasons for the Johannesburg festival ending was an unfortunate difference of opinions between Thorsten and the collaborative organisers about the future direction of the festivals. This is something Thorsten holds tightly to uncompromisingly, and was willing to completely stop a successful festival for the cause.

One of the things he mentioned during our conversation that stood out was the issue of identity in the gaming industry. In particular, how he intentionally stepped back in the creation of the planned A MAZE. Cape Town after six successful years of A MAZE. Johannesburg, so that Playtopia becomes a truly South African event with its own identity that stands out from the rest of the world’s similar conventions. The (Playtopia) festival was organized by Cape Town based local independent game studio, Free Lives.

I began to see that this concept of identity was an ongoing conversation throughout the Africa Games Week.

The talks and stories during the course of the Africa Games Week had a distinctive South African narrative which I strongly believe stamped our identity amongst ourselves as well as in the presence of international game-makers. One of the crucial aspects regarding the growth of gaming in this country is indeed promoting our unique narratives and perspectives that will inevitably make their mark on the continent and all around the world.

By the end of the week, I left not only feeling enlightened but boosted in being able to tell uniquely African stories in the gaming industry. Hopefully one day I leave this earth having been a positive factor in the special lens that is South Africa, showcasing the beauty and potential we have to give.

The journey may have begun with one train, a two hour takeoff delay, a four hour power disruption, freezing weather somewhere in the Karoo and a long walk to Air-Conditioning, but ended up with 30 friends, a great party, beautiful views, tons of laughs, amazing ideas and ultimately 10 stunning games that each gave you a piece of everyone.

It was a delightful experience to get to be a part of what was the beginning of many South African Train Jams to come.

Please do take the time to check out what A MAZE is all about as well as the newly opened Gamebox and Hub at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg below.

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