Lessons learnt from business development in Africa

When starting a game studio, the focus is often solely on the project being developed. While this is reasonable to some degree, there is also value in allocating resources to create and maintain business relationships from the get go.

In an Africa Games Week talk entitled “Doing biz dev from Africa: Lessons learnt”, Nyamakop’s producer and business developer Limpho Moeti made that case, giving a rundown on business development, and why you should care.

“Firstly, it’s about business relationships that can be beneficial to you and the company you work for and, in Africa, I think it’s also [about] business relationships that can be beneficial to your industry as a whole,” she said.

“It’s about being a representative for your industry. It’s very important, because we have such a small industry and community in South Africa [where Nyamakop is based] that, when you do have the opportunity to grow as a company or as an individual, you also do what you can to show what the African industry as a whole is capable of doing.”

“When you have the opportunity to grow, you also show what the African industry as a whole is capable of doing”

Moeti said that there’s only a handful of people whose job relates to business development in South Africa, and that it is in “no way near enough” to create a sustainable games industry in the country.

“It’s about understanding the importance of sharing the contacts that you’ve made, of being able to introduce people in your industry who you think could be beneficial to others,” she added. “It’s about doing the work of not only growing yourself but growing everyone else.

“I think that there is a general dislike for anything with the word ‘business’, which I can understand, but it’s valuable to see how important it is and how to protect your vision by having biz devs who are on your side.You cannot only grow the little companies, but can get governmental involvement in games, that can help plan for where we want our industry to be in five years, in ten years, in 15 years.”

Why you should care about business development

The benefits of business development are numerous. In addition to benefiting your regional industry as a whole, it’ll grant you access to knowledge through other developers that you wouldn’t be able to find by other means. That includes knowledge about not only making games, but selling games too, and creating a healthy and durable company.

“[Business development helps] you make connections to an alarmingly huge amount of publishers and you actually get responses from them,” Moeti said. “As opposed to cold-calling or cold emailing, where a lot of the time, literally hundreds if not thousands of people are doing that, and it can take a very long time for them to get back to you, if they do at all. But with biz dev it’s very easy to build those kinds of relationships that get you introductory emails, that make it a lot easier to access publishing, to access funding, or to just access other talent. And that’s why it’s incredibly valuable.”

Creating meaningful relationships with others in your industry and worldwide will also help you understand what’s important to publishers and audiences, and how to market your game and to whom, while still remaining true to your artistic vision.

“A lot of games that come out of the [African] industry, particularly in South Africa, are very punk, are very much about creating interesting and weird games, which I think is fantastic,” Moeti said. “Having the ability to understand how to sell that game and how to stay true to that vision while still gaining access to funding and an audience is incredibly valuable.

“So basically I’ve just found a bunch of different ways to say two things: you get money and you get experience. And I think those things are invaluable [for] growing the industry. More than that, while working in biz dev might not resolve everything, it’s really valuable to understand the importance of having mentors and friends at the same level as you.”

The golden rules for being a good business developer

  • Be personable, friendly and present

Working on your soft skills is key to becoming a good business developer, whether you’re doing so to improve your knowledge, represent your company, get business deals, speak to publishers, or you’re doing it for the industry.

“Staying true to [your] vision while still gaining access to funding and an audience is incredibly valuable”

“The first thing that was very valuable to me, especially when I started out doing business development, was being very personable,” Moeti said. “It means being very open, being very friendly, and willing to not only go and watch talks and engage with people in a more professional setting, but also knowing how to engage with people after hours, at the after parties, at the dinners, going to all the events that [are] hosted at a conference or a festival.

“That’s incredibly valuable because I realised a lot of the time if people want to do business with you, they want to get to know you. They want to know that you’re not a terrible person.”

And that means actually really paying attention to people, as opposed to being there in a superficial way without engaging.

“Being present is invaluable,” Moeti continues. “So actively remaining engaged in the discussions that are happening around you, and building a genuine connection with people around you. It’s just basically being the kind of person that you want to hang around with.”

The obvious caveat here is that these soft skills are not always easy to practice and they don’t come naturally to a lot of people, so you need to work on yourself if that’s your case.

“It’s your job to help people, even and especially when you don’t benefit”

“I think when we talk about soft skills as well, it’s very important to understand that you need to build authentic relationships with a variety of people,” Moeti adds. “It’s all about having a small group of people within the industry that you have very strong ties with, and then outside of that having more people that you have weaker ties with. Ultimately, being a business developer is being someone who connects people together.

“It’s your job to help people, even and especially when you don’t benefit. It’s best to think of doing this kind of work of connecting one person to the others as a train line, that’s kind of circular, as opposed to keeping track of who you’ve helped and done favours for. It’s more along the lines of creating a reputation for yourself as someone who cares about your industry, who cares about helping others, and you’ll see that care shown back to you.”

South African studio Nyamakop released its debut title, Semblance, in 2018

South African studio Nyamakop released its debut title, Semblance, in 2018

  • Don’t just make friends with the important people

When you’re new to an industry but have been passionate about it for a long time as an outsider, it’s common to see people you looked up to suddenly become peers. But make sure you seek connections outside of these ‘heroes.’

“You have people you are excited about, [and] you want to make friends with the cool, the popular, the important game devs — but don’t do that,” Moeti said. “I think if you’re coming at it from a very sincere place, then it’s fine, but it’s also about just being open to being friends with anyone, particularly people who are in the same stage in their career as you, because ultimately through years and experience you’ll then become those cool, important people.

“Don’t just make friends with the cool kids. It’s very obvious when people do that and it makes you look bad”

“And to be quite honest you never know, especially with the very nebulous realm of creative arts of video games, who’s going to strike big and who won’t. So don’t just make friends with the cool kids. It’s very obvious when people do that and it makes you look bad.”

  • Don’t try to sell anything in party setting

Business development is ultimately about marketing your game, and drawing attention to your company. But don’t try and sell things in a party setting, Moeti warned.

“With business development, there are two aspects: there’s being the hard sell, which is what you do when you pitch, when you have meetings with particular publishers or studios — and in that setting it’s fine to sell, and to sell hard,” she said. “But in a party setting, in a setting that’s a lot more casual, you ought not have that behaviour, because it’s going to make a lot of the people around you uncomfortable, and it’s going to push people away.

“This isn’t to say that you can’t talk about the things that you’re working on, but the way in which you talk about them needs to be one of: ‘Oh, this is a thing I’m doing and I’m excited about it’. Full stop. As opposed to: this is the thing that I’m doing, you should be excited about it.”

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  • Go to online events

Finally, Moeti highlighted the crucial importance of events, and particularly online events that have been proliferating this year due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“[Go] to as many online events as possible,” she urged. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is probably, within 2020, the 16th event I’ve either done a panel at, or a talk, or just gone to. Obviously doing things online is very awkward — it’s difficult and exhausting, but it is absolutely one of the biggest helps and one of the most useful things in terms of business development, making connections, meeting mentors, understanding what’s going on in the industry.

“Doing online [events] is very awkward, but it is one of the most useful things in terms of business development”

“If you’re able to, you ought to be doing as many talks, as many panels as you can, if you feel like you have knowledge to share. The joke I always make is that introvertedness and shyness are the tuberculosis of business development and talks. Very easily curable, but every year we lose so many people to it.”

Moeti mentioned the benefits she’s seen in participating in the Games Industry Gathering, which aims at replicating the experience of connecting with people during game conventions, and was created this year by Guy Blomberg.

“There I’ve gained a ton of contacts and new friends, that I would never have had any exposure to. But because of the ability to go online while being in my home, it’s been massively beneficial and incredibly useful. I now have production mentors, business development mentors, and these are all people I met through these online conferences and been able to keep in contact with.”

The dark sides of business development

  • The drinking culture problem

There are also some dark sides to business development that Moeti wanted to warn developers about. One of the most prominent issues is the drinking culture that comes with networking, which excludes those who do not drink alcohol, whether for religious, health, or personal reasons.

Limpho_Moeti

Nyamakop’s Limpho Moeti

“Unfortunately, I always joke that being able to drink a lot and handle your liquor is a huge part of being a business developer,” she said. “I think one of the first times I met a publisher who would eventually become my mentor, he gave me a literal one litre bucket of rum and ginger beer that I had to share among two people to see what I was like drunk. And while at first this feels like a very funny story, it is quite alarming and concerning the amount of drinking that happens, not only at conferences and events, but that is such a huge part of business development.”

She mentioned GDC and the fact that many business conversations do not happen on the show floor there, but at hotel bar gatherings. As a result, not taking part in these can largely impact who you meet and how you get to know people. However, she did highlight that there are more and more non-alcoholic centred events and parties happening at conferences.

One of the best examples is the GDC tradition created by WB Games Montreal’s lead game designer Osama Dorias a few years back, encouraging people to meet over an ice-cream at Ghirardelli.

“People are getting to the point where they want the kids around, and where you can just simply have dinners where people can drink but don’t have to,” Moeti continues. “That’s really exciting to see the industry becoming actively more inclusive to people who don’t drink and how you can still do business development without necessarily having to drink.

“As long as the connections you create are authentic, it doesn’t matter whether you drink or not”

“An important thing to understand is, while it can help to drink, it’s not a requirement. Being present and having a good time and just being nice and enjoyable to be around is more than enough. As long as the connections you create are authentic, it doesn’t matter whether you drink or not.”

  • The prohibitive cost

Another downside of business development, and one that particularly impacts developers from Africa, is the prohibitive cost of going to events.

“Before we had a lot more online events, a lot of the conferences you had to go to [were] overseas and obviously, coming from South Africa, coming from a lot of parts of Africa, having to travel overseas is prohibitively expensive.

“You’re looking at about 10,000 to ZAR 20,000 [$670 to $1,300] for your flight, an additional ZAR 15,000 [$1,000] for accommodation, another 10,000 for just food, drinking, and entertainment. You’re looking at so much money being spent for one event. To go to the US alone, I think it was budgeted at like ZAR 40,000 to ZAR 60,000 [$2,600 to $4,000] per person. The same is true if you’re going to Europe.

“The cost of travel is incredibly expensive and exclusionary. It creates a sense of elitism”

“So that can be incredibly prohibitive, and obviously the cost of travel, getting a visa, maybe having visas be rejected and having to get them [again] is incredibly expensive and exclusionary. It creates a sense of elitism.”

  • The cliques

Finally, one problematic aspect of business development in the games industry is that cliques often emerge — usually around the intense amount of drinking they’re doing together, Moeti pointed out. That creates another barrier for people entering the business.

“It’s incredibly problematic because inevitably it becomes less about the kind of connections you make, but to a degree having to break in, and having privilege to be a part of those cliques,” said Moeti. “Even for me, someone who’s been working in this industry for four years, a big part of the reason that I was able to get funds for Playtopia, that I’ve been able to do business development for Nyamakop, is partially because I worked at FreeLives, which is a fantastic studio that’s done really well, that’s well-known overseas.

“And being a part of that studio, and being able to travel through them, was a huge boost in terms of the people I got to meet, the information I got about the various kinds of events going on, and the ability to meet people who had become beneficial in the long run.”

Summing things up, Moeti said that ultimately, what really works in business development is being open to making friends with anyone.

“[It’s about] treating people with kindness, as human beings, and not always having a secondary agenda openly. But rather, [be] open and honest about what you’re looking for, and then use that to navigate making friends within the industry and helping people out.”

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