To be realistic is to find a rational way to achieve a magnificent goal.
PS: This is neither a biography, nor a success story. This is just the testimony of an African entrepreneur for those who can be inspired by it, here or elsewhere. This was translated from a contribution by Olivier Madiba.
We are in the 1997 - 2001 era, the golden years of PlayStation 1, and I play two games that will change my life.
Yes, Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid 1. Two outlets of a shy and insecure adolescent's life (like most geeks of that generation). Two games that made me dream, wonder, travel (in my head). And more importantly, two games that made me say this sentence "One day, I want people to feel that way because of me. I want to see people holding game controllers, shouting, laughing, feeling strong, frustrated and happy because of something I would have created".
We are in 2003, I am 17 and I just graduated from high school. I join the University of Yaoundé 1, and cybercafés are fashionable in Cameroon. I want to get into computer science, hoping that one day I could go and work for Ubisoft or Square Enix in order to achieve the perfect RPG. I start to read on the Internet about how to make a video game and I frenziedly start scribbling my first game design notes.
February 2004: I post on JeuxVideo.com that I will build the perfect RPG someday:
Obviously, people laugh at me, not out of malice, but out of "realism". As you can see on the discussion forum, on that day, I challenged the whole world.
Playing with the cards we have, instead of crying the ones we don't have
I join Oniro, an online French community of amateur developers and I relentlessly read all the tutorials. Cybercafés consume around 2,000 CFA francs ($3/$4) out of the 5,000 CFA francs ($9/$10) that I am sent weekly as pocket money. I have never eaten so much bread with chocolate before (100FCFA bread, 50FCFA chocolate).
2005, I fail (many of) my classes in college and I have less course material to study during the repeated years. I work on Aurion so as not to get depressed and not to think about my life of non-stop school and personal failures.
I post adverts around the Yaoundé city centre stating that I'm looking for people who want to make video games. People think that I must be under the influence of some very powerful hallucinogens, but let me proceed in my delusion.
From 2004 to 2008, I live the worst years of my life. Non-stop school failures in a mind-numbing educational system. I realize that my parents do not have enough money for me to study one day out of the country (death of the naive Ubisoft dream). Besides, they have so much trouble paying for these college classes that I keep failing. Every day, I can feel the specter of poverty that is narrowing around me.
This is also the period when I leave my bubble and I enter the sphere of collective negativity. I spend my days complaining (and listening to people complaining) about the lack of job opportunities for new graduates, about the ethnic conspiracies, about the social injustice, about the neocolonization that nip any hope in the bud, etc. In short... There's nothing else to say, my life was ruined before it even started.
2008, I owe my wake-up call to two things:
- (1) When you are a student in Cameroon, you certainly have a "back-up" uncle who helps you out with 10,000 FCFA or 15,000 FCFA when you are at your worst. One day when I went to see him he kept me waiting from 8AM to 5PM in his office (I had not eaten since the previous day) and gave me 2000 FCFA. Instead of getting upset, I instantly understood the symbolism, he was showing me how he struggled to earn money and how his life was not easy. That day I told myself, "I no longer want to be just a consumer"
- (2) I spend one week of holidays with a friend whose father "succeeded". And while I used to tell myself that everything is about luck, connections, good schools (in other words, the national mantra of laziness and defeatism), I observe how this man lives. He gets up at 6am, works until 10pm even on Saturdays. On Sundays, he rests but keeps reading about his line of business. This man trains continuously to stay motivated and ambitious. I then have another epiphany: I have to train to become like that."
I dust off my AURION project. It will be my motivation to learn to be excellent even if I can't live from it, it will keep my mind active. This time I fix my beginner's mistakes by starting to write a complete scenario and design specifications before getting into "programming and other details". I also decided to delve into how to program your game from scratch (or almost) in order to no longer face the limitations of amateurish engines.
From that period, 2008 to 2010, I had created a local tech startup : MADIA (starting from nothing, with college friends who were stuck like me). I have gained experience in people management, business management, accounting and computer graphics. 2010-2011, MADIA is running out of gas. We are struggling to keep the company afloat. No initial investment (therefore, no working capital), some customers paying with a minimum of 6 months delay (since they are being paid with some 3 years delay themselves), public contracts randomly cancelled, and a micro-finance agency that closed down while still holding our savings in early 2010. I also went through some great family and social pressures that urged me to try and find a job as a civil officer, or some similarly stable condition. I wouldn't mind, but I don't the credentials required by big corporations.
Psychologically, I could only survive this period of huge frustration because I was working on Aurion from 9:00 pm to 1:00 am every day when I am back to my small room on a hill in Biyemassi.
Mid-2012: I read an article about video game budgets. A studio which blew $4million into their "employee entertainment department". The budget of "small" games which requires anything between 4 and 5 million, just to be completed in basic conditions. The achievements of independent games, download sales, Kickstarter success stories. I tell myself that I can build a prototype with Aurion, and then ask people on Kickstarter to support me in making a semi-professional game.
I do a simple calculation on Excel to visualise what it would cost me to open a studio with 20 people in this country with ideal conditions. And I realize that, even if we hike all the costs, we would hardly need $1.5million to operate for 2 years, even if we include a $500,000 advertising budget.
At this time, I'm so broke, still living off my parents' money, that is 10,000 FCFA (15 €/20$) that my mother send me every week. I just want to be funded for 1 year to make a game demo, that would not be market-ready, but it would show a huge narrative and technical potential. I want 2 million FCFA (€3000 / $3650).
I have been neglecting the management of my company, which is stuck in Cameroon's heavy and slow system. I start to leave the office earlier to go home and work on Aurion. Obviously, no one understands me, and the pressures increase. I want to put forward a playable prototype ready to go on kickstarter by December 2012. I registered on the platform since March and I always saw the "Post your project" button, without ever clicking on it.
The prototype that demonstrates my game is pretty much ready. So I get on Kickstarter on December 19, 2012 to start testing the form interface in order to submit my project, and then... Existential punch in my face...
Because I am connected from Cameroon, I am not allowed to post my project on Kickstarter... Huge disillusionment, extreme disappointment, once again the world shows me that I was born in a country that is destined to non-stop failure. However I will spend Christmas with peace of mind, I did my very best, I do not regret anything.
From that moment, I start requesting funds all over the place. Online, I message Diaspora friends, aunts, uncles and project supporters, asking them to help as they can, whether it be with €15, €50, etc. I write the business plan (version 0) of Kiro'o Games within a week of frenetic writing. All my dreaming years blend on paper. I'm considering a budget for a small amateur team of 6 people with computers and survival wages for 1 year. I am looking for 12 million FCFA (21000$, 18000€).
Nobody really brings any concrete contribution. There were just micro-donations (which were very much appreciated indeed, they didn't have to) but no real investments. Some people didn't want to simply donate, they would have preferred to invest and own shares of the "real" game later.
A night of inspiration and intense reflection on how to go beyond this stage. How to escape from this feeling of labyrinth involving a scheduled and inevitable failure. We have foreseen that we need to evolve, without being afraid of responsibility and higher risk in order to succeed. After all, we wanted to play in the international league, so we had to think like international conquerors. I reviewed all my calculations and redesigned the entire investment system.
The Crowdfunding Equity of Kiro'o Games was born, a unique financial model in the business world, unmatched in Africa so far. Almost an economic "accident" according to some observers. It was a fusion of the Wall Street principles and the Bamileke tontine system of Cameroon. We added a legal process with certified e-mail validation.
Investors were still skeptical. People want to see visual prototypes, period. The usual Ouroboros, the snake that bites its tail. We want investments in order to do a job and we have to do that same job in order to have the investments. How to make professional graphics without paying a team? Without even the right equipment to draw correctly? In a country where there are not even "decent part-time jobs" that could help us survive (most of us were still living off parental funding)
August 2013: we are coming out of a few months of silence. Everyone was already saying that it was yet another dead idea in the bud. National legends even began to say that we might have planned to rip people off.
The next phase sounded like a melody of interactions, from August to September every week, every day we fed the Web with our visual models. We have written to the press around the world.
We also set up a standard e-mail for investment request, a video that tells our story and explains : "here is what we did with inadequate resources, imagine how far we will go with normal means".
Mid-August 2013, we confidently launch a funding campaign on Indiegogo. We are energized by less impressive games that have raised huge sums. We rely on our history, our potential, our journey. After all, video games and computers were born in garages. Players of our time will want to be part of this story.
The magic will not work. As far as most gamers are concerned, we are too amateurish and are probably a gang of African crooks on the internet (akin to the infamous Nigerian Prince scams). Epic fail with just 2% fund raising on Indiegogo.
I experience some humiliating moments on gamers forums, where we are accused of spamming communities, not to mention a mailing list bug, when we accidently emailed 15,000 American and European folks and got insulted continuously for a week. We had to disable the mailbox for this to stop (lol).
This experience makes us realize that the "la la land" video game "era is over. The Internet begins to slide on its dirtiest side: trolling. Our morale takes a hit, but we are already used to smashing walls. We will come back again when we are ready.
September 2013: An article in the "Le Monde" newspaper will baffle the most skeptical bystanders. This follows a first article in the video game section of their online edition. Concrete transactions and funding increase a bit.
The newspaper wants me to explain our business model beyond the game and they seem to appreciate our ingenuity. We earn a second publication in their Economics and Enterprise section. Stock purchases are increasing, reaching new heights, but the milestone of 100 shares sold is still unreachable.
Kiro'o Games office opens on December 2, 2013. That event drives an Internet Buzz. A 10-year epic journey has just ended. A success showing how we pushed the limits of our society to earn the right to be what we chose.
This was the beginning of another challenge: to actually complete the game. But we had our first happy Christmas for 10 years.
June 2014 - October 2014: We managed to set up our own game engine, the challenge is more complex than expected but it's all arranged and we see the game run for real. We publish pictures of the game and we have positive feedback, however the project's popularity has raised expectations. The "small" game that was planned initially must know fulfill these expectations, without falling into the traps of infinite improvements. We reassess the game specifications to increase the development time and improve the engine.
November 2014 - December 2014: The videos of the game are published online with concrete content. We show what has been done through a video that generates a buzz, the reactions are beyond our expectations. This also brings exposure to the international specialized press. We get our profiles on the biggest video games sites.
January 2015 - February 2015: For the Video Game press to be interested in the game and for gamers to support us, we can't just rely on videos. There is still this doubt that this startup living its first game does not know what it is doing. There is always this suspicion floating in the comments below the news. The game must pass an ultimate test that will seal or sweep our fate: it must be played.
The demo is distributed to the specialized press and it's an intense moment. The live sessions are raining, the test previews are 80% positive. They acknowledge that, even though we are not perfect, we do provide the essential factors: those who play have fun and are intrigued by history.
August 2015 - September 2015: The realisation of the game continues, the story progresses well, we do internal tests and the testers are "shaken up" by the scenarios. The gameplay is full of surprises, even for us. We discover new possibilities every day.
This memo ends here for now. Our entrepreneur life goes on, our minds are bursting with great plans and projects. Some exciting, frustrating, exhilarating battles to be fought in the future. Defeats, victories, even betrayals, new alliances, in one word: Life. Whatever happens, I just know we'll do as usual: finding our way.