This week will see a South African first in technology. A game called Semblance, in which players control a squishy little avatar with the ability to deform the surfaces around it, will be released on the Nintendo Switch.
This is the first game made by South African developers to ever land on a Nintendo platform – and mind-bogglingly enough, it started life as a university art project.
Semblance is the creation of Ben Myres and Cukia Kimani, two former students at the University of the Witwatersrand who met three years ago, while they were studying game design and art degrees respectively. Cukia was putting together a presentation for his class and it drew Ben’s attention almost immediately.
“It started off as a small, tiny idea that I was prototyping a project that was going to be focused on abstract paintings,” says Cukia. “Ben was right next to me while I was setting up and he said, ‘man, I have to do some levels for this game.’
“I had to play hard to get,” Cukia says. “So I was like ‘yeah, that would be cool’, but deep down inside I was like ‘thank God!’ because I had no interest in level design. I didn’t have the first clue about it! That’s how we ended teaming up.”
The pair put together a demo and then pitched it at their peers. As luck would have it, their external examiner was a local developer named Judd Simantov, who had worked with US studio Naughty Dog on some of the PS3’s biggest games including the Uncharted adventure game franchise and the survival horror The Last Of Us.
“He saw Semblance and said ‘you should turn this into a full commercial game’ and three short years later here we are,” Ben laughs.
Myres is underplaying the pair’s three years of development, of course. What followed Simantov’s appraisal of Semblance was some of the hardest work Myres and Kimani have ever done. The two founded a studio called Nyamakop and then hit the gaming festival circuit hard.
They brought Semblance to the A MAZE festival in Johannesburg in 2016 and then to the Electronic Games Expo in Cape Town, where they met an investor that was prepared to fund their game.
“After A MAZE we self-funded a bit of development and paid an artist to produce a new art style, which took the game in a new direction” says Ben. “We then started submitting to publishers to try and get a deal. A lot of them passed on the game, but kept in contact, and others completely ghosted us.”
“At EGE, though, once we had an investor, we were able to pour some money into marketing the game. We also had made a lot of festival contacts – both locally and internationally – which helped get us sponsored to go to international festivals.”
Over the next two years, Ben and Cukia would travel the globe, demoing Semblance at gaming expos including E3 in Los Angeles, Gamescom in Cologne, GDC in San Francisco, TGS in Tokyo and PAX East in Boston. The promotional touring paid off and the Nyamakop boys found their game being featured in publications such as Ars Techinca and Rolling Stone. The coverage made the gaming industry sit up and take notice and soon, Nintendo told the duo it wanted the game for its new platform, the Switch. All of a sudden, Sembalnce had gone from bedroom coding to the big time.
“Towards the end of 2017, we signed with [a publisher called] Good Shepherd Entertainment,” says Ben. “We were kind of running before we could walk and the game just kept gaining momentum.”
Semblance is released next week but review code has already been sent out to critics and industry commentators. Ben and Cukia say they’re very excited – and more than a little nervous about the response they may get.
“Once you send the first review key, that’s it,” says Ben. “You’re literally sending your game to someone and saying ‘assess me!’ It’s a real moment of clarity.
“In a way, it’s like we’ve come full circle,” says Cukia. “As Ben says, we’re sending these review keys out and it’s kind of like our work’s being marked by someone.”
“When we first showed this game, we were presenting to get graded for a degree. Now it’s like we’re getting graded by the whole world of gamers. We’re gonna finally get the grade were looking for!”
- Semblance is released on the Nintendo Switch and PC on July 24