”Written byNadia Hassim
Vetkoek Studio’s New Game Taxi Ranked is South Africa’s Answer to Subway Surfers
Temple Run, Joystick Joyride, Subway Surfers. Any of these names ring a bell? If you had a working phone between 2011 and 2012 then you’d know. Before TikTok came along, scrolling meant playing one of these endless runners. The mindless activity of swiping to jump, duck and dodge obstacles kept you busy when you were bored waiting in line at Pick n Pay, or even helped keep your annoying little cousin at the function occupied when you were hit with the classic, “You got games on your phone?”
These were a staple in terms of mobile games and now, you can finally play South Africa’s version of an endless runner. Vetkoek Studios, a small team of game designers based in Johannesburg South Africa have created Taxi Ranked. The brand-new game launched on the 14th of July and has since been available on Google Play to download for free.
“I am leveraging off of white privilege.” – Mamello – Vetkoek Studios.
Playing as a customisable taxi, you dodge potholes, collect coins and pick up passengers as the game accelerates and becomes increasingly stressful. I’ve never felt more at home playing a game than when I spotted the billboard ads branding NikNaks and Ouma Rusks while trying to dodge potholes, but one of my favourite mechanics of the game is the police. If you approach a robot and skip the red light, the police chase after you, making sure to keep you on your toes. (I never made it past 70, shame).
“To make money, you have to spend money,” is one of the first things Ravisha, lead writer and character designer, says to me when I asked what it’s like to be a brown, South African indie game developer. “There are opportunities, but it is extremely difficult to make those opportunities sustainable.”
I sat down with three members of the team, Ravisha, Rayyan and Mamello, to discuss the logistics of being brown game designers in South Africa. Their fourth member, Eric, is the only one who is not a person of colour. The biggest problem with designing games in South Africa as a brown person? Money.
“I am leveraging off of white privilege,” Mamello, associate writer and programmer, says, noting that while the game design industry is growing and looking for people of colour, it is the white shareholders of large companies who hold the power. The only reason the team are currently able to make their games is due to winning a Game Jam, an event held where game devs split into teams to compete, which won them a sponsorship. Dubbed the incubation period, the team that wins the Game Jam is given a 9-month limit where they’re provided equipment, a studio and a stipend to work.
Once the 9 months are up, the team is back to where they started- studioless and without money, less another company sees their potential. This leads to why the game is not available on iStore. A monthly $100 fee needs to be paid to Apple for their game to be available on the platform. If you’re bad at math like me, that’s R1922,72 they don’t have to waste, as a whooping R6000 already goes to paying for ads. No ads equal no downloads and revenue, so you can imagine why that’s not very cash money.
“This is normal,” Rayyan, lead programmer, assures me after I let out a what the fuck? at the fact that they have only made $45 since Taxi Ranked launched in July. What I quickly learned through the interview is that making change only enough to buy Chappies is, unfortunately, normalised amongst indie South African game devs.
Aside from money, it’s the content that they’re pushing out that makes it difficult to be picked up by larger studios. Semblance and Broforce, two popular games known by many in the gaming community, have one thing in common- universality. Neither games reference South African culture in any way despite being created by South Africans.
One goal for Vetkoek Studios right now is to make games that showcase South Africa and challenge the narrative that the same Western themes make games fun and interesting. “You can make something that just garners the attention of thousands. It doesn’t have to be millions and it doesn’t always have to be for everyone,” Mamello says. “Well, if you want to make money then yah, make it for everybody.”
With so many obstacles to tackle, including loadshedding (Eskom’s se poes), I wondered what motivates them to continue down this potholed road. “It felt like our opportunity to show people what we can do and what we are capable of doing,” Ravisha says as her team nods in agreement.
Mamello also adds that the growth in the industry helps keep him coming back every day and that he wants to see how far they can go. “Yeah, the ultimate goal would be to be an established South African studio people turn to when they have an idea but can’t execute it,” Rayyan concludes, pointing to their poster plastered on the shabby wall their monitors sit in front of.
The team is working on their new game called Power Play, which is basically a big fuck you to Eskom alongside an open-world version of Taxi Ranked. Not all support comes in the form of money (though they all agree that it would be super helpful). A follow, a repost to your Instagram story and a review go a long way too.
Who knows? Maybe Eskom will see their next game because of you and cut back on all the loadshedding.