In the quiet of the night, between 3 and 5 a.m., Steve Mwangi’s creative spirit comes alive. The Kenyan indie developer cherishes that early morning spark. For him, it’s a sweet spot before he returns to the embrace of sleep at 9 am, a rest well earned. Mwangi, known by the pseudonym C4, embodies the essence of a multitalent. He’s not just an indie game developer; he’s a music producer and a 3D animator.
His impeccable animation skills shine in the teaser videos he meticulously moulded for his debut title Kanairo 101. Kanairo is a slang word used to refer to Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. Mwangi’s animated videos went viral on TikTok in 2022, amassing over half a million views and thousands of comments and followers. This success has led him to start the creation of a series of animated shorts to meet the growing demand from his social media followers. Let’s travel back in time with Mwangi, and explore what made him a TikTok sensation resulting in a massive fan base just a year into his video game industry debut.
As a child, Mwangi had a deep love for cartoons. After discovering the world of frame-by-frame animation he turned his school books into flipbooks. In primary school, he got in trouble for doodling in his books. Regardless he was not scolded at home, instead, he recalls “My parents bought me drawing books. And my dad bought me coloured pencils and watercolours, They have been very supportive.” In high school, he stumbled upon stick figure animation tutorials on YouTube and started his self-taught journey. Later, he pursued a degree in film production and animation at MultiMedia University of Kenya, where YouTube became his supplemental teacher. Mwangi admits, “I learned most of my animation skills from YouTube tutorials.”
Mwangi’s journey wasn’t a solo act. He had a friend, Allan Jeremy, or Ajay for short, who introduced him to 3D animation using Blender, a lightweight program perfect for Mwangi’s older laptop. Mwangi’s animation style today reflects his childhood passions. As a child, he was delighted by action-packed animations like Kung Fu Panda and was drawn to stick-figure animations, particularly for their captivating fighting scenes. He admits, “If you check my Instagram, most of my animations are fight scenes.” In addition, his love for video games traces back to his childhood days spent in gaming arcades around Nairobi, where he’d pay a small fee to play popular games.
After university, Mwangi landed a job at Tunu, a Kenyan startup that merges gamification and retail. They hired him to create animations for an augmented reality game. However, during his interview, he casually mentioned his interest in making games. When they asked him to dive into game development, he embraced the challenge, even though he had zero prior experience. He learned the ropes on the job. Over the years, his job title evolved from Animator to Lead Developer. He created numerous games for them and eventually as his tenure came to an end, it dawned on him that he could create something remarkable for himself.
The development of Kanairo 101 started in August 2022. The spark ignited while Mwangi was still at Tunu, where an everyday scene caught his eye. He recalls, “One day as I walked in town, I saw “mtush-people” (thrift clothes vendors) quickly pack their clothes and ran at the mere mention of “kanjo” (city council officials).” A light bulb went off. Inspired by a similar scenario in Subway Surfers, he thought, “Why not turn this into something fun, relatable, and uniquely Kenyan?” When his stint at Tunu ended, he found himself with plenty of free time. That’s when he went all-in, channeling his real-life experiences on Nairobi’s bustling streets into his new creation.
Reflecting on his family’s creative influence Mwangi recalls,“My dad used to draw, and even today he paints from time to time. He is also a music producer.” Mwangi inherited his father’s passion for music production, but he notes, “We have different tastes in music.” During his early high school years, he had a desire to rap, but couldn’t find the instrumentals he envisioned. A friend suggested FL Studio, and Mwangi says, “I downloaded and started using FL Studio on the laptop I made animations on.” His musical journey took a twist when he developed an interest in electronic dance music (EDM), and he began crafting EDM tracks. Mwangi dropped his interest in rap after he fell in love with production.
Versatility is a game changer
Kanairo 101’s journey began with the creation of simple characters that looked like the people Mwangi saw on the streets of Nairobi. He’d often observe people and imagine transforming them into 3D avatars. Kenyan vloggers who walked around town recording themselves served as his muse. Equipped with Blender, he sculpted people and environments, infusing a lively Kenyan experience into his game. His versatility was a game-changer; he handled 3D modelling, animation, lighting, and shading, all by himself. But what truly added a Kenyan touch was the infusion of Gengetone, a popular Kenyan music genre.
People who saw Kanairo 101’s animated game teasers found them fascinating, often mistaking them for an animated series. Mwangi recalls, “They’d ask where they could watch more, showing keen interest.” This inspired him to explore the idea of creating a series of animated shorts with compelling stories. Currently, he’s deep into storyboarding, piecing together an engaging narrative.
His family, especially his sister, has been a significant source of support, spreading the word about Kanairo 101 every chance she gets. Mwangi had the opportunity to showcase his game for free at a Kenyan pop-culture event named Movie Jabber, courtesy of Claire Mbithi, one of the event organizers. His college friend, Ajay, played a crucial role in acquiring merchandise like hoodies and banners for the exhibit. Kanairo 101 also gained recognition at the Fak’ugesi Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September through another free exhibit. Mwangi is deeply grateful to his support network and everyone who assisted in testing his game for bugs.
One of Mwangi’s goals is to convert the people who follow him on social media into devoted fans of his work. He aims to forge a strong connection with them so that they keep on enjoying his games and animations. And although sometimes, comments on platforms like Twitter can be more hurtful than helpful, he’s learned to develop a thick skin. When he encounters negativity, he shrugs it off, and reminds himself, “Not everyone has to be a fan, and that’s perfectly fine. I’ll keep creating for those who appreciate my kind of games. If it’s not for you it’s fine.”
The Perks of Multi-Talent
As a multi talented creative, Mwangi juggles many passions, but lately, animation has taken a back seat. Most of his time is devoted to coding and fine-tuning his games. He loves the entire game development process but this intense dedication sometimes leads to burnout. To combat it, he’s learned the value of taking breaks, like going outside to relax and disconnect from work, especially on Sundays.
One of the perks of having many talents is the ability to switch tasks when challenges arise, like tackling a bug in game development. Instead of getting stuck, he switches to creating 3D models in Blender or crafting beats in FL Studio. This shift makes it easier for him to return to debugging in Unity. Mwangi’s goal is to develop a game that captures the magic of titles like Alto’s Odyssey or Monument Valley. He admires how Alto’s adventure combines stunning visuals with enjoyable gameplay, and he aspires to create a game that has a similar impact on players’ lives.
Market research first
Mwangi has a message for his younger self: “A year ago, just before I released Kanairo 101, I would tell myself to dive into market research first. Making a game isn’t just about your vision; it’s meant for others to enjoy. So, don’t keep your idea locked away. Share it, embrace feedback, learn from it, and create a game many people can enjoy.”