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Evans Kiragu of Mekan Games “You don’t always have to innovate, just keep moving forward”

In a global tech industry riddled with challenges such as gender and ethnic inequalities, Evans Ndambuki Kiragu’s story, and one woman’s influence, Mrs. Weru stands out as a beacon of hope. It is a testament to the transformative power of mentorship. Reflecting on her impact, Kiragu acknowledges, “I am forever grateful to her. Today, we’re all either working in computing or have a solid understanding of it.” 

Kiragu’s journey has led him to a thriving career in game development. As the founder of Kenyan-based studio, Mekan Games, he has propelled his team to success with titles like Knock Out 2017 and The President, which garnered widespread acclaim. The President, which was the studio’s flagship hypercasual game, soared to the top of app stores in 2022 and has accumulated over 20 million downloads to date. In 2023, Business Daily Africa recognized Kiragu’s achievements with a prestigious Top 40 under 40 award. His accomplishments highlight his unwavering dedication and the untapped potential of overlooked markets. 

Kiragu’s love for gaming began with his parents buying him Brick Games every Christmas, which he’d often break within two months. Fascinated by his neighbor’s GameBoy, it took him 2 years to convince his parents to get him one. With 2 Game Boys, he continues “We used to exchange cartridges and play different games which was fun.” Even though he later got a PS2, he cherishes the simplicity of those early games. “Those couple of days when I was playing on the Game Boy and Brick Games were monumental because those are the simple games I’m working on now.” 

Power of coding

In high school, Kiragu decided to pursue computer studies. And even though programming wasn’t required in his fourth-year examination, his teacher, Mrs. Weru, went above and beyond, by taking them through coding lessons. Kiragu vividly recalls the moment he experienced the power of coding, stating, “There’s a special rush you get from typing something and then the computer does exactly what you told it to do. That was the turning point for me.” Mrs. Weru’s initiative and dedication helped all the students excel, with Kiragu proudly stating, “We all ended up getting A’s in that class and from there, it was computers all the way!” Mrs. Weru’s impact extended beyond the classroom. She arranged for representatives from a software development institution to discuss post-high school opportunities with the students. This inspired Kiragu and his peers to pursue further education in computing, with some transitioning to the short course offered by eMobilis Technology Institute.

The eMobilis course introduced Kiragu to general programming and sparked his interest in game development. While in university, he pursued a computer science degree and began creating video games. Despite missing most classes, he still managed to do well in class due to his experience at eMobilis. Knock Out 2017 was born from those stolen moments. It earned him the Queen Young Leaders award and a trip to England. He was a part of Leading Change by the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge. Knock Out 2017 aimed to alleviate tension in Kenya following post-election violence in 2007 and the subsequent low turnout during the 2012 elections. It served as a political satire in a bid to bring humor to politics. Kiragu believes it contributed positively, stating, “We may not have cured the entire political situation in the country but at least those 4000 players could openly talk about politics.”

Passive income

Concerning games that go beyond entertainment, Kiragu states, “This is something I battle with every day. So when the studio was just myself, I could work on any game that I wanted and everything was okay whether or not it succeeded. However, now that we are eight people, we must be careful because this is a form of employment for the team.” He went on to emphasize the importance of passive income stating, “As creatives, we have a big weakness in our business models. We have to create and creation takes time. Passive income has to exist for peace of mind.” He also highlights the industry’s tendency to release updated versions of successful games, citing examples like FIFA, explaining, “The reason why they do this is that it costs less to make the next version of a previously successful game than it does to create an entirely new title.”

Regarding revenues at Mekan Games, he explains, “We had estimated that The President would remain relevant and continue to bring in surplus income for three years. So one year and four months later, it’s still going strong. We anticipate this trend will continue for some time. The game maintains its position in the top charts, currently ranking in the top 100 role-playing games in the US and many other countries worldwide.” However, Kiragu emphasizes a challenge stating, “We have a very big issue. In the last 1.5 years, there’s been a significant shift in global ad functionality due to Apple’s restrictions on user data. While this is a necessary step to protect user privacy, it has impacted the effectiveness of our ads.” 

Humbling experience

The Mekan Games team plans to actively move away from ads due to their volatility and focus on monetization through in-app purchases. Additionally, they aim to explore premium games as part of their strategy for sustainable income. Kiragu emphasizes the vital role of influencers in the gaming industry, stating, “We only exist as an industry because we support each other’s ventures.” He cited an instance where a YouTuber with three million subscribers played The President without any direct contact with his team, resulting in organic downloads and revenue. 

Kiragu describes his recognition in 2023 as one of Business Daily Africa’s Top 40 under 40 as a humbling experience. Being among accomplished individuals from diverse fields reinforced his understanding of the broader context in which gaming fits. He now appreciates the collaborative efforts that lead someone to enjoy a video game after a long day. He shared encounters with influential figures like the manager of the recently retired Kenyan Afropop Band – Sauti Sol. This sparked a discussion about retirement, during which he candidly admitted, “To be honest, my goal isn’t to stay in game development for the long term. I see a situation where the company is big enough to run on its own.” He aspires to retire early, possibly in his 30s, and create games purely for passion rather than financial gain. Kiragu sees acquisition by a larger company as a viable exit strategy. Alternatively, he considers transitioning into publishing as a potential avenue for growth.

Political humor

In regards to hypercasual games, Kiragu explains, “Two things that work in hypercasual are nostalgia and humor. So what helped us with The President is political humor.” He adds, “I think the most important thing is to understand that hypercasual is not a genre of games. Hypercasual is a business model. Hypercasual games make money through ads and for many people to see ads, you need the most neutral game you can get.” He stresses the importance of seeking mentorship from industry veterans, lamenting, “If someone told me about hypercasual games in 2017 when I was working on Knock Out 2017 I’d be 4 years ahead. You can save a lot of time by talking to people who have done what you are doing.” Reflecting on the impact of The President, he notes, “We are earning a living, entirely because of The President which is huge.” Kiragu’s journey with The President has opened doors to industry events like Africa Games Week and Playtopia. “Normally, whenever I go for these trips, upon my return, I do a debrief for the team.” 

The Mekan Games team faced a significant challenge in 2023, “Last year we had 4 promising games so we spent 2-3 months working on each but the initial promising metrics disappeared.” When it comes to motivation, Kiragu shares, “I think having seen what The President has done, I cannot even fathom what the next game will do. So I think that desire to grow the company to the next exciting thing is what keeps me going.” To boost the team’s morale, in 2023, they introduced team celebrations for milestones like his Top 40 under 40 award and the marriage engagement of a team member. “Something I never saw coming is how much of a support the team can be. It’s in the small things. For instance, we have a deadline coming up next week. The deadline is for one person, but then the team goes, ‘you know what, instead of that, let’s just split the work to get it done, in a shorter amount of time’.” 

Don’t reinvent the wheel

If Kiragu could chat with his younger self, he’d advise, “You don’t have to innovate. The biggest companies aren’t always innovating; they’re doing what works. Innovation is good, but it shouldn’t hold you back. For instance, when I made Knockout 2017, I tried to be too innovative, but sometimes, just making a game fun is enough. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. Just keep moving forward. Innovation can come later as you grow and compete. Hypercasual, for example, isn’t very innovative, but it’s brought us a lot of success.”

Wendi Ndaki
Wendi Ndaki
Wendi Ndaki is a versatile visual artist, writer, and passionate technology enthusiast with a keen interest in the intersection of art and technology. With a Bachelor's degree in Information Systems Technology, Wendi has accumulated 5+ years of experience as a writer in the gaming industry. She is deeply committed to merging her two passions: art and IT (technology), finding the perfect harmony where they converge. The video games industry, with its seamless fusion of art and tech, has become her chosen home. Through her writing and animated videos, Wendi aims to bridge the information gap, empowering creative tech businesses to thrive and flourish in their endeavours.
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