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Il(Luma)nating local games

South African game development is alive and kicking – and leading the charge is Luma Arcade.

BY  James Francis , 3 January 20120 comments

Luke Lamothe, Luma Arcade, says that although the company started as a side-venture, its ambitions were much bigger than that.| photos: Suzanne Gellphotos: Suzanne GellLuke Lamothe, Luma Arcade, says that although the company started as a side-venture, its ambitions were much bigger than that.

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Luma’s foyer is a tasteful blend of minimalism and designer chic. Among pedestals displaying a collection of cartoon statues, the two protagonists from Pixar’s Monsters Inc., Mike And Sully, greet you in life-size proportions.

“I think they were bought in a charity auction,” Luke Lamothe, Luma Arcade’s technical director, says. “But they were here before me.”

The duo predates the outfit he helps run: Luma Arcade, South Africa’s leading professional game development studio. That is not an irrevocable fact, but no local studio has the history and portfolio that Luma boasts. Born as a side-venture to service the client needs of its parent company, Luma Creative Studio, Luma Arcade has always had bigger things in mind. It laid a steady foundation of porting hits (the gaming equivalent of ghost writing), creating promotional mobile titles and eventually entering the world of smartphone and tablet games. Their latest project, Bladeslinger, might just be the most graphically impressive game the iPad has ever seen.

Luma Arcade’s beginnings were much more humble. In mid 2006, Luma Creative sold Mini on a free racing game starring the feisty hatchbacks. Lamothe, a native Canadian who arrived in South Africa seven years earlier to join I-Imagine Interactive, was introduced to Luma by Danny Day from QCF Design.


In early 2010, Luma had a range of impressive games under its belt, but nothing that one would count as a heavy hitter.
“We knew that [I-Imagine] was going to close its doors by the end of the year,” he explains. “I had a couple of opportunities to do other things, but decided that this was what I wanted to do, so I agreed to come aboard.” The first game was made with a staff of five, a far cry from the current 50-strong team working on Bladeslinger. But it paid off – Mini was very happy with the result, which gave Luma Arcade that initial confidence (and financial) boost it needed. More such projects were pitched to other clients and the studio expanded to develop games for mobile devices, relying on Java’s J2ME platform. But the studio’s ambitions ran deeper: “We always wanted to get into the game studio market, but getting in isn’t easy. You need a bit of a reputation and portfolio behind you,” says Lamothe.

That reputation had started to take hold. The Mini project attracted the attention of Garage Games (GG). Very impressed with what Luma achieved using its Torque Engine technology (which powered the Mini game), GG recruited Luma to deliver a racing title for ‘stupidly little money’ called Rev. This was followed by another GG offer: develop an iPhone port of popular PC puzzle game Marble Blast. The experience of creating the game alongside GG’s development of the Torque iPhone engine further honed Luma’s ability.

Not that it was easy. Lamothe says: “The whole time we were also making J2ME games for advertising. We were basically trying to pay the bills while a smaller team tried to up our portfolio with casual games.” One of these was Flipped, an iOs (Apple) action puzzle game that, according to Lamothe, received really good reviews but suffered from poor marketing.

In early 2010, Luma had a range of impressive games under its belt, but nothing that one would count as a heavy hitter. Then Microsoft recruited the team for a demo game on Windows Mobile 7. This was no small deal: Microsoft intended to show the game at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) in Las Vegas. Crunching frantically, Luma produced a one-minute demo of a postapocalyptic action game called Harvest. It blew the crowds away. Microsoft was happy and, after a few months, ordered a complete game in a very lucrative contract. Lamothe regards it as a watershed moment for the studio: “It was our first real mass-market game and the first to push into our current direction of good-looking core content on mobile devices.”

By this point, a new competitor had surfaced in the engine arena. Unity started as a 3D engine for MacOS, but has successfully branched to Windows and browsers, while eyeing iOs and Android. It just so happened that several former GG employees were now working on Unity, which gave Luma an easy foothold. The first project was an unreleased racing game imaginatively called Racer, but the relationship would lead to the current project, Bladeslinger. It makes some ambitious claims, something Lamothe agrees can be dangerous in the gaming world. But he counters that keeping your eye on the ball is key.

“It’s down to the vision we have and what we’ll push for, so we’ll make the sacrifices necessary to try to get our vision there, to see if it comes out. If it doesn’t perform well enough or it takes too long, then you make calls and make it work.”

But a project like this would also not have been possible without a sufficiently experienced team, which he admits is tricky to maintain locally: “The talent pool is lacking. You can’t just hire new people when a project comes in. If you get 12 guys out of school, you have to spend six months training them.” Yet he also points out that there is some incredible local talent, most of it self-taught. The issue comes with expectations: “Parents pay for schooling and they want their kids to have jobs. We’re never going to match the starting salary that a bank can. It has to be about passion. If your drive is to get a BMW when you are 21, this is not for you.”