Book excerpt: Mobinomics – Part 1

Mobinomics

We are excited to be able to post an excerpt from the new book by Alan Knott-Craig with Gus Silber, ‘Mobinomics – Mxit and the Mobile Revolution in Africa’. The chapter is titled ‘The Man Who Put MXit on the Moon’ and covers the story of how our online games business was launched by our directors Raj and Adrian.

Mobinomics: Mxit and the Mobile Revolution in Africa
Authors: Alan Knott-Craig with Gus Silber
ISBN: 9781920434366
Co-published by Bookstorm and Pan Macmillan
Buy a copy
 

The Man Who Put MXit on the Moon

The most popular game on MXit is a galactic adventure that plays out in the cinema of the mind, but the rivalries and emotions it stirs are real

Adrian Frielinghaus was born on the wrong side of the divide between the Digital Generation, who have never known a world without mobile phones and the Internet, and the rest of us, the digital migrants, who wandered wide-eyed and stumbling into that world in the last decade of the 20th Century.

He is on the cusp of 40 now, an MBA with a BA majoring in Psych, and a job that allows him to slip the bonds of gravity and spend his days building bases on the moon.

His nights, too, if it comes to that, because it is under cover of darkness, while you are sleeping, that the enemy legions will rumble in to plunder and destroy.

They will send their moon buggies and gunships and laser cannons, and in the cold light of dawn, you will awaken to find that your empire has been laid waste.

The fact that this intelligence will be conveyed to you on the screen of a handheld device, while you are playing a game called Moonbase, will not lessen the rage or the pain.

The war is a simulation, conducted by keystrokes; the emotions it triggers are real. Playing a game on a mobile device is an immersive experience, with the intimacy of the small screen blocking out one world and acting as a portal to another.

But in truth it’s the same world, populated by human nodes on a network that touches many a nerve.

Sitting in a boardroom in an office park in Cape Town, with his lunar base at his command on the mobile under his thumb, Adrian recalls the retired teacher who applied for a position as an administrator at his gaming company, Blue Leaf Games.

Her son had come home from school one day, in tears. She asked him what had happened, and he said, between sobs, that someone had raided and destroyed his moonbase. Her first instinct was maternal protection. Her second was revenge.

She learned to play the game, mining and stockpiling the elements essential to survival on the off-world colony: Water, Oxygen, Iron, and Helium-3. She learned to build her base and marshall a fleet of assault vehicles.

She learned to protect, defend, and raid. She learned to join an alliance, to strategise and to plot and to plan. And then, she took her revenge.

The ultimate prize in Moonbase, which is the most popular game on the MXit platform, is the Victory Medal. It is awarded to the alliance that first manages to defeat the invading Martians and build a rocketship to escape back to earth.

“It is extremely difficult to do this,” says Adrian, “and only one alliance can win. So the feeling of elation you get when that happens is quite intense.”

Adrian knows the feeling, and its more common counterpoint, from playing the game as a compulsion and a professional duty. He is the architect of his own obsession, the creator of Moonbase, which he designed along with his business partner and software developer, Raj Moodaley.

There are other games in the stable – Bloodaxe, with its bloodthirsty, pillaging Vikings; Conquest, where the challenge is to use military strategy to over-run a lone city in an unknown world; and Glamour Girl, which invites female players to hang out, gossip, go shopping for clothes, and take on the role of a model, actress, or businesswoman.

But it is Moonbase that has truly captured the imagination of the MXit gaming community, with some 1,000 signups and 8-million page impressions a day. Technically, the game falls into a genre known as MMORTS: it is a Massively Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy game.

But it is a “social game”, too, in the sense that it encourages players to form alliances, share intelligence, consult and communicate strategies, and coordinate surprise attacks over the network.

We tend to conflate “social” with “sociable” in our understanding of social networks, but societies are made up of tribes and clans that typically have their own best interests at heart.

The names of some of the alliances on Moonbase, crafted from special characters and obscure keyboard codes, are designed to rally and intimidate through the use of text alone:

P-)SØVIET]xXx[UNIØNP-)

$T@R Øçèáñ FêÐeRåTïøÑ {~Uñlèåsh3D~}

Sp@ce F3d3r@tion Fr0nti3rs… |SFF|

**SPACE COMMANDERS**

Rebels of Carnage (_RøC_)

(*)H3R0S 0F TH3 G@L@CT!C L3G!0N(*)

ÐR@G0Ñ D3THR0Ñ3 R0Ý@LTÝ

G!O!D!Z O!F !W!A!R!

On Moonbase, you build your community based not on the currency of “follow” or “like”, but on a web of complementary skills that empower you to conquer and destroy. This is Darwinism, For The Win.

The impulse to annihilate has been embedded into gameplay since ancient days, when the fall of a king on a board symbolised a bloodless victory in battle.

Moonbase, too, has lessons to teach about leadership, teamwork, trust, hierarchy, vigilance, planning, and patience. You can only win the game by forging a strong and cohesive alliance, with a maximum of 35 players, and the hardest thing about doing this, says Adrian, is reining in the restless aggression of the rawer recruits.

“The kids often don’t have much of a clue about leadership and facilitation and people skills and all that soft stuff,” he says. “All they want to do is go in and skop, skiet, and donner.”

At the same time, you can’t wage a war in a vacuum, even on the moon. A player named Deadmano, in a treatise on alliance management on Moonbase, advises: “You need to set a standard for yourself and the alliance. My standards are members cannot be inactive for more than one day without notifying me or an officer, or else they will be kicked from the Alliance.”

He stresses the importance of assigning clear roles in the alliance, from the Diplomat who negotiates peace treaties, to the War General who coordinates large-scale wars, to the Spy who signs up with a rival alliance and learns their fleet sizes, strategies, and times they are most likely to be online.

It is worth remembering that all of this – the briefings, the musterings, the battles, the raids, the masses of Martians attacking from the skies – takes place in the cinema of the mind, by virtue of strings of commands issued by text from the screen of a mobile phone.

So popular has Moonbase become on MXit, so rich in its recreation of scenarios and worlds, that it has taught Adrian a valuable lesson about the frailty of first impressions.

He was working for MIH, the multimedia and mobile subsidiary of Naspers, when he made his first acquaintance with the mobile instant messaging client, as a possible investment opportunity for the group. The verdict was unanimous.

“We thought it was a piece of shit,” he recalls. “We had absolutely no clue what was going on, as you tend not to in a big company.”

That was in 2005, shortly after the launch of MXit in Stellenbosch. Within two years, Naspers would own a 30 percent stake in Herman Heunis’s company.

Within five years, together with Raj Moodaley, Adrian would be running a software development enterprise of his own, and his original, visceral assessment of the mobile chat platform would have been radically revised.

 

Mxit is Africa’s largest mobile social network with over 40 millions users. Maxxor’s flagship game, Moonbase was launched on Mxit in 2010 and has remained the most successful game on Mxit ever since. Maxxor builds social media apps and online games that help brands to communicate with and to interact with their consumers on Mxit, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Contact us for assistance in creating entertaining and engaging social network applications.

 
Continue reading part 2 of the excerpt …