Book excerpt: Mobinomics – Part 2


This is the 2nd part of our excerpt from the new book by Alan Knott-Craig with Gus Silber, ‘Mobinomics – Mxit and the Mobile Revolution in Africa’. If you haven’t yet, first read part 1.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

Like many of his peers in the mobile, Internet, and software development industries, Adrian is an habitual gamer, drawn less to the rampaging, flame throwing, bazooka-blasting shoot-‘em-ups that offer such welcome catharsis to cubicle-dwellers, than to the quietly intense strategy games that intersperse deep thinking and planning with bouts of furious action.

While working for Naspers, he became addicted to the classic empire-building game, Civilization, which he would sneakily play on a laptop at every opportunity, eventually forcing himself to delete it from his hard drive and get back to the business of building empires for real.

In the early days of Blue Leaf, his game of habit was a Massively Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy game called Travian.

Set in the days of the Roman Empire, the game features warring tribes of Romans, Gauls, and Teutons, who must forge alliances, raid each other’s strongholds, and plunder their stockpiles of Wood, Clay, Iron and Wheat to win.

It frustrated Adrian that he was able to play the game on a Web browser only, running the risk of having his defences breached and his resources pillaged whenever he stepped away from his PC.

He began designing a game that would draw on that same magnetic impulse – a game that would play on, in real time, even as you turned uneasily in your sleep – and the obvious platform to play host to a nomadic, never-ending contest of that nature, was mobile.

Inspired by the ease with which social networks such as Twitter and Facebook had been ported to mobile phones, Adrian wondered how the core mechanics of a Travian-style strategy game could be condensed and represented on the small screen.

“What’s appealing about these games is not that they look pretty,” he says, “but that there all these things happening on the server between all these thousands of people. It is the database settings that drive the game. We began by radically reducing the types and numbers of units you could play with, and by cutting the tiers of maps down to just one.”

Simplify, speed up, and mobilise, ran the mantra, without compromising the essential suspension of disbelief that can turn a text-based handheld game into a compelling and immersive experience.

He called the game Moonbase, a giant leap away from the ancient kingdoms that had come to dominate the landscape of the real time strategy genre. And then, one day, just out of curiousity, Adrian downloaded MXit onto his mobile phone.

At first he felt adrift and bemused, a stranger in a strange land, “like Marco Polo in China”. He made some friends, played some games, learned a little about the language and customs and culture. He began to feel at home, drawn into a world within a world. And slowly, he began to see the truth about MXit. It isn’t just a network. It’s a place.

Catapulted back to his teen years, to the long, lazy hours after school, he thought about how he would chat on the phone to his friends – the phone was a landline, of course, plugged into a wall – about what was happening and what everyone was doing. The default answer, in both cases, was: nothing much.

He saw the same phenomenon on MXit. The vehicle of communication had changed, and the mode of conversation had shifted from voice to text. But the kids were exactly the same.

They would chat for hours on end, driving their discourse on narrow tracks that seemed to run in an infinite loop, one little acronym shunting the next:

wud: what you doing?

tms: tell me something

wud: what you doing?

ams: ask me something

wud: what you doing?

Nothing much. But that’s just the point. You don’t go to MXit to chat. You go to MXit to hang out. It’s a place. A place where you go to meet your friends, to bide your time, to wait for something to happen or to make something happen. That’s why people say: “See you on MXit.”

Think of a series of circles, of varying sizes, separate yet connected, arrayed in a constellation. That’s your social graph: the cosmos of your connections, from family to friends to colleagues to acquaintances to followers to friends-in-waiting. If you’re an adult, says Adrian, your social graph will tend to be broad, loose, and shifting.

“But when you’re at school, you know everybody’s business. Your social graph is an intense and very powerful set of connections between a small group of people. You need to have these connections all the time, even if there’s nothing happening, even if there’s no information flowing.”

That’s where MXit comes in. It’s the centre of attraction, the mother-node, the crux of the constellation. A lot of the time you’re bored, because of the low information content of the chatter bouncing back and forth. But you’re hanging out in that space, and maybe you’ll be open to suggestions for stuff to do.

“Put a game in there,” says Adrian, “and all hell breaks loose.”

Games have been a vital part of the MXit ecosystem from the start, and the popular titles include TiXi, a multiplayer word game, Battle Trivia, a rapid-fire general knowledge quiz, and that perennial favourite of the feudal overlord, Chess.

But Moonbase has become the model of a winning MXit game, not only because it makes money – it’s free to play, but you pay in “mGold”, an airtime-based currency, to unlock extra resources – but because it harnesses the exponential effect of the network itself.

The platform has a built-in payment mechanism and distribution channel, but the real driver of the game is the very engine of MXit’s existence. Chat. Chat is how you find out about the game, chat is how you learn to play it, chat is how you join an alliance, chat is how you spread the word.


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 3 of the excerpt …