Playtopia MGA Interview | Lars Espeter

Just over one week to go until gamers, developers and event-goers can revel in 3-days of local and international indie games, eye-melting interactive digital art and a killer music line up at PLAYTOPIA (MGA) 2019.

This week, we turn our attention to another speaker who’ll be providing key insight into the LOCAL gaming industry and how South Africans can find their way through it. We sat down with Lars Espeter to discuss his career, which spans close to 3 decades, how to get ahead in the local gaming industry, where to get a head start and what we can expect from him during his talk on the Playtopia panel in December.


MCBN:  Thanks for chatting Lars, it’s always a pleasure taking the time to delve deeper in the mind of someone with your calibre and experience.  Could you give us a rundown of your career, from where it all started to how you got here now?

Thank you for inviting me. I have to cover 26 years – so I will stick to the most important steps. I started out in ’91 writing a game design for a Point & Click adventure. With a few friends, we then developed and published our first game in ’93. In the following years, I worked as a freelancer on a lot of projects. In 2000 and 2001, my team and I developed our own game engine and published our first 3D title, ‘Bacteria’. A few games focusing on the casual market followed. I produced a few mobile games based on movie licenses in 2005 and in 2007 I got the chance to develop one of the first game development courses in Germany. Around the same time, I started guest lecturing for the Academy of Digital Arts in Cape Town. Seeing the incredible talent here, I made the decision to develop what is now the Game & Interactive Media development course for them. We started in 2013 and I moved to Cape Town in 2014. 

After founding the course and running it as the Head of Department until 2017 I handed the department over to an ex-student of mine. We have been so successful that I can focus now on consulting the course development, keeping it on track in terms of industry relevance and I work for our agency GDoutsourcing, which we created under the Friends of Design umbrella, connecting South African young talents trained in using game technology with clients all around the world.

MCBN:  You’ll be talking at Playtopia, giving the audience a piece of your mind and talking about ‘Diversifying Game Business’ – care to give us a look into what might be featured & highlighted in your talks?

Most people still think that the skills and technologies we use are ‘only’ used to create games. The truth is that game technology is being used in far more industries for different purposes now. The Academy’s alumni students work in fields like educational software, engineering, architecture and others. Game Technology being so versatile creates a lot of opportunities for teams that are willing to embrace that fact. 

It is a more complicated topic when it comes to the other diversifying we need. We still have too few black, coloured and/female developers in this industry. That needs to change, especially here in SA.

I will cover the most important aspects mentioned above in my presentation.

MCBN: You’ve been with The Academy of Digitals Arts in Cape Town for over a decade now, you went from lecturer to course developer & game development. This industry has evolved immensely over your time at The Academy, what are some positive points you can put down from an industry growth perspective? Is South Africa a recognised game and development nation?

Our students do work in a lot of different industries now. The demand and the acceptance in the public for the skill sets they bring is growing every year. To me this is, among many other things, a true highlight. Being able to further the careers of our students and getting immensely positive feedback about their work from national and international companies is the most rewarding aspect of this 10-years+ journey. 

South Africa as a game and development nation is an exciting topic. When you look around and see how Free Lives, Nyamakop and others have been successful internationally, or how interactive media companies like Sea Monster constantly show what we are capable of and that they can easily compete with international competitors the future looks great. Some of our alumni student teams have done some amazing things and have been recognized internationally for the projects they have created.

What we need, however, is the media talking about it. There is still the believe that – as I was told by some South Africans in 2008 – ‘you cannot do that in South Africa’.  This could not be further from the truth.

MCBN: What are some of the lectures that you run at The Academy of Digital Arts. Building course in an ever-evolving industry must come with its challenges but how do you keep ahead of the curve on new material, course ideas and lecturing methods?

Yes. That is a challenge – but being in the game industry you have to constantly learn about new technologies and how to implement them. With new technologies come new opportunities and jobs. Which is why we prepare the students for that in various ways. It has been a principle for my courses in Germany and in Cape Town to have only lecturers that are still active in their field. The Academy of Digital Arts applies that to all its courses anyway. 

It is crucial that you teach real-world skills, processes and team scheduling and teamwork on top of the actual field skills needed if you want to make sure that students have the most promising career start,

Also, having teachers that apply what they teach also keeps the Academy up to date when it comes to the latest trends in technology and knowing how to use them.

The curriculum has changed a lot since 2013 because the game technology and its possible applications have evolved so much.

MCBN You’ve worked on some fantastic projects over the years, can you tell us one that sticks out for you and why this project has been your favourite to work on?

One of the best experiences was the development of ‘Bacteria’ (exciting times, so much to learn from making mistakes …) and our development of ‘Mathemagus’, a Mathematics education game for 6 – 8-year-olds. Seeing the kids blowing their teachers away with their gaming skills and completely forgetting that they are doing Maths is still a very fond memory of mine.

Another big thing, not tied to a project, is working with tremendously talented and dedicated people over all those years – some of which are my ex-students.

MCBN: Playtopia is a growing event for the indie games and art enthusiast in South Africa, but it’s some much more powerful. Why do you think events like Playtopia hold such strength in a growing industry down here?

Events like Playtopia make the public aware of the fact that there are South African developers out there and that game technology is an actual job opportunity. Analysts a few years ago placed interactive entertainment as the third future growth market – right behind biotechnology and robotics. This is a great chance for the South African economy, and we have the talent and the education down here that can compete internationally. Playtopia helps to make people aware of that fact. That is why what those guys are doing is so very important.

MCBN: If students, developers, gamers or general enthusiasts are looking to get into the gaming spaces in South Africa, how would you direct them to a good starting point? 

Get involved. Meet the people developing interactive media and learn about the possibilities of where you can go with it in terms of career and creativity. Build a portfolio. Nobody will hire you on marks or degrees alone. If you have a skill set then create something with it that convinces developers or companies that you would be a great addition to their team. And be a team player. Developing a game or something based on game technology is almost always a team effort, so the willingness to work and communicate with others is very important.

MCBN: The shift and move towards gaming and esports over the last 5 years has been incredible to watch. Do you think there is still more to come as innovative technology continues leads the way in the gaming space? Have the South African & African markets been following and keeping up with global trends do you think?

With VR headsets, AR on for increasingly capable mobile phones and mixed-reality solution like the Microsoft’s Hololens there will be new ways to create unique game experiences and interactive entertainment of all kinds. We will see games being used more and more in education, training and advertising. We are, for example, starting to see applied game technology in museums, like the AR exhibit that the Academy’s students created for the Iziko Slave Lodge here in Cape Town. In the medical field, VR is used for therapy support, Architects are using VR and AR for interactive visualization … the list is getting longer every day.

And, frankly, South Africans should not try to follow trends that they see somewhere else – they do not have to. Looking at the development teams in South Africa and the students of the Academy you will see specialists that can come up with their own solutions and that have innovative ideas that can actually set trends.
By the way, if you go to Playtopia and want to see some incredibly fun and innovative games visit the guys from Superfriendship Arcade.

MCBN: Any last words for the Playtopians in December?

Keep up the great work you are doing! I have been involved with a lot of event organizers over the years, but the team behind Playtopia is one of the most dedicated and smart teams I had the pleasure of working with. Last year’s first ever Playtopia was great. I cannot wait to see what they have come up with this year.


Delegate and festival ticket holders can look forward to exhibitions by some of South Africa’s top interactive artists, 30+ alternative games, a Super Friendship Arcade room with games played on custom controllers as well as VR rooms.

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