Disney teams up with African studio Maliyo Games on Iwájú tie-in

“This is what we are all about: making African-inspired content”

Nigeria-based games developer Maliyo Games is behind a new Disney game coming to mobile this month.

The smartphone developer, which also employs staff in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, is creating the official tie-in to Disney’s Iwájú, which is a new animated series launching on Disney+ on February 28th. The animation is co-produced with Kugali Media and set in a futuristic Nigeria, while the game is called Disney Iwájú: Rising Chef, and is due to launch on the same day.

“It’s a really great opportunity for us to build an Africa-focused gaming IP for one of the biggest brands in the world,” Maliyo Games CEO and founder Hugo Obi tells GamesIndustry.biz.

“This is what we are all about: making African-inspired content, so designing games based on African characters, African stories and sharing it with a global audience. The opportunity to build a game with Disney, it’s something you pinch yourself about. We’ve never had the chance to work with a client like this before. And to work on an IP that is Disney’s first African-focused animation series… it was a real honour.”

“We want to define the African, or the Nigerian, gaming genre”

Disney was looking for a regional developer to create an Iwájú tie-in, and invited a number of developers to pitch a game. After that, they were asked to build a prototype, and it was Maliyo that most impressed the entertainment giant.

“We are on the ground. We understand the market and the end users. We can relate and empathise with the story,” Obi explains. “It is our story and a story we know first-hand. And we had the opportunity to build a really beautiful and immersive experience based on that.”

He continues. “It’s huge [for us]. Disney is a household name. It’s a form of validation, and it gives us a much broader reach than we can manage on our own. It’s a huge honour. It’s an honour to build an African story, working with African teams to do this and empowering the teams. Having an opportunity to work on a project like this pushes you to reach the levels you always aspired to reach. And working collaborative with the Disney games team, and the Walt Disney animation team, it really raises the bar for us.”

Disney Iwájú: Rising Chef will feature Nigerian delicacies

Disney Iwájú: Rising Chef is a cooking title akin to Cooking Madness and Cooking Fever, but it’s not all pizza and burgers.

“We do have some of that in our game, but we also have local food that you have to be Nigerian, or have a Nigerian friend, to appreciate,” says Obi. “For us it is exciting to include some of our local delicacies and the preparation process behind them in our game. We are sharing these ingredients with the world.”

He continues: “When we think about our culture, there are a few touchpoints that define who we are. Our language, our fashion, and our food are an integral part of who we are as a people. And we celebrate our food within our country, and it’s a way to share who we are.

“We did have some other options, but we think this is a really good fit for the show. It’s also Disney’s first time working with a studio in Africa, so we wanted to pick a project that was achievable with the time we had, because the goal was always to release this alongside the show.”

“This is what we are about: designing games based on African characters, African stories and sharing it with a global audience”

Nigerian cinema (or Nollywood, as it’s sometimes called) has its own distinct identity, and Obi hopes to develop games that have a distinct African style, too.

“We want to define the African, or the Nigerian, gaming genre,” he says. “That could be a combination of our art style, our visual effects, our sound effects, our character development, our narrative developments… something that provides the end user with something slightly different. We have a really talented, dynamic team that work with us here who believes in this ethos. They are lovers of games and play games from all over the place, but they recognise that we can provide something that the end user hasn’t experienced before, while maintaining what they expect from a game.

“We’ve taken huge inspiration from our movies and music; how they have been able to define a genre and be enjoyed all over the world. We feel we can achieve that with games.

“We will see how audiences will react with Disney’s Iwájú. This is our first truly global release. We’ve worked on projects before, but we’re talking games that have achieved half a million or quarter of a million installs. But this is a game that will hopefully garner attention from global audiences. And we will learn a lot from how they will respond to it.”

Rising Chef will arrive alongside the TV animation this month

Maliyo Games was formed in 2012 but struggled to find the talent needed to scale up. In 2021, it teamed up with Google to create a program designed to develop the talent pipeline in Africa. And some of the people who came through that program are part of the Rising Chef development team.

“This [Disney partnership] is what happens when opportunity meets preparation,” Obi says. “This wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t ready. It happened at a good time when we had already invested heavily in development talent. A lot of the guys in the team are first-time game developers, and a lot of the engineers on this game came through our talent program. That’s really magic for me.”

Disney Iwájú: Rising Chef isn’t the end point for Maliyo Games, Obi says. In fact, the team is already looking to its next challenge: building its own global IP with an African twist.

“We are transitioning to our next phase now, which is about building successful IPs,” Obi concludes. “Not just one, but several. I believe we have the people to do it, we’ve proven that, and it’s now just about what we want to build. And we’re not just building for an African market, but for the world.

“And this isn’t just about success of us, but also about putting Africa on the global games industry map, as a source of high-quality talent, production, and games.”

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