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Preserving culture through Mobile gaming. Here’s Kola Studios’ hit card game ‘Matatu’

Described by many as the card game worth playing, Matatu is a two-player mobile card game that was developed by Kola Studios. It offers players the chance to play the exciting Ugandan card game of “Matatu” on your smart device.

Some may confuse it with taxis, as they go by a similar name in Kenya. In Uganda however, “amatatu” is the local name for cards. Leveraging the same offline gaming experience, this made adoption as easy as possible since the population was already familiar with the rules of the game, thereby making it easy for the app to break even. Matatu offered an experience of playing a game which you know so well, at any time of the day instead of carrying a pack of cards and looking for people to play with, you could be able to play with another player online no matter the distance. The developers of Matatu’s only task was finding a way of getting them from physical to mobile. This experience of course led to the success of the application since the physical game was something that was loved by people and brought it closer to them and preserved their local game.

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       A group of people playing cards | Courtesy Image

Growing up many of us played numerous games including Ludo, Sonko, matatu and many others. Had it ever crossed your mind that these games can be preserved for the next generations by digitizing them? Imagine if Poker or Black Jack or Monopoly or any of those other games weren’t digitized. Would you not be worried that a great portion of culture and history was going to get lost soon when software “eats” the world hence become quickly forgotten. Kola Studios sought to preserve these great games that are loved by a lot of people and prevent them from fading.” Thereby helping preserve culture”, as today it is obvious that many of these games can indeed be digitized, said Daniel Okalany, CEO and Lead Programmer at Kola Studios, the makers of the famous Matatu game.

Given his passion for coding, and love for playing games, Okalany thought it to be nice to digitize one of the most popular games he played while growing up so that people would be able to play the game anytime and anywhere.

Matatu can be traced back to its humble beginnings in June 2011 when they first submitted it at the Google’s Sub-Saharan Android Developer Challenge. In the February of 2012 the team of five comprised of Karungi Theresa, Guy Acellam, Okalany Daniel, Daniel Nuwe and Jasper Zed Onono decided to get more serious and turn the game that was in version 1.0 then and had been nominated for the Mobile World Summit Award as finalists from East Africa, and also been given a spot to present at Google’s Uganda Conference earlier that year which got them a lot of publicity.”

Pivot East competition wraps up: Winners announced – TechjajaThe ‘Matatu’ card game developers

Initially, the team hadn’t published the application to mobile app stores yet, but the few people that they were distributing the game’s APK to via email were already hooked. This of course saw them continue to receive many more requests. The first version of Matatu was very simple. It didn’t even have a menu, so when one launched the game, it would go straight to game play. It took them 3 months after in order to hit the play store to add a menu and 2 player modes, and another 3 months to add the Joker mode (which includes more power plays). Still, that didn’t stop it from getting 1,000 downloads in its first 2 weeks of launch in a very nascent market and time when there were far fewer people who had smartphones and internet. But as internet penetration and mobile phone ownership in Uganda grew over the years, the download figures continued to shoot up. 

Matatu went ahead and won in the Entertainment category for Pivot East 2013. The game at one point in time passed Rovio’s Angry Birds in the Play Store chart rankings, among the top 3 most played games in Google Play in Uganda Games in the store and in terms of popularity. 📌

They then embarked on working on an improved version, what would turn out as the region’s best digital card game, Matatu 1.0.5 there was. First of all, an addition to the avenues Matatu would be made available. For example, the debut version of the card game was predominantly and only on Android devices/ Google Play Store. However, the newer form of it would extend as far as the Samsung App Store, Facebook, Chrome Web Store, iOS (Apple App Store), and Windows Phones. Given that a lot of thought and work had been put into it, more modes of game play including joker mode and a timed game were included.”

A multiplayer mode where a user could choose to play against someone else through the internet was available in the first edition. An even deeper social integration and user engagement., was something the developers put into consideration. They thereby included an option to play alongside other online Matatu card gamers.

The new intuitively design came with a pretty simple and clean feel nice new feature, ‘floating’ buttons and a navigation interface (menu):

A custom shop was introduced as well. You can enter the shop by tapping on the ‘Customize’ option that is located at the bottom right corner of the app’s home screen. There are plenty of nice themes present in the shop, from which one could pick the one they liked and then tapped on the ‘Apply Theme’ to set it up. By default, the app comes with a beautiful brownish/ wooden board theme to begin with, which gives it the outlook of a tree house, the modern theme (casino blue flowery backdrops background) and the Uganda flag theme which can also give the user some feel of patriotism as they play.

Maintaining its traditional run/suit’ style of where the user has to play all their cards before their opponent, the first to place all their cards wins.

Having downloaded/ installed matatu from your mobile app store, tap the Matatu app icon on the home screen to open it. The game automatically picks up your Gmail username and makes it your default game play username. There is also an option to login using Facebook.

There’s also a beginners’ guide (tips on how first-time users could play the game) in case one has just installed the mobile application in their device and is playing it for the very first time. Situated at the top right corner of the home screen of the app, in that section, you will find the tutorials on how to play each game offered by this card game app. These tutorials are very interactive and descriptive in nature and explain each aspect of the game in a very precise manner.

To play a matatu game, one simply has to tap on any category of their choice and the app loads the game. The cards in the Matatu app are played by simply swiping them forward and back.

The three playing modes offered in the game are: the ‘Classic’ version, the ‘Joker’ and the ‘2 Player’ game. All these games are very entertaining and can provide you a great deal of joy and fun. Each game needs to be played between at least two players. The classic matatu game is a normal card game without jokers unlike the Joker version which contains Jokers. The 2 Player category allows you to send a request to the online players to play the game with you. This can be done by tapping on the ‘Online’ option that is located at the top left corner of the home screen of this card game app.

Amazon.com: Matatu: Appstore for AndroidA picture of the matatu game on a mobile phone

A player is expected to play a card that has the same suit or the same number as the card at the top of the pile, matching diamonds with diamonds and spades with spades, and so forth. The play can be changed by matching a King with a king or similar number, etc., regardless that it’s Kings of spades, hearts, or a 9 of hearts or diamonds, etc. First to play all their cards wins. when an opponent plays, 2, you are added two extra cards. ♠️♣️♥️♦️🃏  Ace (A) allows you to change the suit, any ‘two’ (2) forces your opponent to play a two or pick up two cards, the ‘eight’ (8) and ‘Jack’ (J) cards give you an extra turn, and if you match the upturned ‘cutter’ (7) suit with the ‘seven of cutter’ then the game comes to an immediate end, and whoever has the least pips (total of the figures on their cards) in their hand is the winner.

In there is an all-time leaderboard and weekly top 10 leaderboard where the best performing players are ranked.

To date the Kola Studios product remains ranking as the best locally developed game, most downloaded local game on Google Play Store on the Ugandan tech Scene, and app ever that is fully developed in Uganda, having taken a classic local game experiences and migrated it to a mobile and dynamic creation.

The team of 5 that constituted Kola Studios and are behind Matatu and the rest of the brilliant games and apps, is currently stationed at the Outbox Hub; a local technology incubator and coworking space in Kampala, Uganda.

5 years in and Matatu was still going strong, as the app hit a milestone of 100,000 downloads in September 2015 and it took less than a year to double these numbers making it to 200,000 in June 2016. As of today, the Matatu card game app has unstoppably garnered over 400,000 downloads with about 68% of users coming from Uganda, 14% Kenya, and others in UAE, USA, Somalia, Rwanda and Tanzania, with over 800 games being played monthly.

There’s a Play for Cash version too. 

A play-for-cash version of the Matatu card game; that goes by the name Matatu Champion was launched in 2017. This version allows people to play their favorite game Matatu with the added excitement of winning real cash. The decision to launch a play-for-cash version of Matatu according to the creators was greatly motivated by the constant request from players to be provide some sort of reward avenue after every win and Matatu Champion was Kola Studios’ response.

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The game pulls straight from the original Matatu game with additional features such as – allowing players the possibility to make a deposit cash to their accounts in order to play the game – win and go on to redeem the cash won to their mobile money account. It is therefore a requirement for every player to have a mobile money account or else they will not be able to deposit cash to unlock these games. What happens is that players have to first deposit money to their Matatu Champion Account either by MTN Mobile Money or Airtel. They then choose from a selection of 3 different money matches; the one of Ugx. 500, Ugx. 1000 and Ugx. 5000 UGX. Once one of these games is unlocked, a player’s money is on the line as they must try to play all their cards before their opponent does (The Card Rule: First Player Wins It All). They are then free to redeem it any time they wish. Download Matatu Champion  to play.

The studios’ Business model:

The revenue stream for the company is 100% acquired through adverts that are beautifully crafted into the actual mechanics of the game (running on the card interface and in the side bar during the playing game mode which is enabled to constantly change). Matatu enables advertisers build brand awareness through its pay per impression mechanism from its over 800+ games played monthly, and an average gameplay of up-to 27 Mins per user, it therefore demonstrates high player engagement and retention, as the game is positioned to offer the best Return on Investment (ROI) for local brands within mobile apps.

Matatu App Review - How to download and play matatu - UgTechMag      An advert for Betway in the Matatu game

Kola Studios also boasts of 8 other mobile games in its catalog, and these include; Mosquito Rush in which you have to swat some rather aggressive insects. They also offer apps that simulate traditional African games; such as; Karata, Keiko, Last Card Spar, Mosquito Rush, Twendele and Zword.

Given that the developers of Matatu understand the nature of our internet speeds here, the good guys of Kola Studios always develop games/ mobile applications that match them, hence making them lighter in size in terms of size. For instance, Matatu is only 8.4MBs. 🙃

So, whether in a book library, a bank queue or in transit, tap your boredom away by playing Matatu. Download it here

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