Mahmoud Khasawneh is the founder and CEO of Quirkat, a games development company based in the UAE with studios in Jordan. He is also the IGDA Middle East Chapter Leader.
As the games industry in the Middle East has grown and evolved over the past decade, video game development and game localization aimed at the Middle Eastern market remains a tremendous opportunity. At first glance, the complexities of language, values, social fabric and an entirely foreign pop culture can, understandably, seem daunting to developers and publishers, particularly from a Western perspective.
However, publishing video games for a Middle Eastern audience can yield positive results despite its challenges. Reliable statistics for the region are few and far between, but the Middle Eastern gaming industry is likely worth somewhere between $1 billion and $2.6 billion in terms of revenue across software and hardware. Western developers and publishers have the chance to successfully enter and influence a very green and receptive market, ready to be engaged and monetized.
The “Global Audience”
Many publishers and game developers claim to target “global audiences,” but the reality is that this target often doesn’t extend to the Arab world and rather focuses on North American, European and South East Asian markets. There is virtually no presence of big publishers in the Middle East and North Africa.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear reason for this, as numbers show that the market is rife with opportunity. For starters, simple demographics indicate these regions have a population of more than 400 million people who speak a single language — Arabic. And many Arabic-speaking countries have young populations, some with more than 50% who are under 25 years old. The demographics also show more than 200 million mobile phones and a strong Facebook presence.
These numbers highlight a wide spectrum of gamers that aren’t being addressed at core or casual levels, nor on the web, via smartphones or through traditional retail channels. There is still no player in the multi-platform, core game development space. By some estimates, there’s an install base of about 8.5 million consoles in the Middle East (excluding gray imports). Sony has long been the dominant player in the Middle Eastern market, but recently, other hardware makers — notably Microsoft — have begun making moves in the region. But given these numbers, there can and should be many more players in this market.
The games industry in the Middle East has evolved over the past decade. Initially, the few developers who attempted to create original content for the Middle Eastern gamer faced an uphill battle in establishing a foothold in their home markets. High rates of piracy and a disconnected retail landscape fostered a difficult path to market. The few local games in the industry’s early days had gained notoriety for having political agendas, and the typical gamer was looking to the likes of EA and Ubisoft for his or her gaming fix, due to the initial perception of inferior quality associated with locally developed games. Eventually, through partnerships with ISPs and mobile network operators, that perception was gradually shattered and local developers started seeing success. Further partnerships with Western studios and publishers yielded bigger, more impressive projects and higher quality games.
Local developers also turned their eye to outside markets, one example being Egypt-based Timeline Interactive, developers of CellFactor: Psychokinetic Wars. Today, a more structured retail environment, higher bandwidth, online payment channels and investor interest in the game development space have all lead to greater opportunity in the market.
The Challenges of Localizaion
The groundwork that was laid by the early pioneers in Middle East game development has paved the way for current Western developers and publishers to successfully enter the space today, and they are more cognizant of the challenges and specifics of this market. One of the greatest challenges along the way included attempts at pure language localization that weren’t met with much success. THQ was one of the first western publishers to enter the Arabic speaking market and quickly learned the necessity of cultural relevancy: Ifirst localized title, Wall-E, was unsuccessful, as it was marketed to Saudi Arabia, a country with no cinemas.
Yet another important localization lesson was learned when Arabized MMO games first started showing up in the Middle East. The purely Google-translated text made no sense, and a lot of technical flaws were exploited, like the lack of standard Unicode text, RTL (right-to-left) support in the marketing assets, and lack of support websites. With heavy ad spending, however, the developers saw traffic pick up from the region and the more far-sighted ones forged local partnerships for better localization and on-the-ground CRM. This resulted in the tremendous success of games such as Travian.
Content relevance and adherence to familiar themes is crucial in developing and publishing games aimed at Arab markets. Sony understood this as far back as 2004 when it introduced This Is Football in Arabic for the PS2, given that football (soccer) is the region’s biggest sport. Sony continues to cater to the market today, being the only console producer with Arabic content for its motion control platform with the release of Start the Party! in Arabic. The publishers that take the time to go beyond pure language localization and understand the gamer demographic and culture can reap the benefits of this wide open market.
In addition to language localization and content relevance, cultural sensitivity is another important element that must be considered. On the surface, the guidelines might seem straightforward: Sex, gambling, alcohol and nudity are obvious subjects to avoid. The reality is slightly more complex, as approaches to topics such as family, workplace ethics, politics and war are all areas that could easily be misrepresented in a game environment. Additionally, the social and cultural guidelines are not consistent across the many countries that comprise the Arab world. A deeper understanding of these variations and how product positioning varies from North Africa all the way to the more affluent Gulf market is a sure way of guaranteeing stronger returns on any game investments made in the region.
Ultimately, once the barriers of language and culture have been successfully understood and penetrated, the Middle Eastern gamer is no different than any gamer anywhere else in the world. The interactive experience sought and enjoyed in the Middle East is no different than the typical fun, entertaining game developed for the U.S. markets. It is my strong belief that partnerships between Western and Middle Eastern developers are the key to success; with new marketplaces, stores and digital distribution channels, there is no reason why a successful game cannot — with a little bit of effort and insight — bridge the cultural divide for a truly global game experience.