The Stories Studio: meet the woman in Bahrain who is making videogames that inspire positive action

Saba Saleem Warsi is tackling ocean pollution and the refugee crisis with her free mobile games

Saba Saleem Warsi co-founded Bahrain game development firm, The Stories Studio, with her business partner and husband, Sajad Hameed
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A haunting soundtrack plays as a young boy, Musa, wakes up in his home. He looks around and realises his bedroom has been partially destroyed by a war that rages outside the door. His family is nowhere to be seen – except for his younger brother, Isa, who is upset. Musa leads him away from the house. In a matter of minutes, Musa has lost his childhood.

This is the premise of a new puzzle/adventure videogame called Musa – A Brother's Story, being made by Bahrain game development company, The Stories Studio. It tells the tale of two refugee brothers and their fight for survival. The player takes on the role of Musa, who is now in charge of the safety and care of Isa, as he explores the world that's falling apart around them, amid touching flashbacks showing what life was like before his family was taken away.

Co-founder Saba Saleem Warsi and her business partner and husband Sajad Hameed have dedicated the game to the 65.6 million refugees around the world, half of whom are under the age of 18.

"I created the prototype in a month for the IGN Convention in Bahrain," says Warsi, 35. "What I really wanted to show was a feeling of shock and grief, when someone wakes up in their home and it's almost destroyed and they're just lost."

Warsi made the music and did the 3D modelling and programming, but she didn't exactly create the narrative. This has been inspired by authentic, real-life stories given to her by a Turkish NGO that works with refugees. "What we plan to showcase is sibling relationships, and how those change when you're unaccompanied," she says. "What happens to that dynamic when you're an older sibling and [essentially] become the parent or guardian? What happens in terms of trauma? We want to show how these children are just like you and me. They were in their homes, they had their toys and they had all that stripped away from them."

The Stories Studio was set up to do precisely this – to create ethically focused games that have a social impact. "Our purpose is to raise awareness and inspire positive action through the medium of videogames," says Warsi. "We want to do this by making videogames around real-world causes and by contributing 2.5 per cent of our total revenue to that cause."

So far, the company – which opened last year – has published one free mobile game of their own called Deep Blue Dump. It tackles ocean plastic pollution. "A beautiful baby turtle has just hatched and began his first ocean journey," reads the description. "Can you keep him safe from the plastic pollution?"

A screengrab from 'Deep Blue Dump', a free mobile game themed around marine pollution developed by The Stories Studio.
A screengrab from 'Deep Blue Dump', a free mobile game themed around marine pollution developed by The Stories Studio.

Warsi says: "We published this game just to test the market, to see how well we can merge fun gameplay and still teach people something that can raise questions. We found we were successful in that attempt." While they didn't make much money from the experiment, they were able to start conversations, Warsi says. "One of the people who played our game said she took her son to a cafeteria where he refused a straw because he'd been playing the game.

“We feel that even if it changes one person’s behaviour then we’ve made an impact.”

Another game Warsi developed – for a Gulf-wide competition – was called Hope-ful. It was about a girl called Hope who was trying to overcome depression. The character had two different states of mind that dictated the extent of her abilities. "You could activate hope at the press of a button," Warsi explains. Once it was activated, Hope could see better and jump higher, for example, but when that feeling went away the world appeared more black and white. The game won third place in the competition, but was never actually finished or released to the public.

That was four years ago, and Warsi has come a long way since then. In June last year, Bahraini start-up accelerator programme, Flat6Labs, invested in her company idea, allowing her and her partner to quit their jobs and work on The Stories Studio full-time. As a start-up, however, generating revenue is a priority, so the pair now also work on other products with global mobile game publishers. “They’re not impactful, they’re just mobile games to help us make revenue, so we can then do our other projects,” says Warsi. “We’re learning a lot very fast.”

Saba Saleem Warsi secured funding from startup incubator Flat6Labs Bahrain. Courtesy The Stories Studio
Saba Saleem Warsi secured funding from startup incubator Flat6Labs Bahrain. Courtesy The Stories Studio

Warsi's career background isn't actually in game development at all. Until recently, she worked in management consulting. It was a trip to Turkey in 2014 with her husband that made her realise she needed to make a change. "At that time, the refugee crisis wasn't covered widely in the media, so we were in shock when we saw so many refugees on the streets. We saw a lot of children, a lot of families. It really stuck with me." When she returned to Bahrain, where she grew up, she hired a life coach. Using the concept of ikigai – a Japanese term that roughly translates to "a reason for being" and helps you determine your passion, mission, progression and vocation – she decided she wanted to go into game development. "I realised I could do this all of my life, I can actually make an impact doing it, make money and meanwhile I love doing it."

As a child, Warsi was passionate about videogames, particularly Mario games and The Legend of Kage, so it wasn't that strange that she wanted to know more about the industry. She started attending workshops and events, and began learning about game development through YouTube and other education platforms. "Soon, it got to the stage where me and my partner could create games without much programming knowledge," she says. "Then, we entered competitions."

While Bahrain's gaming community is very active, the kingdom doesn't have much of a professional industry yet, says Warsi. "There are very few studios and very few published titles, but we're getting there. It's low-key, with people doing things they're passionate about. I'm really glad I found the community, because if I hadn't I might not have got into game development at all."

She might not have entered the business, but Warsi would always have continued playing games, she says. "I've always found it [to be] a great release. I play for a bit, take a break, distract myself and then I feel a bit better." She laments the controversies surrounding games like Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. "I think that if your child is addicted to Fortnite, it's still better than them being addicted to drugs," she says.  

If a child is playing a game that is rated 18 and they're 12 years old, then that's a parenting problem

“This generation now is addicted no matter what screens they’re looking at. A lot of people say videogames cause violence, but studies have been done that find no connection.

“I think a lot of times parents and media want something to blame. But if a child is playing a game that is rated 18 and they’re 12 years old, then that’s a parenting problem, not a videogame problem. It’s the same as X-rated movies – it’s about access.”

Instead, Warsi focuses on positive studies – ones that show videogames help boost skills such as hand-eye co-ordination and critical thinking. They are also said to increase empathy, she says. "That's much more important. If I or anyone else can relay a message, and explain it to someone in a very knowledge-based way so you are able to [better understand] the life of someone you are marginalising or stereotyping, then videogames actually create an empathetic reaction in a way that no other media can."

Flat6Labs Bahain reveals why it chose to support The Stories Studio

From the UAE to Egypt, regional start-up accelerator programme programme Flat6Labs has been pumping money into worthy companies for nearly10 years a decade. Ryaan Sharif, general manager of the Bahrain branch, explains what it takes for small businesses, such as The Stories Studio, to stand out in a busy market.

What made you invest in game development company The Stories Studio?

With Stories Studio, we were particularly impressed with the idea of creating games for social impact. Both Saba and Sajad are passionate and hardworking founders who believe in the vision of their start-up. We saw an opportunity to be part of something that we had not seen done before in the kingdom and support a strong female founder with an innovative start-up in the gaming industry.

Ryaan Sharif, general manager of Flat6Labs Bahrain
Ryaan Sharif, general manager of Flat6Labs Bahrain

What is your process for choosing a start-up to invest in? What are you looking for?

As part of our extensive outreach strategies and efforts, we attend several key start-up and investor events across the globe, such as Rise, Web Summit, Gitex, ArabNet and more. What we look for in potential start-ups for our programme is innovation and solutions to gaps in the Bahraini and Gulf market. The process is as follows: the start-ups apply to join the programme through an online application. We receive more than 200 applications per cycle, which we then narrow down to 50 or so, who are then individually interviewed. Following that, we select 18 to 20 start-ups to attend a five-day boot camp that is conducted by an expert we fly in from Silicon Valley. The boot camp is a refined version of our programme and focuses on lean start-up principles. On the final day of the boot camp, the start-ups pitch in front of a selection committee and six to eight are selected to join the programme and receive an investment of $32,000 (Dh117,250), in addition to several other perks such as access to our expansive network, high-calibre training and coaching, office space, support with follow-on investment and more.

Why would you advise someone to set up a business in Bahrain?

Bahraini start-ups certainly have a lot of potential and we are currently seeing several Bahraini companies reaching the Series A stage. Moreover, the Bahraini start-up ecosystem has been rapidly developing and has a lot to offer international start-ups with an interest in the Gulf market. We believe Bahrain to be a strategic location to access the wider Gulf market and with relatively lower overhead and operational costs compared to the rest of the region. Beyond this, Bahrain’s ecosystem is very well-organised, dynamic, interconnected and representative of both the public and private sector. Bahrain benefits from having international start-ups, as they provide exposure to new technologies, help in creating jobs for young graduates in new and upcoming fields, particularly tech-related fields, and help elevate the kingdom as a start-up hub.

What kind of companies are lacking in Bahrain and the wider Gulf right now, in your opinion?

In the region there is a growing space and need for Industrial-focused start-ups, FinTech, cloud kitchens, agri-tech and blockchain.

What factors make the difference between a start-up succeeding and failing?

An integral part of the success of a start-up lies in having strong and dynamic founders who cover both a technical and business background. Another important factor is in communicating your business and product to your target audience effectively and eloquently. Lastly, as a start-up, you need to be able to manage advice and know how and when to listen to the right people.

What advice would you give to any budding entrepreneurs?

There are definitely many programmes, competitions and entities that offer funding opportunities. Budding entrepreneurs should be diligent, proactive and take initiative in finding these opportunities, then apply and continue to reapply. To be successful when pursuing funding, start-ups need to create sufficient traction for their product/service and prove their product fits the market.