Video game makers aim for women and adults

Middle Eastern companies are shifting focus from teenage boys as they eye a larger stake of a worldwide market estimated to be worth US$86.8 billion by 2014.

Kim You Mi, 23, plays the Internet game MU at a cyber cafe in Seoul  Friday, May 23, 2003. Webzen Inc. is the maker of a popular online monster-slaying fantasy game whose shares more than doubled in their trading debut. Photographer: Seokyong Lee/Bloomberg News
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Video game makers in the Middle East are focusing on women and older people as they eye a larger stake of a worldwide market estimated to be worth US$86.8 billion (Dh318.8bn) by 2014. Computer games have until now been geared mostly towards teenage boys, but developers in the MENA region are casting a wider net as they aim for higher sales and increased advertising revenue from online gaming sites.

Yalla Games Cafe, a trivia and puzzle-themed games portal that launched in the Middle East in late June, has a specific audience: women in Saudi Arabia. Mark Gatty Saunt, the co-founder of the site, said an Arabic version of the portal was under development to cater to this user base. "[Women represent] our biggest target audience. And our number one market for this is Saudi Arabia," Mr Gatty Saunt said. "We're licensing games we know females like in the western markets. They're all brain games … not the 'shoot 'em ups' or arcade games. It's things like puzzles, crosswords, Sudoku and quiz games," he added.

Yalla hopes to make money from advertising. "Media booking agencies have been looking for an online games portal for some time," Mr Gatty Saunt said. The site offers free games but also paid-for games that offer cash prizes. But the games do not constitute gambling, Mr Gatty Saunt says. "Yalla Games Cafe has had it cleared by lawyers - it's a skill-based website, with no element of chance. There are no dice games, bingo or poker - which are all classed as gambling."

Yalla says it is targeting consumers aged between 15 and early 30s. But other games manufacturers see a market segment - older people - that is underserved. The game developer I-Friqiya, which has offices in Tokyo and Dubai, recently launched its first product, an action-racing game called Fuel Overdose. Skander Djerbi, the co-founder of the company, says the game's "retro" 1990s top-down view has appeal to an older audience.

"Fuel Overdose is mostly dedicated to gamers between 13 and 45 who like action games. While most action games traditionally target a male audience between 13 and 35, we think that since our game has some retro flavours, we can target the 35 to 45 as well. And I'm convinced that, contrary to what some people think, women love action games as well," said Mr Djerbi. "I think that the average age will continue to grow because you have to consider the generation effect. Today very few 50-year-old people play video games, but what will be the situation 20 years from now?"

Saleh al Nobani, the managing director of the regional game designer Vertex Studios, said new technology and the emergence of social media have made games accessible to a wider audience. "It has changed dramatically. You have 70-year-old men playing games on their iPhones or on Facebook. How many times do you get messages on Facebook from friends saying, 'Guys, I'm collecting food on Farmville'? These people aren't in the age group they would have been once. These games are tapping into all age groups."

Steve Tsao, the chief executive of Tahadi Games, a publisher of free-to-play titles in English and Arabic that launched in Dubai last year, said his core audience was a little younger than the 70-year-old Farmville fans cited by Mr al Nobani. However, he agreed games such as MMOGs (massively multi-player online games) could appeal to a middle-age audience. "For the older demographic, you have two ways to go: the solitaire route, which is hard to make a business of; or the World of Warcraft route. Almost by nature, these online games … tend to attract more mature gamers and not your Grand Theft Auto-type of gamers," Mr Tsao said. "Certainly there's an older segment of gamers - but when you say old, you mean 30-something."