Video games set for regional growth

The video games market in the Middle East may be in its infancy but that has not stopped regional creators developing Arabic titles, and the potential for further growth is huge.

A show attendee plays a video game at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 2, 2009. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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To get a sense of the state of the Middle East video games industry, look no further than Ali Hamidi, the founder of Piranha Bytes.

Most of the time, he and his team of coders, graphic artists and business developers are hunched over their computers at the Dubai Silicon Oasis free zone, crafting the latest mobile application (app) they hope will take the casual games market by storm.

His efforts are slowly beginning to pay off. Kalimat, Piranha Bytes's Scrabble-like iPhone game, is the first title to be published by AppsArabia, the mobile app fund backed by Abu Dhabi's twofour54 media zone. Another two games are set to be released by Piranha Bytes later next year.

"Becoming a game developer has been something me and my friends have been talking about doing for a long time, we just never had the opportunity to do it," says Mr Hamidi.

"Until mobile apps really became popular, game development was something you did by yourself in your bedroom but now it has lowered the barrier for entry for people like us."

That levelling of the playing field means more developers such as Mr Hamidi and his team are getting involved in the production of video games in the region. Meanwhile, more firms such as twofour54, Jabbar Internet Group and Sony are recognising there is a legitimate business case to invest in the region's video games industry.

Despite the frivolities of playing video games, it is big business. The global gaming market is expected to grow from US$52.5 billion (Dh192.82bn) from last year to $86.8bn in 2014, according to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Although specific figures for the region are not available, it is expected that the Middle East's video games industry will see similar growth.

"The market's there but there hasn't been a vehicle or a platform there for development in terms of talent to help build games and also the right environment for multinational companies that want to publish something," says Wayne Borg, the chief operating officer of twofour54.

"Now, there's a recognition from the industry that the time has come for them to have a direct presence here." That news should come as a relief to Mahmoud Ali Khasawneh, the chief executive of Quirkat. After spending years toiling in Amman and finding moderate success with Arabian Lords, a PC strategy game, Quirkat is getting ready to launch its first title for Sony's PlayStation Portable console, the first Arab game developer to publish to a console.

The title, called Basha Collection, is a series of three Arabic card games played in the region, such as Tarneeb and Baloot. It will cost between $3.99 and $9.99 and will be available for digital download on the PlayStation Network.

Quirkat will follow up Basha Collection with Sor3a, which in Arabic means "speed". It is a dragster racing game featuring several cities in the region and will be available on the PlayStation Portable from later next month.

"If you look back a few years ago, we struggled so hard to get attention for our PC games and [Arabian Lords] was our first entry into serious game development," says Mr Khasawneh. "It took three, four years after that for us to get noticed by Sony and [to] ask us 'what can we do'?" After working with Quirkat, the console maker will consider whether thereis significant demand to create more Arabic games or localise existing titles.

Tim Stokes, the sales and marketing director for Sony's regional PlayStation division, says the company has experimented with localised Arabic games as far back as 2004 with This Is Football. He says piracy made it difficult to verify its success. Now, Mr Stokes says, things are different.

"If we supported a localised product, are we going to be able to double our sales of our previous titles or move into new markets? These are the types of questions that are on everybody's minds at the moment," he says. "What gaming brings you is that it allows you to live out your fantasy. If it was Al Ahli versus Barcelona with an Arabic commentator playing on the PlayStation 3 … that could be something achieved through more localisation."

The gaming console market in UAE is worth about $71 million with 379,000 console units sold last year, figures from the market research firm GfK Group show. Sony has about a 53 per cent market share in the UAE.

Paul Holman, the vice president of technology for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, says the company has several different business models that could help local game developers create games for the PlayStation consoles without breaking the bank. "Where in the past developers have made games that cost tens of millions of dollars … now you're seeing people develop more straightforward content," he says.

"My hope is that local game developers can take the opportunity and create something for the region and not rely on localisation."

Growth is also expected in the online gaming market. Many of these games are offered free and generate revenue through advertising and in-game sales. Steve Tsao, the chief executive of the online games developer Tahadi, based in Dubai, says the online gaming marketing in the Middle East is "underserved".

"If you look at the market penetration almost anywhere else … you're seeing a much higher ratio of online gamers versus internet users, something in the neighbourhood of 15 per cent to 20 per cent worldwide," he says. "In the Arabic Middle East, I think that number is probably under 5 per cent, so the opportunity for growth is tremendous. And the reason for that low number is the lack of Arabic content."

Mr Tsao says Tahadi, which is part of the Jabbar Internet Group, one of the largest e-commerce firms in the Middle East, currently licences established games from international developers, which it translates and localises for the Arab market.

It will be another two years before Tahadi develops its own games specifically designed for the local market, he says.

"We fully believe that there is an opportunity for development and, beyond that, more engagement with the rich culture and history of this region. However, to pass that first hurdle you've got to create an industry and a market. And that's what we're trying to do first," says Mr Tsao.

"[Our games] are all licensed right now from other games developers. But we're working very closely with them, so we build up the skills sets of the local community, while using the experiences of the established developers."

He says the Arabic video games industry is seeing considerable growth. "We're seeing the industry rapidly expanding, with a lot of opportunities and new competitors popping up."

The company says it plans to sell a retail version of its World of Warcraft-style game Runes of Might early next year. "In January we're going to launch the retail version of Runes of Might, which is our flagship game. We're going to bring world-class, top-tier product to the markets and stores of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the GCC," says Mr Tsao.