Among the glittering towers of King Abdullah Financial District in Saudi Arabia, a new company is playing the long game.
Steer Studios – formerly known as Savvy Games Studios – launched last year with the goal of not only creating the first blockbuster video game from the Arab world, but also developing a new generation of Saudi talent to lead that charge into the future.
That aim is reflected in the steady arrival of local and international signings, ranging from experienced developers and 3D artists to animators and audio engineers.
When The National visited the company's headquarters in Riyadh, one could literally smell the ambition.
The walls are freshly painted and office space is being expanded to accommodate the more than 60 staff members.
A further 25 or so are expected to join by the end of the year.
Leading that evolution is a veteran of the industry.
Steer Studios' chief executive Yannick Theler arrived in Riyadh last year after nearly two decades with Ubisoft, the French video game publishers behind popular titles such as Assassin's Creed, Far Cry and Prince of Persia.
Theler also established Ubisoft’s Abu Dhabi studios in 2011 after being part of the executive team at the company’s Chinese headquarters in Shanghai.
While creating new teams is his speciality, the Swiss citizen says the Saudi project dwarfs past experiences in terms of ambition and potential impact.
“Here we are talking about contributing to a bigger project for the kingdom,” he tells The National.
“That is different because it comes with a big responsibility. While we want to create profitable games we are aware that there is a bigger goal we are all heading towards.
“For someone that has been in the industry for a long time it’s a great feeling because you know your work is making a difference.”
Steer Studios is part of Savvy Games Group, which is owned by the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund.
Launched in 2022, the parent company reportedly plans to invest 142 billion riyals ($38 billion) as part of a strategy to transform Saudi Arabia into one of the world's gaming hubs.
Such an approach involves acquiring and investing in leading game publishers as well as establishing Steer Studios, the kingdom’s first international gaming studio.
While the strategy is already in full swing with July’s $4.9 billion acquisition of US games publisher Scopely, home to big sellers Star Trek Fleet Command and The Walking Dead: Road to Survival, Theler says Steer Studios will bear its own original fruit in the long term.
“Creating a successful video game, in any region, takes time,” he says.
"It normally takes five years to create a console game because there are more aspects to it, like building a whole new open world to the game as well as the texture – the details and graphics that make up the gaming landscape.
"A strong and successful mobile game can also take about three to five years.
“We do want to work faster but that's the reality. Creating the games that are popular and that we love is complex.”
That process is already under way, says Steer Studio vice president of production and former Ubisoft veteran Peeyush Gulati.
He is confident the company can soft launch its first official mobile game before the end of the year with a global release in the first quarter of 2024.
In the meantime, the road to the release date will be full of trial and error, feedback and healthy criticism.
"We are also building expertise here within the staff so a lot of what we first do is training," he tells The National.
"They are not theoretical but gaming oriented and similar to hackathons. There is coding and really producing stuff where by the end of a three-month period I have a game that we created and which we analyse."
Gaining the knowledge
An integral part of that process is the company's vice president of marketing, Gil Grandjean.
He admits it’s not usual practice for “the marketing guy” to be involved in the game-creation process and Steer Studios is a chance to change some industry misconceptions.
"We do need to work together more and be on the same page and we have a chance here in Riyadh to do things properly from the beginning,” he says.
“Because as well as the technical aspects, the recipe for a great game is to find that balance between it eliciting emotions and being fun.
"Also, creating a game requires a certain level of humility because if we have to kill a particular idea because it doesn't meet the expectations of a target audience, then it will be understood.
“So we provide training for staff here because we feel that consumer and market knowledge will be ultimately beneficial.”
Senior designer Ahmad Zabarah, 43, says such forward-thinking approaches convinced him to return to Riyadh after 20 years in the US where he worked for leading gaming companies Electronic Art and BioWare.
"It is as if I never left the US in terms of the working and collaborative culture," the Saudi designer says.
"And, to be honest, this is something that I have been seeing here in Saudi over the last few years and it really drove me to come back with my family and work here.
“To work in a professional gaming company in Saudi was something I never expected, and it just makes me extra proud.”
Saudi 3D artist Kholoud Maarof, 21, one of more than a dozen women who comprise 25 per cent of Steer Studio's staff, says the future is bright for the Saudi gaming industry because in future local talent will be in it to win it.
"I do feel we have the potential to do something amazing with gaming here in Saudi Arabia and create something we can offer the world," she says.
"We are in the heart of the Middle East and a large part of the Saudi population, people like me, have grown up with gaming and that will always be with us.
“When I entered the gaming industry I didn’t view myself as another employee, but as a gamer. This is a big difference and it gives me all the enthusiasm I need every day.”