Video games in the Middle East (part 2): Local talent

In this two part series, Andrew Braun breaks down the issues surrounding the state of gaming in the Middle East. This includes the challenges and opportunities for the international and local gaming industries alike. And part two focuses on local scene.

Though the market is currently dominated by Western games, legally obtained or not, there is a growing number of small game studios in the Middle East and North Africa region. While they have yet to have their renaissance, they are working towards it. Currently, though, few gamers in the Middle East would say that they prefer locally made games—which are often rough—to foreign-made ones, though mobile games may be the exception. Before they can really compete, the local producers have their own set of obstacles to surmount.

Because cheap—pirated—internationally produced games dominate the market, trying to sell lesser-known locally made games for anything like a profit is quite difficult. Financially, making a living by making and selling video games in the Middle East is a hard career choice—developers do it because they love it, not to make money. Nour Khrais, CEO of Maysalward Games and chairman of the Jordan Gaming Task Force tells me that he “wanted to offer a new experience to young Jordanians and say that we can reach despite the hurdles we live.” The immersive, participatory experience of game playing can have a profound effect on young minds, and Khrais firmly believes that it will be positive.

In places like Jordan, where King Abdullah II’s Fund for Development has allocated resources to building a gaming industry—as with the Jordan Gaming Task force, chaired by Khrais—or in Iran, where there is a National Foundation of Computer Games dedicated to promoting the production of pro-Iran/Islam games, the lives of video game developers are getting easier. In the past several years, says Khrais Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have either built gaming hubs or are “Encouraging startups to tackle building games that can cater [to] local and international tastes.” Jordan especially enjoys a strong local scene and has invested in making itself a regional gaming hub, investing, says Khrais, “in grassroots. Both the queen and king believe in the power of this tech generation.”

However, most gaming startups lack both the sales and the investment capital to keep them moving forward. Putting money into Middle Eastern business has been an uncertain bet for some time, and investing in an industry facing these sorts of difficulties multiplies that risk. “Funding is an issue,” says Khrais, “as local investors are not keen to risk money into this direction.”

As the local production industry is still fairly new, some families do not see making games as legitimate employment, and urge their children to put their technical skills to use elsewhere.  And while it is excellent that their talents can be used to create the infrastructure that the Middle East needs to sustain a gaming industry, the region need an infusion of skilled, motivated developers if it is ever going to produce a game that will be the breakout success it needs to legitimize itself and gain notice. While games are viewed at least ambivalently in many Middle Eastern countries, and positively in several—gamer Marwan Fekri mentions that there is a gaming tournament every week in Dubai, and that most people in the area see video games in a positive light—the newness of the industry means it will be some time before it stabilizes.

And even local developers can fall afoul of cultural pitfalls in the region. They also must submit their games to censors, and there is certainly a chance that it will be rejected. Or, like Lebnan Nader, founder of Lebanese studio Game Cooks, you can be sunk by popular opinion. When he included a peace symbol in one of his games, a well-known game reviewer mistook it to be Christian in origin and urged his readers not to buy the game.

In the United Arab Emirates, the popular card and video game Pokémon was believed by many to be part of a Zionist conspiracy to corrupt youth and lead them to gambling, as one active Pokémon player and tournament organizer in the United Arab Emirates who goes by the name of Khalid, tells me. Though he says that now “the general public seems to have forgotten about the nonsense that happened back then,” this certainly serves as a good example of how a gaming company might find itself on the wrong side of public opinion.

So with all these obstacles set before the local scene, what keeps the developers going?

Well, in some parts of the Middle East it is actually the government taking the lead in creating a native gaming industry and culture. In others, the fledgling industry is populated by developers with more passion than liquidity, but they are determined to carve out a niche. Many are also eager to create an alternative to the Western-centric worldview embodied by many imported video games—a sort of “digital dignity,” as Radwan Kasmiya puts it. While Iran takes an extreme approach, often seeking to propagandize the medium, many Middle Eastern developers see games as a way to convey an understanding of their culture and tradition to the rest of the world.

Nour Khrais sees games as key to the future of the Middle East’s next generations. “Games engage youth,” he tells me, “and they are [a] major percentage of population.” In addition, games “make them feel empowered to reach globally, and makes them equal with peers in more developed countries. Games communicate better than any media, [and] creates also a financial promise for young people.”

Overall, the two parts of this article have been quite cautiously optimistic in tone—and for good reason. Much of the gaming market in the Middle East is underserved, difficult to enter, and resides in unstable investment environments. Cultural barriers and legal concerns require not only different marketing efforts, but editing of the games themselves. Local developers are underfunded and outgunned in most of the Middle East, with a few bright spots pushing forward. The defining moment of Middle Eastern game production has yet to be reached, and most natively produced games could be greatly improved upon.

But despite the obstacles, there is a lot to be said for taking steps towards the Middle East, both for international game studios and for the local ones. Many people do not realize the level of scientific and technological progress occurring in much of the region—much of the population is well on its way to being online and technologically active. The young, male demographic as well as the lack of viable entertainment options in some countries reveals a population that would certainly embrace the opportunity to be on par with the rest of the gaming world.

Ubisoft’s approach—though there is not much to measure it against yet—seems ideal: they are not simply trying to adjust their games to meet a set of moral guidelines, but are actually working to make them culturally compatible. Activision Blizzard, another large game company, is considering a similar approach, though one more open to acquiring Middle Eastern game companies. Said Chief Executive Bobby Kotick: “We’re trying to move away from selling western games in non-western markets. If there’s a local company that’s well managed, has clear profitability, intellectual property or a specialised technology and is willing to move, we’ll buy it.”

Indeed, this seems like one of the best paths forward for Middle Eastern gaming. The big foreign developers could actually prove to be a great boon if they get involved in producing games specifically for the Middle Eastern market in collaboration with local creatives. The resources of the big companies combined with the cultural knowledge of the small ones might be just what the Middle Eastern gaming world needs to demonstrate its viability. Just as the rate of growth of indie game studios has been a consistent phenomenon the US, indie developers in the Middle East might have a wider, friendlier market if the region’s industry as a whole could benefit from the multinational companies’ reputations and ability to develop and hold local talent.

Khrais believes that having companies like Microsoft and Sony—which is already supporting developers in the area—involved in regional game production would help establish the Middle Eastern game industry internationally.  And he says, it “also will help developing [the] image of [the] region in [a] time where the region is only seen politically as a trouble maker.” The stereotype of the area as backwards and violent is certainly not helping Middle Eastern games on the international markets.

Unfortunately, gaming in the United Arab Emirates, says Nahas, “has a very corporate/exploitative vibe at the moment with a lot of the community taking advantage of [advertising or marketing opportunities] or profiting from it at the expense of the general competitive scene/culture,” which may not be a good sign in the Middle Eastern country that has the most multinational studios doing business in it.

Ultimately, the barriers to developing games for the Middle East aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon. Nonetheless, the market is large and ripe for developers and studios willing to invest, and the local skills and interest look promising. Whether production will be driven by larger game studios or the slowly growing indie studios, rates of gaming as a hobby or competitive sport in the Middle East will only increase.

The big question is what kind of games will be played: pirated or legitimate western games, or some form of locally produced games, whether with the help of a company or independently. It all depends on how the parties involved choose to approach this blossoming market, and if the countries themselves will choose to open themselves to the opportunities it presents.


Missed part one of our Middle East gaming series? You can find it here.


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Video games in the Middle East (part 1): The road to 2015 »
Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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