Global vs. local: What is the best strategy for building a mobile game?

by Reine Farhat, August 1, 2013

On our Facebook page, we recently discussed the importance of localizing when building a product that will find traction in the Middle East. Yet for some startups, forgoing a local flavor to target a global market makes more sense.  

In game development in particular, there are many developers and publishers creating content for the Arab world that are gaining traction by building localized content, while still others are hitting high marks by not focusing on one region. To explore what these different strategies entail, we chatted with three gaming companies reaching Arab gamers with different strategies and different levels of success; two in China and one in Lebanon. 

Thinking global  

Happylatte, an international game developer with a studio in China, offers a great example of a global game taking off in a local market. High Noon, the cowboy shoot ’em up mobile game they released in 2010, became extremely successful in Kuwait and the rest of the Arab world.

The reasons for its local popularity weren't clear; the team had never localized the content and the game wasn’t translated into Arabic. Its success may have simply been due to fun and easy gameplay and good timing.

Michelle Chu of Happylatte said that building a localized game can sometimes narrow your audience and limit your ability to reach outside the region. Developing a global title, she adds, can make your title more appealing anywhere. “Games are becoming more and more a global phenomenon, just look at Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga as examples,” Chu replies. “And although some game types arise in certain areas, think battle card games in Asia, they seem to spread out and get adopted by other regions too.”

Localization is not terribly important to Happylatte because they seem to recognize that players in the region don’t only love to play games that reflect Arab culture or themes- look at the wild popularity of Angry Birds for instance. That game franchise has been extremeley successful in the Middle East, yet it isn’t available in Arabic, nor does it have in-game themes related to the region.  

One local Lebanese game developer, Lebnan Nader, the cofounder of Game Cooks, insists that going global is key; 80% of their income has been generated from outside the Middle East, he shared via email.

“We started catering to the international market… our products are inspired from almost anything, we don't really put limits or general guidelines to follow. We simply 'go with the flow' as we say.” Their previous titles Run for Peace and Birdy Nam Nam were regionally focused, but the company recently changed direction to reach a more global audience. Their laissez-faire attitude and strangely-themed games seem to have worked out for them, however, as their most recent title, Scrab It, just reached top 5 in word games in the U.S. App Store, as well as top 5 in the gaming category in several App stores across the region including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar.

Localizing for the Arab world

While keeping a global focuse has worked for Happylatte, Falafel Games, in China, has decided to do things differently. For their hit title Knights of Glory, cofounder Vince Ghossoub opted for a localized approach, building a title based around the heroes of the Arab conquests of old, with a very specific focus on the Middle East.The game is only available in Arabic online and for mobile (iOS).

Ghossoub admits that developing an app for the region while based in East Asia is definitely a challenge, but he also notes some big advantages. Namely, his location in China allows them to exploit the “best practices from a cut-throat competitive game developer ecosystem where supply is so abundant that it provides 3 out of every 4 games globally within our category, and where there is an innovation arms race in gaming.”  

Nader, on the other hand, laments the lack of a gaming ecosystem in the Middle East. “Location and office space are extremely important. As important as anything else!” says Nader, adding that when a company is based in the U.S. for instance, it is “exposed to multinational companies, weekly seminars and workshops, meeting people from different nationalities, knowing their behavior, and testing new markets.”

Is balance better?

Although each company has a clear strategy, we couldn’t help but to notice that they are each trying to have the best of both worlds. Happylatte, which started out with a game focused on the global market, is now trying to localize their games to better engage Arab users. “Right now we have a competition running for Ramadan. This is the first competition we've done aimed at Ramadan and we are looking forward to learning more and creating better competitions and localized content for the Arab world,” notes Chu. “We are considering localizing some items in the game, for example re-naming some of the drinks to drinks from the Arab world."

Falafel Games, which started out with a very localized title, will be adding new foreign languages to its game to reach global markets.  During a previous LBA Pitching Event, Ghossoub revealed that they are planning to add French, Russian and English. Game Cooks is staying in Lebanon for now, but they are often traveling to outside events or are in touch with foreign mentors and partners to find better ways to globalize their games.

Personally, I enjoy games that aren’t necessarily focused on the Arab region as they often see more multiplayer activity and in some ways let us know what’s going on in game development around the world.

As I sometimes enjoy experiencing other developer cultures through games, perhaps players outside the region would find it interesting to play a game that revolves around the wars fought centuries ago in the Arab world. Instead of playing games like Call of Duty and seeing Arab characters as the enemy, new games like Knights of Glory can show Arab heroes as the protagonists. In a sense, games that target a global market, with very local content, is one way to share cultures around the world, as many U.S. and Japanese titles have so successfully done.  

Of course the global market deserves a mix of both game types as long as consumers are hungry for them, but to really take off, staying purely local can dampen a game's potential, yet ignoring the local element could make your game a quick hit that doesn’t have real staying power. Balance is key here- make a game that anyone could play or enjoy, with elements that makes it at least seem local or personal.

If you were developing an app, would you rather go global or make it local? Where would you base your company? Let us know in the comments section.

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Reine is the Arabic Editor at Wamda. You can reach her at Reine[at]wamda.com, on Twitter @farhatreine or connect with her on LinkedIn.  

 
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