Egypt is full of football fanatics, and the region is as well. So it made perfect sense that Egyptian social games start-up FunWave’s first product Ultras is a football game. Founded by Ahmed Saeed, Mohamed Abd El-Magid, and Yahya Sabry, FunWave was one of the first two ventures to be incubated by Tahrir2, the start-up incubator and accelerator based in Alexandria.
Being a football fan myself and an ex-game developer, I was very keen to try Ultras. The game is a football management simulation where you choose to manage a team in any of the Arab leagues, and because of this the interface is naturally in Arabic, including the use of Arabic numerals (i.e. the numerals many Egyptians tend to think of as English).
The game dynamics are standard for this type of simulation; you start with a team and funds, choose from a selection of predefined formations to play matches, and can train or trade your players to improve your team. By playing in leagues and in matches against friends, you earn more funds that you then spend on improving your academy and infrastructure, which in turn helps you improve your team even more. The control screen is well laid-out, the music is funky, and although the animations suffer from the standard curse of being too repetitive, the graphics are very good. The graphics and game-play are certainly on a par with more well-known social games developed in the West. As the game in still in beta, there’s the odd bug, but that’s normal.
It took FunWave seven months to create Ultras, and the game now has over 400,000 monthly active users. The name Ultras itself refers to the real-life fanatical fans that call themselves Ultras. As players are able to make in-game purchases of virtual goods with real money, it stands to reason fanatical fans will buy more, in fact FunWave are betting on this as it’s their main revenue stream, for now anyway.
The founders had a lot of support; what was hardest, said Ahmed, was the “lack of role models and success stories around." He added, "we still believe that the games offered for the local market which [address] the culture and mentality of the local players are few. The market is starving for such games, yet there are limited companies that are serving [this] market.” Indeed, although there are a few start-up competitor around such as Nezal and Tahadi, Ahmed realizes they are regional pioneers.
This pioneer status and the traction that FunWave already has were key to them securing their second round of investment from Mohammed Gawdat, Google VP of Emerging Markets, which valued the business at 6,000,000 EGP (US $1,000,000). The games industry is like most of the entertainment industry; it’s notoriously hard to predict which titles will make money. Knowing this, FunWave already have other games lined up as part of their expansion strategy; as Ahmed pointed out, they are developing more games with the same theme and targeting the region. “Our dream is to create a series of games that local players get addicted to and serves the different tastes of our players ... to become the Zynga of the Middle East.”
It’s a big dream, but if you’re going to dream, dream big, and get the basics right. And the first indications are that FunWave are indeed getting the basics right, because when I asked Ahmed what gave them the biggest challenge in developing Ultras, he replied, “mastering the game play and user experience to be able to offer a gaming experience [the] same as and better than the ones our players are used to on Facebook.”
And what gave them the most joy? “Seeing the number of players increase day after day and receiving feedback for things they want to add to the game. [It] meant to us a lot that they liked the game and are expecting more from us.” This focus on user experience bodes well for FunWave’s future, there will be more than just Ultras expecting more.