The development studio for Game Cooks is set on a hill in Mansourieh, Lebanon overlooking a sprawling Beirut. After its two founders, Lebnan and Arz Nader, left the team that originally built Arab gaming hit Birdy Nam Nam, they moved from Hamra up into the hills to continue building Arabic mobile games. While Beirut is usually viewed as Lebanon’s center for all things hip and innovative, I was happily surprised to find a passionate team of designers, developers, and gamers building away outside the city.
Upon entering the Game Cooks office, which is a converted family apartment, the team greeted me briefly, immediately getting back to a rather intense brainstorming session for a new game they’re developing (but wouldn’t yet reveal). Co-founder Lebnan Nader took me to his desk, in a small office shared with one of their developers, where we chatted about the company and their latest release, Captain Oil.
While you’d think the game would be a sort of topical regional commentary based on the title, like one of their first releases Run for Peace, this game is anything but.
Captain Oil is a very playful strategy game, with no particular theme. Your character is made of a droplet of oil, and your mission is to rescue all of your little oiley friends (who wear spinning helicopter hats) from captivity by launching bouncing balls from your UFO hovering over a field of blocks and obstacles.
Make sense? Yeah, not to me either. But, then again neither does Super Mario Bros; how does a mushroom make an Italian plumber power-up while riding a shelled dinosaur that can occasionally breath fire, to rescue a princess held captive by a mutant turtle dragon? It all makes sense in the live-action version though.
At Game Cooks, the original thinking was to make something regionally focused; they chose digging oil from the ground. Then they created a hero that came from space to take all of the oil from the Earth “to make peace” as Nader put it. This concept eventually evolved into the current design.
Despite the wonky motif, the game is actually a ton of fun – I can’t put it down.
The levels and gameplay are varied enough to keep you guessing and interested, and some of them are pretty challenging with goofy and light music and sound effects. If you can’t beat a level, you can just “Super Ninja” it through an in-app purchase that automatically releases all of the imprisoned oileys from their cages.
As you progress, players are slowly introduced to new block types which include breakable tiles, explosives, fans that push the ball in different directions, portals that warp a ball across the map, and even enemies that fire at you, among others. The design and functionalities are very smooth and after a couple levels become intuitive.
Every fifth level tasks players with breaking free as many oileys as possible within a time limit. If a player beats all of the timed levels in a set, they unlock the next set of levels. Currently there are 90 different levels to play, but Game Cooks plans to update and add new ones weekly.
The game combines monetization strategies, using premium paid, in-app purchases, and advertisements. Currently priced at a low $0.99 for iOS download, they have yet to release an Android version, but it’s in the works. In-app purchasing allows you to buy Super Ninja packages as well as to remove ads within the game.
Running the Studio
Game Cooks currently has a team of eight; half are dedicated to building fun titles for the masses, and the other half works on games designed for corporate in-house use. Although Nader wouldn’t reveal more, it seems that their corporate designs provide steady income so that their small team of three can build a commercial game that could put Game Cooks on the map.
Their original focus on the Arab world has now shifted to a focus on the international market, with a vision to create relatable titles that connect people across borders. The team is placing their bets on Captain Oil, and another new release, NERDS, which comes out later this week.
“If one of them booms, we’ll run with it,” says Nader. With no budget for marketing, they’re just banking on a solid title, social media, word of mouth, and some comical YouTube videos to go viral.
But there are some major hurdles that Game Cooks has faced by being located in Lebanon. After visiting New York and meeting representatives from famous brands like Rovio, Zynga, SEGA, and Sony, Nader comments that gaps in investment, partners, and availability of developers make the Middle East a much tougher locale for development.
“My rent here is peanuts, but I spend $300 a month for bad internet, it’s crazy,” says Nader, speaking to the fact that effective monopolies on resources place a large burden on tech startups in Lebanon. According to Nader, Jordan and Egypt are great places to find developers, but Lebanon and the Gulf have a tougher time.
For now, Game Cooks is continuing to grow steadily, however, reaching out to international mentors and building some pretty solid games, hedging risk by taking on corporate clients is a smart strategy, one that will hopefully give the studio the time it needs to build a global title. And who knows? Maybe Captain Oil is the one.
[Top photo: Arz Nader in the studio. Above: The Game Cooks team.]