Lebanese developer overcomes technical challenges to launch Arabic mobile word game

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After attending a seminar about the lack of digital Arabic content at ArabNet 2012, Samer Hamandi came up with the idea of Charbaka, a mobile word game in Arabic, to help build up and diversify online content in Arabic. 

“I noticed that there are many word games in English, so I thought: why not develop one in Arabic?” Hamandi, who studied computer engineering and previously developed an app which predicts the daily electricity cuts in Lebanon, decided to undertake Charbaka (which means 'Puzzle' in English) as a project alongside his full time job at program development company Murex. 

He entered a competition for game developers organized by AltCity and sponsored by the Dutch Embassy in Lebanon, eventually winning the People’s Choice award. This qualified him to participate in the 2013 Casual Connect Conference in Amsterdam, where Charbaka was the only Arabic language game in the running. 

After seeing the potential of Charbaka and users’ excitement, Hamandi returned to Lebanon and started working on the game in earnest, getting design help from his sister Rana, and testing help from his friends. After three months of iterations and improvements, Hamandi launched Charbaka on Google Play last November. 

Charbaka is very similar to the English game Ruzzle. When beginning the game, players may choose to compete with a Facebook friend, a player with whom they have competed before, or a random player. When the game starts, players are presented with a board with 16 Arabic letters. They create words by touching one letter and dragging a finger to adjacent tiles. As soon as the player finishes, it’s the second player’s turn to play and find the maximum number of words from the same letter options. 

Users may only play a limited number of rounds per day, which, Hamandi hopes, will increase the player’s excitement and anticipation for the next day’s round. This model of making people wait to play is one that has worked to great success with other games, like the mega-popular Candy Crush Saga.

Charbaka is not the first Arabic game of its kind, but unlike Puzzle des Lettres Arabes and Play with the Arabic Words, this is targeting players of all ages, similar to the popular Scrabble-clone Words With Friends, rather than just children. 

Currently only available for Android devices, Charbaka is free, but players can buy an upgraded, ad-free version that allows them to add a picture and play more rounds per day.

Hamandi revealed that the game’s revenues are as of yet not high: “Arab users don’t usually pay for in-app purchases, but ads generate some revenue.”

One of the main challenges he’s faced has been the fact that game development software is not suited for the Arabic language, he says. Each letter appears differently depending on whether it falls at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word. This fact led to technical issues and bugs he had to overcome when writing the game.

Hamandi will soon launch the app on iOS with some updates to the current version. These will include improvement of integration with Facebook so that the game results appear on the player’s page, adding a chat option, integrating with Twitter, and matching random players who are on the same level. 

Although Hamandi has not engaged in any marketing, his game has become relatively popular due to the proven global word game model that it has adopted. So far, the game has been downloaded 4,000 times on Google Play. 

I tried the game and loved feeling my language skills and creativity challenged. It is an optimistic initiative that attempts to diversify the gaming options available in Arabic. But, in order to guarantee that players return the next day, I think Charbaka should add more levels, which could include more complex words. Also, players should be able to play the same level as their friends instead of having to wait for each other to catch up. 

“I love the Arabic language,” said Hamandi, clearly proud of his contribution to the Arabic educational gaming market.

But he’s not the only one with the goal of creating and refining online Arabic content. Initiatives like Arinfographic, which creates and categorizes Arabic infographics, Tasharuk, an Arabic content aggregator, and Taghreedat, a crowd-sourced translation tool, are just three of the many that have launched in recent years. 

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