The bar for producing games in the Arab region is at its highest point yet, as more developers enter the market. But a cool idea is not enough to launch a new game. It needs to have all the necessary components to make it successful and competitive, like quality design, a good monetization plan, and customer support.
In the GCC, which has 40 million Arabic speakers, and in Saudi Arabia specifically, producing games is even trickier. In addition to the aforementioned items, game titles must be localized, targeted, and culturally sensitive. A great example of a successful game is Harwil Ya Wahsh!, a game developed by the Jordanian company Na3m Games. The game was released by accident and shot to the top of the charts, spending 16 of 19 days on the list of the top ten most downloaded games in Saudi Arabia, and 13 in the top five. The company didn’t even spend too much money – just $30 – on advertising. So what was the secret to its success? Quality and design. The startup admitted that focusing on the quality of programmers and artists who developed it was a primary factor for success.
Quality was also a crucial component for two Saudi game developers I had the chance to meet at MENA Games Conference and Exhibition, which was held in Beirut on March 26 and 27. (In case you missed it, here’s a recap on how the industry is evolving.) In an interview with Abdullah Hamed from Lumba Inc. and Abdullah Konash from Hako Games, the two talked about the components of a good game, things that get neglected, hurdles that block Saudis from accessing international resources, and their own observation of the gaming space in the Kingdom.
Saudi needs more mature developers
Game developers must have a good network of connections to acquire a better knowledge of the gaming development, Hamed said to us in an interview. Doing so contributes to “the maturity of the actual players [developers] themselves." Other components of a good game include a localized title.
“The game has to be free to play, so localized and so relevant to that culture that [it] would push people into paying thousands of dollars into your game,” he said when asked about popular types of games in Saudi Arabia. This type of games however doesn’t get developers critical acclaims from the community as it is “considered to be a lesser art form […] especially in the indie game developers circles, but we cannot deny its financial potential.”
Photo above: Abdullah Hamed from Lumba Inc.
For Konash, the design of the game itself is crucial. “A poor game will not be successful whether in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.”
Not surprisingly, free games are always desirable. “Free to play model is king,” stated Hamed. However, Saudis tend to also look for games that give them a social status, like a high score they can share and brag about. “It’s a shared trait between Arabs in a lot of things including cars and clothing.”
Console and PC games are still popular
While smartphones are the most commonly used devices to play games, with Android taking 63% of the market share and Apple the rest according to Hamed, console games are still popular with titles like Call of Duty, Football and FIFA very much in demand. Konash agrees.
The mobile games market is more diversified "but if you want to go to the hardcore market, then PS4 is getting the bigger share. PC games also exist but they are a very small niche," said Hamed.
What's needed to make the next Angry Birds in Saudi Arabia
Hamed pointed out that the market doesn’t lack good developers to make hit games like Angry Birds; it does however lack skills in game design and art. It’s a vicious cycle because people with those skills are aggressively recruited and paid high salaries by bigger companies and industries like telecommunications and oil companies. “You need to find some of the crazy ones that would actually quit a stable job and work on games," Hamed said. Finding good talent is a challenge for many entrepreneurs. A study conducted by Wamda's Research Lab shows that 63% of surveyed entrepreneurs consider finding talent as a constraint when building their startups.
Likewise, Konash believes that a lack of qualified personnel and a tendency for developers to work in silos are holding the industry back. “Most of them do their own games without collaborating with each other.” Monetizing the game after it’s produced is also another challenge for many. “They [game developers] tend to focus on the game itself without being able to sell the game. If they want to make money out of it, then they will have to rethink a lot of things in the game.”
Photo above: Abdullah Konash from Hako Games
The need for more creative work places
Productivity is highly dependent on work environment. Creating a space that is inviting encourages developers to collaborate, brainstorm and come up with new game ideas. “In other countries, you see developers living in one house,” said Hamed, and cited Indie House in Vancouver and HouseOgames in Seattle as examples. “We don’t see this very much in Saudi Arabia. Also there aren’t a lot of public spaces that are cheaply rented or available for public use, where developers can get together and talk about their games.”
That said, Hamed also pointed at the gender issue that limits collaboration between developers. “They [men and women] can’t mix and mingle so this makes it harder to broaden the circle of developers.”
What to do before going to the Saudi market
A game that caters to 40 million Arabic speakers should speak their language in every sense of the word. Not only should the language of their game be Arabic, but the design, story, images, and characters should reflect the local culture. The team working on the game has to be local as well. “They should definitely consider hiring people in that specific market to help them with content sensitivity as well as customer support,” Hamed said. “Players respond insanely well to agents who communicate with the same accent and same wording as the players themselves.”
Polish your game and your English
“If you don’t know English, know English. That’s my biggest advice,” said Hamed. Despite the high dependency on Arabic in Saudi Arabia, there aren’t a lot of reliable online Arabic resources that can help game developers. “A bunch of really highly talented Saudis [developers] do not have access to English so they’re stuck with Arabic resources and those are not up-to-date usually. So if your English is not that great, start polishing your English.”
Hamed further advised game developers to network and attend industry events as much as possible in order to get valuable feedback and meet other developers and beta testers.
Aside from learning and reading a lot, Konash suggested that developers focus on one game at a time to maintain quality. “Persistence; if each developer tried to work on one game then moved to the next one [before completing it], they won’t be able to polish the game."
Our conversation ended on a positive note where we discussed how competition has improved the quality of games produced in the Kingdom. “Competition is good. When people started to know each other from Saudi Arabia, quality went up, just because they had to show off in front of their friends, and everybody wants recognition. Being around competition always makes better games,” Hamed concluded.