The gaming industry in the Middle East and North Africa is growing. More than 40 gaming startups from Europe, MENA and Turkey attended the MENA Games Conference last week in Beirut to discuss a wealth of topics, from publishing games to monetizing them, as well as navigating different markets of gamers.
Here are eight things we learned.
Turkey is one of the biggest players in supporting the gaming industry
The total revenue of Turkey’s digital game industry hit $464 million in 2015. According to a report published by the Turkish Game Developers’ Association, that forms a substantial part of a $91 billion industry worldwide.
“Most successful gaming companies in Turkey started by focusing on their local market, and then expanding to MENA,” said Barış Özistek, CEO of Netmarble EMEA, during the publishers’ panel.
Özistek also spoke of the Game Garage program by Turkish incubator Starters Hub, the largest gaming incubation center in Turkey and MENA. This program focuses solely on gaming startups, with a seed investment of $20,000 for each startup.
"We launched [Game Garage] because we know incubation centers can not reach profitability in a short time," he said. "They definitely help in the ecosystem, but we need faster growth."
Özistek advised incubation centers wanting to support game development to “spend money on the design and space of the centers, because this is what attract mentors”.
“Startups will always show up, but good mentors are [picky],” Özistek said.
Tunisian gaming scene is growing
Various efforts and initiatives to grow the Tunisian gaming scene are on the move, such as the Tunisian Association of Gamers, an NGO founded in 2012 by 15 passionate members, and The Global Jam Tunisia competition, which had seen an increasing number of game developers participating since 2013.
But one common problem that some entrepreneurs agreed on, including Marwen Ounis, Wololo Studio and Houssem Ben Amor of the Tunisian Game Developers, was the lack of gaming education in universities. Another was the lack of original ideas and copying of international games.
"You have to focus on localizing the content, the characters and settings, because it makes the gamers react more and feel a bond with the characters,” said Walid Sultan Midani, CEO of Digital Mania, who also gave a workshop about the VR experience at the event.
Online payment for gaming is still a problem in MENA
In a region where most of the population still prefer to pay with cash, monetization of online games is a challenge.
“Credit card penetration in the emerging markets is about 5 percent,” said founder and CEO of Paymentwall Honor Gunday, while speaking about the payment mix in MENA. “So that leaves 95 percent struggling to pay for services.” Not helpful at all, he said, for developers looking to monetize.
“Google and Apple [stores] can’t solve the monetization problem”, said Tim Werner, managing director of emerging market payment company PrimeiroPay. With several markets only able to access these online stores for the free games, there isn’t a win for them.
TPay an Egypt operation since 2014 employes the method of ‘direct carrier billing’ - whereby a user can charge a game purchase directly to their mobile operator and it will appear on their phone bill. “The conversion rate is 5 to 10 times higher than credit card use,” said Sahar Salama, TPay’s general manager.
Morocco has an interesting history of gaming
The first gaming company to ever launch in MENA was actually French video gaming company Ubisoft, which launched in Morocco back in 1998.
Worth $38 million, the Moroccan gaming market is ranked sixth in the whole of Africa, as speaker Yassine Arif, CEO of Moroccan Game Developers, told an audience.
Seeing Morocco as a fertile French-speaking market with access to an Arabic audience, the company produced its first game, Donald Duck: Goin' Quaker, which was a hit. The next 10 years saw 26 games produced by Ubisoft, and an educational campus was opened in Casablanca to teach game development. “They wanted to create a new generation of Moroccan developers who would be able to make ‘Triple A’ games,” said Arif.
The campus, which had no official title, organized a year-long educational program for students, with an aim to reach 300 graduates. “It was very hard, we had the same standards as American universities,” Arif, who was a student at the time, recalled. The education offered was for free.
A boon for the country’s scene then came when Moroccan game developer Mohamed Gambouz built Assassin’s Creed in 2005.
However, everything came to a halt with the financial crises of 2008. Faced with dwindling profits, Ubisoft opened another branch in Montreal, where they are now headquartered, and worked on rebuilding the ecosystem in Morocco.
"Everything crashed," said Arif. "We had to start all over again."
Even though UbiSoft Casablanca is now still functioning, the crisis affected Yassine deeply, who was then motivated to start his own NGO. The Moroccan Game Developers now has around 3,000 members, a portion of which receive training in game development and design. “We want to open a school, and we’re preparing a business plan for that,” said Arif.
Data intelligence is a crucial tool for mobile game developers
Data intelligence refers to a company's use of market research to generate useful data about their workforce, sales revenue, competitors and predictions of their performance online and offline.
Anders Lykke, head of sales at Priori Data in Germany, gave a quick talk titled ‘The Top 5 Traits of Successful Mobile Game Developers’. One trait he was keen on stressing was the use of data intelligence as a means for benchmarking your performance, and tracking progress.
“Successful game developers have a good data intelligence system. They empower their employees through these tools, you can't improve something if you can't measure it," Lykke said.
Data analytics is also useful in tracking the performance of your competitors, and ultimately, benchmarking your own.
“You need to be able to answer specific questions like: how many downloads do I need to have a good ranking on the App Store?”
Iran and KSA are also on the map
Saudi Arabia and Iran, albeit rather closed off and independent markets are big for game developers.
The PC and console games market in Iran worth approximately $167 million, and that of KSA worth $202 million. When it comes to the numbers paying to download in Saudi it’s at 13 percent, while in Iran it’s at 34 percent - all according to research from Gameguise’s managing partner Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh.
Bozorgzadeh, in his workshop on Saudi and Iran markets, discussed how one persistent problem in Iran is the lack of official distributors legalized by the ESRA (The Entertainment Software Rating Association in Iran), which gives rise to the wide spreading of piracy. However, the market seems to be well responsive to change, as 60 percent used the online payment scheme Shetab when it became available for ecommerce.
As for the Saudi market, it seems to be responsive for foreign market, as half of gamers in Saudi are not using the Middle East app stores, but opting for the US stores.
Advice for developers looking to enter these market? “Don’t be concerned about content localization in KSA,” Bozorgzadeh said. “Just launch in English, and have creative assets in Arabic.”
English is the dominant gaming language
Even for the Middle East, Michele Baratelli of game developers and publishers Gameloft recommends that you go with English first, especially if you don’t have huge resources.
“If in MENA you might want to go with Arabic first but English is good,” he said. Publishing in more than 15 languages, including Arabic, Gameloft does trust the market and Baratelli said that it is really a case by case basis, but that going with English isn’t bad. They themselves publish all new games into Arabic.
Wajdi Azar, CEO of 3dotsgames in Jordan, told Wamda that he would only go for English with his ‘action physics’ games. “The world is bigger than MENA,” he said.
Game development is a side project for many
This obviously isn’t confined to the MENA region but it’s exciting to see how people are so passionate about making games that they will do it on top of a day job.
Bug Games from Jordan is the side project of Danar Kayfi and Mohammad Al-Dmour. Kayfi is teaching game programming and studying for an MSc while Mohammad is a programmer for a government ministry. Working evenings and nights on their games they were at the MENA Games with their game ‘Switch Jump’. “You can’t predict what will be a hit or not,” said Kayfi, hence the inability to leave full time employment.