What I know about game publishing: Joseph Shomali

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The profits to be made in gaming are not to be sniffed at. But that's generally for countries outside of the Middle East.

In 2014 global revenue was at roughly $46.5 billion. While this is predicted to go down to $41 billion by 2019 the size of the Middle Eastern market is growing.

Joseph Shomali, cofounder of game publishers Play 3arabi (play Arabic) is confident that the Middle East and its various “regions” has the ability to be an important player in the sector, especially considering that its market growth, year on year, tops that of the global numbers.  

There is still a long way to go though. Shomali shared his thoughts on monetization issues, trends and how the Middle East and North Africa is more than just a single player in the game.

Publish in Arabic. It is good to have your game in English but Arabic is essential, especially if you’re going for the MENA [region]. Google said recently that having a game localized into Arabic would increase installs by 48 percent and your revenue by 58 percent.

MENA is an influencer-based community. Connecting with influencers on social media and having them recommend your game quickly boosts it, compared to anything else. So other than traditional marketing, going to Instagram and finding influencers with a certain taste, will be a way, at a lower cost and faster pace, of getting your game out there.

The keywords are key. Generally on the app stores keyword optimization is not well done internationally. It is even less so in this region. You will see a lot of people publish in [MENA] with the game title in Arabic and then all the keywords in English. That is pretty weird if you’re targeting the region. Especially when you’re talking about the ASO [app store optimization], why would it have all English keywords?

Joseph Shomali
There is money to be made in games for MENA, there are just a few hurdles to overcome first. (Image via Play 3arabi)

We’re trend riding right now. We don’t see breakthroughs in the region, no new ideas that stay. We’re still copycats in one way or another. The current top grossing game on mobile right now is Revenge of Sultans. This is a classic example of a game that is similar to a globally top grossing game. When done in more Arabic or locally culturalized ways, they are doing well here. We’re looking at global successes and either bringing them into the region and fixing them a bit or replicating something similar, which is understandable at this stage of the industry.

Arcade games are big. Arcade games are downloaded more as it’s easier.  But they’re not the top grossing [money making]. Keeping an eye on the app stores in the region means you can point out successes, in genres and styles. Smaller games will show what themes, styles, and gameplay types the region prefers.  Last year people thought it would only be strategy or Middle Ages games that were the most popular, but today we’re looking at things like drifting car games, more multi player, sports, modern war genres.

Turkey is a big market. Actually there is only one publisher from Turkey looking at the Arabic market and that’s Netmarble EMEA. Peak Games stopped their interest. They went from being a regional publisher to being a global publisher, whereas Netmarble EMEA, a global company from Turkey, has started to focus more on the region with their purchase of Joygame, and now with Netmarble EMEA. Peak Games has a game now in the top 100 grossing in the US so now they’re looking at the big picture.

Choose your publisher carefully. Whether you’re wanting to go with a local or global publisher it really depends on the game, its target market, and what you want to do with the game. I generally don’t recommend that indie developers go for publishers - go to publishers to scale only after they've tried alone. Small to medium developers should go to publishers. Big developers generally have their publishing arms - they don't need publishers. It's very rare that a big company works with another publisher.

Changes are coming. Three years ago people didn’t understand the concept of a publisher. There were many developers, and a very small number of game publishers. Today we’re looking at Play 3arabi, Tamatem, Maysalward, Babil Games, GamesXP. So the concept of it as a business model is increasing. That is exciting. The publishing business can expect to grow and mature in coming years, there will be success and failure but all in all lessons learnt.

On other hand seeing the success of a few international publishers, we would expect a trend of more international publishers setting up shop in the region, trying to acquire smaller publishers from the region. Today we can say one example would be Revenge of the Sultans [which has] generated an estimated revenue of $2 million.

MENA isn’t one region. This is a joke. For most of the publishers the focus is on the GCC, the whales are there. Then there’s Egypt, they’re a big market with a lot of players but there are problems in monetization except through mobile payment; then Levant, an extremely in-between region with not a lot of players. There is also what we call Maghreb, including most countries of Arab North Africa. Hardly anyone focuses on that sub-region, again, due to the difficulties in monetization. It’s pretty much not on the map.

We’re going in the right direction. An Ovum Research report said that the Middle East is at 29 percent year on year growth. The global average is 10-15 percent. There are things holding it back though - people not willing to pay and a lack of content - but that will take time to overcome. Smaller games are showing what works and what doesn’t, and more serious games are coming in, increasing monetization. Credit card penetration is low though and the number one payment option is credit cards. However, that is being solved by operators allowing mobile payment, which is doing great.

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