Seven Years in The Arabic Game Market

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The Arabic Game Market is a tough cookie to crack! I would know since i’ve spent the past 7 years of my life trying. I grew up here and faced the demand as a kid, Saudi Arabia specifically, lacks many public spaces and forms of entertainment. For example, Movie theaters are not allowed to operate in the country. As an “adult”, I had a chance to give back to the community and try to provide the younger generation, as well as developers like me, the chance to be served as a respected consumer.

 

In 2010 I created GameTako, a Kongregate clone, and failed to make it a sustainable business, due rise of mobile, as well as low interest from local developers. We turned non-profit after we lost VC funding. yet, with over 1000 developer across Arabia and a yearly Game Jam “Game Zanga” (2014 results) we have become the biggest game dev community in Arabia. Most recently I started to work with MECL and created a mobile game publisher similar to “Noodle Cake” and it does not look good, due to lack of interest in long term investment from stakeholders. But I do work with “Lumba” and our game فزعة or “Tribal Rivals” is doing great. I will take you further in this post into the conclusions of these  attempts to create a sustainable game industry in Arabia.

 

Population? The Arabic world is close to 300M People; sadly, most of the countries in the region have terrible economies and are war torn. Therefore, I decided to focus on the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) pretty much the oil producing countries of Arabia, and mainly Saudi Arabia since it is the biggest of them all in terms of area as well as population. The GCC has a population of about 40M Arabic speakers, and that is being optimistic.

GCC countries, Population 40M

 

40M that’s awesome, right? With a penetration rate of mobile phones (how many people have phones) of 250% which 60% of them are smart phones (everyone has an average of 2.5 phones), also with poor adoption of PCs as a daily entertainment outlet, we can conclude that mobile phones are the way to go to distribute games.

Everyone has an average of 2 and a half phone. 60% of them are smart phones. 60% android 38% iOS 2% blackberry and windows phone

 

Those are delicious numbers, right? We have statistics that say that 60% of Saudis for example play games online. However, in reality, if we were also optimistic, we can see that the number of people who are willing to buy your game are around 1% of the population. We can say that that only 400,000 person is even remotely interested in buying your game. and if you have a weird unique game, it can go all the way down to 15,000. Numbers can go up to 4% in case of free 2 play games. This low percentage is due to a low penetration of credit cards and online payment methods. As well as being accustomed to free ad based games on the mobile platform.

Only 400,000 person is interested in buying your game, low credit card usage. down to 15,000 if you have a unique game.

 

So 400,000 person is not bad, right? Well how much will it cost you to reach them? Twitter has been insanely popular in Saudi Arabia, Facebook is almost dead, and most dwell in private social networks like Path and Instant Messaging apps like WhatsApp. The last 2 are not really accessible as marketing channels. Youtube have been insanely popular, although the local Youtubers are tight on money and they need it to operate, but their costs to even talk about your game is very expensive for an indie developer. In addition, you really do not want to get into the whole review for money “Ethics” issue. Some Youtubers are great and would talk about your game for free, but only if it fits what their audience, which is usually COD and Minecraft fans. Not something a developer on a budget can develop. Its not the youtuber’s fault at all, it’s just the way it is.

Marketing on Youtube is too expensive, price of games on mobile are too low to justify it. Social Media marketing is affective, but only for F2P games with high ARPUs

 

So just develop games for the love of it, right? Well, education programs are not the best in the GCC, as high school graduates cannot speak English fluently. This is a problem for most people who try to learn programming or other things from online sources. English rules the internet, and these individuals don’t have it. Its really not worth it to even translate all of that material as the pace of progress of technology is a lot faster the translation efforts. High standard of living also leaves low room for motivation to be entrepreneurial in the GCC, also the opportunities available for traditional trades like real estate and construction are very profitable, and rate of success is a lot higher than Software and art based projects. In addition, the GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia are conservative in nature with high resistant to progressive thought and art. Most Saudis consider music evil, and pictures of creatures with souls is considered evil too. Even though the consumption of such media is popular, having institutions that teach them or any company that produces such materials is very frowned upon. Only recently, having such institutions and companies is becoming acceptable. Therefore, the talent to work on such projects is very scarce. Even if you did find the right talent, you are competing with the top paying companies for their time. It is a no brainer for someone to be paid over $5k a month untaxed than to live a starving indie life with little chance of success. Furthermore, Social structure is very family based, so clusters of creatives living together and feeding out of each other`s creativity doesn’t happen. No indie House possible here.

Conservative backgrounds, resistant to progressive thought and art, technical language barriers, high paying wages, strong family structures, and lack of talent leaves the local games at low supply of artists, musicians, programmers and others

 

Ads? You can make games with ads, sure. However, the population is not big enough, as well as advertisers who refuse to invest in mobile ads. The income you will be getting will not make a difference. Some developers are making games that are getting them around $2500 a month out of ads. with a game lifetime of 3 months. but thats not enough to pay rent and living expenses to be able to do this fulltime, or to be able to add more content. some of those games were even rejected from the iOS store due to low quality, and no clear game design. I am looking at you endless drifting games.

Ads do not work

 

So develop a game for the international market? How do you expect someone with all the handicaps found above to produce anything close to the quality expected out of a game developer trying to compete on the international market? To everyone in the GCC, it’s close to impossible. Even the ones that tried faced aggressive backlash from their attempts. Check out “Unearthed: Trial of ibn battota” the backlash from that game would scare anyone even attempting to make a game out of the region. And that game cost A LOT to produce too. (You should go check the game out, its fun.)

Developers are too scared to target the international market. Moreover, the ones who do publish a game targeting the world lack experience and spend a lot of money trying to compensate, and it shows.

 

What about Arabic, shouldn’t Arabic be a selling point and an advantage of local players? You would think so. The GCC population might not be great at English, but they recognize it. They watched enough Hollywood and TV to be able to make up simple things. In addition, with games depending less and less on language, language is not a selling point anymore, game-play is.

Arabic is not a selling point, game-play is

 

So what does leave room for? F2P games with aggressive metrics. Your game needs to be close to

  • Around 1% conversion rate
  • ARPPU of around $30 (its achievable in the GCC)
  • Marketing budget to be able to reach 4% of the population
  • A content that is heavily relatable by the population.
  • High quality in development as well as art and music to match the competition from game developers across the world.

If you don’t have these elements combined, then there is no way you could survive financially from making games in the GCC for the GCC.

 

So what Have I done to know all this? A summary

  • Tried to help indies and hobbyist make money through GameTako game web portal
    • Turned it into non-profit due to
      • Lack of interested developers
      • Lack of audience wanting to play web games from arab devs, rise of mobile
    • Its now a non-profit indie game community
      • Organizing game jams
      • Sharing info
      • Play testing each other
  • Tried making a game publishing service for mobile games “Game Nomads”
    • Scaling down due to:
      • High marketing costs.
      • Not suitable for the market (see above)
      • Low funding and long term investment
  • Became a partner in a mobile Free2Play company making mobile entertainment for Arabia “Lumba”
    • Its doing very well and going strong

I did try with GameTako as well with Game Nomads to break this cycle and provide indies and hobbyist with better alternatives, but after 7 years I think I have done everything I could. Time for me to focus on what works, or leave this region. I won’t abandon the local community of GameTako, don’t worry. But its time for me to explore other opportunities and see how can I help in the international field now.

 

if you feel like there are things that I forgot to cover, or other opportunities you think I should seek, please leave them in the comment section down below.