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Insights Learned from Indie Game Developers in Latin America & the Middle East
by Karin E Skoog on 09/08/12 10:22:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

[Originally posted on Language Automation, Inc.'s blog.] 

 

Introduction

For nearly 20 years, Language Automation, Inc. (LAI) has been tracking global video game markets in our mission to make games accessible to a wide array of players through our extensive network of worldwide game translators. While statistics and reports provide fantastic overviews and targeted data for these markets, we set out to gain a more detailed and deeper understanding of regional players and their perspective of the industry at the local level.

Through research and analysis of game industry trends around the world, we discovered gaps in game development that a handful of game developers and publishers are now filling – the creation of culturally-sensitive games that maintain an extraordinary level of local relevance – a.k.a. culturally-focused and regionally-inspired games. While large players in the US, Europe, and Asia focus on the development of games that will achieve high sales in proven markets, game creators in developing regions of the world see a need for a new type of game, that addresses the lack of games made specifically for their regions – regions in which individuals pour more money into gaming and have tremendous market potential.

To paint a fuller picture of the potential of video games in Latin America and the MENA region (Middle East & North Africa), we will first provide an overview of the two markets. (This overview is also outlined in the introductions of our two video interviews. Please check out our interview with Mexican developer Phyne Games and our interview with Lebanese-based developer Game Cooks). We will then share with you the insights of organizations that were largely successful due to their targeting of developing regions via culturally-focused and regionally-inspired games, and finally, we will provide highlights of our new interview series in which we speak with game developers that create games in this emerging genre.

An Overview of the Video Game Markets in Mexico and the Middle East

VGChartz provides data about the video game industry at large, specifically tracking weekly sales of video game software and hardware by region and developing analysis of the data, so it is not to be taken lightly that the organization cited Mexico as a region with incredible potential. Here's what they said last year about the Mexican video game market:

With 110 million people, a strong university system, a trillion dollar economy, free trade agreements with countries housing major video game companies, and roughly half of all people under the age of 25, we at VGChartz believe that Mexico is currently the fastest growing retail video game market in the world.

In addition to the sheer size of this booming market, Mexicans “pay 30-60% more than their American counterparts for legally purchased (non-pirated ) software and hardware.” (And I thought roughly $65 for a new game in the US was excessive!) If that isn't enough, VGChartz also cites data from Gamer's Paradise , which reported that Mexico doubled the size of its video game market in just 4 years from $600 million in 2007 to $1.2 billion in 2012 while annual growth rates averaged 30%.

The Middle East is just as promising. Reuters' article “Demographics, local tastes fuel Arab video game industry” reflects pertinent data to understanding the game industry in the Middle East:

About 60 percent of the 350 million people in the Arab world are younger than 25, with internet penetration in the region at about 70 million users -- over 300 percent growth in the last five years, according to numbers from United Arab Emirates-based entrepreneurship research portal Sindibad Business. Internet penetration is expected to reach 150 million users by 2015, said the portal's founder Bahjat Homsi.

Following suit with Mexico's higher than average individual expenditure on game hardware and software, youth in Arab Gulf countries feel as though they have “few entertainment outlets,” resulting in an average daily revenue per user at one of the highest in the world. Not only that, but CMO of Saudi investment firm N2V states that “[Arab video gaming] is interesting because it is following internet growth in the region, which is among the fastest in the world.” It's no wonder companies that focus specifically on the MENA region experience extraordinary success!

Companies that Target Developing Regions with Culturally-Focused Video Games

After just a year and a half of targeting the MENA and Turkish game markets, Peak Games achieved a position as “one of the three largest social gaming platforms in the world.” What makes Peak Games and other regional developers and publishers successful? By focusing on games that will sell well in the area – meaning creating and selling games that are culturally-focused and regionally-inspired.

According to Peak Games' co-founder, Rina Onur, “People want to see their national days, their special dishes reflected in these games. People who look like they're from the region, not just blonde with a cowboy hat.” This sentiment is echoed by others within the region, such as CEO of Jordan-based Taktek Games, who believes that in order to gain consumers in the Middle East, it is necessary to create games that are in Arabic and are culturally sensitive.

Our forthcoming information about the MENA market and its gamers stem from our interview with Lebanese-based game developer Game Cooks, a company that created an inspiring run and jump game in which a boy runs across the Arab world, spreading peace to each country he passes. In our interview with General Manager Lebnan Nader, we stated:

We at LAI wholeheartedly believe that Game Cooks sets a thematic standard integral to modern society, a society in which the general population sees video games as inherently evil and views the Arab world from less than flattering news coverage.

The necessity of games that promote peaceful cohabitation as opposed to the disproportionate amount of games that promote violence is cited by prominent organizations within the MENA region. Semanoor published Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta, the world's first Arabic language video game developed for the PS3 and Xbox by an Arab company, and the company's founder believes, “Games are being used to ruin the image of Arabs. We went into games because we want to reach the youth who use them and show them a different picture.”

The Iran National Foundation of Computer Games funds regional game developer start ups as long as their games steer clear of political topics. Games like Garshasp: The Monster Slayer have seen global success. The game presents the mythological tale of a Persian hero and became a hit in the UK, Germany, New Zealand, and Russia.

Due to internet infrastructure in Africa and the prevalence of young programming talent heading for high paying jobs abroad or in large corporations (such as banks), it may be some time before Africa gains an influx of game developers creating culturally-focused and regionally-inspired games. However, that doesn't mean the need for this type of game has gone unnoticed. Kenyan developer Gwimgrafx Studios Limited released a game called Adventures of Nyangi, an action adventure PC game in which the protagonist, Nyangi, collects rare African artifacts. There was even a plan between a US programmer and the grandson of a Ghana king to create a MMO about Africa, incorporating 13th century African civilization and mythology. (Note: Subsequent searches for this MMO were conducted to no avail, so it's likely the game was never brought to market after the referenced article written in 2006.)

Zynga even discovered that culturally-focused content does well, not within the culture to which the content is most relevant but across other markets as well. In fact, this kind of cultural content does even better than culturally non-specific content. For example, in this video from Casual Connect, Zynga shares the following findings:

One of the assumptions for a long time that we were making was that generic content would kind of play better to a global audience [such as when] you're playing Cityville or you're playing Farmville, and you're offered something that is kind of culturally non-specific, so just a typical building or a typical crop.

 

As we started doing testing around international content, we found out that content customized for the global markets performed better by a significant margin and not just in that local market, so if we were to have Indonesian-themed content going through our games, it would perform, as you would expect, not only disproportionately well in Indonesia but then it would also perform extremely well in all other territories also. So, there's a real appetite for this kind of culturally-specific content.

These findings led Zynga to begin developing culturally-focused content on a wide scale beginning in 2011.

Thus, there is serious demand for culturally-focused games not only in Latin America and the Middle East but across all other markets as well, and companies that take advantage of markets hungry for these kinds of games reap incredible rewards. These global trends led us to dig dipper within these markets in order to gain a better understanding of the start ups in Latin America and the Middle East that see merit in this new trend.

 

What We Learned from Indie Developers in Latin America and the Middle East

We at Language Automation, Inc. (LAI) started a new video interview series this summer, beginning with Phyne Games of Mexico City and then Game Cooks of Beirut, Lebanon. Phyne Games created Mictlan – a tower defense mobile game based on the Mexican festivity Day of the Dead, including the integration of common elements such as ofrendas (altar of food for the dead) and calaveritas (“little skulls” or trick-or-treats). Game Cooks first developed Birdy Nam Nam, a tap-to-shoot mobile game about mutant chickens that attack the Middle East and then Run for Peace, a run and jump mobile game about a boy who fulfills the dream he had since he was 3 – spreading peace throughout the Middle East.

We spoke with both companies about artistic and musical selection, the influence of local culture and its integration into their games, local video game markets and player preferences, and the portrayal of their regions by AAA game developers. You can check out the full interviews on our blog, but here are some of the highlights. (The links below connect directly to the specific talking points referenced within the interview, so you can easily find the area in which the topic is discussed.)

 

Arturo Nereu, Game Programmer and Software Developer at Mexico City's Phyne Games sees a need for culturally-focused games in Mexico and around the world and believes there has been “an explosion of culturally-based games,” citing Journey and Grim Fandago as examples. However, just because his first game, Mictlan, integrated Latin American cultural elements, by no means confined its success to only the local region. The game was graced with widespread appeal, in fact topping charts in three other countries before Mexico - #1 the US, #2 China, and #3 Taiwan. This was something Phyne Games hadn't predicted, especially as the game was released only in English. Arturo said:

At first, we were really confident that English was the universal language, everybody speaks English, or at least everyone with a smartphone speaks English.

This led them to rethink their strategy when it comes to the global market and place Spanish and Chinese at the top of their list for future translation, and there are other countries besides for which Phyne Games wants to distribute the game into the local language. In fact, according to Arturo, China is showing keen interest in the Latin American market, as a Chinese organization came to Mexico at the beginning of the summer, searching for potential partnerships and recruiting opportunities.

While the video game industry has been growing in Mexico (including the development of console games), Arturo expressed the desire that the industry maintains its distance from political strains, allowing the industry to continue its steady growth. Mobile players in the region are likely to play a locally-produced game due to the diminished gap in price and quality faced by console-based games. Console games from Latin America and the United States are roughly the same prices, yet American-made games have the backing of multi-million dollar investments, yielding a significant advantage in quality. Arturo states, “Developers must understand that their quality must go up because we can't stand a chance with big companies if we don't raise the bar.”

An area in which Phyne Games and other local developers can compete, however, is cultural influence. The game Grim Fandago gave rise to the perception of heightened opportunity for Phyne Games to succeed, as Grim Fandago has figures reminiscent of Day of the Dead, plus Phyne Games is a Mexican company, so they understand Mexican culture better than Americans. Beyond sales and revenue, Arturo does see the potential for culturally-focused games to serve as a source of inspiration and education about other regions of the world, stating that he himself may be more likely to visit an area whose culture he has already explored virtually, in-game.

 

Lebnan Nader, General Manager of Game Cooks, cited AAA developers' dismissal of the Arab world as a potential for a specific type of game – games for the Arab players:

The region here is a big, big region. It has a lot of potential. Everybody just closes their eyes on this region. Nobody [from the US, Europe, and Asia] produces anything for our region, so we thought, 'Why not? Let's do something for our region.' We don't want to do only international games. We want to do games with an Arabic twist […] It's not a game that is Arabized; it's a game that is for an Arabic user. So the behavior, the language, the music, the dialects, are all Arabic.

Contrary to the number of larger developers creating military games with Arabs as “the bad guys,” Game Cooks saw the need “to secure peace” in the region, “to spread peace.” Not only does their newest game physically involve the spreading of peace from one Middle Eastern country to the next, but the protagonist's name – Salim – is inspired from “salam,” the Arabic word meaning “peace.”

Lebnan doesn't blame the way AAA developers portray Arabs and Africans in video games since “people believe what they see on the media, and when you look at the media worldwide, you seen that the Arab/Middle East region and Africa is all about wars and wars and wars.” However, Lebnan does have a recommendation:

Open your eyes, come visit the region. We are Arabs, we don't develop American games, we don't develop French games. We are developing Arabic games because we understand the region, so why would an American developer develop Arabic games without understanding the region? […] Visit the region, understand a little bit about the behavior of people there, and then, you know, go ahead and develop whatever you want to develop. But assuming Arabs all are terrorists, all of them, that's just wrong.

Aside from the practice ostracizing of Arab players with culturally insensitive content, locally-produced games will not only be received well on the basis of its culture content, according to Lebnan but also because Arabs will be “proud of you because you developed something from scratch, developed something for them.” Plus, Arab game developers of course understand the cultural nuances of the region, such as the distinctions in speech patterns (since different Arabic-speaking regions also have their own unique dialects, which Game Cooks replicated in their first game Birdy Nam Nam).

Fortunately, investors and publishers are gaining interest in the region (such as Ubisoft, which opened an office in Abu Dhabi), as the demand for games is really high, according to Lebnan, “everyone wants to play, but the offer is really low,” only a handful of small developers create these games. While Lebnan predicts an influx in MENA game development rather imminently, he believes that a good way to go for smaller developers is focusing on “niche markets,” like Arabic content for indie Arab developers and Latin American content for indie Latin American developers. He says:

It's very hard to develop a really new, fresh idea, so maybe the direction is to go focus more on niche markets […] [Indie developers] do not have big budgets to do a lot of marketing and advertising for our games, so we have practically zero percent chance to succeed in a global way, but if you focus on a really concentrated idea, [a] cultural idea, this might be the way to go.

 

Conclusion

More and more, indie game developers in particular see a distinct competitive advantage in creating culturally-relevant content that other largest developers may not pursue.  However, culturally-based content has a proven advantage around the world, such in Zynga’s example with Indonesian content doing better both in Indonesia and across all other markets.  We cited a number of companies that focus specifically upon the MENA market and their subsequent success, particularly Peak Games, which reached a position as the 3rd largest social gaming platform in the world due to this strategic approach.  In addition to the extraordinary success experienced by game organizations with cultural basis, individuals both in the Middle East and Latin America spend more money on games than those in other markets.  Plus, experts have cited the tremendous growth and large young-population segments (among other statistics) in both regions as reason for the incredible potential of these two markets.

As we have kept our eye on worldwide video game markets for almost 20 years and are watching the emerging trend of culturally-focused content unfold, we are keenly interested in upcoming and future games of this new genre.  In fact, we are currently conducting our own study on player interest in culturally-based content by different demographics, as well as the type of content and specific cultures that hold the most interest for gamers.

Actions You Can Take to Help Us With Further Research

  • If you're interested in contributing your own answers to our survey on games with cultural content, please follow the link.

Thanks for reading!  Let us know what you think on our blog or Twitter feed.


~ Language Automation, Inc. (LAI)
Transforming Game Localization

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