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What You Need to Know About Breaking into the Arab Market

December 10, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Though you rarely hear news about the Arab game industry, video games are booming in the Middle East/North African market, just like they are in many other regions around the world. Last year, games generated an estimated $900 million (out of $24 billion for the global market).

And many predict the region's revenues will continue to shoot up in the coming years, even more so than in other areas. Research firm Ovum believes annual game revenues in the Arab market will more than triple by 2016 to $3.2 billion (29 percent compound annual growth rate versus 17 percent global growth).

The local game development scene is growing fast, but there are also plenty of opportunities for Western outfits to bring their releases to the region, whether you're a big social game studio or a small mobile team. Developers just need to know what to expect and what to prepare for.

Why you should pay attention to the Arab market

For many, the idea of the Middle East becoming a rising powerhouse in the game industry likely comes as a surprise.

Joe Minton at Digital Development Management, which helps partners release their games to the Middle East and other countries all over world, notes that the area had been off the map when it comes to video games for so long. A lot of companies haven't paid attention to the market's progress in recent years as a result.

"Just five to seven years ago, you didn't hear about licensing games to the Middle East," Minton tells Gamasutra. "And if you did, it was just getting stuff to one broker to handle the whole region for a teeny amount of money. It was considered a throwaway because of piracy, because there weren't Xboxes and PlayStations to any sufficient quantities."

A number of factors have allowed digital games to explode in the Arab market, however, like the huge youth population, the high level of disposable income in places like Turkey and the Gulf states, and the increasing availability of payment methods like credit and prepaid cards.

"Internet penetration, penetration of Facebook, smartphone penetration -- all these things are growing at double-digit growth rates per month," points out Rina Onur, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Turkish developer and publisher Peak Games (Lost Bubble).

Minton adds, "It's like an immediate massive market suddenly coming online in the course of just a couple of years as opposed to decades. ... It's a staggeringly incredible opportunity for developers."

And with so many games flooding digital marketplaces now, teams can't afford to limit their sights to just North America, Europe, and Asia; they need to ensure they're relevant in as many regions as possible because they're competing with so many other companies in the main regions already.

What game types succeed in the Middle East?

The game companies Gamasutra talked to immediately answered that question by citing soccer games as a popular category for the Middle East -- Electronic Arts, for example, has received plenty of praise for its recent Arabic edition of FIFA. Non-culturally-specific games based on other locally popular sports like F1 Racing tend to do well, too.

"We also see games that you might not think of as being huge there," says Minton, who mentions there's even demand for Western-style RPGs. "Shooters are popular. Puzzle games are popular. When you begin to go down the list, it looks very similar to anywhere else in the world."

Peak Games, though, has found particular success with multiplayer synchronous titles that have a heavy emphasis on social aspects and communication between players. The company has adapted card games, tabletop games, and board games (e.g. backgammon -- culturally relevant games) as digital titles with that in mind.

Onur comments, "I think the reason these multiplayer games have been doing so well in these regions is that most of the time, people in emerging markets, especially in [Turkey], they don't have the liberties that a lot of people in the West have.

"It's much easier for people in the West, in North America, to just go out, meet people, and have conversations, whereas access to communication, people, or communities is much more restricted in a lot of the emerging markets because of the demographics and socioeconomic situations. I think a lot of the time, people use these games not only as just games as pastime but also as platforms to be able to connect with others."

Peak has found that when people come together in these types of communal experiences where they're playing and chatting in real-time, rather than wanting to purchase in-game chips to play more hands, they want to spend money on social aspects like private rooms, virtual gifts, etc.

"Games that provide this aspect, which creates communities on Facebook or on mobile within a game are proven to be very successful," says Onur.

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Mohamed Almonajed
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Let's see what the future is hiding for us in that region :)

Bram Stolk
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I did the opposite, and yanked my game from the Saudi market (where it was really popular, btw), after getting really upset about crap like this:

Google Play lets you publish on a per-country basis.

People get upset about sexism in gaming (quite rightly so), but it is NOTHING compared to the oppression that women undergo in the arab world.

Amir Sharar
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If you were to consistently apply your logic, you'd ban your games from countries like Canada because they've implicitly supported the use of cluster bombs.

What governments do, especially when it conflicts with the will of the people, would never affect which markets I decide to sell my products to. Otherwise I'd have to ban my product from 95% of the countries out there, including the United States.

Diana Hsu
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I think your sentiment is wonderful; however, often it's the exposure to outside influences that help people in the most unlikely ways. For example, having a TV in the house in Indian families (controlling for income and other factors) has been shown to be related to literacy rates in girls.

Amir Barak
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Eh, you've got a slightly logical fallacy there mate... Bram is clearly against oppression of women, he never mentioned cluster bombs anywhere. Also, what's wrong with using cluster bombs? Unless of course Canada is using cluster bombs to oppress their women...?

Amanda Fitch
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Bram, thank you for being an awesome man!!!

Kyle Redd
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"People get upset about sexism in gaming (quite rightly so), but it is NOTHING compared to the oppression that women undergo in the arab world. "

Good luck trying to get anyone in the games industry to acknowledge that fact. I learned very quickly that, for those on the left, when women's rights comes into conflict with political correctness (or "cultural sensitivity," which apparently is why the abhorrent treatment of women in much of the Arab world is largely ignored), women will always get the boot.

Ahmad Jadallah
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I think this situation is not quite like it sounds at first. In Saudi Arabia there is a sponsor\sponsored system in place. A sponsored person cannot leave the country without the sponsor issuing an "Exit\Re-Entry Visa". So consider the following cases:
1- A person (any gender) below 18 needs to get an exit\re-entry visa from their sponsor (parents in this case)
2- An employee (again, any gender) needs to get an exit\re-entry visa from their sponsor (company in this case)
3- An employee spouse (any gender) needs to get an exit\re-entry visa from their spouse (who in turn is sponsored by a company).

It might seem complicated but this process is done online and is quite easy. I am not here to defend any practices but this specific scenario does not strike me as something "women specific"

Chris Christow
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@ Kyle Redd

Are you sure? Watch youtube! So many happy Christian women happy to marry an Arab man and live according to Shariah rules :)

Alexander Jhin
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Punish not the people whose governments screw them over. Does pulling your game affect the Saudi government? No. Does pulling your game affect the Saudi people (those being hurt by the government?) Yes!

Additionally, how do people even know you pulled the game in protest? I know because I read Gamasutra, but I doubt the Saudi government does.

While the cause is probably righteous, the protest is ineffective. Perhaps more effective would have been to release a Saudi Arabian version of the game that calls out what you perceive as unjust, then lets people play as normal. If it gets censored by the Saudi Government, then good job, you did something that got the Saudi govt to pay attention. But pulling the game yourself doesn't get any attention at all.

Amir Sharar
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@Amir Barak

The comparison between oppression of women and cluster bomb usage is done because both things are WRONG. And why is cluster bomb usage wrong? Because it kills scores of innocent civilians. Look at it's use by Israel in Lebanon and the number of civilians killed through its usage.

I'm actually appalled that anyone would back Bram's bigoted perspective, thinking that the people in these countries should be punished for what their backwards governments are doing.

Candide Kirk
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The first thing you need to know about the Arab market is that it does NOT include Turkey. Turkey is a huge Middle Eastern market, but speaks TURKISH. Peak Games happen to operate in both Turkey and the Arabic speaking markets, but the majority of what you're quoting Ms Onur on in your article relates to Turkey.

It's interesting that in a 3 page Gamasutra feature you do not speak to a single Arab game developer. Can we just assume that we know our market a bit better than someone in a New York office? Thank you.

Yes, the Arabic speaking games market is growing, and is certainly worth looking at. Yes, we've always said that if you can kick it, shoot it or drive it then the game will sell well, but that's only because those three genres are particularly low on language count and can intuitively be played even if your English is very basic. Arabic is the key here. To successfully enter the market, the language HAS to be there. The irony is that the more affluent the country is, the higher the language barrier (Gulf states especially). I fully agree with Rena that local holidays and cultural references make all the difference - Halloween means nothing here. Neither does Thanksgiving.

The local development community is thriving. We (the Arab game developers) host regular game jams across the Arab world, we have players in the indie social, mobile, web, mmo and console spaces and we're always looking to partner and help global companies enter our markets. The consumers are very mature gamers and contrary to what is implied in the article, include a substantial core gamer audience with typical households in the more affluent regions owning several consoles (i.e. not an XBOX vs. PS vs. Nintendo market, rather all three would be owned by the same family).

For a local perspective on the opportunities, read:

Bob Charone
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"The consumers are very mature gamers and contrary to what is implied in the article, include a substantial core gamer audience with typical households in the more affluent regions owning several consoles (i.e. not an XBOX vs. PS vs. Nintendo market, rather all three would be owned by the same family). "

But how common are those typical affluent households in a poor region?

According to Capgemini there are
3.4M millionaires in North America
3.4M in Asia
3.2M in Europe
0.5M in Latin America
0.5M in Middle East
0.1M in Africa

Especially considering that North America and Middle East have a similar number of people!

Candide Kirk
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@Bob Charone

Not sure where you missed the memo on the rich Arab stereotype, but I wouldn't classify the Arab world as "poor" (again, note major difference from Middle East) which boasts 3 countries in the top ten GDP per capita globally

Of course that is not to say that there is no poverty across many Arab states, but certainly not the richer Gulf countries.

But none of that is even remotely important because since when do you have to be a millionaire to afford video games or to be considered affluent? Disposable income is the key here and yes it is abundant.

Bob Charone
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Egypt is 101st in that ranking and has far more people than those tiny top Arab states combined. Also if you look at the top 10 the only populous nation is the US. The are plenty of rich Arabs where I live so I'm unfortunately too familiar with that stereotype.

My point is the Arab world is not as rich as the developed world. Even in those tiny, tiny "rich" arab states most of the wealth is held by a tiny fraction, so please exit your reality distortion field!

As far as owning consoles, a third of the world's home gaming consoles are owned by people in the US alone, the rest are in Europe and Asia (excluding Middle east)!

Candide Kirk
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"Reality distortion field" ? How rich... Excuse the pun!

The above was released during the famous PSN outage. Quick math puts total Arab country accounts at around 1.1M, but this doesn't even take into account the number of people in the region with US or JP or UK accounts who'd either set them up before PSN was officially launched in their countries, or who'd kept those accounts for catalogue availability reasons. I'm also ignoring any growth in the past year and a half (although the ME territories still boast much higher growth rates than the plateaued traditional ones).

Again, what's your point? Are you making an argument against localising to Arabic or arguing the premise of the article? The headline clearly targets those who are in fact looking to "break into the Arab Market"

Bob Charone
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WOW 1.1 million in the entire Arab world! About as many as a small European country! And did you happen to notice the 31 million in US, a nation that has fewer people than the Arab world, and its not even popular there. I'm not against trying to appeal to Arab gamers but frankly its not a very big market despite its large population.

Ahmad Jadallah
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@ Bob,

1.1 Million is several times bigger than Poland, Portugal and Turkey (It equals them when you combine all three of them!) and yet each of those countries always get the games localized into their own languages and they get XMB Localization support as well. In the case of the Arab world, all you need is to do the effort once as they all speak one language. And that is not even counting XBox 360 which should make a better case for multiplatform titles as well.

EA fully localized Fifa and Need For Speed and for Fifa its the second year in a row. They wouldn't be doing that if it didn't sell good.

Mobiles and Tablets are very popular as well and people here have higher tendency to spend a lot on such devices to get the higher end models.

Candide Kirk
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I fail to see the relevance of US numbers in the context of this article, but in any case best of luck with your English only titles. With the industry shaking up in its traditional markets let me know how that works out for you.

@Ahmad - to further support your argument, I have it on good authority that Arabic XMB is coming soon. XBL has already officially launched in KSA and UAE. I'd say these decisions are not taken on a whim and both MS and Sony see the growth and potential of the market.

Bob Charone
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Its not the article, it is your stupid comment on the wealth of Arabs! It is a touchy subject as there are many wealthy Arabs here in Paris and yet if you visit one of the few 'rich' Arab nations you quickly see that most are not affluent as the west, that is why I truly believe you are living in some sort of bubble or are just ignorant!

As the numbers supported by both of us have posted only a tiny minority (much smaller than Europe and US) are affluent enough own one console let alone several! And if you want to talk about a language worth considering (regardless of actual sales number) there will soon be more middle-class Chinese than total people in the Arab world.

Ahmad Jadallah
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I have to agree with Candide here. Its great that you featured Peak games but they cover a specific market (social games) and are based in Turkey.

Candide's company Quirkat developed an Arabic PSN title based on a local card game (Basha). We are a Saudi Arabian developer based in Riyadh and we are developing an episodic action adventure that targets PC\Mac\iOS\Android\PSN\XBLA\Facebook and Cloud Gaming ( which , in addition to Arabic in voice and text, features 21 languages for subtitles in an effort to reach a global audience with our local historical figures and culture.

While I have to admit that Turkish and Iranian developers are more active than us Arab developers and admire the great work they do, I think its not fair to present them as the sole front of the region. Having read the article I got out with a different impression of the industry than what I see is a reality in my daily job. Specially ideas like "Don't Translate into Arabic cause its cooler for kids if its in English" strikes me as the reason we don't get Arabic translated games in the region (if thats the advise companies are getting from those eemm New-York based "Consultants")

Muhammad Al-kaisy
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I agree on the last part about not translating to Arabic. As evident from our games such as Need for Speed Most Wanted and FIFA13, sales for these games have not been as good as they are now that they got proper localization.

Chris Christow
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Oh, yeah! Time to make CoA: Modern Warfare the Arab way! :) That'd be an amazing fun! :)

Ayman Awartani
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