Local stories and creatives
Another way developers can take an extra step to strengthen bonds between Arab players and their games is to draw inspiration from the history and stories the regions. Tousi calls the Middle East North African region the "greatest reservoir of storytelling ever. All of the three main religions, and a number of massive books of mythology all hail from that part of the world."
And because of a shared history in terms of stories between the Middle East and the West (e.g. Arabian Nights, the Bible), that kind of content won't necessarily alienate players outside of the region. "All of this historical culture and storytelling is actually very in common and speaks really well to the West," says Minton. "It's less unique than going, for example, between China and America, which is a tougher bridge in terms of finding commonality of mythos."
Game makers who decide to go down that road stand to gain a lot by partnering with local content creators -- not just in having access to people who know the stories, who know how to deliver products to that market, and who know how to shape those projects for local audiences, but also in collaborating with people who are motivated to contribute and produce great work.
"It's good for developers to work with regional content creators or people who are in the business of creating content that's rooted in that region because they get access to a very, very rich universe, which I think is going to completely excite them to actually do the work," points out Tousi.
"What we always forget is that the business of gaming is far beyond dollars and cents. It's a creative environment, and it's driven by creatives. What is exciting about this region is that it's rich in terms of content for creatives who want to create that type of content. And I think that content can relate to a far greater market than just simply that region."
Even though the Arabic region is diverse, comprising different countries with extremely different cultures and dialects, working with a content partners in one of those countries could still go a long way toward helping a game from a Western team find an audience in the broader market. Their proximity to the other countries and presence in the same cultural milieu are advantages that shouldn't be discounted.
Tousi says this idea of entertainment crossing local borders easily is older than gaming: "If you look at some of the most successful soap operas in the Middle East, they are Turkish soap operas that are dubbed into Arabic. Obviously we have tons of soap operas in [North America]. Why wouldn't they be dubbed? Why wouldn't they be successful? What we read into that is cultural relevance and proximity is key and very important."
Publishers looking to break into the Arab market and maintain a sizable presence there need to realize that significant investments in building and fostering relationships are required. Companies shouldn't presume that they can fly in a single licensing person who will make business deals and head back home. They have to send in senior people to meet with gatekeepers, telcos, payment providers, and other partners.
"It's an area that really requires sustained business development and personal connections," says Minton. If you're "very used to having a person jump off the airplane, expect that they can go around, shake a bunch of hands, sign a contract, and leave," he says, "That's just not the way it works."
"You need to have sustained involvement. And so then there needs to be the understanding, or the calculation as to whether or not that is worthwhile to the business. If you're not going to do it yourself, you need to find someone who is in the region who you can really use as a partner."
Minton reminds game companies that when they handle these arrangements themselves, they're not just signing a blanket deal that gives the Middle East rights for their title to a single publisher or a distributor.
"[They need to take] the time to look at the folks who are selling products there, and deciding who to align with," he says. "This is a day and age where you're creating a mobile game for example that you may well end up signing 22 different deals to take on the entire world as opposed to giving the product to one entity and expecting that they're going to do that. It's unlikely that any one entity really can."
Onur also re-emphasizes her point that developers need to have a strong understanding of local audiences, warning them not to make the same mistake some major Western publishers have made in Asia: "Consider PopCap or Zynga, who have launched their very successful franchises in China on platforms like Tencent. They've failed miserably and couldn't scale."
Meanwhile mobile developer Robot Entertainment, which has worked with local publisher Yodo1 to bring its game Hero Academy to China, was able to find commercial success by making considerable efforts to adapt its game to the country's culture, incorporating Chinese-themed fantasy characters and providing region-appropriate marketing.
Peak's chief strategy officer says the struggles of major Western companies in China underscore that emerging markets are "very, very different from what Western developers are accustomed to for North America and Europe, because these countries and geographies have different histories, different language, different political systems, different economies, and different religions. Everything is different."
Another mistake Onur has seen is developers not thinking about or investing in local support services: "A lot of the time, I think global companies out there provide America or Europe more service than in emerging markets, especially because they can't monetize these users. But it's a chicken and egg situation; if you can't provide the necessary service that they deserve, they're not going to be loyal users.
"We consider gaming as not only a technology business but also a service business, games as a service. So, starting from customer support to community management to payment systems to payment platforms, you have to be able to answer the questions of the people you're addressing on every step of the way."
Whichever platform or genre developers decide to pursue, they're likely to find an audience with Middle Eastern gamers, according to Onur. But she says "They're just looking for high quality content that they can relate to, and then the service. If you have these two issues under your belt, it's possible to scale really, really effectively."