The geeks are coming to the capital as three video-game publishers aim to set up in the emirate this year. Arabs adore playing and Abu Dhabi wants to be a gaming hub for the region. To nurture the industry, a ‘gaming academy’ is being planned by the twofour54 media centre. Ben Flanagan writes
Abu Dhabi has yet to produce its own Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, but it is only a matter of time before the emirate’s fledgling video-game industry reaches the next level.
Three gaming publishers are set to open their doors in the UAE capital this year, bringing with them more than 50 geeks set on making the next Tomb Raider, Angry Birds or Gran Turismo.
“I really do think that bringing a bunch of gaming companies together is great for the cross-pollination of ideas,” says Mohamed Haj Hasan, the co-founder of Jawaker. At the beginning of this year, Abu Dhabi Media, which owns and publishes The National, launched its own gaming division, Karkadann Games.
And in August, the emirate’s media hub twofour54 announced it had invested more than US$2.5 million (Dh9.1m) for minority stakes in two Arabic online gaming companies, Tahadi Games and Jawaker.
The move by twofour54 was more than just an investment: the terms of the deal encouraged the companies to relocate to Abu Dhabi, in an attempt to build a gaming hub in the emirate.
To nurture this fledgling industry, twofour54 is even planning its own gaming academy to help to breed a next generation of coders.
Wayne Borg, the deputy chief executive and the chief operating officer at twofour54, says another gaming deal is in the pipeline. He says Abu Dhabi is emerging as “the Middle East’s leading Arabic gaming hub”.
The popularity of video games in the Arab world is indisputable. According to a survey by Arab Advisors Group, 65.3 per cent of internet users in Saudi Arabia play games online. That is an audience of 7.4 million, of which 12.9 per cent – or 958,000 – are paying users, Arab Advisors says.
But whether that means Abu Dhabi can play the role of a games hub for the region remains to be seen.
Not surprisingly, those in the industry are confident Abu Dhabi will one day rank alongside Kyoto, home of the gaming giant Nintendo, or Redwood City in California, where Electronic Arts is based.
David Ortiz, the general manager of Karkadann Games, reels off a long list of gaming hubs around the world, from Los Angeles and London to Istanbul and Tokyo.
He says Abu Dhabi has a “promising” chance of being added to this list. “I think it’s just going to continue to snowball. I’d say Jordan is the other big hub in the Middle East right now.”
Mr Hasan confirmed that the twofour54 investment deal involved registering a new company in Abu Dhabi. “They’re trying to create a gaming culture and infrastructure at twofour54.”
One possible stumbling block in Abu Dhabi’s ambitions in the gaming arena is the availability of qualified coders – those capable of turning lines of zeros and ones into Lara Croft.
“What could potentially slow them is whether these companies can attract world-class talent for the development of games,” says Karim Sabbagh, a senior partner at Booz & Company.
Games publishers in other parts of the Arab world confirm that recruitment can be a problem.
“We are looking for skill-sets that are a little bit higher. And that is where we are struggling,” says Mahmoud Ali Khasawneh, the chief executive of Quirkat, a gaming company based in Jordan.
Another difficulty faced by games publishers is deciding whether to pitch for the Arabic market, or the wider international audience.
Mr Khasawneh says there is little point in Arabic games publishers making titles for just the Middle East.
“Companies that only develop for their own region tend to run out of steam after a while,” he says. “It has to be global.”
But others say regionally tailored games are a must.
“There is an lack of Arabic or regionally cultured gaming content,” says Steve Tsao, the chief executive of Tahadi Games.
Despite the barriers, Arab gaming companies stand to benefit from a booming global industry.
The global gaming market is expected to grow from $63.9 billion this year to $86.8bn in 2014, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. The most promising category is online gaming, which is forecast to be worth $30.6bn by 2014, a 21.3 per cent increase on last year.
In the Middle East and Africa region, the market for online games is forecast to rise from $26m this year to $42m in 2014.
Yet the most viable business models for games are still to emerge. “The jury is still out on the most promising economic model,” says Mr Sabbagh.
Waleed Kharma, the chief executive and co-founder of Piranha Byte, which is based in Dubai, says there are several revenue streams for game companies.
These include: paid games; free downloads supported by advertising; “freemium” titles that rely on in-game purchases; and subscription-based games such as World of Warcraft.
Piranha Byte worked on the word-based game Kalimat, which was the first title to be published by AppsArabia, the mobile app fund backed by Abu Dhabi’s twofour54. Piranha is currently working on more mobile-based games. “I have 10 games to be developed,” says Mr Kharma. “Each takes an average of three to four months.”
He sees growth in the industry worldwide – whether in Abu Dhabi or Tokyo. “Globally, gaming is growing massively. I don’t think it’s limited to one geography.”