It took Abdulrahman al-Zanki, then 14, a few weeks to develop his first game, Yellow Taxi, and upload it to Apple iTunes in 2010, learning from written instructions between school hours and homework. Since then, the Kuwaiti teenager has created 22 more iPhone games in less than two years, including the highly popular Doodle Destroy.
Investors and game-making companies are counting on the talent and passion of young people like Abdulrahman to help build a vibrant Arab gaming industry and conquer a share of the potentially lucrative market.
Digital games sales in the Middle East and Africa in 2011 accounted for an estimated $900 million out of the $24 billion global market: but that figure is set to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 29 percent to reach $3.2 billion in 2016, compared with global growth of 17 percent for the same period, according to the research firm Ovum, based in London.
From online games to more complex products played on consoles, game developers are benefiting from the spread of smartphones and other mobile phones, broader use of the Internet and a high per capita spending rate in the Gulf region, where oil wealth allows many young people to indulge in their passions. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Jordan-based consulting firm Arab Advisors Group, 65 percent of Internet users in Saudi Arabia play games online.
The Abu Dhabi government’s media and entertainment program, called twofour54 after the nation’s coordinates, made its first gaming investment last year, channeling $2.5 million to Tahadi Games, a unit of the Jabbar Internet group based in Dubai, and Jawaker, a Jordanian company.
Twofour54 is planning to invest in more regional game-developers next year, said Wayne Borg, the organization’s deputy chief executive.
With help from the French game developer Ubisoft, twofour54 plans to open an academy for game developers in Abu Dhabi in March. About 20 students are expected to be enrolled. The initial enrollment will be about 20 students.
With some financial help from twofour54, Ubisoft is planning to open a production studio in Abu Dhabi this year and hopes to hire 100 employees during the next three to five years.
“If a government or any authority wants to develop such an industry they have to invest,” said Yannick Theler, who will be the managing director of the Abu Dhabi office for Ubisoft. “It is costly to open a studio and it takes time to set up a good team. Without any help from the government, it is difficult to take some risk.”
The Abu Dhabi venture, expected to open in March or April, is the second for Ubisoft in the region. The company also has an academy in Casablanca. The Abu Dhabi office will initially focus on creating content that could be marketed worldwide, but could gradually move toward designing games with a regional flavor, Mr. Theler said. The aim is to develop a small-scale game in at most two years, he added.
Twofour54 is now talking to other international firms to build a richer game development environment.
“It is important when international and regional companies do come here, they come here for the right commercial reasons,” Mr. Borg of twofour54 said. “We focus our investment where we can contribute to stimulating that ecosystem. It is these small emerging businesses that drive creativity, innovation and where jobs are generated.”
In Jordan, a center for information technology startups in the Middle East, gaming firms have joined forces under the government-backed Jordan Gaming Task Force, or the J.G.T.F., to help propel the country’s production regionally and internationally.
But efforts to build a pan-Arab industry remain fragmented.
“The major problem in the Arab world is the lack of support from government and the private sector,” said Nour Khrais, J.G.T.F. chairman and general manager of the gaming firm Maysalward. “We, as Jordan or U.A.E., can’t do it alone. If we want to create an industry, we have to work together as companies to be able to produce games that can shine in this crowded industry.”
While cross-country collaboration remains rare, companies from the region and abroad are weaving closer ties. Timeline Interactive, an Egyptian company, developed Cellfactor: Psychokinetic Wars, which was published by Ubisoft, and Quirkat, based in the United Arab Emirates, is developing games for Sony’s PlayStation. The desire to profit from the region’s widespread gaming community inspired Sony in 2010 to release its first fully localized Arabic title, Start the Party Arabic, and the company is planning to create more such titles.
“If you just look at the global Arab population, there is no reason why we wouldn’t be able to sell locally developed games in other countries outside the Middle East,” Mr. Fisser said. “I think it just needs coordination and support to bringing it all together, or getting one really good local title that is a hit with the local gamers.”
The market is not without challenges. The local gaming community is demanding — unlikely to settle for poor quality or for products simply because they come from nearby. Tailoring a game to fit the cultural diversity of 22 Arab countries while also carrying global appeal could also be a sticking point.
“Language is our common denominator,” Quirkat chief executive, Mahmoud Khasawneh, said. “Other than that, religious and political limits are not the same. The biggest market is Saudi Arabia, but it is hard to tailor a game for a specific environment, when you want to have appeal to the international market.”
“It is not magic, it is a money guzzling business,” Mr. Khasawneh added. “We need money to create money and it is going to take time for Arabs to invest in their own capabilities in games development.”