When you think of a nation with a large population of gamers, what image comes to mind? Hundreds of thousands of kids in American running home to play Call of Duty after school? Patrons flocking to internet cafes in South Korea to play Starcraft?
One region generally excluded from such mental pictures is the Middle East, which many would probably not guess has a large gaming community. But the industry is in fact thriving there, and the market is quite different than anywhere else in the world.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Mahmoud Ali Khasawneh, CEO of Quirkat, a Jordan-based company that specializes in social and casual games specifically designed for the Middle Eastern market. He had a lot to say about the growing industry and his company’s role in it, and will be addressing an audience at this week’s Game Developers Conference.
What inspired you to get into the burgeoning Middle Eastern gaming world? What was the initial idea behind Quirkat?
At the time I was leading the e-Government Program in Jordan and had faced the issue of lack of Arabic language content in the region. That was true on many fronts: governmental, business, as well as entertainment content. The initial idea behind Quirkat was first and foremost to fill a clear void in the home markets, and then to use the Middle Eastern culture as an inspiration point for games for global appeal for a more international market.
How big is the Middle Eastern gaming market, and how fast is it growing? How does Quirkat fit in with the other developers in the region? How big are you currently?
The market size is currently approaching $1BN in terms of revenue across software and hardware sales, as well as online subscriptions and micro-transactions. The growth is estimated at 10% year on year. Quirkat was established in 2004 and at the time was a pioneer in the local development scene. Today we see a lot of players entering the mobile and social games space, particularly on Facebook, but there is still no other player in the multi-platform, core game development space. Our team currently has 10 people and is spread between our Amman development studio, a small art team in Beirut and our corporate HQ in the UAE.
Which games have you found the most success with in your line-up? What about them do you think has resonated with your audience? What have you learned about what Middle Eastern gamers prefer or want to avoid in their games?
We’ve found the most success with titles that have a polished, intuitive and largely familiar game mechanic. For example, our Arabian Lords game topped the PC game charts for over six weeks when it was released. Al-Moosiqar, an online music title, had more plays in a month than all other games on our casual games portal (Fuzztak) had combined in a year. Our core belief is that the typical Middle Eastern gamer is no different than any other gamer worldwide in terms of level of expectation. Remember the Middle East is a highly consumer-oriented society and so our audience is used to playing titles by the likes of Activision, EA and Ubisoft, thereby setting the bar quite high. They care about depth of gameplay, quality of visuals and the overall interactive experience.
What’s the breakdown of PC gaming vs. consoles? Why has the PS3 found such huge success (60% market share) in the Middle East while it’s in third place in the West? Why do you think the Wii has not found the same kind of massive success there despite arguably having the most inclusive types of family-oriented games?
Excluding online or browser based gaming, the console market in the Middle East is by far the more dominant gaming platform with PC game sales representing less than 15% of overall sales. Sony has always had a strong presence in the Middle East and has had a majority share of the market since the PS2 days. With the current gens in particular, Sony was a first mover with the PS3 in terms of proper local distribution channels, supplemented by in-territory marketing activities and support for localization and local development efforts. Microsoft was late in officially releasing the Xbox 360 in the Middle East markets and is still playing catch-up, whereas Nintendo is completely non-existent and all hardware sales in the Middle East are grey market imports.
Additionally, although the Wii does make sense for being more family-oriented, the Arab gamer profile is still skewed towards the 20-something male demographic and so the types of games that are hugely popular in the Middle East are typically found on the PS3/Xbox 360 platforms. Additionally, the market is pretty affluent and has a strong purchasing power, so the higher price point at release of the PS3 console was never a deterrent for strong sales.
Are games by Asian and/or Western developers popular? Do massively selling franchises elsewhere (World of Warcraft, FIFA, Halo) find that they have similar success in the Middle East? Do gamers in the region take a negative view of big-selling titles like say, Call of Duty, which present a particularly strong message of American military dominance, and have often used Arabs as villains in their plots?
Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA are the two highest performing console titles in the region, and WoW is by far the largest MMO/PC game played across the Middle East. As with the film industry, the recurring portrayal of Arabs as villains or the enemy in games is certainly not welcome, but unless there is blatantly offensive portrayal of Arabs within the game, at which point the game is completely banned, that does not necessarily mean gamers would not play it. In fact, CoD is a highly popular game in the Middle East.
Is the Middle Eastern gaming community skewed toward a particular demographic? In the US for example, gaming has previously been thought of as pastime for younger males, and only recently has it expanded to female and older demographics. Who is mainly playing video games in the Middle East? What’s the perception of the gaming community as a whole?
The Middle East is probably 2-3 years behind the Western markets in terms of the opening up of the gamer demographic to a more universal audience, particularly in terms of console gaming. We’re seeing the market even out in terms of gender in online casual games on platforms such as Facebook, but even in the online space browser based MMOs are again male-dominated.
Gaming culture has a positive perception in the Middle East and is, to a certain extent, freer of the associations with a culture of violence or negative connotations more widely assumed in the West. In a culture where we have a lot of restrictions on males and females socializing, gaming centers provide young males with an alternative activity for going out. This is another main reason why our demographic is still skewed towards the young male gamer, with females mostly playing at home in a family context.
There are much higher decency standards for media content in certain Arab countries than in the West. Has Quirkat ever found itself in controversy for pushing the envelope for a particular title? With these decency standards, why is there not a more uniform rating system? Does the lack of such a system help or hurt as a developer?
We are very conscious of the broad restrictions and standards, which we tend to avoid for wider Middle Eastern penetration of our games. You have to understand that these standards range wildly across the 22 countries that make up the Arabic speaking Middle East. When you talk about strict Saudi content standards it is by no means comparable to the more general decency guidelines in, say, Jordan or Egypt. This fragmentation makes it very difficult to have a uniform rating system, which will most likely take the lowest common denominator of criteria as a baseline. Such a scenario would definitely do more harm than good, as in many cases a developer would choose to forfeit a territory in return for more flexibility in the game design. Having said that, the lack of clear rules and guidelines even in countries such as Saudi means every game submission is a gamble of sorts. A distributor once told me that the regulators find it much easier to say no than to say yes, and even when a developer takes all precaution to sanitize the game content, it could be disallowed for a very random reason as we saw at Quirkat with the initial release of Arabian Lords, which was banned in Saudi Arabia.
Today we’re seeing more flexibility with digital distribution channels such as app stores, console game stores (PSN, XBLA), and social networking platforms. There is no regulation of content and all that remains is that the developer stays within general decency guidelines to avoid gamer dissatisfaction or boycott.
How much has piracy affected sales for developers and Quirkat in particular? How rampant is piracy in the industry, and what are you doing to combat it?
The Middle East remains a highly pirated region in terms of in-store software sales, estimated at an average of 59% of all sales. With the exception of the PS3 platform, all consoles and the PC game market have been heavily cracked and pirated games are cheaply and widely available. We’ve found that the market is a great importer and consumer of piracy, but not highly sophisticated in the technicalities of pirating games. Hence our release of Arabian Lords on disc was not, to our knowledge, cracked or pirated. Proper pricing strategies also encourage stronger legal sales, particularly in the countries with lower GDP per capita.
Again with digital distribution we’re seeing stronger sales and can react and respond to piracy by locking out users and features and patching releases as we go. In the online space the market is completely focused on the free-to-play model with in-game transactions or one-time fees for premium upgrades.
How do you see the industry growing in the region over the next few years? What areas in particular do you think will grow or contract in the industry? What’s next for Quirkat specifically?
What we’re hoping to see is more international players coming into the Arabic speaking space with both localization efforts as well as Middle East targeted games. The market is legalizing and growing at very healthy rates and the opportunity is massive.
For Quirkat specifically we’ve just secured our first round of financing and are taking on bigger projects over the coming 12 months. Specifically we’re happy to be working with Sony in the region and will be focusing a lot of our upcoming game titles for the PSN platform.
Check out Quirkat online here to see their line-up for yourself, and listen for Mahmoud Ali Khasawneh speech at GDC which kicks off today..