Game Development in the Middle east: an introduction


In 2006, I was part of a team sent to the Tokyo Game Show; our objective was to meet as many companies – publishers – as possible within a three day time frame, and present our game to them to garner feedback and follow up on those who were interested in taking our business relationship further. 

That’s me at the TGS 2006; crooked glasses, full of hope and no sense of fashion whatsoever; a geek in Otaku heaven  


Our first meeting was with the Konami reps at 8:00am; needless to say that we were really nervous to head start the day with such a big name, but we put on our best and we wanted to present our best! we were really hoping we could make it. 
Meeting time came and the vice president of Konami of America came into the room; we introduced ourselves, offered our business cards and started a bit of small talk before the presentation to break the ice. He noticed our names were peculiar – mine especially since the other two with me were Joseph and Osama both household names – and asked where were we from, and when we answered Jordan he was shocked; Not only because there’s a game development house in Jordan, or in the middle east, or that they came all the way to Japan to do business … no, he was shocked because he didn’t know people played games in the middle east to begin with. 
Now when you hear such an esteemed professional from a company that brought perhaps the middle east’s most popular game: Winning Eleven – that they didn’t consider the Arab World/ Middle East as a market for their products you’d realise that there’s something seriously wrong going on. 

Naturally he’d think: “how come a lot of people play of our games and we’re not getting sales figures?” the answer was simple: Piracy. But that’s a subject to another post. 

And as the meetings went on, we heard the same thing over and over from Japanese and European companies alike: Nintendo, Namco, Eidos and lots others did not realize that there are enough gamer base in that region to even begin to establish their game development scene. 
I remember something that one of the Nintendo guys told me that day, he said that we have something no one else has, we have a new cultural influence to offer to the world; that there are Japanese, European and American schools of design, you can look at a game and tell were it came from; they also presented their cultures relatively highly in games, we played Samurai games, western games, medieval games and so on. 
We have the opportunity to view the game world from a fresh pair of eyes and whole different background. 
The Ubisoft CEO said, that even when European studios tapped the middle eastern culture with Prince of Persia, it was a major success because it was simply “something new” and we had the making of that ‘something-new’ everyone is looking for. 
Five years later we are still to deliver on our potential. 
First development houses 2005 – 2008 
While the middle east has been an active gaming hub for almost two decades, it’s explosive period is without a doubt 1996-97 onward; with the playstation becoming a standard home purchase. when that generation matured enough to want to take on creating games themselves they formed numerous fan-boy clubs; a bunch of guys working on their own project/mod. 
Most noteworthy accomplishments of that era were teams that created mods on the half life engine or other games that offered complicated map editors for their respective fan base. The mods mostly dealt with political issues and ideals which greatly limited any chance of success outside their limited circles. 

This is an example of such games; marketed as the first 3D Arab game that deals with the events in Palestine; it was a half life mod


The main problems that faced those teams were lack of community; internet was still in it’s development period, and Arab technical forums – all though now barely starting to rise – were virtually none existent; there was no way for a mod/game to find audience outside a small circle of friends and supporters. 
The period of 2006 to 2009 saw the rise of investors creating serious companies that aim to make it or break it in the game industry. It was also a different time, and these start up companies wanted to tackle it in what now we view as a questionable matter, they wanted to dive nose first into the game business the only way they knew how: creating AAA titles. 
They went about it in one of two ways: either build a team and create their own original IP or purchase a complete product and localize it for the Arab market. 
Both strategies failed. 
Lack of experience of the management as well as the staff of those companies made them miss the difficulty of their task. Talent was hard to acquire and when met it would be raw and require training; programmers never dealt with virtual 3D spaces before and graphic designers mostly never know what a UI is. 
But that wasn’t the major issue, there are several issues that attributed to the companies eventual demise:
  • At the time most these companies started developing their titles the gaming industry was moving into the next gen consoles (questionable forecasting?). 
  • Most companies who had some product worth discussing for the overseas market were met with the global economical crisis at the time they finally reached their first playable demo; with wide spread layoffs across the industry no publisher had the luxury to invest any of it’s liquidities in a start up company no one knew about sending them emails from the middle of nowhere. 
  • Management pretty much doomed projects from the start, instead of creating and constructing dependable feasibility studies, market research and knowing what’s ‘hip’ in choosing their games genres and systems they just followed their childhood dreams, or typical Arab stereo types. They either worked on remakes of their childhood favourites (way out of date at the time) or just any game that has Arab,desert, Bedouin …etc disregarding a very crucial factor: game play!
  • Most companies built business models without understanding a typical game development house structure, months of chaos roamed offices as people were trying to understand what they’re trying to do and who to report to. 
  • Managers following their typical state of mind ran development houses as if they were supermarkets: gave more time to meetings concerning cleaning the mugs in the kitchen and coming back from the lunch break on time instead of brain storming sessions, game play analysis and thorough play testing. 
  • Most development houses wanted to make a profit before finishing the product: studios in Jordan and Dubai wanted to make a profit when making a financing deal with the publishers. the presented exaggerated figures in hope that they would make enough money to sustain the development and then some, sales afterwards were just the sugar on top. Ignoring the royalty driven method made the developers focus less on creating a quality product (since they don’t care if it sells or not), which made publishers consider it even less. 
  • Executive personnel making creative decisions; since most people higher in command have less technical knowledge, they intervene less in the development department than they do in the design, they have an opinion about if the game looked good or not and thus always making the modifications they requested the highest priority; the end result is always what’s easy on their eye not everyone else’s and a nightmare shuffle in project plans. 
  • The gaming industry was changing: prices went up, people spent less on 50$ games and more on casual free of charge games, instead of releasing 200something games for the PS2 a year there are now around 70Something games for the PS3 a year or even less; Games became an extravagant show of technology and talent that developing a console title became a multi-million dollar investment;  there was simply no way for smaller studios to compete with the big boys. 
  • Companies that purchased finished titles and wanted to mass market them had to compete with the fierce pirating community. The games they picked out weren’t that good to begin with, they didn’t chose games based on it’s market value, they chose them based on getting the cheapest Arab themed game they could get. Selling them for the bare minimum didn’t even cut it. thousands of copies remains stacked on shelves to this very day. 
I’m not just saying this because I was part of the team that developed it, but CROSSROADS was perhaps the best ME game to never see the light; it was developed in house 100% by a team that started with nothing but passion

The companies that survived this period were the ones that shifted to casual flash games or the ones that started with mobile game development to begin with. As the console market got harder for everyone world wide, the rise of Facebook and the internet made casual gaming the optimum space for development. especially for start ups with relatively volatile capital and little experience. 

The rise of Casual games 2009 – Present

Perhaps the only success story from the previous era was a browser game called Travian. All though it wasn’t developed by a middle eastern house, it was localized and aggressively marketed toward the gulf region. it was a great success; millions of players joined and thousands purchased virtual goods earning the company almost 200,000$ a month for a period of two years. 

inspired by Travian, 2009 was the beginning of a more mature era of game development in the region; particularly in Jordan with 6 development houses starting up aiming to go head on with the casual gaming market, only 2 survived in Dubai (one of them was initially Jordanian before moving their offices). Companies have learned a very hard lesson from their predecessor’s that didn’t make it and made it their objective to take it slow and one step at a time. 

but perhaps a little bit too slow. 

Two types of companies emerged those who decided to do their own development and those who decided on getting final products and localize them for the market, that market being the web.

to this day, the most popular casual games marketed for Arab players are card games (Tarneeb, Trix and Baloot) 

In the light of the Yahoo-Maktoob deal, aiming for the web wasn’t a bad decision at all; and every start up had that target of ultimate acquisition by larger firm. 

Who knows, maybe it would happen again.

to be continued  



4 thoughts on “Game Development in the Middle east: an introduction

  1. Only hoping we get up and learn! there's potential and we're definitely heading in the right direction! Thanks Mohammad 🙂


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