Though you rarely hear news about the Arab game industry, video games are booming in the Middle East/North African market, just like they are in many other regions around the world. Last year, games generated an estimated $900 million (out of $24 billion for the global market).
And many predict the region's revenues will continue to shoot up in the coming years, even more so than in other areas. Research firm Ovum believes annual game revenues in the Arab market will more than triple by 2016 to $3.2 billion (29 percent compound annual growth rate versus 17 percent global growth).
The local game development scene is growing fast, but there are also plenty of opportunities for Western outfits to bring their releases to the region, whether you're a big social game studio or a small mobile team. Developers just need to know what to expect and what to prepare for.
Why you should pay attention to the Arab market
For many, the idea of the Middle East becoming a rising powerhouse in the game industry likely comes as a surprise.
Joe Minton at Digital Development Management, which helps partners release their games to the Middle East and other countries all over world, notes that the area had been off the map when it comes to video games for so long. A lot of companies haven't paid attention to the market's progress in recent years as a result.
"Just five to seven years ago, you didn't hear about licensing games to the Middle East," Minton tells Gamasutra. "And if you did, it was just getting stuff to one broker to handle the whole region for a teeny amount of money. It was considered a throwaway because of piracy, because there weren't Xboxes and PlayStations to any sufficient quantities."
A number of factors have allowed digital games to explode in the Arab market, however, like the huge youth population, the high level of disposable income in places like Turkey and the Gulf states, and the increasing availability of payment methods like credit and prepaid cards.
"Internet penetration, penetration of Facebook, smartphone penetration -- all these things are growing at double-digit growth rates per month," points out Rina Onur, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Turkish developer and publisher Peak Games (Lost Bubble).
Minton adds, "It's like an immediate massive market suddenly coming online in the course of just a couple of years as opposed to decades. ... It's a staggeringly incredible opportunity for developers."
And with so many games flooding digital marketplaces now, teams can't afford to limit their sights to just North America, Europe, and Asia; they need to ensure they're relevant in as many regions as possible because they're competing with so many other companies in the main regions already.
What game types succeed in the Middle East?
The game companies Gamasutra talked to immediately answered that question by citing soccer games as a popular category for the Middle East -- Electronic Arts, for example, has received plenty of praise for its recent Arabic edition of FIFA. Non-culturally-specific games based on other locally popular sports like F1 Racing tend to do well, too.
"We also see games that you might not think of as being huge there," says Minton, who mentions there's even demand for Western-style RPGs. "Shooters are popular. Puzzle games are popular. When you begin to go down the list, it looks very similar to anywhere else in the world."
Peak Games, though, has found particular success with multiplayer synchronous titles that have a heavy emphasis on social aspects and communication between players. The company has adapted card games, tabletop games, and board games (e.g. backgammon -- culturally relevant games) as digital titles with that in mind.
Onur comments, "I think the reason these multiplayer games have been doing so well in these regions is that most of the time, people in emerging markets, especially in [Turkey], they don't have the liberties that a lot of people in the West have.
"It's much easier for people in the West, in North America, to just go out, meet people, and have conversations, whereas access to communication, people, or communities is much more restricted in a lot of the emerging markets because of the demographics and socioeconomic situations. I think a lot of the time, people use these games not only as just games as pastime but also as platforms to be able to connect with others."
Peak has found that when people come together in these types of communal experiences where they're playing and chatting in real-time, rather than wanting to purchase in-game chips to play more hands, they want to spend money on social aspects like private rooms, virtual gifts, etc.
"Games that provide this aspect, which creates communities on Facebook or on mobile within a game are proven to be very successful," says Onur.