What platforms should developers target?
Though there are local social networks in the Middle East, Facebook is still the king there, as it is in English-speaking territories. "I think it's impossible for any other player to break that domination anytime soon," says Onur. "In the greater MENA [Middle East/North Africa] region, there are over 40 million people on Facebook right now, and it's increasing really, really rapidly."
Turkey is the fifth largest country on Facebook right now in terms of population -- more than 30 million citizens there have registered on the site -- and Peak has capitalized on that by targeting Turkish users and other Middle Eastern gamers who are signing up for the site in droves. The developer is currently the sixth biggest social game company in the world according to monthly active users (over 24 million).
Onur makes sure to mention that mobile is also picking up in the region: "As a market in total, it's smaller than what it is in Asia or the Western markets right now, but the growth rate is really amazing. In the next 12 to 18 months, it's going to be a completely different scenario, with mobile becoming very viable and actually a big platform."
While the BlackBerry traditionally has been very strong in the region, most are turning their attention to iOS and Android smartphones and tablets now, as both are increasing their market share at a rapid pace. Already in many MENA countries, the average number of mobile devices per person is more than one -- over two, in some areas.
Mobile and social aren't developers' only options, though. Minton adds, "With the internet penetration, [for] PC free-to-play, having client-based games is a tremendous opportunity since you can take care of the piracy issue, as has been done in China and in other regions, or at least keep it tamped down. Then you really come down to do you need to have servers in the region and so forth, which does get trickier. But some games, of course, the lag isn't as vital."
And CEO Mahyad Tousi from New York City-based BoomGen Studios, a transmedia outfit with a focus on the Middle East, advocates the idea of looking beyond just social or mobile, and consider attaching other media to increase the reach of their property, whether that's through books, films, comics, etc.
Local or Western content
As with any title that's planned for international release, developers need to build their games with localization in mind from the start when targeting the MENA market. They need to make sure it's easy to drop in translated text or assets, and that the codebase and user interface can adapt to Arabic words, which are read from right to left.
But when it comes to deciding how much developers should localize or adapt their content for the region (beyond taking care to avoid sensitive issues or content), it's not as clear-cut what approach game makers need to take. Minton argues that since English is a very common language and there are so many different dialects in Arabic, some developers may decide against fully localizing a game.
"I don't think that the question has been answered yet as to exactly what content needs to be localized into Arabic," he says. "Certainly, having greater respect for the region, it would intuitively seem as though it would make sense to [fully localize games], but also in some countries, there's a sense that if it's in English, it's cooler to the kids."
He believes publishers and developers should take advantage of that thirst many have for connections to the West and to Western entertainment -- whether through music, movies, or video games -- by not just considering bringing their games to the region but also playing up the foreign style and content.
"Those are things that are really loved in the region. It can be very easy seeing headlines in papers that there's a gulf that is insurmountable between the Middle East and the West. That's not at all the case. The vast majority of people thirst for and want these connections," Minton continues.
Onur, however, takes a different view on the importance of localization. In her opinion, developers shouldn't stop at simply swapping in Arabic text. "You can't expect to take a generic game off the shelf, like a city-building game for example, just translate it, and expect that it's going to be a hit as it was in the Western hemisphere. [Failing to make] cultural tweaks is not going to do you any good. The product does not scale. If anything, it's going to hurt your brand image as a company."
Some of those tweaks Peak makes with the third party games it publishes in the Middle East include something as simple as implementing region-specific holidays (many social games feature special events or content on holidays). Rather than celebrating Christmas or Easter, which have little relevance in a predominantly Muslim market, the games feature events for Ramadan or Eid al-Adha.
Onur adds, "In terms of the characters that are included, if it's a farm game, instead of having a Western-looking [farm worker], we have an Egyptian-looking man or a woman that's covered up wearing a hijab, according to cultural apparel and gear." She says it's critical that companies invest the time and resources to make these necessary changes.
That's why Onur believes that working with local teams, or having people on your staff who have spent time in the region, is essential. "The one thing [you need to] make sure of is understanding the people who you are targeting," she stresses.