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What You Need to Know About Breaking into the Arab Market

December 10, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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Localization Coordinator


Mohamed Almonajed
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Let's see what the future is hiding for us in that region :)

Bram Stolk
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I did the opposite, and yanked my game from the Saudi market (where it was really popular, btw), after getting really upset about crap like this:

Google Play lets you publish on a per-country basis.

People get upset about sexism in gaming (quite rightly so), but it is NOTHING compared to the oppression that women undergo in the arab world.

Amir Sharar
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If you were to consistently apply your logic, you'd ban your games from countries like Canada because they've implicitly supported the use of cluster bombs.

What governments do, especially when it conflicts with the will of the people, would never affect which markets I decide to sell my products to. Otherwise I'd have to ban my product from 95% of the countries out there, including the United States.

Diana Hsu
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I think your sentiment is wonderful; however, often it's the exposure to outside influences that help people in the most unlikely ways. For example, having a TV in the house in Indian families (controlling for income and other factors) has been shown to be related to literacy rates in girls.

Amir Barak
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Eh, you've got a slightly logical fallacy there mate... Bram is clearly against oppression of women, he never mentioned cluster bombs anywhere. Also, what's wrong with using cluster bombs? Unless of course Canada is using cluster bombs to oppress their women...?

Amanda Fitch
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Bram, thank you for being an awesome man!!!

Kyle Redd
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"People get upset about sexism in gaming (quite rightly so), but it is NOTHING compared to the oppression that women undergo in the arab world. "

Good luck trying to get anyone in the games industry to acknowledge that fact. I learned very quickly that, for those on the left, when women's rights comes into conflict with political correctness (or "cultural sensitivity," which apparently is why the abhorrent treatment of women in much of the Arab world is largely ignored), women will always get the boot.

Ahmad Jadallah
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I think this situation is not quite like it sounds at first. In Saudi Arabia there is a sponsor\sponsored system in place. A sponsored person cannot leave the country without the sponsor issuing an "Exit\Re-Entry Visa". So consider the following cases:
1- A person (any gender) below 18 needs to get an exit\re-entry visa from their sponsor (parents in this case)
2- An employee (again, any gender) needs to get an exit\re-entry visa from their sponsor (company in this case)
3- An employee spouse (any gender) needs to get an exit\re-entry visa from their spouse (who in turn is sponsored by a company).

It might seem complicated but this process is done online and is quite easy. I am not here to defend any practices but this specific scenario does not strike me as something "women specific"

Chris Christow
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@ Kyle Redd

Are you sure? Watch youtube! So many happy Christian women happy to marry an Arab man and live according to Shariah rules :)

Alexander Jhin
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Punish not the people whose governments screw them over. Does pulling your game affect the Saudi government? No. Does pulling your game affect the Saudi people (those being hurt by the government?) Yes!

Additionally, how do people even know you pulled the game in protest? I know because I read Gamasutra, but I doubt the Saudi government does.

While the cause is probably righteous, the protest is ineffective. Perhaps more effective would have been to release a Saudi Arabian version of the game that calls out what you perceive as unjust, then lets people play as normal. If it gets censored by the Saudi Government, then good job, you did something that got the Saudi govt to pay attention. But pulling the game yourself doesn't get any attention at all.

Amir Sharar
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@Amir Barak

The comparison between oppression of women and cluster bomb usage is done because both things are WRONG. And why is cluster bomb usage wrong? Because it kills scores of innocent civilians. Look at it's use by Israel in Lebanon and the number of civilians killed through its usage.

I'm actually appalled that anyone would back Bram's bigoted perspective, thinking that the people in these countries should be punished for what their backwards governments are doing.

Candide Kirk
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The first thing you need to know about the Arab market is that it does NOT include Turkey. Turkey is a huge Middle Eastern market, but speaks TURKISH. Peak Games happen to operate in both Turkey and the Arabic speaking markets, but the majority of what you're quoting Ms Onur on in your article relates to Turkey.

It's interesting that in a 3 page Gamasutra feature you do not speak to a single Arab game developer. Can we just assume that we know our market a bit better than someone in a New York office? Thank you.

Yes, the Arabic speaking games market is growing, and is certainly worth looking at. Yes, we've always said that if you can kick it, shoot it or drive it then the game will sell well, but that's only because those three genres are particularly low on language count and can intuitively be played even if your English is very basic. Arabic is the key here. To successfully enter the market, the language HAS to be there. The irony is that the more affluent the country is, the higher the language barrier (Gulf states especially). I fully agree with Rena that local holidays and cultural references make all the difference - Halloween means nothing here. Neither does Thanksgiving.

The local development community is thriving. We (the Arab game developers) host regular game jams across the Arab world, we have players in the indie social, mobile, web, mmo and console spaces and we're always looking to partner and help global companies enter our markets. The consumers are very mature gamers and contrary to what is implied in the article, include a substantial core gamer audience with typical households in the more affluent regions owning several consoles (i.e. not an XBOX vs. PS vs. Nintendo market, rather all three would be owned by the same family).

For a local perspective on the opportunities, read:

Bob Charone
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"The consumers are very mature gamers and contrary to what is implied in the article, include a substantial core gamer audience with typical households in the more affluent regions owning several consoles (i.e. not an XBOX vs. PS vs. Nintendo market, rather all three would be owned by the same family). "

But how common are those typical affluent households in a poor region?

According to Capgemini there are
3.4M millionaires in North America
3.4M in Asia
3.2M in Europe
0.5M in Latin America
0.5M in Middle East
0.1M in Africa

Especially considering that North America and Middle East have a similar number of people!

Candide Kirk
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@Bob Charone

Not sure where you missed the memo on the rich Arab stereotype, but I wouldn't classify the Arab world as "poor" (again, note major difference from Middle East) which boasts 3 countries in the top ten GDP per capita globally

Of course that is not to say that there is no poverty across many Arab states, but certainly not the richer Gulf countries.

But none of that is even remotely important because since when do you have to be a millionaire to afford video games or to be considered affluent? Disposable income is the key here and yes it is abundant.

Bob Charone
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Egypt is 101st in that ranking and has far more people than those tiny top Arab states combined. Also if you look at the top 10 the only populous nation is the US. The are plenty of rich Arabs where I live so I'm unfortunately too familiar with that stereotype.

My point is the Arab world is not as rich as the developed world. Even in those tiny, tiny "rich" arab states most of the wealth is held by a tiny fraction, so please exit your reality distortion field!

As far as owning consoles, a third of the world's home gaming consoles are owned by people in the US alone, the rest are in Europe and Asia (excluding Middle east)!

Candide Kirk
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"Reality distortion field" ? How rich... Excuse the pun!

The above was released during the famous PSN outage. Quick math puts total Arab country accounts at around 1.1M, but this doesn't even take into account the number of people in the region with US or JP or UK accounts who'd either set them up before PSN was officially launched in their countries, or who'd kept those accounts for catalogue availability reasons. I'm also ignoring any growth in the past year and a half (although the ME territories still boast much higher growth rates than the plateaued traditional ones).

Again, what's your point? Are you making an argument against localising to Arabic or arguing the premise of the article? The headline clearly targets those who are in fact looking to "break into the Arab Market"

Bob Charone
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WOW 1.1 million in the entire Arab world! About as many as a small European country! And did you happen to notice the 31 million in US, a nation that has fewer people than the Arab world, and its not even popular there. I'm not against trying to appeal to Arab gamers but frankly its not a very big market despite its large population.

Ahmad Jadallah
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@ Bob,

1.1 Million is several times bigger than Poland, Portugal and Turkey (It equals them when you combine all three of them!) and yet each of those countries always get the games localized into their own languages and they get XMB Localization support as well. In the case of the Arab world, all you need is to do the effort once as they all speak one language. And that is not even counting XBox 360 which should make a better case for multiplatform titles as well.

EA fully localized Fifa and Need For Speed and for Fifa its the second year in a row. They wouldn't be doing that if it didn't sell good.

Mobiles and Tablets are very popular as well and people here have higher tendency to spend a lot on such devices to get the higher end models.

Candide Kirk
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I fail to see the relevance of US numbers in the context of this article, but in any case best of luck with your English only titles. With the industry shaking up in its traditional markets let me know how that works out for you.

@Ahmad - to further support your argument, I have it on good authority that Arabic XMB is coming soon. XBL has already officially launched in KSA and UAE. I'd say these decisions are not taken on a whim and both MS and Sony see the growth and potential of the market.

Bob Charone
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Its not the article, it is your stupid comment on the wealth of Arabs! It is a touchy subject as there are many wealthy Arabs here in Paris and yet if you visit one of the few 'rich' Arab nations you quickly see that most are not affluent as the west, that is why I truly believe you are living in some sort of bubble or are just ignorant!

As the numbers supported by both of us have posted only a tiny minority (much smaller than Europe and US) are affluent enough own one console let alone several! And if you want to talk about a language worth considering (regardless of actual sales number) there will soon be more middle-class Chinese than total people in the Arab world.

Ahmad Jadallah
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I have to agree with Candide here. Its great that you featured Peak games but they cover a specific market (social games) and are based in Turkey.

Candide's company Quirkat developed an Arabic PSN title based on a local card game (Basha). We are a Saudi Arabian developer based in Riyadh and we are developing an episodic action adventure that targets PC\Mac\iOS\Android\PSN\XBLA\Facebook and Cloud Gaming ( which , in addition to Arabic in voice and text, features 21 languages for subtitles in an effort to reach a global audience with our local historical figures and culture.

While I have to admit that Turkish and Iranian developers are more active than us Arab developers and admire the great work they do, I think its not fair to present them as the sole front of the region. Having read the article I got out with a different impression of the industry than what I see is a reality in my daily job. Specially ideas like "Don't Translate into Arabic cause its cooler for kids if its in English" strikes me as the reason we don't get Arabic translated games in the region (if thats the advise companies are getting from those eemm New-York based "Consultants")

Muhammad Al-kaisy
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I agree on the last part about not translating to Arabic. As evident from our games such as Need for Speed Most Wanted and FIFA13, sales for these games have not been as good as they are now that they got proper localization.

Chris Christow
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Oh, yeah! Time to make CoA: Modern Warfare the Arab way! :) That'd be an amazing fun! :)

Ayman Awartani
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We're a game development company based in Middle East, We can help you in Planing and Research, Execution, and Optimization via offering Market Research, SEO Research, Keyword Analysis, Search Query Analysis & Expansion, Website localization, Media localization, Proofreading & Editing, translation and culture related studies.
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