MENA Gaming Market: A Highly Optimistic Sector

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Ever thought about the backstage dynamics driving the games that you are so deeply engrossed in on your mobile, laptop or tab? Read on to understand how your addiction to online games is shaping the industry.

Image depicting characters from FunRock's game, Rivality.
Image depicts characters from Rivality, FunRock’s popular strategy-based mobile MMO game, soon to be localised to the MENA region.

Gamers will be inclined towards online and mobile games, weaning away from the consoles and pre-installed PC games, reports the “EMEA Online Gaming Market 2014.”

The migration towards online gaming will be more prominent in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, which are the emerging markets for online gaming, adds the report.

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Gaming Sector Growth and Trends: Opinions

The gaming sector in the Middle East, Gulf in particular, is estimated to be between USD 1 billion and USD 2.6 billion in terms of revenues including software and hardware.

The number of people downloading video games or computer games online has almost doubled since 2010 in the Middle East. About 10% of mobile users in the UAE download games on mobile. So is the case with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where the monthly audience for gaming websites account for over 10% of Internet users.

The above statistics correlate well with the digital gadgets’ (mobile, smartphones, iPhones, tabs and so on) availability and usage in the Middle East.

Middle East has the second largest mobile phone population with approximately 525.8 million people using a mobile phone monthly, says the Global Media Intelligence Report.

By 2015, Smartphones penetration in the Middle East is expected to record a 39% increase, with 72% of the owners less than 34 years old; 62% males and 38% females.

This augments well for the gaming sector.

A case in point, PeakGames, a Turkey-based startup, has more than 11.8 million daily active players and about 300,000 concurrent users (CCU) across Turkey and MENA.

“The gaming industry in the Arab world has been developing for several years and we are seeing an increase in popular international games being localized, showing there is a demand,” said Darya Trushkina, VP Business Development, Game Insight.

“The GCC in particular is considered a hotbed of ‘whales’, the classification of players with hardcore dedication to their virtual identities and sizeable wallets to accompany it. Saudi Arabian players are famous in this regard,” remarked Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh, Co-Founder and CEO at Gameguise, a startup gaming company focused on localizing games for the Arabian market, in an exclusive to Arabian Gazette.

Gameguise has recently established a strategic partnership with FunRock, an online strategy games developer and publisher headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden.

“We strongly believe that anyone who is serious about the MENA market needs to invest in having a live on-the-ground presence here,” says Lars Hagelin, a Swedish games veteran and FunRock’s CEO.

The company hopes that the association with Gameguise will help them hit the ground running and narrow the learning curve gap that most foreign companies experience when first entering the MENA region.

He added that besides GCC, “Iran and Egypt, corresponding to their huge populations, have significant pools of players as well, but the average revenue per user (ARPU), particularly important to the freemium model of games that are extremely popular in the online games scene) aren’t comparable to their GCC counterparts.”

Lebnan Nader, the co-founder of Birdy Nam Nam, echoes similar viewpoint when he says “The Middle East is separated into two regions: the first region consists of countries like Lebanon and Jordan, and the second, which is a bit better in terms of income, is the Gulf region, which includes Saudi Arabia and Dubai. In that region, smartphone penetration is huge — about 100%. But in our region, Lebanon and Jordan and all those countries, smartphone penetration is really low. So developing a game for a region like that is truly challenging.”

Mahmoud Ali Khasawneh, CEO of Quirkat, a Jordan-based company specializing in social and casual games specifically designed for the Middle Eastern market, feels the Middle East to be “probably 2-3 years behind the Western markets in terms of the opening up of the gamer demographic to a more universal audience.”

He observed the gender differences affecting the choice of games, “the online space browser based MMOs are again male-dominated.”

Having said that, the gaming market in the Middle East continues to grow due to “a more structured retail environment, higher bandwidth, online payment channels and investor interest in the game development space,” he added.

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Top Industry Players and Games

“The MENA landscape is pretty much a blank slate in terms of real industry players in the massively multiplayer online (MMO) strategy space targeting mobile platforms,” says Bozorgzadeh.

The gaming industry comprises developers (designers and creators), publishers (manufacturers and marketers) or distributors (platforms that serve as a medium of dissemination). For instance, Maysalward in Jordan (developer and distributor), Wixel Studios in Lebanon, and Nezal Entertainment in Egypt (developers); UAE-based Tahadi Games, Game Power 7 (publishers), Gameguise (developer and publisher); and Games XP in Jordan, in the UAE (distributors).

With so much available in a gamer’s goody bag, online freemium games, like Clash of Clans that are free to play but offer players payment options to accelerate their development, top the popularity list.

“They are usually real-time and are increasingly cross-platform, which makes the experience ever more addictive as players become immersed in the reality of the gaming universe regardless of whether they are resting on their couch at home or commuting on a train to work,” explains the Gameguise co-founder on popularity of such games.

Revenue and Success

The online games may be monetized through charging per app download, monthly subscriptions, in-app or in-game purchases (freemium model), partnerships with pre-loaded games, advertisements, merchandizing, virtual currency.

However, profitability is largely proportional to being able to offer the right quality to a relevant audience amidst the incessant noise of competition.

“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,” says Khasawneh.

Revenue generation is linked to what kind of games the developer or publisher is offering to the market.

“It can be as lucrative as a SuperCell title, making millions per day off of their freemium titles, or a dud,” says Bozorgzadeh.

Tailoring contents to suit the Middle East audience works well. Online versions of traditional games such as Okey, Travian, Seven Quests are well-liked examples of customized games.

According to Khasawneh, “The publishers that take the time to go beyond pure language localization and understand the gamer demographic and culture can reap the benefits of this wide open market.”

Also to be kept in mind is the cultural sensitivities of the Arabic MENA. While it is quite clear that sex, gambling, alcohol and nudity should be obviously avoided, care should be taken to deal with topics such as family, workplace ethics, politics and war, which could be easily misrepresented in a game environment.

“Targeted marketing can be sufficient in and of itself in some cases where the quality of the game is of a high enough standard. However, it’s a typical experience for a developer to garner significant appreciation from local pools of players when they localise their titles to Arabic, which includes reorienting the interface from LTR to RTL (left-to-right to right-to-left) and editing out content that may be inappropriate for Islamic regulations,” explains Bozorgzadeh.

Khasawneh explains more succinctly, “the social and cultural guidelines are not consistent across the many countries that comprise the Arab world. A deeper understanding of these variations and how product positioning varies from North Africa all the way to the more affluent Gulf market is a sure way of guaranteeing stronger returns on any game investments made in the region.”

He also adds that diversity in broad restrictions and standards across MENA region and absence of a uniform rating system does more harm than good.

“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.”


The Quirkat CEO is positive of a vibrant gaming industry in future and feels that more international players were foraying into ‘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,” he adds.

Bozorgzadeh’s optimism about the future of the gaming industry in the region runs very high.

“The experience will continue to become increasingly immersive in terms of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. You can let your imagination ponder all of what that entails and offers to gamers.”

Before concluding the article, in a lighter vein, here are some interesting facts about global online gaming trends that you will be surprised to learn:

  • Women play more games, so does the older generation
  • Gaming families and friend-network based on gaming is the norm
  • Revenue from games and game content on par with movie industry
  • Mobile gaming is on the rise
  • Casual, casino, mobile and social games are increasingly popular
  • Free to play business models redefining the marketplace
  • Asia is the hotbed for gaming
  • The world-wide video game industry grew 9% in 2013; now exceeds USD 76 billion and estimated to reach over $86 billion by 2016.
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