It’s common knowledge that few small- or medium-sized Western developers publish games in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. But there is wealth present?almost half a billion dollars per year in mobile games alone, according to analyst SuperData?and avid gamers ready to turn into devoted fans of these franchises.
So is it worth facing up to the patchwork of countries, dialects and sub-groups to monetize a mobile game in the region? The answer, as with everything in MENA, is nuanced.
Defining a region
Newcomers to MENA could be forgiven for confusing the region as a cohesive whole. There are a few common threads: Islam is the dominant religion, Standard Arabic is the lingua franca of over half the people and Modern Standard Arabic provides a consistent written form of the language.
However, each Arabic-speaking country has its own dialect, with most of these being mutually unintelligible. Cultural differences can run deep across the 6,000 kilometer east-to-west span of the region?a much larger area than Europe.
If you consider MENA a whole, it’s occupied by 388 million people in 17 countries, with a GDP of over $3.8 trillion. It’s a famously youthful region: almost a quarter of the population is in the 15-24 age range.
The types of mobile games played in MENA may be weighted by the region’s more recent adoption of smartphones. Arcade, action, sports and casual games are most popular according to Chartboost data, with racing also making a strong showing, perhaps due to the popularity of real-life racing among the region?s youth.
Despite this, role-playing games look like the wave of the future for MENA. The category grew 1,487 percent in one year alone. Even though RPGs outshine all other genres in terms of growth, categories like puzzle, word and card games are also nearly tripling year-over-year.
The strength of RPGs is perhaps driven by the historical popularity of similar multiplayer PC games played at Internet cafes in the years before smartphone adoption picked up. “We believe that our region is attracted to serious gaming, and if the infrastructure gets updated in MENA, we’ll see teams and tournaments that will be [similar to] Europe and Asia,” says MJ Fahmi, who acculturates mobile games for MENA at Dubai-based Babil Games.
Approaching the MENA market
In terms of monetization, just a few countries stand out in MENA. The leader is Saudi Arabia, which brings in 19 percent of the $470 million total for the region alone, according to SuperData. The United Arab Emirates follows at 8 percent, and Israel at 6 percent. Although SuperData doesn’t include Turkey in MENA, it charts the country at $105.3 million in yearly revenue, which would put it just ahead of Saudi Arabia.
Whales (high-paying players) in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been sought after since the early days of Facebook gaming, when stories circulated of Saudi Farmville players paying tens of thousands of dollars in the game. Most large free-to-play companies would have a similar story today if they entered the market.
These countries also offer many well-educated, English-speaking free players, with smartphone penetrations of 54.2 percent and 64.6 percent for Saudi and the UAE, respectively. A recent survey found that nearly half of the highest-monetizing players in Saudi Arabia play in English.
That said, if you want to really grow in MENA, hard work awaits. “Our thesis is that games need to be [acculturate] to succeed in the market, rather than just localized or translated,” says Fadi Mujahid, who until recently led publisher Game Power 7 as CEO.
Localization and acculturation leads to monetization
Full acculturation does have benefits. Players in MENA have a reputation for being highly engaged and social, which can especially boost monetization in multiplayer games. In general, although the Gulf sub-region that includes Saudi and UAE is best for monetization, the Levant region to the north and North Africa to the west offer many more players, with countries like Egypt, Iraq and Iran standing out.
Some of the biggest culturalization difficulties stem from religious sensitivities. “A cross, a hex star, all types of religious symbols are considered very sacred in Arabic culture, so we try to avoid them in order to not get in trouble with players. The second big thing is female character’s clothing. Cover the breasts, cover the arms down to the hands, try not to make the clothing sexy,” Mujahid says.
While religious censors may make some content a black and white issue, shades of gray exist. Nour Khrais, CEO of Jordanian developer Maysalward, points out differences across regions, countries and even cities. “It’s very complicated in some countries and not in others. [For example] if I want to do a Christmas theme I can do it all over the region but not in Saudi because it’s irrelevant, and it will be unacceptable to some people to find it in the game,” says Khrais.
For foreign companies serious about carving out a stake in MENA (excluding Israel), a local partner is likely a must-have. Beyond those quoted above, others strong in the region include Peak Games and Gram Games in Turkey and Gameguise in the UAE.
Mobile game development in MENA
When it comes to mobile game development in MENA, Israel is the clear leader, with companies like Playtika, ?Pacific Interactive and Jelly Button taking part in the global market and raking in hundreds of millions of dollars per year in revenue.
Israel’s developers have been active for years, part of the larger “Silicon Wadi” tech hub that has made Israel a tiny reflection of Silicon Valley. Fundings and acquisitions are regular events: in June, GameFly paid $30 million for Playcast, and the next month Viber paid $9 million for Nextpeer.
However, Israel’s interaction with its own region is minimal. “There are a lot of parts of Israel that are still pretty nascent to technology, so we usually think of Israel as its big urban hubs, and those hubs are mainly exporting,” says Stephanie Llamas, director of research at SuperData. For more on Israel’s industry, check out VentureBeat’s recent in-depth profile, or our own post about why it’s a great place to be a game dev.
Unfortunately, across the rest of the MENA region (especially with Turkey excluded), non-hobbyist game development and publishing activities are spotty or, in several countries, nonexistent.
Khrais is also a founding member of the Gaming Task Force, which is sponsored by the King of Jordan to grow development in the country. Despite the support, he says local devs have a tough time surviving. “The main obstacle today is the financing part. The problems investors face is lack of understanding in the gaming scene. They put in peanuts compared to outside numbers we see from similar markets,” Khrais laments.
As with many other developing regions, MENA can be seen as held back by entirely solvable problems. Developers like Khrais and Mujahid point to positive trends like the rapid expansion of carrier billing, enabling users to pay for the first time and growing device penetration. In general, any developer you may find working in the region will be optimistic and enthusiastic for the future, if only a few technological and financing obstacles can be cleared.
On the other hand, experienced analysts outside the region aren’t convinced that it’s a rocket waiting for ignition. SuperData’s estimates call for about 10 percent yearly growth over the next two years: respectable figures, but lower than some other emerging markets. And with ongoing political instability in the region, it’s not clear whether it could defy expectations.
Nevertheless, for the right game, in the right genre, MENA could be a very attractive destination. Multiplayer and MMO-style games look very attractive for the region, and there may be a large, yet somewhat hidden, audience of potential female gamers awaiting casual hits.