By David Fernandez Remesal, chief executive officer, Sandsoft Games
MENA’s gaming growth isn’t just about business - it’s an opportunity to understand each other better
With video games revenue in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) expected to reach $3.14 billion by 2025, it’s no surprise that the curiosity of the global games industry has been well and truly piqued. And this figure could prove to be a drastic underestimate given the revelation that Saudi Arabia has earmarked $13 billion for the acquisition of a major publisher.
The economic opportunities for the games industry are evident, but we’ll be missing a trick if such investment is not accompanied by a renewed focus on upskilling diverse talent, ensuring everyone can access the best gaming experiences, and understanding each other better.
Assessing the state of play
It seems safe to say that the MENA region is primed to make a lasting impression on both local and global gaming, but what impact will these lofty figures really have? Will they sate the huge demand for gaming content among MENA consumers; nearly half of whom are under 25 years old?
These young people have historically been underserved by the games industry, but have nevertheless grown up as digital natives, with gaming playing a huge role in their entertainment. A reported 23.5 million (67%) of the Saudi Arabian population identify as gaming enthusiasts, and in 2021, MENA gamers poured $1.6 billion into mobile games in the main app stores, a rise of almost 50 percent on the previous year.
As well as international investment, another core focus for funding has been the development of policies encouraging game localization, and the introduction of a variety of initiatives aimed at creating pathways for the Middle East’s talented young people into future game development career opportunities - within both local and international studios. But the process of nurturing homegrown local talent will take time to bear fruit, and thus, a dual opportunity exists: In addition to creating a vibrant community of MENA devs, there is another chance for experienced global developers to step forward and meet the needs of a plentiful and eager market of Middle Eastern consumers.
In addition to creating a vibrant community of MENA devs, there is another chance for experienced global developers to step forward and meet the needs of a plentiful and eager market of Middle Eastern consumers.David Fernandez Remesal
The process of releasing a game into MENA hasn’t always been a straightforward task in the past, however, leading many gamers to rely on cheap counterfeit copies enabled by a lack of protection of foreign intellectual property. And, while proper translation and consideration for religious and cultural differences are vital areas for developers to address when localising games for a MENA audience, representation of Middle Eastern cultures within prominent gaming content has typically been crass.
Understanding each other better
Let’s not sugar the pill; game developers are still making errors of judgement when it comes to Middle Eastern representation. In 2021, Sniper Ghost Warrior: Contracts 2 studio CI Games issued an apology for poor representation of Arabic culture during a press event for the game held in the US. From inappropriate and inaccurate representation of the culture to the insinuation of Arabic characters as the “bad guys”, attending journalists witnessed “Anti-Arab attitudes”.
During a recent Games for Change panel called, "Arab Voices in Games", speakers discussed some of the problems they still face, varying from poor translation to the more serious reduction of Arabic characters to little more than context-lacking terrorists needing to be defeated in order to “win”.
Middle Eastern indie developers are leading the charge for change. “A lot of devs who are coming from our cultural backgrounds are making games and are putting themselves in the forefront”, comments Perfect Garbage co-founder and studio director Son M. AAA developers have some catching up to do, they continue, saying that the industry "still isn't fully receptive yet. There's kind of the subtle three-strike rule when you're pitching a game, [concerning] what is risky. And apparently, brown and Black characters as main characters in some genres are a risk factor". Developer Rami Ismail agrees, stating that "the push is definitely coming from indie, but in AAA, that's where a lot of the fight feels like it is right now".
CoD4: a case in point
There’s an interesting case presented by the 2007 release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The runaway success of the title played an integral role in piercing through to the Middle Eastern market, prompting the development of official distribution channels and growth of local interest in console gaming. But, the game’s blunt portrayal of Middle Eastern vs Western worldviews meant that, understandably, many MENA gamers found it unsettling to shoot endless protagonists who looked a lot like themselves.
Despite these setbacks, gamers were, for the most part, able to see through the themes and focus on the potential for local and global connectivity offered by online gaming; something that’s now at the forefront of MENA’s games industry development, with esports tournaments seeing a huge rise in regional support and popularity. Plus, to the credit of the 2019 re-release of Modern Warfare, the introduction of playable character Farah Karim to the game demonstrated Activision’s desire to remedy past misgivings through the portrayal of a Middle Eastern character who actively opposes the ideas and actions of a separatist group. Even so, the studio issued an apology not two years later, in 2021, for disrespectful use of the Quran in Call of Duty: Vanguard.
There’s a clear window of opportunity for Western developers to reframe their relationship with the MENA market, and contribute to the nurturing of homegrown talent. Ubisoft recently announced that Assassin’s Creed Mirage (set in ninth century Baghdad) would feature Arabic dubbing in all markets, while EA’s FIFA 2023 features Saudi Arabia’s Saeed Al-Owairan as a ‘FUT hero’ item. This approach signals that global companies can bring their wealth of experience to bear in MENA. Yes, to sell games, but also to act as a valuable resource to aid the continued growth of the industry in the region.
The MENA region’s relatively recent globalist policy on the development of its games industry should be seen as an opportunity to further dissolve the global borders of cultural differences, stereotypes and misrepresentation - ideally leading to a more successful, more inclusive (and yes, more profitable) global games industry that will be infinitely more enjoyable for all cultures.
About David Fernandez, CEO at Sandsoft
David Fernandez is Chief Executive Officer at Sandsoft, an innovative mobile-first game developer, publisher and investor. With 15+ years of experience as a games industry leader, David has worked at leading brands like THQ, Digital Chocolate, Nokia and King. At King, he spearheaded expansion of legendary Candy Crush and Bubble Witch IPs, growing both multi-billion-dollar game franchises for Activision-Blizzard. He’s a mobile gaming industry expert, with immense knowledge across advertising, marketing, and developing and operating systems. Aside from being the lead executive at Sandsoft, he’s a partner at the Conector Start-up Accelerator, and a games and technology angel investor.
Founded in 2020, Sandsoft is a gaming company based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia focused on publishing, developing & investing in high quality international gaming experiences and studios. Sandsoft is committed to delivering engaging and entertaining experiences to players in the MENA region, with global support from an experienced team with a proven track record. The seasoned team is composed of passionate game creators who collate a deep-rooted knowledge of the video games market, having worked on some of the most successful game franchises ever, including FIFA, Candy Crush, Need for Speed, Angry Birds and World of Tanks. With offices in Saudi Arabia, Spain, Finland and China, Sandsoft aims to bring continents, cultures, and people closer together, helping to enrich the gaming ecosystem across MENA.