Turkey is in crisis. The country’s financial and economic fortitude faces extreme declines in the Turkish lira, the highest inflation in two decades, and escalating borrowing costs and loan defaults. It is an enormously trying and uncertain time.
In stark contrast, to say Turkey’s mobile games industry has blossomed would be a gross understatement. In a scant few years, Turkey has comprehensively defined itself as a global leader in the hypercasual genre, a proven nexus for acquisitions and investment, and provided a beacon – and employment – for the country’s talented and passionate youth.
Contradictions are seductive, so PocketGamer.biz spoke with studio heads, developers, and educators in the country to discern what has enabled this fortuitous success and, perhaps more importantly, how sustainable it is.
Second mover advantage
In an industry defined by internationality, Batuhan Avucan, founder and managing director of Mobidictum, noted that Turkey’s geographic location offered it a distinct advantage: "Culturally, we are in the middle of both the east and the west. This gives us a distinct advantage: an understanding and adaptability to different cultures, reflected in our game design."
Turkey doesn’t have a games industry heritage like Scotland, the US, or Japan. Besides the Turkish web portal Mynet, Peak Games – founded in 2010 and acquired by Zynga a decade later for $1.8 billion – represents the country’s first widely acclaimed digital games success story. But it wasn’t always games.
Mehmet Umut Ermeç, co-founder and CEO of Tiplay stated that although Turkey’s prominence in the mobile games landscape is flourishing, the country has always been present other digital fields: "Turkey has always been an important global player when it comes to digital marketing and e-commerce. We witnessed notable startup establish themselves in these areas with the know-how, talent, and network to build strong online marketplaces."
These skills, and a young population struggling to find work in many industries, translated well to mobile games. "There are hundreds of thousands of educated young people who are unemployed, and this constitutes a solid foundation for careers in the game industry," Umut Ermeç continued.
Unsurprisingly, the pronounced success of Peak and the wider Turkish games ecosystem had a rousing effect on the perception of the industry. Rina Onur Sirinoglu, co-founder and CEO of Spyke Games, stated: "With successful stories surrounding Peak, Gram, and Rollic, and the funding rounds and successful partnerships, young talent has a lot to look up to.
"All of a sudden, their favourite pastime is a rising profession; everybody wants to be part of gaming – attracting both top graduates from high-ranking universities and people leaving consulting jobs. The more frequent these success stories are, the more hope it inspires in the younger generation of talent, driven to achieve similar results."
The hypercasual loop
Hypercasual, arguably cemented with 2013’s Flappy Bird, was the perfect genre for a burgeoning industry: typically free-to-play, using minimalist user interfaces and player interactions, and built on accessible hooks. Avucan’s formula for Turkey’s hypercasual success makes it seem like simplicity itself: "Fast prototyping, fast results, and low costs per prototype have decreased the entry barrier to the games industry."
Onur Sirinoglu added: "Turkey is good in pinpointing rising trends and getting on the bandwagon quickly. Hypercasual is about time to market and speed of execution more than any other genre I can think of. Hard-working groups, ready to sacrifice and push the boundaries of normal pace of product development, leap-frog ahead of others.
"Having a few global charting hypercasual hits brings data, cross-promotion, and invaluable experience."
However, Onur Sirinoglu was keen to stress that Turkey’s mobile games success expanded beyond hypercasual.
"There’s so much attention on hypercasual in Turkey because of the disparate level of activity. What’s more interesting to me is what the country is doing in the casual genre. The quality of play experience and execution teams achieve here is beyond comparison," pointing to Peak Games’ Toy Blast, Gram Games’ Merge Dragons, Dream Games’s Royal Match, and Loop Games’ Match3D.
Get in games
Much like the hypercasual genre presented opportunities to enter the market, the mobile games industry has provided a lifeline for Turkey’s young population. The median age in Turkey is 31.5 years, and the long-term unemployment rate in the country skyrocketed between 2018 and 2021.
The games industry, not immune to feast-or-famine extremes, seems an unlikely champion. But Güven Çatak, head of game design at Bahçeşehir Üniversitesi and founder of the Bahçeşehir Üniversitesi Game Lab (BUG), was effusive about what games have done for the country: "Finally, the immense youth of Turkey has a career path that can tap into 100 per cent of their potential.
"The perception of gaming in Turkey has changed. Even parents are much more excited than their children about the potential of studying games; they think that it is a good career path, one that is global and prosperous."
And not just for children; Umut Ermeç noted that there are now more avenues for people to enter the industry: "Turkey has benefitted from innovative career pathways including apprenticeship programs, bootcamps, accelerator programs and incubators, in addition to a good number of schools that offer degrees for the game industry.” There are, according to Çatak, 12 universities in Turkey including BUG that host games design departments, although he stresses they are all very recent initiatives ("Just like the games industry, academia in Turkey lacks qualified personnel").
There is also an influx of organisations helping people enter the games industry, and Çatak cited indie initiatives including ÜNOG, Indieway, and Avucan’s Mobidictum, as well as gaming associations Oyunder and Toged based in İstanbul and Ankara.
It’s not just the mobile games industry that has benefitted from the variety of options for young people, but also other creative industries that are beginning to explore cross-pollination options. Umut Ermeç said: “In addition to young people who are attending aforementioned programs to launch successful careers in the game industry, the rise of the Turkish gaming ecosystem has encouraged professionals from many verticals including software, film and animation to get reskilled or upskilled, so that they can become a member of a growing community.”
However, the surge of interest from young people entering an industry that has yet to age into maturity and standardised process brings its own risks. Avucan said: “Even though we have young talent, it doesn’t take away the benefits of experienced and qualified talent. Frankly, this will take time. Imagine an industry that grew so fast it could not keep up with the demand.”
Onur Sirinoglu and Çatak were more optimistic about the succession of Turkey’s young games personnel. Onur Sirinoglu stated: “There is now enough experience from old team members at some of these successful gaming companies that they can take senior leadership roles and build departments to pass down the knowledge.”
Çatak was confident that the renewed importance of the mobile games industry to the Turkish government will spur legislative action: “That rush in supply demand also affects qualitative staffing; people can't find the time to improve their skills for bigger projects and other platforms. Game design departments in universities could solve the problem but, as mentioned, they are also suffering from similar issues. Resolving this will take time, but not years; the Turkish government is reorienting its focus on games rapidly.”
You have nothing to lose but your chains!
One potential risk young people in particular risk on entering the mobile games industry, especially without elder and experienced peers to provide guidance, is exploitation. Burnout in the games industry can affect everyone from freelancers to the largest multinationals – most recently, Supercell detailed how staff burnout led to greater introspection on team formations – and Turkey is no exception.
Çatak has previously spoken on the exploitative contracts and working practices young people entering the mobile games industry can experience. “To be honest, the Turkish industry has yet to establish practices to prevent burnout and creating a healthy environment for everyone. It isn’t helped by how little Young people entering the industry are aware of it, or, due to the economic crisis, frankly care about it that much.”
Avucan and Onur Sirinoglu see this as a circumstance of working in the hypercasual genre. Avucan noted: “The hypercasual genre is mostly about speed, and I hear some people push hard and work long hours to make it to soft launch. Hopefully, we can prevent mental breakdowns.”
Onur Sirinoglu added: “That has to be a misconception perpetuated by the hypercasual industry, which is focused on pushing out weekly prototypes and running an endless loop of chasing hits. It has to be fluid, because the market moves and changes very rapidly and nobody wants to miss the latest trend.
“Spyke is looking to build casual games and franchises through a long-game approach. It takes us two-to-three quarters to get an MVP out, followed by an equally long time to optimise it in soft launch. Only a small fraction of games we've built met the high threshold of being launched globally. It's no easy feat and can't be achieved with people who're not aligned with the company vision and targets in the long-term, because I can guarantee you none of these targets are achievable in a short amount of time.”
However, Umut Ermeç has found hope in new growth strategies employed at some Turkish companies.
“The free-to-play publishing scene was dominated by companies utilising prototype-based growth strategies, where only a few select prototypes with excellent KPIs get to the launch phase, with the vast majority killed off even if they had relatively good metrics. This approach caused short-term relationships, burnout, and lack of team growth.
“Turkish companies, however, utilise a community-based growth strategy and built funnels that select great teams instead of prototypes. This paradigm shift lets Turkish companies not only invest in but also coach and nurture up-and-coming teams. Thousands of game developers in the Turkish game development ecosystem get coached, enjoy long-term contracts, and are encouraged to grow their teams, creating a win-win scenario for all parties involved.
“Long story short, the Turkish game industry is doubling down on the resources, know-how and network of a strong community to tackle bottlenecks, inconsistency, and exhaustion.”
The financial times
Despite the overwhelming reach of Turkey’s economic crisis, the country’s mobile games industry has so far been inoculated from the most deleterious impact, which Onur Sirinoglu theorised is due to the global audience of gaming.
“The reason many people flock to gaming – besides it being extremely product-driven – is the exact reason of it being immune to local economic volatility: this is technology and a set of products that are built locally but scale globally.
“For a hit game, a very insignificant portion of the revenue typically comes from Turkey. Therefore there's little direct effect of Turkish economy on the game performance. What it ends up affecting is the cost of human capital, but I see a lot of gaming companies in Turkey matching international competitors, creating one of the most competitive markets in the country.”
Çatak attributes the disconnection between the economic crisis and the games industry to Turkey’s adoption of the hypercasual genre, but was enthused by signs of the industry diversifying.
“The instability means investors prefer short-term ventures. PC games need more time, budget, and generally more experience. As such, hypercasual has become a business model rather than a game genre.
“Fortunately, times are changing. Blockchain gaming is becoming very popular in Turkey and some companies have started PC games, which I think is promising in that sense; a lot of people studying game design actually want to work on PC titles. Hypercasual is just a phase for them which they try but can't leave behind for now. However every year we see more indie titles and, in the near future, those studios will produce bigger games.”
There is no signs of Turkey’s prominence slowing down. In January 2022, Dream Games raised $255 million from a Series C funding round, while Spyke Games’ $55 million in seed funding, also in January, will be used to expand the Spyke team significantly. Onur Sirinoglu stated: “Our intention is to both launch and grow our first title and expand the team. We are aiming to triple our team throughout the year – although we're building a growth team from scratch, all disciplines from engineering to product to art will be expanded.
“Growth department has a lot of open positions, because thus far since inception, we have been focused on product development and our MVP. Now as we start thinking about growth, we're quickly filling up our positions. In terms of talent sourcing, we're proudly located in Istanbul!”
Avucan, Umut Ermeç, and Çatak are otherwise seeing the Turkish games industry expanding beyond mobile, and perhaps unsurprisingly, blockchain is receiving considerable interest in the region.
Umut Ermeç stated: “New platforms and technologies may offer big prizes for those who have flexed their hypercasual capabilities: play-to-earn, NFT, metaverse and instant games are just a few areas to keep an eye on for independent studios.
“I am expecting to see more investments and acquisitions in Turkey as the ecosystem gets
stronger, so dedicated and persevering gaming startups will have opportunities to either become a part of a stronger machine or get funded to build amazing teams.”
Çatak added “Global publishers and investors can meet at expos and networking events like Gaming Istanbul and Indieway, while pro-indies like Cultic Games and Metaverse Games have already solid pipelines and are sharing their knowledge with students and young teams. So, perhaps against all odds, it's really going well and growing fast. I'm really optimistic about the future!”