With Gamescom 2023 having closed its doors and Pocket Gamer Connects Helsinki 2023 still two weeks away (find out more and get your tickets here) there’s just enough room to fit in a hot new event, now in its second year - Saudi Arabia’s Next World forum in Riyadh on August 30 and 31.
Evidence of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 Project - powering up the region to diversify its interests beyond its traditional industries and reach out economically, socially and culturally – is all around us, including during the in-flight entertainment on our way to the country. Everything - and that includes gaming, esports and tech - has been given a gilding of pure glitz and glamor with famous faces from a variety of sectors in attendance. From major sporting stars such as Welsh footballer Gareth Bale, movie director Michael Bay, to top executives from the hi-tech power players, the show’s speaker list is a who’s who of the business world.
Saudi Arabia’s growth in the gaming sector thus far has been hugely influenced by the work of Savvy Games Group, owned by the country’s Public Investment Fund. Their acquisition of developer and publisher Scopely and their creation of Savvy Games Studio (now Steer Studios) has firmly established them as a major presence in gaming not only in the region but internationally too.
Now Next World Forum brings a bold new look to the country’s plans with a series of talks, demos and networking opportunities for those in the gaming space and allied trades.
The most notable aspect of the first day, outside of individual talks, were the opening remarks by program director of Next World Forum, Omar Batterjee. In his speech he praised the positive effects gaming and esports had on Saudi Arabia and indicated the country’s efforts to raise the profile of the sector, which he titled “Possibility. Redefined.”
He also didn’t hesitate to offer some choice words for players themselves, commenting that gamers have “redefined what it means to be an athlete.” With the speech itself preceded by an opening video displaying the history of gaming in brief, it’s clear that promoting gaming at Next World Forum isn’t just a business decision, but a philosophical one too.
Located at the Four Seasons hotel in Riyadh, the venue has been transformed with imposing black paneling and screens into a high-tech vision of the future - although it can be somewhat distracting from the serious business at hand. The venue disguises numerous intriguing areas: The Hologram Playground, Avatar Creator and Gamers8 Experience Room, all showcasing a variety of technical and organizational innovations.
In addition to a focus on the broader gaming world, Next World Forum has a strong focus on esports with the region actively pursuing a dominant position in what it sees as a key growth area for its future.
One key room is the Gamers8 Experience Room which showcases the quickly rising prominence of the sport. It also showcases how PUBG Mobile boasted the second highest prize of the event, at $3m total.
While business is still a major consideration there were plenty of efforts to expand the focus to the more creative aspects of the sector. Segments such as High Score: When Celebrity Begins to Play in the Industry featured a panel which was joined by Hollywood director Michael Bay for example. And panels such as Gaming is the Future Economy worked hard to signpost that this isn’t a dry, corporate discussion, but a genuinely optimistic observation of the growing prominence of the games industry.
Next World Forum has one main networking area where people chat, as is commonplace at such events. But most are attracted either to the main stage or a variety of side areas displaying attractions, all of which are tailor made to impress. It’s a far cry from the consumer-heavy attractions of Gamescom - equally as exciting for those of us in the industry, but for all kinds of different reasons.
One key quote
“I think Microsoft’s move into the [acquisition space] is sort of a catch-up in the mobile space” - President of Com2us, Kyu Lee.
Lee’s comments, given during the first talk, echo our own in that Microsoft’s Activision-Blizzard play has a significant mobile element to it. Lee, a significant mobile presence, was joined on stage by co-founder of GGWP, Kun Gao, founder of Bitkraft Ventures, Jens Hilger and managing director of Lagard, David Higley.
During their discussion he noted one of the key issues facing gaming and mobile, which is that “we’re competing against the end user’s time,” as games transition to live services he observes that “a player’s time becomes a greater commodity than ever”.
With Day One well and truly underway, there’s lots more to see and do, and plenty to learn from an event that’s carving its own unique niche while celebrating Saudi Arabia’s bold vision for its future.