The game industry will never develop in the Middle East until Saudi Arabia and other large regional markets crack down on their high rates of piracy, the chief executive of the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAA) said today. Speaking at the inaugural Dubai World Game Expo in Dubai, Scott Butler lauded the UAE for its efforts to fight game piracy, but said this would have little effect on the long-term development of game creation in the region until its larger markets also got tough on protecting intellectual property rights.
"In terms of the development of local creativity, the game industry in the UAE will never go anywhere until Saudi Arabia itself comes down on piracy, because the numbers aren't there," he said. "UAE is five million and Saudi is 26 million. If you look across the pan-Arab region, you've got 150 million populace and piracy rates are 90 per cent. Until Saudi, Jordan and Egypt crack down on piracy, you'll never see creativity like you do in more developed markets."
Game piracy rates are typically measured in terms of the ratio of games to consoles sold. Mr Butler said in more developed markets with tough copyright enforcement, such as the US and Europe, ratios ranged from eight games sold for each console to as many as 12 to one. In the UAE, which he said has been the regional leader in piracy enforcement, the ratio is three to one. But in Saudi, it is one-tenth to one. "That means you have to sell 10 consoles to sell one game," he said. "That is the extent of piracy within the kingdom."
Mr Butler blames the disparity on the differences in legal consequences. In the UAE, as well as in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, raids on people storing and distributing illegally copied optical disks are frequent. The AAA, on behalf of copyrights holders such as the Motion Picture Association, Microsoft and Sony, works with the authorities to track down pirates and lobbies for tough legal consequences for those who are caught.
The result in the UAE has been a change from nearly 100 per cent piracy, when the AAA set up shop eight years ago, to about 30 per cent today, Mr Butler said. "In the UAE they are sending pirates to prison a lot, whereas in Saudi Arabia there has never been a judgment like that for any kind of pirate," he said. "When they mete out the judgment of imprisonment, that's when the market will finally crack."
But Albert Marshall, the legal business affairs manager at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, saw some reasons for optimism. Although he said his company's PlayStation products have typically had piracy problems in the region, he believed the region's movement towards creating its own game content - such as the popular Prince of Persia game that was produced in Morocco - would in effect make Middle Eastern governments more serious about intellectual property protection.
He pointed to the example of China, where piracy problems improved after the country began producing more of its own brands. "I think there are real signs of hope." Basil Kilany, the director of business development for Tocali Games - which is based in the US but planning to roll out several products in the Middle East soon - said his company took piracy into account when making business decisions in the region.
"That's a big concern for us," he said. "That's why we try to develop games that cannot be pirated. For example, Nintendo DS cannot be pirated, whereas PlayStation games can easily be pirated." Piracy is one of the reasons there have not been more home-grown Arabic games, according to Asheesh Malaney of Colourblind Entertainment, a UAE-based company developing what it claims to be the first game featuring a contemporary action-adventure Arab hero.
The game, Sharq Warriors, is in English and Arabic and is backed by Danny Glover, the Hollywood actor, and Riz Khan, the international journalist. Colourblind is planning to get around the piracy problem by taking the game online, where it will be played in real time. "That way, there's nothing to pirate," said Mahesh Mathai, of Colourblind Entertainment. Mehrdad Agah, the chairman of Puya Arts Software, the developers behind games such as Quest of Persia, said the problem was even worse in Iran. "Ninety-nine per cent of all games sold in Iran are pirated. There are no copyright laws, or at least the government does not enforce them."
To compete, the company sold copies of its first game for US$2 (Dh7.34) each. "We are losing money," he said. "We are doing it because we want to show that we can do a world-quality game in this region." The company is now seeking financing for an Arabic-language game due out in 2010 based on the travels of Ibn Battuta. But just the fact of seeing a room full of game developers gathered in Dubai for the first time made the AAA staff feel optimistic about the region's promise for the gaming industry.
"Ten years ago," Mr Butler said, "this was a pipe dream." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org