With Fifa adding the Saudi Pro League to its latest game and Games12 in Dubai we look at the growing importance of the region in the gaming world.
Middle East fully on board with Fifa 13's inclusion of Saudi Pro League
At Games11, the region's biggest video games exhibition which last September took over The Dubai Mall ice-skating rink for three days, the hot news was that FIFA 12 was - for the first time in the hugely popular game's history - going to include Arabic commentary. The addition of Tunisia's Issam Chaouali and Saudi Arabia's Abdullah Al Harbi - both regional commentating legends - alongside their British counterparts Alan Smith and Martin Tyler set the Arab world's Fifa-playing community (which is rather sizeable) abuzz.
Games12 comes back to town this weekend. The event, which will see the biggest developers showcase upcoming blockbuster AAA titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Assassin's Creed III, is this time taking over a vast tent in Festival City for three days. An estimated 40,000 visitors came through the turnstiles in 2011 - twice the number the organisers had been expecting - and there was the feeling that the exhibitors simply didn't have enough space in the ice rink (which had been covered, of course) to display their wares.
Once again, Fifa is destined to be one of the talking points, largely because the latest edition, FIFA 13 - due out next week - has gone one step further by adding the Saudi Pro League in the game, giving players the chance to control the likes of Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Al Ittihad. Initial shots also show that the Al Hilal star Abdulaziz Al Dosari is set to grace the game's cover alongside Lionel Messi and the Manchester City keeper Joe Hart. Both the growth of the annual Games event and Fifa's Arabic content are just two examples of how video gaming across the Middle East has developed. The industry as a whole across the world has been progressing steadily - with some estimates suggesting that it'll be worth around US$70 billion (Dh257bn) by 2015 and big name franchises such as Activision's Call of Duty series regularly raking in more than Hollywood blockbusters. But the fact that the likes of Electronic Arts is now introducing Saudi players shows that big developers aren't simply throwing their marketing budgets on the region to improve sales, and are actually making content specifically aimed at local gamers.
"Fifa adding Arabic commentary was a massive milestone in the history of gaming here," says Nitin Mathew, a long-time games marketer and the founder of the Dubai-based Cygnus Communications, which is organising Games12. "But EA would not have done this if there wasn't a potential for commercial return. Gamers have been crying out for localisation for a long time. To be able to enjoy your favourite video game in your language is a wonderful experience."
The addition of Saudi teams this year is an obvious acknowledgement of the region's biggest gaming market, ahead of the UAE. And it has been Saudi gamers who have driven an explosive growth in traffic at the new IGN Middle East gaming website.
"Right now, we're getting around a million visitors a month from the Mena region," says Hitesh Uchil, the director of the website's publisher, T-Break Media, which has offices in Dubai and as part of Abu Dhabi's twofour54 media zone.
Uchil has been an integral part of the UAE's gaming community since he helped set up the Megamers.com website back in 2006. Earlier this year, it was announced that T-break and the global entertainment website network IGN Entertainment were partnering to launch IGN Middle East, into which Megamers has now been incorporated, again underlining the growing importance of the region within the eyes of the gaming world.
Before IGN came on board, Uchil estimates that Megamers was getting around 100,000 visitors a month. "With Megamers we were incredibly popular in the UAE, but with IGN it's pretty much the whole region."
The demographic of the Middle East certainly benefits the growth of video games, with around 60 per cent of the region under 30, as does the GCC's relative affluence and continually expanding retail opportunities.
"Also keep in mind that in markets such as Saudi, in terms of entertainment, there's very little to do and you don't exactly have clubs or cinemas to go to," adds Uchil. "So what else do you do than play video games?"
Fifa 12 was destined to be a success with or without Arabic commentary, but the addition undoubtedly saw sales across the Arab-speaking world soar. And it's undoubtedly seen many other games developers sit up and take note.
"I think all companies are thinking along those lines," says Mathew. "The question is, do you add Arabic for the sake of adding Arabic, or do you make sure that adding Arabic enhances the experience for the consumer? Because otherwise, all you're doing is increasing the cost."
Mathew suggests that Arabic football commentary, which has its own unique style, lends itself to localisation within Fifa. "But if you're playing a racing game, do you really need Arabic commentary?"
Another game that he says would benefit from localisation would be the huge online role-player World of Warcraft, which has thousands of players across the regions, although he says it that would be a "mammoth task".
But while the likes of Electronic Arts and others are now looking at ways to Arabise their titles, some developers are looking to regional talent to help develop new games. Last year, Abu Dhabi's twofour54 announced that Ubisoft was to establish a games development studio within the media zone's new games academy, which this year accepted its first students. Bringing Ubisoft, which is one the world's biggest developers and has already impressed regional gamers with its culturally relevant Assassin's Creed franchise, to the UAE is a huge statement of intent.
"The UAE is definitely moving in the right direction," says Microsoft's regional head of interactive entertainment, Aman Sangar, who also believes that true localisation is a lot more than simply translating a game into Arabic. "But it takes a lot of effort for developments to start bearing fruit."
Sangar compares establishing a games studio to establishing a movie studio, something that can't just happen overnight but needs artists, actors, scriptwriters, directors, lighting experts and numerous other skilled individuals all getting involved.
"You can set it up, but the results are going to take some time. A typical blockbuster game takes about two years and needs about 200-250 people. It costs almost as much as a Hollywood movie, often more than $100 million."
There are already a small handful of regionally produced and regionally relevant games, such as Unearthed: The Trail of Ibn Battuta from the Saudi developers Semaphore, which saw players search for the treasure of the Arabian explorer and looked much like a Middle Eastern version of Unchartered. But a locally made blockbuster has yet to emerge, and Mathew is curious to see if it will.
"I'm waiting for someone to make one successful regional game so we can find out if gamers here really want something hardcore local," he says. "Because we still drive the same cars they drive in American and Europe. Do we want an absolutely locally made car? I don't know."
The commercial viability of such a game, particularly a blockbuster costing hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, could also be a factor. "If you're going to make a game that will only sell in this region, then the potential return on investment is limited," says Mathew.
"But the Ubisoft move is a sign that they recognise there is talent here. You never know, the next big AAA game from Ubisoft might be made by someone from the region."