x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Middle East version of Sim City, CityVille aimed at Arab market

The new Facebook game El Madinah is Sim City aimed at the Arab market.

Above, the Facebook game El Madinah. Below, The City.Courtesy Nezal Entertainment
Above, the Facebook game El Madinah. Below, The City.Courtesy Nezal Entertainment

Things are looking up in the Middle Eastern city I'm running. It got off to a shaky start, with houses being built too far from the roads and not enough funds for agriculture and business, but then I cleared some slums and found some wood, and somehow I've ended up with a happy population who can't get enough of the local ice-cream shop.

This isn't Sim City or CityVille I'm playing. It's a brand-new Facebook game called El Madinah, developed by the Alexandria-based Nezal Entertainment and aimed at the Arab market. In an anonymous patch of desert, players can work their way up from setting up konafa (pastry) shops and planting palm trees and flags, including one for the UAE, to constructing landmarks such as the Riyadh TV Tower or the Burj Al Arab.

The plan for El Madinah is to target the lucrative Saudi Arabian market, where a high percentage of the population are gamers, as well as other countries in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab world. "It makes the players feel at home," says Nezal's founder Mohamed Sanad, "as he builds buildings that are close to the look and feel of his own environment."

Although demand for this type of social network-based game has taken a dip in the past couple of years, city-building games are still popular across the world and have been ever since the heyday of Sim City. So says Glen Dalakian II, a Beirut-based gaming specialist for Wamda, which connects Middle Eastern and North African entrepreneurs.

He also points out that regional gaming is "definitely growing", with companies in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt producing "some really advanced and exciting titles", despite facing challenges when it comes to finding employees who are highly trained in fields such as game design and animation.

The UAE is increasingly becoming a hub for the gaming industry, too. The Abu Dhabi office of Ubisoft, the company that makes games such as Assassin's Creed, is planning to quadruple its staff in the next five years while the Dubai World Game Expo, held each November, is the industry's biggest get-together in the Mena region.

It's an encouraging picture, but even when it comes to targeting the local market, there is competition from abroad. Desert Tycoon is another city-building game by the Silicon Valley developers Lumba. Like El Madinah, it is aimed at the Arab market but rather than being in a generic Arab country, it's set specifically in the fictitious (although distinctly Dubai-like) Gulf emirate of Abu Lumba.

Users arrive at a Bedouin settlement in the pre-oil era and aim to turn it into a thriving, skyscraper-filled cosmopolis. The game has been up and running for more than a year now and the majority of its traffic has been from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE.