x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Games are anything but child's play

Not long ago they were little more than children's toys but with console makers such as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo battling for spoils in a US$50bn market, video games are all grown up. And the Middle East is drawing serious interest from the big boys.

A woman checks out Microsoft's new Xbox 360 equipped with 'Kinect' controller.EPA/OLIVER BERG
A woman checks out Microsoft's new Xbox 360 equipped with 'Kinect' controller.EPA/OLIVER BERG

To get a sense of how popular video games are in the Gulf region, visit your neighbourhood shisha cafe.

If customers aren't tuning into the latest Manchester City or Barcelona football match on TV, there's a pretty good chance that, in between puffs of the shisha pipe, they're replicating the games digitally on a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 console.

But the popularity of video games in the region goes further than a couple of people playing for football bragging rights. Combine a large group of technology-savvy youths, higher than average disposable income and summer temperatures that keep many indoors, and it is easy to see why Microsoft and Sony attach great importance to the Gulf.

What seemed like a frivolous children's toy decades ago is now a US$52.5 billion (Dh192.83bn) global business, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The Middle East accounts for about 5 per cent of the market, local industry executives say.

"We saw the business start in the late 1990s and then take off in the past decade. It's been a phenomenal success for us here," says Tim Stokes, the sales and marketing director for Sony's regional PlayStation division.

Statistics for the Middle East are hard to come by, although it is generally accepted that Sony holds about a 50 per cent share of the market, while Microsoft has about 35 per cent and Nintendo the remaining 15 per cent.

Last month, Sony's Gulf operations announced it had sold 1 million PlayStation 3 units since it was launched four years ago, hitting the figure a year earlier than it did with its previous generation console, the PlayStation 2. That has sold about 6.5 million units since it was released in 2000, Mr Stokes says.

But Sony now has some real competition nipping at its heels. Microsoft's latest update to its Xbox 360 console, the Kinect, takes motion-capture technology using camera sensors to scan the various hand and foot movements of a gamer and replicates that on screen.

A demonstration of the Kinect during last year's Gitex was one of the highlights of the annual technology expo in Dubai, with crowds lining up and staring at game players who happily made fools out of themselves jumping around swatting at a virtual ball.

"The Kinect is a wonderful piece of technology and we've had a hard time keeping [it] in stock," says Kishan Deepak Palija, the managing director of Geekay Group, one of the largest video game retailers and distributors in the UAE.

Not to be outdone, Sony released the PlayStation Move, an add-on for the PlayStation 3, last September, which incorporates motion-capture sensors with a wand-like controller. Its initial pick-up has been slow but the company is releasing a steady stream of gaming titles that should keep interest high, Mr Stokes says.

"It's been a bit hand-to-mouth in terms of how we've been able to keep the Move available," he says.

Although Nintendo's family-friendly Wii console has outsold the Xbox and PlayStation since its release in 2006, its graphics are considered outdated and unappealing to the gaming community. In addition, the company does not have an official retail presence in the Middle East and that has affected sales of the Wii.

"If you look at gaming in the Middle East in general, it was typically restricted to arcade machines and there wasn't much of a gaming scene," says Nick Rego, a gaming journalist for ME Gamers.com.

"But if you look at it now companies like Microsoft and Sony realise that there's a big gaming community here and there is a good chance to make big bucks here."

Sony's success in the region has benefited from the brand equity it built through years of selling its television sets. Microsoft has had to work harder to generate interest with a wide mix of mall demonstrations, university visits and sponsorships for local gaming tournaments.

With the success of the Kinect, however, Microsoft may be able to take it a bit easier.

"The Kinect has done what we have been trying to do for years and that's to make the console less intimidating," says Aman Sangar, the product marketing manager for Microsoft's Middle East entertainment and devices division.

"Our console sales are going through the roof and that's taken us to a new chapter of how the gaming industry has progressed over here."

Aside from playing video games by frantically jumping around and waving your hands in front of your television, Sony is looking to employ a new strategy to localise the regional market with further titles featuring Arabic content.

Sony recently partnered the Jordanian developer Quirkat to publish a collection of Arabic card games for the Sony PlayStation Network and the Japanese company has further plans to localise certain titles, Mr Stokes says.

"We're seeing that gamers in the region are moving more to our digital market and we've developed regional store fronts where a million people in the Gulf have registered," he says.

Mr Sangar, however, does not see Microsoft localising its games in the near future, although he supports the growth of local developers publishing titles for the Xbox.

"Localisation really makes sense when you have a lot of games developers from the region and understand what makes popular games like Gears of War a hit, and add sensibilities of the region to make it work," he says.