x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Ready for the next level in Iran's online gaming

The Life: Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh, founder of a digital start-up incubator Conovi, talks about the challenges of bringing online games to Iran.

Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh is the managing partner of Conovi, a Dubai-based incubator of Farsi-language start-ups. Antonie Robertson / The National
Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh is the managing partner of Conovi, a Dubai-based incubator of Farsi-language start-ups. Antonie Robertson / The National

Imagine playing an online game set in Europe's Middle Ages, commanding your own land as a medieval lord, all while sitting in modern-day Iran.

That is the vision of a Dubai-based entrepreneur bringing the games to a nation experiencing a growing demand for them.

"It's the stories that matter and, just as Iranians watch all sorts of movies, regardless of their geographical context in terms of history, it also applies to games," says the Dubai-based gaming entrepreneur Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh, 29.

His company Conovi, an incubator of digital start-ups in the Farsi-speaking world, last month introduced the Bulgarian online medieval game, Emperatoor Online (Farsi for Imperia Online).

"The whole idea is to develop the Iranian digital ecosystem because of the huge youth market. And if you are with an entrepreneur mindset, you can see the places where you can copy and paste different models, and that's very attractive."

With the United States lifting sanctions over Iran's internet-based services, online enterprises are expected to gain prominence. But that will still take time, say the gaming entrepreneurs, due to a number of challenges in their way.

"You have to find the right partner who does not see it as a taboo to come to Iran, despite the sanctions," Mr Bozorgzadeh says.

And that is just one of many hurdles facing the importing of foreign online games to Iran. Securing a content licence from the nation's culture ministry is another.

"We reviewed the game for cultural sensitivities, for example religious references and whether female characters were inappropriately dressed," he says. The Conovi team had to remove some characters that were not deemed culturally appropriate, such as one who was building a tavern.

Emperatoor's gaming platform clocks an average 500 players daily. Of these, about 10 per cent pay for premium content.

The prices vary from US$10 to $100 for game tokens for playing the casual online game. Gaming enthusiasts make a clear distinction between casual and role-playing games.

A casual game, for example, is where the player is a part of the civilisation and does not play as an individual. In a role playing game, the player enters the game as a character, such as Hercules.

The growing allure of online games has also led an Iranian agency to develop its own product. In 2010, the National Foundation for Computer Games unveiled Asmandez or Sky Fortress.

"Sky Fortress is our first step towards encouraging young Iranians to become game developers rather than being mere players," says Behrouz Minai, the head of the foundation.

Despite the energy in the Iranian gaming sector, there are still some teething troubles.

In January, Iranian censors blocked a popular German online game called Travian Games for unnamed reasons even though it was operating with the approval of the culture ministry.

"It is quite hard to do business in Iran because you need to update yourself with the rules," says Hamed Rahimi, a senior business development manager at XS Software based in Sofia, Bulgaria. The company, which entered Iran four and a half years ago, has three games available there.

"The economy is not very stable, and you need to have very good understanding of the market and predict the way it will go," he notes.

XS Software makes €20,000 (Dh95,471) to €30,000 a month in Iran. Three years ago when the Iranian rial was stronger, the figure was close to €60,000 a month.

Conovi wants to launch five more games by the middle of next year and hopes to develop a gaming portal by 2015.