x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

How Ubisoft has set its crosshairs on the Arab video game market

Arabic-language video games, and games 'culturised' for the Arab market, could spell massive profits for anyone that manages to tap into the psyche of the Arab gamer.

Yannick Theler, the general manager at Ubisoft in Abu Dhabi, pictured at the company's UAE office, with a model of a character from the Final Fantasy video games. Sarah Dea / The National
Yannick Theler, the general manager at Ubisoft in Abu Dhabi, pictured at the company's UAE office, with a model of a character from the Final Fantasy video games. Sarah Dea / The National

As the gaming industry overtakes the film business in the money stakes, video game developers are working hard to capture the interest of one of the world's few remaining untapped markets.

Ubisoft, one of the world's largest and most successful video game developers, already has a team of designers and developers beavering away in its Abu Dhabi studio, working on a "top secret" project that is due to be announced later this year.

The office, which is one of the company's 26 around the globe, currently employs about 30 staff, including several from the GCC. It wants to increase this figure to 100 in the next three to five years.

Although currently a small operation, the company means business. The Arabic-language games, and games "culturised" for the Arab market, could spell massive profits for anyone that manages to tap into the psyche of the Arab gamer.

"That's what we want to break into," says local general manager, Yannick Theler. "Try to understand how the Arabic people play games and try to localise the games if we can. There is potential here. They play games and buy games already, but localising the products will bring us closer to the people."

Ubisoft's Abu Dhabi office, at twofour54, was set up in 2011, and serves 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa region. It's no coincidence, however, that it chose the UAE for the headquarters.

Vincent Douvier, the operations director, from France, spent the last three years looking at the worldwide market in video games, and noticed this region's largely untapped potential.

"I noticed there was a black spot that was the Arab world, and I was intrigued by it. I thought 'either there is nothing there, that's why there is a black hole, or there is something and it's a well-kept secret'." It's fair to say that the secret is now out the bag.

Globally, the video gaming industry is worth in excess of US$65 billion (Dh238.75bn). PricewaterhouseCoopers expects this to increase to $86.9bn (Dh319.18bn) in 2017. Mobile gaming is tipped to be the fastest-growing in the sector, with revenues increasing from $8.8bn (Dh3.23bn) last year to $14.4bn (Dh5.29bn) over the next four years.

Data specific to this region is hard to come by and somewhat disjointed. But accorcding to the Arab Advisors Group, 65.3 per cent of internet users in Saudi Arabia play online games.

So far, Ubisoft has been focusing on translating some of the company's most popular online and mobile games -Prince of Persia and The Smurfs and Co, which has more than 500,000 users - into Arabic. The company have also been looking at how to move beyond translating, into what Douvier calls "culturisation".

"We take into account the flow of reading Arabic. My reflexes push my eyes up and left, whereas most Arabs look right to left, meaning the interface of the game should be changed."

There are certain games - such as Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto franchise - that are not appropriate for the Arab market, and therefore there's no money to be made from altering them.

"We have evaluated some of the Ubisoft games, and there are some we say no to because it wouldn't fit with Islamic principles," Douvier adds.

The team hopes that its big secret project, which is intended for the global market, will help encourage local investment and create an incentive to better harbour local skill.

While Ubisoft see little point in producing games exclusively for the Arabic market, it's keen to make more of its existing successes appropriate for the market here.

It recently announced that the forthcoming Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag will be released in Arabic. The company has also set up Arabic language Facebook and forum pages from its Abu Dhabi office to try to engage more with the regional gamers.

Ubisoft's Peter Shawki, 29, from Egypt, is what's known in the gaming industry as a "community manager". When players are stuck on games or have general questions about the play, and they post on public forums or the game's Facebook account, it's Shawki that responds. As an avid gamer himself, it's his dream job.

"The Arab players have always been into games a lot, but the main problem they have is it is can be hard to play online [in English]. It's a lot easier to play in Arabic.

"Arabic players are more competitive and more emotional. The more Arabic games there are, the more Arab players are willing to support the game to show there is some promise in the market."

Shawki, who spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia, has an engineering degree, but is self-taught when it comes to games. He's one of the lucky few who have managed to turn a passion into a paying job.

"The main problem is families don't really see games as potential work. This is the main thing that needs to be changed. They need to understand that in the end, gaming is an industry. It has potential."

As the local industry is still in its infancy, the pool of local talent remains very small. Twofour54 Abu Dhabi, which works closely with Ubisoft, runs a 16-month gaming academy, but there's no guarantee that the graduates will remain in the region.

Ayham Gorani, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi-based company AlphaApps, says it can be difficult to attract the investment needed to kick-start an industry at the beginning.

The German-Syrian moved to the UAE in 2011 to establish the sister company of his German business. The focus is on developing online applications in English and Arabic.

"In about two months, we will launch an application for children, an edutainment application. It is not purely a game, but not just educational, it's something in between."

The app, of which the specific details are being kept tightly under wraps, is aimed at eight-to-10 year olds, and will be launched in Arabic and English, but later made suitable for the international market.

It will be the culmination of almost two years of work and a $300,000 (Dh1.1m) investment, and the firm hopes it will catapult it to the front of the market. When AlphaApps set up in twofour54, it was one of the first companies of that kind to do so. For Gorani, it was something of a personal challenge.

"I was at an age when I wanted to try something that was new. I had two alternatives: go to Silicon Valley or come to the Middle East. I chose the Middle East because of my background and I saw a lot of potential in the digital market in the region."

The market, he says, although it's early days, is likely to grow if it can first overcome a couple of hurdles.

"The problem is that the app market is international, so the local apps all compete with international apps. So in order to keep up with the competition, the standard has to be very high. There are not a lot of companies here that can do that."

One of the other key factors is the cost of developing mobile apps and games. Cheap does not necessarily mean better. "Most successful games are not made in India or China; they are from the UK, the US or Finland. The cost is less of a determinant than quality.

"We don't have a great success story [in the UAE] so there isn't a lot of money flowing throughout the businesses. Nobody takes this risk in order to invest. But if you have one or two successes, this will get the investors. We need to let the world know that there can be high quality Arabic applications that can compete."

Gorani's job has been made even more tricky because of the Arab Spring and the continuing troubles in Syria, where some of his staff were and are based. "The team in Syria cannot work anymore. We now have five people in the office here, and we are trying to bring the remaining people over."

It's clear that Abu Dhabi is witnessing the start of something big. As well as the French giant Ubisoft, there are already a number of other successful companies focusing on the Arabic market. But a lack of local talent remains a stumbling block.

Howard Lee, the chief executive of Tahadi Games Media, which moved from Dubai to Abu Dhabi a few years ago, says he would encourage greater collaboration with local universities to help foster talent of the future.

The Korean-Briton, who has been in the business for more than 15 years, wants his company to start focusing on online games that are based on Islamic culture. "We want to collaborate with universities here but so far it has been hard to do. To improve things [in the industry] you also need support and investment for long-term projects."

munderwood@thenational.ae