RIYADH: Last April, the leading strategy and consulting firm Accenture estimated that the global game industry topped $300 billion, far more than the combined market for music and movies. The industry added 500 million new players between 2019 and 2021. And that was just the beginning.
Driven by the surge in mobile gaming and the desire for social interaction during the pandemic, the industry has swept dozens of startups and multinationals into its fold. Besides the demanding traction, the effective technological mix of blockchain and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, has also allowed game developers to take advantage of these tools and create virtual worlds.
In fact, some developers are smiling all the way to the bank by easily taking advantage of unexplored cultural areas. One of them is Jordan-based mobile game publisher Tamatem, which cleverly publishes games aimed at Arab users and builds fascinating narratives about Arab culture.
Arabic ranks fourth among the most used languages globally, yet only one percent of the total content is in Arabic. “This is a huge gap that needs to be filled, especially in the gaming industry in the Middle East and North Africa,” Hossam Hammo, founder and CEO of Tamatem, told Arab News.
Flavored with local tastes
Some of his early games include Awad the Delivery King, a mobile game that features a food delivery person racing through the potholed streets of Amman. Despite being a Jordan-based cartoon character, the game was the number one app on app stores in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, according to the US-based online publishing platform.
Its current chart boards include VIP Baloot and Clash of Empires.
Launched in 2013, the game developer collaborates with international players and converts their content into Arabic. For example, another coveted game, Escape the Past, was a partnership with French studio 3DDuo, where Tomato has customized content to suit local tastes and culture, Medium newspaper reported.
Such was the hype about Tomato, which, according to a company press release last December, has raised $11 million in Series B funding led by PUBG developer Krafton. But reaching this critical feat was not easy. Created in 2009, Hammo’s first gaming project, Wizard, was created because the industry in the region was in its infancy.
This has led to the emergence of a negative perception among investors. It also put a huge question mark on my leadership and in the industry,” Hammou recalls. He barely had a $200 bank balance when he planned to launch a tomato business. In time, he found 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley-based investor who pumped $50,000 into a 5 stake percent, estimating the gaming company at $1 million in 2013. The rest, they say, is history.
Tamatem is currently the number one game publisher in the MENA region in user engagement. “It has one million active users across its games, three million users playing per month, and 150 million downloads,” Hamo said, adding that he is constantly looking for ideas to keep the numbers alive.
Last February, Tamatem encouraged Saudi poet and social media influencer Ziyad bin Nahit to launch Douri Baloot, an extension of the popular card game VIP Baloot that led to more than 700 people participating in the celebration.
Harness the game plan
The hunger for competition and supremacy is evident across the region. According to the Saudi Bank for Social Development, the video game market in the Kingdom is worth $1 billion and is expected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2030. The Boston Consulting Group’s forecasts are more optimistic. It expects Saudi Arabia’s revenue from gaming to reach $6.7 billion by 2030.
Interestingly, much of this growth is being driven in tandem by public-private partnership. In January of this year, Amazon Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced a collaboration with MENATech, a subsidiary of the GGTech Entertainment Group, to launch Amazon University Esports, the first esports education league for each country. That same month, it bought Riyadh-based Savvy Gaming Group, backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, ESL, formerly known as the Electronic Sports League, for $1 billion.
In November 2020, the Mohammed bin Salman Foundation, or Misk, announced a strategic investment of about 813 million Saudi riyals ($217 million) to acquire a 33.3 percent stake in Japanese gaming company SNK Corporation. Two months ago, the foundation increased its stake to 96 percent, Verge, a technology news platform, reported.
The industry is already bustling with activity. Last February, the Public Investment Fund disclosed stakes of more than 5 percent in two Japanese-listed gaming companies, Capcom and Nexon Co, with combined holdings of about $1.2 billion, Bloomberg reported.
Bloomberg added that General Fund also bought a 5.02 percent stake in the $883 million stake in Nexon, the company behind role-playing games such as MapleStory and Dungeon & Fighter.
According to the US-Saudi Business Council, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, or the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, is also adding a boost to public-private partnerships and infrastructure investments. The ministry has been heavily involved in developing the Kingdom’s telecommunications and information technology infrastructure, including broadband, optical fibers and 5G.
The Industrial Authority stated in its recent research paper on gaming and esports in Saudi Arabia.
Go elegant with NFTs
What’s Next? Many game publishers in Saudi Arabia are climbing the NFT bandwagon. What does it mean? NFT is a certificate of ownership of a rare digital asset. You own an approved token for it in your digital ledger or blockchain. Simply put, you get a link that proves your connection to that asset.
For example, a game developer like Activision’s Call of Duty can provide their popular logos as NFTs, which can be used as your profile picture for your social media accounts. The company can sell weapon camouflage, player outfits, and other in-game gadgets, which is a huge draw in the Call of Duty fandom.
Game developers in Saudi Arabia want to take advantage of this fan base. Hamo’s company from Tamatem will soon announce its NFT project, as will other companies, including UMX Studio in Riyadh.
“In the future, players can generate revenue based on reselling those items using the blockchain,” said Ali Al-Harbi, founder and CEO of UMX Studio, a game developer who has already started auctions on its games where players can trade things. It is a prelude to the emergence of new opportunities on the blockchain.
Publishers of popular drag racing game Climbing Sand Dune and police chase game King of The Steering, the studio boasts 200,000 daily active users and has scored 50 million downloads. Starting in 2014 with about $4,000 in the fund, Al-Harbi has made significant headway on his terms. His first game brought him $200,000 in the first few years of its debut.
Al-Harbi never felt the need for outside investors or funding. It earns its money from in-app services, subscriptions, and online advertising. His motto for success: He listens to his players. “We continue to grow to the next level just because we are listening to our audience. We will soon release a lighter version of the game upon their request.”
The opportunity for game developers to grow is endless, thanks to the games available to them and state support. But what will set the Saudi Game Industry Tower above the rest of the room is when he listens to the client and builds a unifying narrative that celebrates Arab culture. After all, success in the gaming business is not about making money; It’s about building vision and soft power.