"If you can kick it, drive it or shoot it, people will play it here": video games in the Middle East

An interview with the Jordan-based game developer Candide Kirk.

Shamefully, I rarely think about what life is like for non-western gamers -- or even non-English-speaking ones. So I jumped at the chance to speak to Candide Kirk, co-founder and chief technical officer of Quirkat.

The company, based in Jordan, specifically develops Arabic-language games for the Middle Eastern market and is increasingly making use of the PlayStation Network and other digital distribution platforms to navigate a historically cash-based economy. Previous successes include Arabian Lords, a game about the history of the Islamic world, and Al-Moosiqar, a Guitar Hero-style game using the oud (lute).

I talked to Candide about censorship, stereotypes and working at a female-dominated company in a male-dominated industry . . .

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in games?

We founded the company in 2004 and, at the time, I was working in government [at the Ministry of ICT in Jordan]. My colleague back then, now my business partner, Mahmoud Khasawneh, said: "Hang on a minute, there's no Arabic content." That's something we'd been suffering from in books, entertainment media -- the whole spectrum.

I've always been an avid gamer. I mean, I'm an only child. At the age of seven, my mother got me a Game Boy and, ever since then, I've been hooked. Mahmoud had significantly longer experience in the industry -- he'd worked with several companies that develop software, on the middleware and tech side -- and we thought: there's definitely a niche to be filled.

Which western games reach the Middle East?

All games that are blockbuster hits in the west do arrive in this region. We don't often get any localised versions though, so the versions that do make it over are in English.

We flew a few test balloons. One was a mobile game working with [the game download site] i-Play, which has since become Oberon. We had a portfolio of English language titles there but then we developed a non-branded, original Arabic title -- and it outsold the entire portfolio of English games. That gave us the indication that Arabic was the key.

So there was a real hunger for something that was local?

Absolutely. So, in 2007, we released the first strategy game for the Middle East.

Traditionally, Middle Eastern gamers do not play strategy games because they are so language-intensive. The general perception is that if you can kick it, drive it or shoot it, then people will play it here: because if it's a football game, driving game or first person shooter, the language doesn't really matter. You can guess your way around the menu and start playing straight away.

Our challenge was to fill a void in the strategy game department while focusing on language. Arabian Lords was a real-time strategy game, very similar to Civilisation, but it spoke of the rise of Islam.

It was a trade game, set against backdrop of the 17th century and it was very rich in history -- architecture, trade routes, mosques. That was successful as well and it gave us that reassuring feeling that we were on the right track.

Did you sell that as a download or was it boxed and sold in shops?

It was boxed and sold in shops. Back then, in 2007, our digital distribution options for the region were very limited. At the time, it was the smartest way to go but, since then, we've decide not to do anything boxed, simply because it's such a hassle.

Another thing is we're not a single market and so you have to go through the hassle of entering, for example, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- all the different territories -- and with content in particular, there's high scrutiny.

So any digital distribution is just much easier for game developers because it's so easy for [the governments] to say, "Oh no, it's banned." For example, we did get banned in Saudi, which is a key market for us, simply for having references to Islam in a game.

It was much easier for them to say no, although we'd done our research, we'd hired history teachers and Arabic language teachers and all the content was sanitised for the markets -- but that didn't matter.

How much of that kind of censorship is an issue for you? Are there no-go areas for you, in terms of what games you can make?

There are broad lines that you generally tend to avoid if you are talking to a family audience anywhere in the world. We tend to stay away from religion, politics and sex. Beyond that, it's just common sense.

The other thing is that part of our mission is to avoid portraying stereotypes: camels and pyramids are one thing but the fact that the Arabs are the bad guys in every single shooter is another. That's something that we avoid. We also avoid any political messages simply because we're not that kind of developer: we're after the creation of fun, entertaining, commercial video games.

There are other studios that want to go out with the political messages, so they flip [the usual sides]; like the Arabic soldiers shooting at the American enemy or the Israeli enemy. That's not something we'll ever look at. It's not something that interests us.

In games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, as you say, the Arabs are the bad guys and it is very much "America saves the world". How much play do those games get in the Middle East?

They get a fair amount. They are big games and they are very well designed. The storylines are horrible because of the stereotypes but, at the end of the day, they are sold here and they are quite popular.

It's interesting because the Top 10 charts in the Middle East tend to mimic the Top 10 charts anywhere else. We're very big on football, so the Fifa and the Pro Evolution Soccer [games] will always be the number one and number two; but Call of Duty and all the fighter games will be up there, too.

What size of market is there for games in the Middle East?

It's very difficult to try to equate numbers. We know that there are about 12 million consoles in the region but that doesn't really account for the "grey market". There are quite a lot of grey imports, so that number could easily be doubled.

In terms of sales, we know what the retail sector both on software and hardware is close to $1 billion, around $900m right now.

The issue for us is how things are monetised online; in-game purchases have been difficult to get an estimate on. It all depends on the payment channels and the Middle East is not really a credit card-friendly region. People have traditionally paid for everything in cash. Up until very recently we didn't even have PayPal in the region.

What's happened is we have scratch cards: you walk into a shop, like a grocery store, and you can buy scratch cards for a "virtual wallet". That allows you to purchase game currency and any kind of services online.

Is the lack of credit cards the biggest challenge you face?

Yes, currently. When we first started up, piracy was the number one nightmare. Right now, piracy is, to a certain extent, controlled because of digital distribution and DRM [digital rights management]. A lot of developers in the region are going towards Facebook games and Facebook credits have normalised the markets.

What is the structure of Quirkat, the company you co-founded?

We're ten people: ten full-timers. We have an art team that's based in Beirut -- Lebanon is so rich with artistic talent that it just makes sense -- but the rest of the developers are in Jordan.

What's your family background?

My mother's Jordanian, my father's English. But I grew up in Jordan. I only went to England for university; I spent three years there and then came straight back.

What did you study?

Computer engineering at Sussex.

In the future, what kind of games would you like Quirkat to be producing?

One of the big things for us in 2010 was that we closed an investment round, so that has given us the nice warm feeling of having money in the bank. Now, we're all about developing games that we love, which is a luxury.

We hope to create games inspired by regions that have not been traditionally represented. Having said that, our aim in game development is global appeal and so our plan for the coming 18 months is to create games that are not particularly "Shove the Middle East down your throat", but where the visuals, audio, the feel of the games are Middle Eastern.

We're hoping to tackle that through digital distribution on the global market. We're working with Sony now and are coming on to the PSN [PlayStation Network] and on the PSP and the PS3.

Are you the only female member of your team?

Our studio is predominantly female, which is quite funny. Our marketing manager is female and all of our animators are female. I think we're 6:4 female-to-male ratio; very rare.

Do you get the sense that gaming is still a male-dominated industry?

It is, absolutely. I think the gamers are evening out; it's 50:50 on the gamer side. But in our region, we're the only distributors to have females at all. All the other distributors I know, if they have any females, they'll be on the marketing side or customer services but not on the development side.

Are you drawn to different types of games from your male colleagues?

It's hard to say. Between the females here at the office, we can't even agree on the certain things that we love! Our art director is a real-life martial artist, so her idea of fun is steered towards combat and martial arts games. Another team member has a thing for racing, for car games.

I don't think any of the team members here, with the exception of me -- for research purposes -- play any Facebook games and the perception is that they're very female. Having said that, a lot of my male friends play CityVille and are obsessed with it!

For more information about Quirkat, the company's website is here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser