"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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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.