"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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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times