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Video game exec encourages independent developers in Mideast

Hussam Al-Natour, founder of Rababa Gaming, describes the challenges and potential of the Mideast’s video game industry.
Boys play video games in Mosul, Iraq January 29, 2018.  REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily - RC168A0F0FF0

Globally, the video game industry has evolved exponentially since its inception in the 1970s and is expected to expand in the Middle East as well. Yet a dearth of government support in some countries, along with local investors’ lack of awareness and other factors, are slowing the industry’s progress in the region.

Al-Monitor recently sat down with Hussam Al-Natour — CEO and founder of Rababa Games, a gaming studio based in Amman, Jordan — to hear his story and the difficulties he has faced through the years.

Like many e-entrepreneurs, Natour started his business at home, in 2013. By 2017 he had opened an office and hired more people. Now, with a team of 18 employees, Rababa Games has developed and released numerous games such as Snake and Ladder and is currently working on a sequel for the Hajwala (“Drift”) auto racing game for Android, iOS and PlayStation 4. 

When asked which platform he thinks is the best for independent developers, he said, “Mobile phones [Android and iOS devices] are the easiest to develop for and have the biggest audience.”

His journey to establish the studio wasn’t easy. He said, “We didn’t get any moral or financial support” from the government or the Jordan Gaming Task Force, an alliance of some of the country’s gaming companies.

Video game developers and publishers in the West are pushing to create Arabic content for gamers and console manufacturers such as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, which support indie developers all over the world. So what about support from platform holders and console manufacturers?

“Support came from Apple, Google and Sony, as they gave us directions on how to develop our products. The Sony PlayStation team handled the marketing for our products on their platform,” Natour said.

Video game developers advance a concept through programming, engineering, rendering, recording, production and testing until they have a product that works on a technical level and, they hope, entertains players. The process is challenging and consumes time and effort from everyone involved. What hardships does a development studio face in countries that are considered novices in the industry, especially ones that lack an academic focus on video game development?

“Although there are majors in animation and programming, they aren’t sufficient [for students] to understand how video games are being made or developed,” Natour said.

He also said Middle Eastern investors don’t seem to be aware of the potential of the industry, which generated $134.9 billion globally in 2018.

Creating video games costs a lot of money. The term “triple-A games” refers to those that boast a large budget for both production and marketing. These games are usually created by big teams and big publishers. Indie games are developed by individuals, small teams or small independent companies. While indie developers’ mission to become profitable while remaining independent is not an easy task, in the West they have some options when it comes to attracting investment. They can seek out big publishers that are willing to take risks and see the potential of investing in unknown products. They can also turn to crowdfunding by submitting their product to Kickstarter-type platforms that focus on creativity and merchandising.

In the Middle East, the lack of media that regularly cover the gaming industry and its potential makes it harder for indie companies such as Rababa Games to attract investors. 

Also, video game bans are nothing new in the Mideast. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are well-known for such bans. Recently, Jordan, Iraq and some other countries have been forbidding popular video games such as PUBG (PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds) and Fortnite.

“As a gamer and a developer, I’m certainly against this random approach of banning video games, which is illogical,” Natour said. “Video games should be treated as movies, as there are movies that aren’t for all ages. So they [governments] should follow the rules of official rating systems and increase [parental and] public awareness of those systems.”

The video game market could offer many opportunities for creative people who are passionate about the industry. To flourish in the Mideast, the industry needs support from the government and relevant authorities, local investors and coverage by specialized media. If current problems aren’t taken seriously, talented people will seek out already-established companies in the West instead of helping to develop the industry in the Mideast.

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