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How to Launch a Video Game in the Middle East

Disclaimer: at the time of writing this, I work for the video game company Activision Blizzard. All views in this post are my own, not my employer’s.

If you were to think about burgeoning video game markets, markets like China, Japan and Korea would come to mind. Most people don’t realize that the Middle East boasts one of the fastest growing markets in the gaming industry. According to App Annie, between May 2019 and June 2020, consumer spend on mobile games increased by 75% in Turkey alone. With demand for digital, interactive content growing exponentially, it’s just a matter of time before game developers shift their attention to this lucrative opportunity.

That said, it’s only natural for gamers in the Middle East to be pretty different from their counterparts in other parts of the world. Whether you’re thinking about launching a pre-existing game in this unique region, or you’re building a new game entirely from scratch, this post will share a few steps to consider as you start your journey through the production process.

1. Understand the Market’s Nuances

Believe it or not, the Middle East is not a homogeneous region. Different countries in the region have their own politics, regulations, value systems and dialects. In most cases, video game publishers will translate content into traditional Arabic so that all Arab countries can understand it. However, local dialects can still be leveraged to hyper-target country-specific audiences, making your marketing dollar go a little bit further.

The size and growth rate of the gaming market also varies quite significantly by country. This should inform which countries you choose to focus on during the beta, test, and launch of your new game. Below, you’ll find data from App Annie that summarizes consumer spend on mobile games, and annual growth rate of spend on mobile games, between May 2019 and June 2020 in select Middle Eastern markets:

  • Saudi Arabia: $335M, +35%
  • Turkey: $310M, +75%
  • United Arab Emirates: $155M, +40%
  • Kuwait: $95M, +45%
  • Egypt: $45M, +25%

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2. Establish the Right Business Model

In gaming, one of the most important metrics to look at is called “ARPU,” or Average Revenue Per User. This is the average revenue that a player generates through microtransactions or in-app purchases.

A game developer might adopt a strategy where their ARPU is lower, but their volume of players is higher. This might happen with a highly accessible game that has mass appeal and light monetization mechanics, capitalizing on the number of players in the game’s ecosystem. This model also works well with in-game advertising. This tends to be more popular with hyper-casual or casual games that are free to play, like match-3 puzzle games.

Alternatively, a game developer might adopt a strategy where their ARPU is higher, but their volume of players is lower. In this case, developers are optimizing for a different metric called “ARPPU,” or Average Revenue Per Paying User. This might happen with a game that is less accessible but has a niche appeal, capitalizing on players’ higher willingness to pay (think: season passes, battle passes, or in-game items that make the game easier to win). This tends to be more popular with midcore games like card battlers, or games that require an upfront purchase or subscription.

Most people don’t know that the Middle East has the highest ARPPU in the world, a whopping 7X higher than that of China. This indicates that the latter business model – one that capitalizes less on volume and more on willingness to pay – is probably more likely to lead to a better performing game, financially speaking.

3. Localize Your Content

Like the rest of the world, people in the Middle East prefer consuming content in their own language. However, there is a distinct lack of high quality content available in Arabic. The Arabic language is the fifth most spoken language in the world, but less than 1% of gaming content is in Arabic. Producing high quality content that is available in the local language is a major advantage in this market, and an easy win if the focal point of your game is the gameplay, like a platformer, or an endless runner. On the other hand, if your game has a story with a rich narrative, localization alone won’t be enough. You’ll need to go the extra mile and truly culturalize your content.

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4. Culturalize Your Content

The Middle Eastern region has its own cultural sensitivities, so if you’re producing a story-driven game, culturalizing the story will make it more relevant to this market. Casinos, for example, are banned in most Middle Eastern countries, so if your game includes a casino, re-labeling it can help make your game easier for your audience to relate to. Moreover, adding local references and landmarks to maps also contextualize your story, making it significantly more appealing and enjoyable for local players.

5. Produce Relevant Live Ops

Live events, or “live ops” as they’re sometimes referred to in the gaming industry, are a proven way to maintain engagement and monetization in live games for years after their initial release. The Middle East has its own calendar and customs, so those factors should be taken into consideration to ensure that the live ops in a game are relevant to the local market.

As an example, in the Middle East, some of the highest levels of engagement in mobile games tend to coincide with the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. During this time, local businesses reduce their hours, and evenings are filled with festivities and celebrations. Timing in-game events with this period can be advantageous, and is just one example of how local practices can be leveraged to create player experiences that uniquely serve this market.

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You’re Ready for Launch!

Launching a video game at all is tough, but doing it in a new region can be even more challenging. As the world gets smaller, it’s becoming clearer that the most impactful stories are the ones that are tailored to the unique circumstances of an audience. When stories are more relatable, they create more visceral reactions, making localization and culturalization all the more important. If in doubt, partnering with a local publisher can help mitigate some of the risk associated with launching a game in unknown territory. However, as more markets become economically attractive, the need to globalize game launches will continue to persist, making it a valuable capability to have in-house.

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5 Responses

  1. Hello Alykhan,
    Thank you so much for sharing such insights. This article has made me even more motivated to start a game development business in the MENA. I appreciate you replying with the resource that supports the china-mena ARPU multiplier you have mentioned. The following list includes revenue, number of gamers, and arpu that I have calculated by dividing total annual revenue by the number of gamers (Source: Statista). I have only found 16 countries listed on Statista.

    country revneue ($,mil) gamers (mil) arpu ($)
    uae 277 3.90 71.03
    egypt 676 33.30 20.30
    algeria 225 9.20 24.46
    bahrain 22 0.60 36.67
    saudi arabia 576 9.20 62.61
    iran 619 27.90 22.19
    jordan 62 2.90 21.38
    kuwait 82 1.40 58.57
    lebanon 80 2.30 34.78
    morocco 408 17.40 23.45
    oman 67 1.80 37.22
    qatar 76 1.00 76.00
    sudan 51 9.70 5.26
    tunisia 69 3.40 20.29
    turkey 642 25.90 24.79
    israel 320 4.00 80.00

    mena 3,991 150.40 26.54
    china 49,313 779.90 63.23

  2. Hi Ahmed!

    Thanks for pointing that out — the post should have said ARPPU, not ARPU, so I’ve updated the post accordingly. The data was sourced from the publisher Tamatem: https://tamatem.co/the-growth-of-the-menas-mobile-gaming-market/#

    “… The MENA market is full of people who love mobile games. More importantly, they’re willing to financially support the developers of the games they enjoy. The MENA market has what’s called the highest ARPPU in the world. This stands for ‘average revenue per paying user’ – basically, how much you can expect a user to spend on games. The MENA market’s ARPPU is $270, which is a great deal more than countries such as China, which has an ARPPU of $30.”

    Hope this clears things up!

    1. Thanks much, Alykhan. That is quite promising. The large discrepancy between ARPU (i.e., number of non-paying gamers) and ARPPU (i.e., number of paying gamers), along with the forecasted growth rate, shows that there is incredible room for monetization growth. Video game development and publishing entrepreneurs of the region should approach that industry with a sense of urgency

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