Amman, Jordan – Amer Kokh, 34, stands in his empty office in the northwest outskirts of Amman, tiny animation figurines lining his desk. He is manning his company’s Jordan location, while the rest of his colleagues are in Abu Dhabi.
Kokh, a law school graduate who found his passion as an animator, heads Crazy Piranha, which this year became the first Arab company to create a video game for a console platform. “Our game is fantasy horror,” he said of The Chainsaw Incident. “It’s everything that people love in animation.”
Kokh recently signed up the game to be compatible on Sony’s PlayStation 4, and is in talks with Microsoft to also put it on the Xbox One.
Video games are a multi-billion-dollar industry, with the global gaming market projected to reach over $86bn by 2016. In the Middle East, the video game market is burgeoning, with an expected annual growth rate of 29 percent.
While console gaming remains largely under-developed in the Middle East, mobile gaming here is the fastest growing gaming sector in the world – and of all the digital games produced in the region, Jordan churns out over half of them.
|The video game market in the Middle East is expected to grow by 29 percent annually [Nadine Ajaka/Al Jazeera]|
“[The region] has the highest mobile penetration rate in the world,” said Chris Jackson, a Boston University graduate who works for Na3m Games, one of several mobile gaming startups in Jordan.
Na3m Games’ founder and CEO is 30-year-old Saudi prince Fahad al-Saud, who, after graduating from Stanford University, was hired by Facebook in 2008 to help launch the popular social media site in Arabic.
For him, Jordan was the obvious location from which to launch his budding startup. “Jordan was a natural choice,” al-Saud told Al Jazeera.
“Basically, the use of new media is already happening in Jordan, more so than other places in the Mideast … People tend to joke about Jordan not having natural resources, but they tend to forget human resources.”
One of those human resources is veteran mobile game developer Nour Khrais, 37. Khrais founded Maysalward, the Middle East’s first mobile game development company, in 2003, and is the chair of the Jordan Gaming Task Force.
In the precarious world of tech startups, Maysalward’s longevity is almost unheard of in the region. “The [Jordanian] king cares very much about technology and apps and games,” Khrais told Al Jazeera. “King Abdullah II funded us, and said, ‘Make an action plan to make Jordan a hub for gaming in the Middle East.'”
This year, the King Abdullah II Fund for Development will give around $750,000 towards developing the gaming sector in Jordan. “The goal is to improve the quality of life in Jordan,” Dr Mowaffaq Hanandeh, the finance and administrative manager of the fund, told Al Jazeera.
“For the king, this means to support exceptional young people in promoting the technology sector, and a part of that is the video gaming industry,” Hanandeh added.
While the government doesn’t directly invest in gaming companies, its outspoken support for the sector’s development holds societal value in a constitutional monarchy like Jordan.
“In general, the government’s role was to create an enabling environment … it put the government seal of approval on an industry and said that [the ICT sector] is a national priority,” says Jamil Wyne, manager of the Wamda research lab. “The big guy says this is a good idea, and everyone else then says ‘Okay, this is something we feel comfortable entering into now.'”
Maysalward has managed gaming labs in Amman and in the north of Jordan since 2011, where anyone can get free, hands-on training in game development. In June, the Jordan Gaming Task Force will launch a nationwide game training and app competition for youths.
“Now, there are huge independent developers, students earning money to set up start ups, and putting out games that are class-A quality,” Khrais said. “And it’s because we’ve spent two years investing correctly for them to understand the growth of the gaming industry.”
But Khrais said that there is one thing standing in the way of growth: “To be successful, we have to bring more females into the gaming industry,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s not because it’s trending. The biggest consumer in mobile games and apps are female … My customers today are 50-60 percent female, so I have to target them.”
To be successful, we have to bring more females into the gaming industry ... The biggest consumer in mobile games and apps are female.
Mira Karouta, 22, studied computer games art at university in the UK, and recently accepted a job offer from Na3m Games, where women constitute one third of the staff. “I’m excited because I think this is the best time to join the gaming industry; it’s almost like a gold rush [in the Middle East],” Karouta told Al Jazeera.
“We’re trying to make a name for ourselves and have our own communities play our own games rather than Western games – and hopefully attract a Western audience as well so we can create a voice for our culture.”
While Jordan has been described as the Middle East’s Silicon Valley, there are many challenges that stand in the way of the country’s entrance into the global gaming market.
“Dealing with failure in the Arab world is really hard, no one gives you another chance,” said 31-year-old Hussam Hammo, who founded a game company called Wizard Productions. Unable to find help from the local entrepreneurial community, the company folded after investors pulled the plug, and Hammo left to join an accelerator in the US. Last October, he came back to open a games publishing company in Amman.
Zeyad Tuffaha, 27, spent 20,000 Jordanian dinars ($30,000) out of his own pocket to create a browser-based zombie game. He has doubts that investors will continue investing in Jordan as a gaming hub. “As much as we can see ourselves as liberal comparatively, everything is tied to politics,” Tuffaha said. “Can you guarantee that Jordan will be stable politically and security-wise in five years? No one can. So, I’m sceptical that this will continue.”
But Jordan remains a relatively safe choice for investors compared to the rest of the region.
“Can we call ourselves the gaming kitchen of the Middle East? No, not yet,” said Fouad Jeryes, 28, who is part of the founding team of Oasis 500, a startup accelerator that funds many of the new gaming startups in Jordan. “We are on a path to potentially becoming our own version of Silicon Valley, but we’d like to have our own brand.”