Too many misconceptions persist about how to publish mobile games in Saudi Arabia. Here are some guidelines for would-be publishers to follow.
You don’t need to hyper-localize! Yes, the top charts show that games like Tribal Rivals do well, but it’s not because the characters are in dishdashas and the landscape’s full of deserts. Gamers are gamers wherever you find them, and Saudis want the same entertainment from your content as someone in Canada or Finland. When we talk about the need to localize, we’re talking about the following:
Translate the text to Arabic
This just makes it easier for Saudis to read through the tutorials quicker. Don’t want to do that? Go ahead and still target Saudi, because a good chunk of their player base (read my article on VB) will play your title in English, especially iOS players. This makes it more relevant for sophisticated MMOs with bulkier content and less so for simpler casual titles.
Orient the UX from left-to-right to right-to-left
If you can just do this for the text boxes as per the above tip, that’s good enough. Often, companies will hesitate when they think that they need to change their entire backend orientation, which consists of allocating resources and facing coding headaches that they would love to avoid at all costs. You don’t need to do that.
Let’s talk about Islam
Countries like Saudi have authorities in place that enforce content guidelines so that everything in the public sphere abides to what Islam says is right and wrong.
Sexuality is an easy one. Chinese publishers often approach me, wanting to publish their MMORPGs. These games almost always depict female characters with backbreaking cup sizes. This will most certainly displease the clerical powers that be.
Gender-neutral characters work best. You know, like Pokémon! Failing that, you can either choose to replace female characters with male ones or edit the female characters to more modest proportions and attire. Ten years ago, you may have needed to cover their hair, but thank goodness those days are gone and that it’s no longer a necessity to do so in the age of app stores.
Be careful about any content relating to religion, but don’t get overly paranoid. In countries like Iran, you would need to adjust the ‘altar to the gods’ by either renaming or reinventing it to some alternative, but in Saudi this has become somewhat of a lax issue in terms of what is allowed on the app stores. But try not to overdo it with associations to divinity and the kind.
It slightly peeves me off when publishers naively think it’s polite or more effective to change their artwork and or storyboard to local Arab attire, landscapes, and traditions. They will point to case studies where this proves to be true. Well, it’s not true. Games do well due to a fickle mix of micro- and macro-factors. I recommend that you keep your game the same as much as possible and only polish the areas that local conditions unequivocally demand.
Influencers are kings in the land of the Sahara
Look to the likes of YouTube channel Saudi Gamer, which has over a million followers and 160 million views. Figure out their commercial model for sponsored content and proceed through as many of these doors as possible. They are huge contributors to the possibility of your game going viral with minimal marketing spend and they should be prioritized in your marketing strategy at every conceivable turn.
You don’t need to fly out to the Middle East to make magic happen out here. You can do it all from the comfort of your HQ, operating at the other end of the world. But you need to find the right people, particularly for copywriting, community managers, and support staff. For example, Saudis have their own particular “lingo” of Arabic that marketing assets, messaging, and communication should closely match. This is one of those subtle points that the local gamer community will undoubtedly appreciate.
A huge proportion of Saudis, along with the rest of the people living in gulf countries, set their app stores to the US or other foreign countries. I’m not talking about expats living in these countries. Up to half of the nationals choose to experience the content curation and editorial specific to foreign country settings because the Middle East store is perceived as, amongst other reasons, too sanitized and homogenized for who I believe to be the savvier portion of Saudi users. So targeting ads to the Middle East store will prove to only have partial reach.
Target popular local Saudi and regional sites, and not just game-related, but popular destination sites relating to sports (particularly football), fashion, and news but are 100% in Arabic. The rest is based on the same rules and best practices that apply in every other digital market in the world. Test, measure, pivot, and repeat, all the while keeping in mind the quirky guidelines that I’ve shared here.
Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh is a cofounder at Gameguise, a Dubai-based publisher of online games in the Middle East and a consultancy to global game developers and publishers that need local help in understanding and operating in the market.