High-Impact Entrepreneurship

Ahmed Metwally on entrepreneurship and gaming in Egypt

The following is an article reprint that appeared earlier this year in the Globalization Issue of ‘Interactive Age’, a peer journal for executives in the video game industry. Ahmed Metwally, who authored the piece, is an Endeavor Entrepreneur and CEO of Timeline Interactive – Egypt’s first video game company, based out of Nasr City.

When I tell people that I work with Timeline Interactive, a gaming company in Egypt, people usually stare. The brave ones would comment politely that they did not know of a gaming industry in Egypt or the Middle East for that matter. What I tell them is that they are both right and wrong.

The challenges are quite real for those interested in developing games in the Middle East, a region with few hardcore gamers, zero publishers, reluctant investors and no industry specific education program. However, we have certainly done it and we are seeing a strong trend that leads us to believe that we are part of a rising industry in the region.

Very few investors and entrepreneurs in the Middle East are eager to rake the initiative and become part of such a new ecosystem. Nevertheless, as Gene William Mauch once said, “You can’t lead anyone else further than you have gone yourself.” And we are pleased to be on the forefront of this new regional market.

In a new market, as with all startups, getting funding is no easy task. However, we did it by taking advantage of our strong team’s history. Mostafa Hafez, our co-founder and technical director, originally co-founded Artificial Studios, a US-Egyptian video game development studio. Mostafa brought in Mohamed Samir, our co-founder and technical lead, to help him build Reality, a gaming engine that Epic games acquired in zoos. After the acquisition, Artificial Studios Egypt split and became Timeline Interactive. The team then caught the attention of the Technology Development Fund and EFG-Hermes, a leading investment firm, which invested in the company to help take it to the next stage.

Early on, we had to make a decision on whether to target the Middle East market specifically or to target the global market as a whole. So, we had to ask the obvious question: how many garners are there in Egypt or the Middle East and what are they like? The exact numbers have never been officially measured, but research shows that there are just as many gamers in Egypt as anywhere else in the world. The only difference, however, is that the majority of Egyptians and Middle Easterners tend to be casual gamers with a focus on PC games, and an unyielding preference for multiplayer soccer games. Once they’ve played a good soccer match, they may shift to their second preference, strategy games. The story is a bit different for consoles like PlayStation3 and Xbox360. Even with three hundred million people and thousands of PS3s being sold every year, the Middle East is still considered a virgin market, albeit with huge potential. And in today’s global village, the Middle Eastern consumers, like any others, are always looking for well known AAA titles. Everyone wants to play the big blockbusters that everyone else is playing.

Since our early strategy was to develop action games for consoles such as PS3 and Xbox360, it was becoming obvious that building a game that solely targets the Middle East as a region would be a very risky endeavor. Therefore, we opted to target the global market as a whole. This lead to the release of CellFactor: Psychokinetic Wars in June 2009, a downloadable multi-player First-Person Shooter (FPS), on the PS3 and Xbox360 to a worldwide audience. This experience has cemented our vision to develop games that would release worldwide. This does not preclude us of course from looking for concepts that draw from our culture. We are quite confident that a video game which leverages some aspects of the Arabian culture while maintaining a worldwide appeal would have a stronger chance of success regionally and globally. The success of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia series would certainly reinforce this.

Apart from the business challenges, we have also faced organizational ones. There are many talented resources in a country of 80 million people and tuition free universities that graduate 5,000 computer science and computer engineering students every year. Yet, hiring the right resources for Timeline has not been an easy task. One of the first issues that we encounter is the lack of professional experience. With this industry being almost non-existent in the Middle East, finding people with the required experience and skills to participate in the development of a video game title can be rather difficult. At Timeline, we have built a six month mentorship program that walks new qualified resources through the different aspects of video game development and immerses them in the experience. Three months into the program, new Timeliners begin assisting their mentors with their deliverables. Six months in, they are fully productive and are tasked as full junior resources on projects. Once the Egyptian talent is fostered, the outcome is a diversity of unique and impressive creativity and artistic talent. Working against the well established stereotype, our aim at Timeline is not to simply compete on cost, which tends to be the main competitive advantage of any overseas outfit. Instead, our goal is to continuously compete on creativity and innovation. Being very cost effective never hurts though! So we are constantly working on building the right diverse team that can grow to compete on a global scale.

Another challenge is our geographical location. It is difficult to meet in person on a regular basis with publishers. Therefore, we always make it a priority to focus on our communication and coordination with the publisher’s team to overcome that psychological barrier associated with working with remote teams. However, being located in Egypt does have 115 advantages. Egypt is centrally positioned when dealing with teams from around the world. For example, while working on CellFactor with Immersion and Ubisoft, we managed 12 teams working on the title around the world. Being located in Egypt was optimal as we could easily communicate with Ubisoft’s testing teams in India & Europe early in the day and have our regular status meetings with the producers in San Francisco by the end of the day.

In our experience we find that development of video games in Egypt has been an interesting, yet challenging endeavor. With the numerous challenges we face along the way developing a video game title in Egypt success becomes quite an exemplary achievement.

The Middle East is still considered a virgin market.

As we continue to strive for more we look forward to introduce diversity into the video game arena. Due to Egypt’s unique geographic location and varying topology, various cultures exist today: in the North, you have a Mediterranean marine centered culture, in the South, an African Nubian one, in the dessert, an Arabian Nomadic one, while a farming one exists on the banks of the Nile. This offers us a very rich palette to draw from.

Apart from the abundance of mythological tales, historic events and modem stories from Nobel Prize winning authors that we can weave into future titles, we are leveraging unique art forms inspired by Pharaonic, ancient and modern Islamic into new art concepts. Egypt has always been known for its innovation in the movie and the music industries in the Middle East. At Timeline we plan to build on that, and remain the regional pioneers in the video game industry. We will always focus on using our local resources to penetrate the international market. We believe that the Middle East market will follow suit on its own.

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