The stressful life of Middle Eastern game developers and reality of their craft

An examination of game making in the Middle East.
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In the world of video games and entertainment any kind of publicity is often seen as a boon. But it was publicity that ultimately prevented New York-based game developer Navid Khonsari from returning to his homeland.

Late one night last year, the Iranian-born game developer received an unexpected call from an uncle who had just returned from Iran. Unlike his usual calls, this wasn't an update telling Khonsari how his family in Iran was doing or how he enjoyed the trip. Instead, it was about the video game Khonsari was making. Khonsari's game, 1979, tells the story of the Iranian hostage crisis that took place in the same year. A government-run newspaper in Iran, Kayhan, somehow found out about it. The paper labelled it Western propaganda. If the news got into the hands of the wrong people, his uncle told him, it could spell trouble for both him and his family.

His uncle's message was clear: Khonsari couldn't safely return to Iran.

Stories like Khonsari's have come to dominate Western perception of video games and the Middle East: It's all too political, nothing can get made, and a foot in the wrong direction can mean trouble. Relations between the United States and Iran have spent decades on shaky ground, leaving both countries suspicious of each other and the games their developers make. Government-imposed trade sanctions and ongoing political conflict have served as effective roadblocks for the people of both territories – Western publishers, for instance, can't enter Iran, Iranian games seldom make it out of the country.

Little is known about game development in the region, and what is known is often miscommunicated. But the political strife, and locked-down nature of playing and making games in the area is far from the day-to-day reality for game developers there. A burgeoning game development scene is erupting in the region, one that is far more complex than the snippets of news that rarely escape the Middle East.

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An emerging scene

Ahmad Ahmadi is the commercial marketing director and head of department at the Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation –a non-profit, non-governmental organization that was formed in 2007 to support and promote game studios in developing their products and ideas.

In many ways it is not too different from the Game Developer's Association in the U.S. and Australia. In its first five years of existence the foundation established Iran's first Games Education Institute, held festivals and exhibitions to promote the work of game developers, and represented Iran at regional and international game festivals.

Ahmadi tells Polygon that Iran has gone from having barely a handful of game development studios a few years ago to having more than 95 active studios. The output of games from Iranian studios has risen 50 percent in the last year.

"The entertainment industry in Iran is very young," Ahmadi says. "In fact, game development in Iran only started five years ago."

The past five years have seen what Ahmadi describes as three generations of game developers emerging.

"The first generation tried to develop games by trial and error in the first two years and shared their experiences with the next generation," Ahmadi says.

"The second generation started game development by using these experiences and doing more research and study. It is noteworthy that they managed to develop games that attracted known game developers and publishers to sell their games in some countries."

The third generation is now emerging and while conditions may not be ideal for large-scale game development, they're the best they've ever been.

The country currently boasts more than 30 million internet users and 20 million gamers. Its people are quick to latch onto new technology and circumvent banned and blocked channels. It's a country hungry for knowledge, with education a birth right and UNICEF reporting that it has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, with more than 85 percent of Iranian adults literate. At its peak in 2008, global statistic tracker Index Mundi recorded that 98.52 percent of Iranian women between the ages 15-24 were literate.

The country is dotted with universities full of students eager to advance their knowledge and embrace video game making. Games that have been big in the West have been just as popular in the Middle East, according to Vahid Yousefi, the executive editor of website Bazinama, the first video game websites to launch in the country in 2002. Bazinama covers everything from Minecraft to Call of Duty.

Yousefi tells Polygon that some of the most popular games in Iran are from the West. The Prince of Persia series is adored by many Iranians, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and Gears of War are some of the favorites among teenage boys, and Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, Splinter Cell, and Tekken are some of the most popular series in the country. Anything that the West is playing, Iranians are playing.

But Iran is also one of the most isolated countries in the Middle East. The Islamic nation is run by a conservative government that is constantly under pressure from the West due to its nuclear programs. The country suffers from a politically stressful climate that inevitably trickles down to game development, which isn't so much reflected in the games that do get made as the games that don't. Case in point: Navid Khonsari's 1979. It is Khonsari's love for Iran that inspired him to make a game about his country's history. But it is this same country that would never allow him to release such a game.

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HABITS AND CONSUMPTION

When it comes to making games for the Middle East and North Africa, Rina Onur from Peak Games in Turkey says there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and what works in the West will not necessarily work in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and what works in one country in MENA will not necessarily work in another.

For example, most online and mobile games in the West and Asia rely on credit card payments, but credit card penetration in the region can be quite low. In Iran, credit cards do not exist. Iranian banks set up a system called "shetab" only five years ago to allow Iranians to make online transactions using their debit cards – prior to this, people had to pay using cash or make transactions in person. In places like Saudi Arabia, mobile transactions are one of the dominant forms of payment, with services deducting phone credit that users can then top up.

When it comes to in-game content, a farming simulation that uses Western characters and allows players to grow crops mostly planted in the West is not going to speak to players from a completely different region. Peak Games' farming sim, Happy Farm, is the second largest farming game online after FarmVille and is playable in Arabic. The farmers in the game plant crops that are native to the region and, rather than dressing up as cowboys the farmers wear localized farming attire. It's these small tweaks, according to Onur, that make players feel like the game has been designed for them.

1979

Navid Khonsari has lived in North America for almost thirty years. He left his home in Tehran in early 1980 and studied in Canada as a film student. He spent years making movies and documentaries, and eventually became the cinematic director and head of production at one of the world's most highly regarded video game studios, Rockstar Games. He’s had a hand in some of the most celebrated games of this generation, like Grand Theft Auto 3, the Max Payne series, Red Dead Revolver, Manhunt, Midnight Club, and every game Rockstar released between 2001 and 2006. He is now embarking on one of his most ambitious projects yet – an independent game that tells the story of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the hostage crisis that ensued. It is this project that caught the attention of the a government-run newspaper, and garnered him the sort of attention that could prevent him from returning to Iran and his family there.

When Khonsari spoke to the media about 1979 in 2011, a conservative newspaper in Iran, Kayhan, got wind of his project and claimed that he was creating pro-Western propaganda. Within days of the interviews hitting the internet, he received phone calls from concerned family members telling him it would not be in his best interests to travel to Iran again. They could not guarantee his safety.

1979 could not be made or released in Iran without developers potentially agitating the government.

Khonsari tells Polygon that even speculation from a newspaper can be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands.

"That could be considered evidence, or at least enough to have you brought in for questioning when you’re there," he says. "I certainly don’t want to put myself in that kind of a predicament, especially with my wife and two children."

It’s unlikely that Khonsari’s game will be released in Iran, just as it is unlikely that he will be able to return to his home country any time soon. But he says his case is by no means a reflection of the state of game development in Iran or the Middle East. Not everyone is going to make a game about sensitive political subjects, not every developer is going to get the attention of the Iranian government or the conservative media. To that extent he says he believes that Iran has a healthy attitude towards video games. But the reality is, 1979 and games similar to it cannot be made or released in Iran without developers potentially agitating the government.

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In the year 1979 the Iranian Revolution overthrew Iran’s monarchy, replacing it with an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became Supreme Leader of the country. The year was marked by strikes and demonstrations. Guerrilla forces and rebel troops overwhelmed the monarchy and the Shah. The Shah and the empress fled the country. The game, 1979, begins after the aborted Operation Eagle Claw, a U.S. military operation ordered by then-president Jimmy Carter to rescue 52 Americans held captive in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In 1979's fiction, an Iranian-American soldier who was part of the operation is left behind. The player tries to get that soldier out of Iran, but all of his attempts keep leading him back to Tehran.

Khonsaris says that when players enter the world of 1979, their gut instinct will hopefully be different to the instincts that other games encouraged.

The gut instinct for this game isn’t: " ‘Hey, let’s all go to Tehran and we’re gonna bust these US hostages out!’ " Khonsari says. "It’s more: ‘My mission has just been aborted, I’ve been left behind, I’m in what I’m going to assume is a hostile country, and even though I am Iranian-American I’m not familiar with the culture and there’s a definite sense of tension in the air.’

"You try to escape via Iraq, but the impending war with Iraq and the assassination attempt on the deputy of Saddam [Hussein] forces Iraq to send all Iranian exiles out of the country. That happens to be the time when you’re trying to get into Iraq thinking that you’ve actually reached your safe haven. When that doesn’t work you head towards the north to Turkey with the assistance of the Kurds, but that also happens to be the same time that Khomeini calls a Jihad [holy war] on the Kurds."

The player becomes involved in the struggle of the Kurds, is arrested, and brought back to Tehran where they must then figure out what to do next.

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"I live in a country that’s provided me with the opportunity to be able to show that love for my culture in a way that many parts of the world would not allow me to do."

Khonsari says he wants to use his own background and experiences to tell stories and passively educate. Current games, he says, flirt with non-fiction and history but never embrace it. Khonsari sees an opportunity to present history in an engaging way to show that when it comes to politics and conflict, things are never black and white. Rather than use the Middle East as just another setting for running and gunning, he wants his game to provide an experience that explains the dynamics between the countries involved. He says the purpose of the game isn’t to change anyone’s mind about any country – there is no hero, no villain. When players step into the shoes of the game’s character, he wants them to understand the reasons the character exists and why they are where they are.

"You’re not trying to be a hero," Khonsari says. "There’s no glory in trying to save the hostages. In fact, it’s something that comes about as a result of you trying to flee the country.

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"The story is based on many historic truths which I think, if brought to light, will make people of all political backgrounds kind of take a step back and try to understand what took place."

Khonsari understands that by telling these stories he risks never being able to return to Iran again, and he accepts that price.

"I believe that the Iranian government has a number of valid points against the West in terms of their dealings in the past," he says. "I would actually argue that some of the confrontation that exists between Iran and the United States or the West has been created as a result of poor political management and straight up deception on behalf of the West.

"So I understand where they’re coming from," he says. "My goal is not creating propaganda for anybody. I’m an Iranian that lives in America. My heart is attached to a culture that I was brought up in, a culture to which I associate my love for my mother and father, yet I live in a country that’s provided me with the opportunity to be able to show that love for my culture in a way that many parts of the world would not allow me to do."

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UNEARTHED: TRAIL OF IBN BATTUTA

Semaphore, a studio from Saudi Arabia, is working on culturally relevant games for the hardcore gaming market that it hopes will speak to a players beyond the Middle East. The studio is working on Unearthed: Trail of IBN Battuta, a multi-platform AAA action adventure game with puzzle and exploration elements, melee combat, driving sequences, and cover-based shooting. The game allows players to retrace the steps of classical Arab explorer Ibn Battuta in a modern setting. The game has an Indiana Jones-esque vibe and heavily features regions like Morocco, old Damascus, Alexandria, and Dubai.

Semaphore’s director of development, Ahmad Jadallah, says that he hopes a game like Unearthed will shine the global spotlight on game development in the Middle East.

"That is what we are hard at work to achieve here at Semaphore with Unearthed," Jadallah says. "To present a locally-developed product with a global appeal in multiple languages and to break the mainstream conventions about the Middle East and the portrayal of women in gaming."

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for game developers in the Middle East is that few people outside of the region are aware of their games, and what they are aware of often involves political intrigue.

Amir Mirza Hekmati is an American game developer and former marine who was arrested while in Iran on charges of spying. Hekmati had created a language-learning video game as part of Kuma Reality Games intended for use by the U.S. Department of Defense. Kuma Reality Games had previously made a game in 2005 called Assault On Iran, a game simulating an American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities that Hekmati had no involvement with. During his travels to Iran he was arrested and brought in for questioning by authorities. He gave a taped confession about his intention to infiltrate Iran for the CIA – a confession that his family asserts was a result of coercion. Hekmati was sentenced to death in January of 2012, after the Iranian court found him to be "Corrupt on Earth" and "An Enemy of God". His death sentence was overturned on March 5 due to his verdict being "incomplete" and a retrial was ordered. At the time of writing, Hekmati is still in a prison in Iran awaiting a retrial. Kuma Reality Games has not responded to Polygon's requests for comment.

Other times the information coming from the region about the games being made there can’t be trusted.

American game developer Amir Mirza Hekmati was sentenced to death.

Earlier this year, the Iranian Fars news agency (which Reuters reports has ties with the Iranian government) reported that a game about Salman Rushdie's fatwa was exhibited at the Tehran Game Expo. Titled The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict and reportedly created by students, the elusive game caused waves before receding into silence. While agencies reported on the game as though development was in full-swing, Iranian video game organizations tell Polygon it was only a plan for a game, that the coverage was blown out of proportion, and that the game might not even exist. No one but the Fars news agency has spoken to the developers, and Fars has not revealed which university the students are from or how far the game is into development. Requests to the Iranian government by Polygon for more information or comment about the game went unanswered.

Given the mixed messages that rest of the world receives, many game developers and publishers approach Iran with trepidation. Some don't bother to approach it at all.

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"There's not enough information bleeding through from Iran to the outside markets."

Cue Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh, a managing partner at Conovi, which is a service based in Tehran and Dubai that acts as a digital doorway into the Middle East for foreign companies. Part of his job is to help foreign businesses understand what consumers in Iran want and the best way to approach Farsi-speaking markets. While the company doesn't delve deeply into politically or culturally sensitive issues, it offers a practical starting point. Partnering with Pars Online – Iran's largest private internet provider – Conovi conducts research to determine what the Iranian market looks like.

"There's not enough information bleeding through from Iran to the outside markets, and that is strongly due to a difficult political climate for the last 30 years of so," Bozorgzadeh tells Polygon. "There is a taboo associated to it, in fact. People in the [Gulf] region actually look at the map and sometimes almost seem to not notice Iran is a leading factor in the regional economy. We're trying to reconcile the economic situation by introducing means to make everything more transparent for outsiders looking in."

Bozorgzadeh says that even within the wider Middle East there is a taboo associated with doing business with Iran. As the US toughens its trade sanctions on the country in response to its nuclear programs, other countries are responding similarly. Many are reluctant to explore Iran, let alone trade with it, which creates a climate of isolation that then results in Iranians feeling timid about showing off their work on the world stage.

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"My point of view is that the region is like a body with organs all interconnected – you cannot just shut off the kidney or appendix from everything else in a clean way," he says.

So with little information coming out of Iran, Bozorgzadeh sees Conovi as a valuable source for companies that want to enter the region but lack the knowledge and understanding of its consumers. Examples of Conovi's research include discovering that the majority of Iranians have Nokia phones while iPhones only make up eight percent of the market (and given that Apple would not be able to do business in Iran due to trade sanctions, any iPhones sold in the country would be from the black market). Less than half of those surveyed by Conovi use smartphones while the majority of mobile users have standard phones.

Through this information alone, it is clear that the success of the Western iOS and Android markets could not be replicated in a country like Iran – not while the majority of people don't have smartphones or credit cards. Bozorgzadeh says that this is only one of the many forms of research Conovi conducts, but even the most basic of information can change the way a company approaches the Middle East.

When asked if publishers like Electronic Arts or Activision could ever set up shop in Iran, Bozorgzadeh explains that the trade sanctions are too great an impediment.

There are also financial, technical, and political challenges that many developers in the region face. Ahmad Jadallah, a developer at the Saudi Arabian studio Semaphore, says that acquiring software and hardware licenses can be very difficult and costly for local developers, a problem worsened by seemingly arbitrary export regulations. Piracy is also an issue, with many countries in the Middle East not enforcing copyright laws. In Iran, Ahmad Ahmadi says, the country's video game industry suffers from two weaknesses: the first is the lack of modern technical knowledge in game development because the Iranian game industry is so young, and the second is the inexperience of the local entertainment industry in international trade and understanding the needs of the market.

Ongoing political problems between Iran and the U.S. have also contributed to these obstacles. Recently Blizzard’s games became unplayable in Iran due to a trade sanction. Arma 3 was also pre-emptively banned in Iran because the National Foundation for Computer Games (the official body that rates video games, not to be confused with the Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation) and Revolutionary Guard Corps found the game's depiction of Iran as a NATO enemy to be inaccurate. Polygon's correspondences to the National Foundation over the course of three months are, at the time of writing, still unanswered. Interview requests with the Iranian government lodged through the Iranian consulate have also been ignored.

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THE FESTIVALS OF THE MIDDLE EAST

Tehran Game Expo

The most prominent consumer video game expo in Iran, the Tehran Game Expo marked its second birthday in 2012. Organized by Iran's National Foundation of Computer Games, the expo predominantly showcases video games from the region and supports local game developers.

Dubai World Game Expo

Now entering its fifth year, the Dubai World Game Expo attracts developers, publishers, retailers, investors, and distributors from across the Middle East. This year's expo will include both MENA and international developers.

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A consumer video game expo held in Dubai, GAMES is the largest expo of its kind in the Middle East. The expo showcases all the latest video games from around the world and is open to the public.

The Arab Independent Game Developers Festival

A sub-event of the Dubai World Game Expo, the festival is not too dissimilar from the Game Developers Conference in the US, Europe, and China.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

"The poorest economies make the greatest artists."

Despite all the restrictions placed on Iran, the country is by no means allowing external factors to stunt its growth when it comes to tech and development. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube might be blocked in the country, but Bozorgzadeh puts estimates of Iranian Facebook users between 10 million to 20 million. While Western game publishers may not have any presence in Iran, it does not stop Iranian gamers from accessing the latest titles on day one of launch.

"Everything comes into Iran," Bozorgzadeh says, even if it means circumventing traditional channels and piracy. And with the help of Conovi, he expects more businesses to establish themselves in the country. Tehran held its first StartUp weekend in August while TED will be making its Iranian debut later this year. Bozorgzadeh believes the gaming and tech scene in Iran is promising.

Navid Khonsari says that developers in Iran and the wider Middle East are incredibly tech-savvy and creative, but the infrastructure in the region is to blame for their industry's lack of visibility.

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"In the end it's also about finances," Khonsari says. "The Middle East has a very extreme sense of poverty and wealth, so those who can afford it can afford the greatest in everything and those who can't are happy to just have a cell phone."

A country like Iran also exists in unique circumstances. It's surrounded by Arab nations that enjoying varying levels of wealth and tech, it's isolated from its own region, it has a high-tension political climate, but its developers are still committed to making games.

"People want to make games there, there's no question about that," 1979 developer Khonsari says. "It's more of whether they can have the access to be able to create the kind of games that can compete on a world level. The skillset is there, the knowledge is there, the passion is there, but they don't have all the tools in order to get them there."

Despite the obstacles that stand in the way for Middle Eastern game developers, Khonsari believes that it is not going to stop them from making the games they want to make.

"The poorest economies make the greatest artists," he says. "And as these economic embargoes continue we're going to see these extremely bright, young Iranians who are educated in computer science and other aspects of technology enter the games industry."

Image credits: Top pic, Siavash, Speed in the City, Happy Farm, 1979, Iran hostage crisis, Iran hostage crisis, Unearthed, Amir Hekmati on Irib News, attendee at Games12 expo in dubai, attendees at Games12 expo in Dubai, Navid Khonsari.

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