Making games in Qatar

How a small team built a company and a game in an unlikely place.
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The trick, says Fatima Al-Kuwari, is to look at the camels.

It's a test devised by the Qatar native to determine if a video game set in her home country was developed by locals. And games rarely pass.

She describes a scene with a camel in the desert, saying an outsider might see that and not think much of it, or think it's a stereotypical icon to represent Arab culture.

But Al-Kuwari says to look closer, to look at the camel's humps. If the game is set in or around Qatar, it should have one hump. But they often have two. It's just one of many examples of how outsiders misrepresent Qatar, she says, made worse by a lack of quality games that come out of the Middle East in the first place.

A little over a year ago, Al-Kuwari and two partners decided they could do better. They could change perceptions of their country. They could make high-quality games in Qatar — games the region could be proud of — and promote Arab culture through those games.

So they formed Girnaas, a studio built to accurately represent its local community and, in the process, create a community of its own.

Getting started

Girnaas might not exist today if not for the Qatari government.

When Al-Kuwari teamed up with partners Munera Al-Dosari and Faraj Abdulla in 2012, the company was just an idea. Specifically, it was a pitch — an entry into an entrepreneurship competition held by ictQatar, the nation's council on information and communication technology. Each member of the founding team had a background in technology and a passion for games, but the three quickly found their places within the proposed enterprise. With degrees in computer science and marketing, Al-Kuwari focused on marketing. Al-Dosari, Girnaas’ managing director, spearheaded the team’s business strategy, and Abdulla became the lead on user experience and public relations.

The aspiring developers met with Ahmed Laiali, an employee of ictQatar, whose job at the time was to help coach potential candidates through the competition process. He worked with the Girnaas team to refine and tighten its business plan, a "gaming lab" where the team could develop games and mobile apps.

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Laiali helped get the business plan ready for submission to the judging committee, where Laiali himself, along with the rest of a panel of judges, would decide which entrepreneurs would win the ultimate prize: startup funding and a place in ictQatar’s Digital Incubation Center.

On the day of judging, however, Laiali was on sick leave. On the day that would determine whether or not the founding team would gain access to the resources and opportunities the governmental ministry had to offer, the pitch for Girnaas was in the hands of a committee completely new to its concept. Al-Dosari, the brain behind the Girnaas business strategy, presented her pitch regardless, knowing this was the final step in launching a development studio that Qatar could be proud of. Standing in front of a full panel of judges — with one significant absence — she laid out her carefully crafted gaming lab business plan, which Laiali — with a career’s worth of experience working with startups and entrepreneurs — had helped polish.

The idea stuck. The Girnaas team won a place in the incubation center, and Laiali, who now serves as the center’s manager, was the first to welcome them there.

"It provides us with seed funds, and it's where we started our business and kicked off product development and then game development," says Al-Kuwari. The center also offers space to work, as well as legal and financial advice, and it gave the founders enough funding to hire team members with more technical know-how.

Mohammed Khatatbeh, a Jordanian programmer with several years of game-development experience in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, signed on as Girnaas’ chief coder. He was joined by Hossein Heydar, a local Qatari animator fresh from his graduation from a Malaysian university. The pair, whom Al-Kuwari affectionately calls "the geeks," form the backbone of Girnaas’ technical team.

"We basically headhunted them," Al-Kuwari says with a smile. "We are lucky to have them on board."

With the initial hires finalized, the team was still incomplete. But it didn’t take long for the team to grow almost five times its original size. Officially, Girnaas has six full-time employees. But if you ask them, they’ll say the team consists of around 29 people. Unlike most development teams, the bulk of Girnaas' staff donates its time.

"We have sketch drawers, we have animators and graphic designers and we also work with indie developers. ... So it's a big network of people."

Most of Girnaas’ team members are local volunteers, free to come in as they please and sketch ideas for new characters or test out new levels. The developer lacks the organization of an established studio, but works closely with the local population, which Al-Kuwari says is part of the plan.

"We have a big network of people here in Qatar who actually come in and support us," she says. "We have sketch drawers, we have animators and graphic designers and we also work with indie developers. ... So it's a big network of people."

Girnaas' team members, full-time staff included, are unbound by strict hours. The developers sometimes come in to the office on weekends to watch a movie with the rest of the team or to play the PlayStation 3 that sits in the back corner of the room. The studio has grown to become a community in and of itself. Khatatbeh is quick to call it a family, held together by what he deems a "core value" of the company: Each member must be funny. It’s not enough to know how to make a game. Being a part of Girnaas is just as much about building this community of locals who love the industry.

And Girnaas would need this community to help put together a game of its own.

Getting ahead

With the team coming together, Girnaas needed an idea for a game, so it turned to the public to decide what to make.

"We had a focus group with a lot of the youth in the country — that's our market, basically — and we got their feedback," says Al-Kuwari. "We tried to understand what games they are playing, what they feel is lacking in the marketplace and where the gap is where we can, as a studio, basically differentiate ourselves."

Girnaas settled on a Middle Eastern-themed racing game called Giddam, which means "in front" in Arabic. It would be a free-to-play mobile racer with online features and a chat function for players to kill time between races, a nod to Girnaas' focus on the local community.

True to the original idea of better representation of the region, Giddam also includes elements of Middle Eastern culture. Each player avatar represents a different caricature from the Arab world — Rashid hikes up his traditional Arabian thawb (robe) so he can run, and Big Mama races in full abaya (dress) and niqab (veil). Power-ups include karak, a Qatari drink made with tea and milk, and the agal, a cord worn by an Arab man to secure his headdress.

Qatar-03A mobile racer with online features and a chat function for players to kill time between races, a nod to Girnaas' focus on the local community.

To add to the game's cultural elements, the first two stages the team designed were set in iconic Doha locations: the West Bay business district and Souq Waqif, the open-air market that has served as a Doha landmark since before the city's rapid modernization. With the game's first content update, the developers added a new Saudi-inspired character and map to the lineup, and they hope to add representation for more countries across the region in coming updates.

"The games that are played currently by kids all over are teaching ... their own values," Al-Kuwari says. "Kids are taught to kill. It's all violent, and they’re sending the wrong signals in general in the gaming industry. We saw that we can add a lot of value and provide better content in that sense and use gaming as a platform to teach values and to actually export our rich heritage in the Arab world. We have a massive number of stories that send very good and positive values that we can export and teach our kids and the world through games."

From the beginning, representing Middle Eastern culture in a positive, accurate light has been one of Girnaas' main goals.

"I live here, so I was really excited to see the things I see from my window in the game," says Heydar. "Like the souq — I go there maybe every weekend, and it's really nice and exciting to see it in the game.

"I'm sick of all the games representing other countries and cultures ... Most games, they don't have anything to represent Arabic countries. They represent it as a desert and a camel, and that's it. And it's actually totally different."

What the team didn't know, despite its research, was whether a large audience would want such a game.

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Getting to the top

From the start, much of Girnaas' funding came from its status as an startup in ictQatar's Digital Incubation Center. The center’s support was enough to cover the costs of building a team and basic development. But developing a quality game, the kind of game the founding members wanted to see made in the region, isn't cheap. Al-Kuwari and the team realized the initial seed funds wouldn't be enough. Once again, it turned to the community for help.

Toward the end of the game's development, the team posted a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo asking for $25,000 to finish the game. Initially, it moved slowly.

"The concept of crowdfunding is something new in Qatar," Al-Kuwari says. "It wasn't something that people knew about, especially the general public. We put it there and we spread the news through social media and all that. And we had several people calling and saying, 'It's asking me for money. What is this about?'"

Though the concept didn't take hold with everyone, Giddam made its goal. The crowdfunding money pushed Giddam over the finish line for a release in December 2013.

Then Giddam took off. Any member of Girnaas will tell you one of the biggest surprises in Giddam’s development process was how quickly this concept of an Arab-centric game took hold across the region. In its first six weeks, players downloaded the game over 100,000 times from countries around the world, with the majority located in the Middle East.

"We were very happy and proud of that," Al-Kuwari says. "That was done with minimal marketing efforts. We didn’t spend much to get this. We used social media and we used broadcasts on BlackBerry and WhatsApp. We're very happy with the viral effect of people just telling each other about it."

"We're very happy with the viral effect of people just telling each other about it."

But the development process wasn't over. Immediately, Girnaas began taking feedback from people who had downloaded the game, and it started working on the first patch. Within two weeks, the team had revamped Giddam's gameplay, adding new platforms and routes that players could take across each level to give the game more depth, as word of mouth continued to spread.

"We read the newspapers, and all over the news was Giddam, Giddam, Giddam," Heydar says. "We were really excited."

Khatatbeh keeps a screenshot on his phone of Apple's App Store. In the shot, Giddam's icon sits right behind a Pac-Man icon. At that point, Giddam had become the second most popular racing game in Saudi Arabia's App Store.

"That was great," Khatatbeh says. "That was very exciting. And unexpected."

"That was one of the things that was very exciting," Heydar agrees. "We were shouting. We were very happy."

Getting paid

While Girnaas declines to talk about specific profits, the company has become something of a poster child for ictQatar. Ahmed Laiali calls Girnaas a benchmark of the kind of success the incubation center hopes to see from its entrepreneurs.

In the span of two years, the company has gone from a concept to a sustainable business that no longer needs to be a part of ictQatar's incubation program — but it doesn't mind the support while it lasts. Laiali says getting past that point is often the biggest hurdle for young companies.

According to Laiali, Girnaas’ sense of community, within the studio and with the area as a whole, is what's kept it moving forward. When another entrepreneur brought a group of students interested in games to the building, the Girnaas team introduced themselves and showed the students around the office. They told the students that working with Girnaas could help them learn to develop their own games. Laiali calls it a "loyalty club," a solid support network of both fans and local developers in the area.

Qatar-04"Girnaas means the peak of a mountain, and that's our vision."

Having experience financing entrepreneurs, Laiali is well aware of the characteristics a startup needs to ultimately find success — one of the most important being the chemistry between the entrepreneurs trying to start a company together. In fact, the incubation competition no longer allows single applicants. Each startup must have at least two partners on board before being considered for incubation, underlining how crucial the teamwork aspect of small business is.

"And this is one of the very important things you will notice in Girnaas," Laiali says. "They are a team and are a very good blend. Somebody has a user-experience passion, somebody has a business and game-development passion and somebody has a marketing passion. So this is ideally the kind of blend we are after. The three are passionate about being entrepreneurs. They believe in what they are doing and they love what they are doing. I don't want to quote Girnaas on that much so [it won’t go to their heads], but this is the kind of blend that makes us relieved supporting them."

Looking ahead, Girnaas has big plans. Its development schedule calls for a new game or app to be released every two to three months, and a couple of new games are already in the works. In addition, the team wants to update every game in its catalog at least once a month to keep the games fresh and to keep players from moving to something else. For Giddam, that means new maps and characters from all over the Middle East and, perhaps eventually, other parts of the world.

In one year of active development with six full-time staff members, Girnaas released a game, built up a community and made enough money to continue. In its office, a wall overflows with sketches and mock-ups for new games as evidence that the team is ready to do it again — and again — for years to come.

"We always say we have a theory here," Heydar says. "Our position in the world market is something nobody has [capitalized on] yet. So we're going to reach somewhere that nobody has reached before. That's our dream. And our games are going to be on, hopefully, every single mobile."

"Girnaas means the peak of a mountain, and that's our vision," Al-Kuwari says. "We want to be there."

Illustrations: Tyson Whiting
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