BEIRUT: The Arab Spring brought about many beginning and endings, from changing political systems to an all-out civil war in neighboring Syria; however, it simultaneously brought about the birth of one of Lebanon's first game development company, that would later put the Levant on the mobile gaming world map.
Game Cooks, a homegrown game development company, has succeeded in placing Lebanon on the regional and international map by creating mobile games with a Middle Eastern touch. "At first, there was no local Arabic content found on the app store, so our aim was to appeal to this growing market that could generate millions of dollars yearly and create something that the people of the region can relate to," Lara Noujaim, Game Cooks' director of publishing, told Annahar
While officially founded in February of 2012 by Lebnan and Arz Nader, the idea for the company came amid the MENA region's brief flirtation with political reform, optimism, and freedom.
What started out as a small after work project of a mobile game called "Birdy Nam Nam," quickly turned into a successful hit after being released on the app store despite lacking a marketing plan.
Birdy Nam Nam is about a bunch of scientists in Dubai experimenting on chickens to turn them into housemaids. The experiment went haywire and the chickens turned into human-hating beasts that were hell bent on attacking cities throughout the Arab world.
A month later, the game reached almost 250,000 downloads and was dubbed as the Middle Eastern version of Angry Birds. "I think the reason behind the game's success was because people of the region felt they could relate to this game due to its Middle Eastern style; while on the international front, people had never seen what a game from the region looked like," Noujaim said.
The success of Birdy Nam Nam encouraged the developers to fully pursue game development, especially after realizing that the region was a market ripe for growth in the mobile gaming industry. The success also brought notice, with a $400,000 investment by RGH Holding, a Lebanese investment company, which helped Game Cooks stand on its feet.
Game Cooks' first official game, Run for Peace, was released in 2012. The game is about Salim, a man who was fed up with the recent turmoil engulfing the Arab world and sought to achieve peace in the region. Once again, the game was launched without any prior marketing. Yet, it achieved the same level of success as Birdy Nam Nam.
"The game focused on peace in the Middle East back when the Arab Spring was at full throttle, so putting that name on the international market made people more curious about it and the game spread like wildfire," Noujaim said.
The company's next step was to increasingly yet slowly tap into the international market by making their games aimed more at the world stage, but with a Middle Eastern touch. "We used to name characters or leave hints within the game that only Middle Easterners would understand and adding a bit of ourselves to it since we didn't want to limit ourselves to the region," she explains.
Fast Forwarding to the future, Game Cooks' launched Poly blast in October 2015. The game has been featured on Google Play Store's home page in over 30 countries; while receiving praise and an honorable mention by a jury at the International Mobile Games Awards that same year.
After the company attended the annual Game Developers Conference held in San Francisco, they started exploring Virtual Reality (VR) gaming. "This is a very competitive industry; you can have the best game narrative and idea but it will falter unless you're keeping with the ever changing tide of tech and have a budget to put on your game," Noujaim notes.
Game Cooks then made it its mission to transition into mobile VR games; it took them a month to plan the transition and come up with an idea. Four months later, in October of 2016, the company launched its first VR game called "Hover" which got featured under Samsung's favorite picks on the Oculus Store, a dedicated app store for virtual reality games.
"Although a lot of game developers were shying away from VR gaming due to challenges such as motion sickness and physical instability, Game Cooks integrated their solutions into Hover," Noujaim told Annahar.
Game Cooks' other games have also earned praise in Lebanon. "My favorite games were Escape from Paradise and Poly Blast since they were both addictive and very fun to play," Rima Yaacoub, COO of a startup called MAD and an avid gamer told Annahar.
Game Cooks' success was also evident in the app store where the company received numerous positive reviews. "Interesting concept, very appealing design and awesome eight-bit soundtrack, worth the download," read Patrick Baroud's review of the Poly Blast game on Google Play.
Recently, the company is moving on to their next challenge by working on a game which would be available for the new HTC Vive – a virtual reality goggles and headset described by TechRadar to be "the best virtual reality experience on the market, bar none." The game is expected to hit the market in April 2017.
"The real struggle for every developer is launching a game in the fastest amount of time possible without affecting the content and maintaining it as bug-free," Noujaim said.
"The VR industry is still new to people, we're still exploring it on multiple fronts; so there's still no reference to what a good VR game looks like, and we're trying to set that standard," she added.
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