Bilal Zaiter

Video Games Industry

Case study: Syria

Playing the Syrian Game !
Syria's Potentials in developing Video Games industry


Video games as a vital component of both interactive media and cultural industries, seem to be one of Syria's treasures to be explored and revealed. This report examines Syria's potential in developing this cultural industry's component and vital communication medium.

Want to kill a woman, a child or maybe a soldier? It's your choice.
Want to destroy a country, occupy a territory, or maybe buy an island? It's up to you. Welcome to the video games world! The game has just started and you can play forever. Ah, and did I mention that you can generate a lot of money too?

Parents tend to say that video games are distorting their children's characters. Having strong influence on their violent behavior, and making them more isolated and less caring about the real world and the events going around.
Children, who start at 8-years old, and sometimes earlier, and keep playing until they are parents themselves in their 30s confess, "I am not addicted to video games, I just love it, come and try it yourself"

Like a knife, or any human creation, such as Nobel's Dynamite, it holds within it the good and the evil. No body can ignore it, whether your choice is to have a walk down town in "Bahsa" area, and see thousands of video games covers, as mosaic displays, or you opt to send an e-mail to the global marketing officer at Play Station, Wii, or XBOX asking them about their annual profits.
This virtual world is a reality! And this medium is spreading day after day.
Companies are placing advertisements inside them, governments are utilizing them as new propaganda mediums and people are interacting with them.

YET, experiencing how killing can be so easy is not the only play. Your options are increasing day after day, you can build a hospital, win a political election, and stop terrorists from killing innocent civilians by "negotiating" them! You can establish relations and experience social networking .
And there is much more. You can create a game yourself !

Brief History

1. The world : ORIGINS : Video games go back to1948, where the idea of a video game was firstly conceived. Then in 1958, Tennis for two came to life. And the industry evolved since then to become global. Today critics argue whether video games industry generates less or more revenues than movies industry!
What is so interesting about video games, is that it started in scientific labs, as simulation studies for purely scientific reasons.

2. Syria
Children in Syria played video games as early as early 70s. Graphics were not enough developed, but we could see many children belonging to middle and upper social classes holding video games machines. Later, we started experiencing video games played on computers such as Singler, Commodore and Sakhr, accompanied with consoles such as Atari. Indeed "Atari" was a dominant brand by then, and was used to refer to video games.
End of 90s there was the booming of network games, hundreds of shops found it profitable to have personal computers linked to each others through simple cables. Then video games such as "counter strike" and "half life" could be practiced by teams of teens rather than played individually. These shops were banned latter on by government.
Today, and due to the relatively cheap computer games' prices, and the higher penetration of computer sets into Syrian households, video games are played at the convenience of our homes. However, many teens still prefer to go out and practice networking games every now and then. They slip out of their homes late at night to go play with their peers "world or warcraft", or explore a "second life".
Teens & youth belonging to upper & upper middle socio-economic class still find that video games consoles such as PS3, PS2, XBOX, XBOX360, Wii as the best gifts they can receive for their birthdays or/and wedding anniversaries.
Popularity of games changes throughout time, indeed what a country's teens play can give one of the needed indicators about its socio-cultural status, attitudes, beliefs, lifestyle, values, and more important, its future.

Social & Cultural Impact

Controversies about video games usually focus on : addiction-sex-violence and women portraying in video games.
This article is about Syria's potential in developing video games and it will be helpful to realize what is being counted as controversial so that to avoid when developing a successful product.
Violence is at the core of today's video games' industry. Unfortunately this is a reality. Former military psychologist and moral reformer "David Grossman" argues that because the military uses games in training (including, he claims, training soldiers to shoot and kill), the generation of young people who play such games are similarly conditioned to be aggressive in their everyday social interactions."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes "Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence, including television, movies, and video games can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed". As a quick hint, more than 60% of video games require injuring the character to advance in the game/in life! Subliminal signaled message goes like this "your success is dependent on hurting the others". What a culture! It is really weird how we forget about the basic law in life. The "harvest law". What you plant is what you get .

Video games as propagandists

Cheating in video games experience has always been used at a dangerous level. In the developing and producing of video games themselves. Being a media tool, rather than solely an entertainment one , just as in movies industry , video games can manipulate audience perceptions. My concern here is where you can see historical facts distorted, social values manipulated, and facts are ignored. Russians are totalitarian and dictators and their females are "bad" . Arabs are undeveloped and ride only camels. Muslims are terrorists, and any other ethnicity which is not of white origins should be erased.
This is not a game anymore. It is unethical manipulation of players brains while they are too involved in the game to the degree they can not realize the subliminal and in many cases the very revealed and clear messages passed on to them. This takes us to another counter culture attack, easily made available for only 50 s.p per each. To the degree that you might see an Arab teen is shooting an Arab elder citizen or soldier.

Popular video games
This is to give a clear indication about where the video games trends are heading to. Mainly strategy, first person shooter (FPS), action, simulation, and role playing genres are the most rewarded ones. Name it "World of Warcraft, SIMs, Call of Duty, or second life, ..etc.
These games are universal, popular from Tokyo to Washington, and from Berlin to Moscow. Indeed, you can hear the same titles if you are visiting a hidden video-games networking shop in Moa'dameh in eastern Damascus or a Pakistani school's teen's room in eastern Mazeh. I am citing here only one genre which is "strategic propaganda". This includes, political, propaganda, simulation politics, and even action (FPS) games. Purpose of this citation is that I strongly believe this is the genre (in combination with the role playing genre) that Syria has all the potential basing on it to compete in the international video games market.

America's Army: AA
Is a propagandist game, funded directly by the USA army, and invented to facilitate army recruitment for young people to serve as soldiers, fighters, warriors.
But psychology professor Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan, a critic of violent video games, says "War is not a game, ….The video game does provide a sanitized view of violence, … For example, when you shoot someone or when you are shot you see a puff of blood; you don't see anyone suffering or writhing in pain."

Ethnic Cleansing
A computer game created by neo-Nazi National Alliance and targeted at youth promotes violence against non white ethnicity. The player has to kill non-whites. Simple ha? There are many other propagandist video games such as "peace maker", "Just Cause" and many others that promotes extremist political stands

Do we have a market to produce for?
Yes. People are looking for ways of entertainment, many are looking for affordable, entertainment. The trend of dealing with computers is on rise. Producing video games for PCs will provide affordable product with a value to end-customers (primarily teens & young people) all over the Arab world. A prompt review to video games sales might give an appreciation of the industry's volume.
USA Software Revenue: February 2007 = $441 million
Worldwide Total Game Software Sales: 2004 - $18 billion / 2010 Forecast - $26 billion

How is Syria going to make it ?

It had already produced mainly three video games: under ash, under siege, and Quraesh. Here is the story of their creation.
1998 was the start, Dar al Al fikr for publishing decided to go into the digital publishing, a team of enthusiastic young people started the development and design. It took them 19 months to finalize the product, and the first video game was "Under Ash". The market reflection to the game was relatively good, and the producing company decided to produce another game almost with the same concept, but this time with better technical development and the next title was "Under siege".
Mr. Rudwan Qasmeh General manager of "Afkar Media" the video games company that was established immediately as a separate entity after the success of "under ash", said "Under Siege's development was a transforming phase from a bunch of amateurs to a stable entity", he resumes "the development phase which took 26 months had also equipped us with the needed experience to go for the third game "Quraiesh' The third game came to life under the title "Quraiesh" talking about the contribution of Islamic civilization to the world civilizations .
I asked Rudwan, "why do you think other companies inside Syria and outside it couldn’t create video games like your company's?" he replied "they lack patience".
Around the year 2006 another company came to life, and it failed. Currently we have another evolving company called "Toy Box" that was established few months ago… Regionally we know about a UAE-based company that had tried to create two video games before it declared bankruptcy. Hard? Not really. It's all about the concept. In creative industries, the play is not about huge investment, its about creativity. Theme counts.
"Afkar Media" consists of 25 people, and Rudwan says "our mission is to create valuable games with meaningful goals", and he ads "the more video games products we have the better the market will evolve, the more accurate the system will be, and most importantly the customer will be able to tell good from bad".
But why would a publishing company, such as Dar Al Fikr take such a risk as early as the year 1998, and continue producing three games?
Mr. Suhaib Al Sharif communication manager at Dar Al Fikr explains "we started basing on our realization of the types of video games played by youth in our country, such video games are full of violent, sexual explicit and even concepts that attack our culture and religions", so the management at Dar Al Fikr decided that as part of its enlightening mission through books it should take the same step at another publishing level, not to make killing as normal as a muse click" Suhaib adds." The content of available video games is against our values and principles which are based on tolerance and peace… so we needed to create video games that stem from our culture and deal with our pressing issues and cases."
But does these video games make profit? I could not get a clear figure with this regard but Suhaib mentioned that "marketing video games in our country is hard due to the high level of piracy, we hardly cover our costs." Maybe this explains why a video game such as Quraiesh which has been finalized since two years is not yet in the market. Another issue to be dealt with if we need to develop a reputable and rewarding video games industry in Syria.

Burhan Jokhadar, is a 3D Artist who has been into the domain of 3D animations for many years. He, as an individual, was the first person I met who has a dream of creating a video game engine. He worked on this alone for almost two years and he was about to complete his mission, but as usual, lack of financial resources stopped him. Burhan thinks out of the box, and believes that the only way to create a real Syrian video game is through challenging the status–quo.
"A video game consists of two parts, an artistic one which is the natural result of the culture, and a technical one which is purely a scientific one" he says. "Games challenge programmers, but who will fund investment in developing programming for video games?" he resumes. Burhan sees that "the eventual goal of any video game, and regardless of the content, is to entertain end-customer" and he believes there is a market for video games but his main concern is that "there are no mechanisms to make such industry feasible". He thinks that the train of future is passing by, it is even stopping in our stations but we are getting lazy enough not to get into it. The same scenario is getting repeated time after time "our society is not aware enough yet that there are tools through which we can make a leap of development, that’s why we are not investing in these tools". So what is the solution? Burhan thinks that "marketing and managing available talents can help us develop a video games". And he closes by "developing a video game puts our culture and creativity under test!". Fair enough.

Toward a new video games industry: a new paradigm

The first time we hear a suggestion like "how many years will it take Syria to be recognized world wide as a producing country of video games?" the answer is too many years. Well, let us put it another way as "how many years will it take Syria to be recognized world wide as a producing country of video games with creative themes!?" the answer is five. Three critical questions visit our minds when we think video games development in Syria.
"BUT, can we do it?". Digging a bit deeper and we can realize how astonishing is it that when we ask this question we actually mean "BUT, can we technically do it?"
the answer is "YES + YES" and I am going to tell you why.
The second question is "But, it costs a lot of money, doesn't it?"
And the answer is "NO + NO" and I am going to tell you how.
And the most vital question is "Who is going to make it?"

First Q: technical possibilities
Yes. Video games are built based on what is called the "Game engine" think about it as the game brain. Fortunately and not to go into many details here. These engines are available world wide for licensing for certain fees. We can use them just as we use a cinematic lab or editing facilities in London, or France to develop the cinematic or digital production we had conducted in Syria. Same story.
And one more worth knowing point, we have genius minds who had already developed "game engine".

Second Q: Budgetary and costs hinders
For Syrian video games developers, developing costs can go between $300K & $1 Million depending on the game scenario, quality standards and the genre. This is less than a price of a home in a good area in Damascus. Between buying a home or developing a creative industry lays the option of upper authorities and businessmen.

The Vital Q: Who is going to make it?
Human Resources.
In early 2000 when there was an upper authority decision to provide all the facilitation to develop the Syrian drama we noticed our professional crews shooting and creating. Question is why would an artist, a script writer, a programmer decide to create? It is because he is creative. AND, because she/he gets rewarded. An upper authority supportive decision to develop and leverage video games industry in Syria would give a signal to business people about the governmental agenda of cultural industries. Once again ONLY in 5 years time, Syria will be recognized world wide as a producing country of a new genre of video games.

How many brains we need to develop a video game!
The moderate team consists of 20 to 50 people depending on the game's complexity and specifications. "Mortal Kombat" is one of the most recognized titles in video games industry and it was developed by four people! yes 4!

A creative video theme !
Why Syria would be originally interested in video games development? Four main titles can define why would Syria be interested in video games.
The first is for a unconventional promotional tool for tourism.
The second is because video games can be a political tool to promote the right political stand of Syria towards critical issues such as world peace, gender balance, knowledge oriented societies, and intercultural dialogue.
The above two reasons can be categorized under the external impression that video games industry may carry out for Syria. It talks primarily to non-Syrians. Although it is supper influencing tool towards Syrians too.
The third, going back to the internal influence side of the story, is because of the impact that video games have as a medium with a positive social networking and teamwork influence.
The fourth is about understanding societal values and collective cultural identity. In this sense, and in brief, video games can be an infotainment medium where the collective population can absorb the concepts and accordingly adapt to being "citizens" rather than individuals.

Now this is a brief to storm the brains about an approach to think about creative and unique themes?

1. What is already available in the market.
2. What is already successful in the market.
3. Global Social Trends (online social networking, MP3 / MP4 transferring technologies, online, global concepts in rise (CSR – Customer Production).
4. It’s a business, so it has to generate profit. This makes us more customer oriented business developers and managers rather than mere propagandists or a bunch of amateurs.
5. Remembering one of the basic and simplest definition of creativity as a way of "placing things that have never been together before, together".
6. Our identity. Our say. What we already have so that we can build on it.

A proper revision of the above components will very clearly reveal new creative themes for video games. That can not be plainly revealed in this article.

Short Story
In 1982, A company (Electronic Arts, Inc) was established in USA with a budget of $2 million. First business plan was to grow to a billion-dollar company in six years. they failed to fulfill it. Indeed, it took them 12 years to achieve it. Well, as you may realize, that’s not a big deviance, though it is a 200% one. But with such an ambitious plan, delay doesn’t make you lose the game. Today (EA) is the world leader of video games development industry, its annual revenue for the year 2006 is $2.951 billion (2006), and its net income is $236.00 million (2006) and it recruits 7200 employees instead of (11) upon its establishment. 25 years is not a too long period in human civilization timeline, and as in strategic video games, life plans go the same route, you just have to think and act. And you will win. Guaranteed.

When The GAME isn't OVER,

Developing a video game industry will give Syria additional growing possibilities such as:
Cinema production: The game and film industries are also becoming increasingly intertwined, to share the marketing costs.
Virtual social networking & ONLINE games.
Cafes & job opportunities: In south Korea there are over 20,000 PC Internet cafes where computer games can be played for an hourly charge.
Real TV Productions.