“Hajji, please get him to calm down”, a mother pleaded to the shopkeeper as her young son screamed and pulled at her dress. The boy was not asking for sweets or milk, but for more coins to be added to the video game he played for hours each day. The shopkeeper did not immediately take the phone from the woman, as three other parents and children were already in line ahead of her, also waiting to get more gaming currency added to their accounts.
“The user base in Iraq is huge”, says Danar Kayfi, this week’s Tajarib podcast guest and a passionate game developer based in Erbil. “Even for companies that develop games in Jordan, Iraq has always been one of its top countries in terms of numbers of consumers.”
Starting it as a hobby, Danar’s career today is all about game development. “I remember when I realised this was much more than an activity that I was passing time with. I was a kid looking through a gaming magazine and came across interviews with directors and people who worked on games as a living.”
The passion started then and a few years later, like many other children of Iraqi parents, Danar was convinced by his parents to study computer engineering in university. “They went “oh game development as a career? Then computer engineering is the best university choice”. The spoiler alert is that it turned out to have nothing to do with gaming”.
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Danar used YouTube and tutorials to develop himself further in the field of game development. This was the same time that more gaming-focused startups were growing in number. Coupled with his knowledge of software from his computer engineering education, Danar realised that he could teach the science behind his hobby. “That’s when I began teaching courses in game development. I was more focused on the programming behind it. At the same time, I was developing games myself too.”
“This means that when you need your game players to function governed by the rules of physics, you could just use these tools for that to be incorporated in the development of the game you’re producing. You no longer need to programme how the player will fall when they crash, but you only need to worry about the other aspects like what buttons to press for what command and so on. I developed a game with a character called Saif who was navigating space and looking over what’s going on earth.”
A tech news blog wrote an article about the game and Danar saw 10,000 downloads in two days without any advertising or promotion from his side. He also found the feedback and conversations about the game interesting. “People were not used to seeing games featuring Arabic and there were groups criticising the game and others defending it.”
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The massive user base in Iraq means that there is a huge potential for startups in developing and publishing games. “Iraqis spend a good fortune on their gaming”, says Danar. “It’s an aspect of our lives that really play a big part in our own development too. How many of us learnt English words through a game we were addicted to?”
An example of an Arab country that has been a regional pioneer in the gaming industry is Jordan. “In my view, a huge factor that helped with this is government support.” Jordan Gaming Lab is a government funded initiative that supports founders and people working in the gaming scene. But how can Iraq grow its game development startups if government support doesn’t come? “A lot of companies are trying to understand the Iraqi user base so that they reach them and cater for them better”.
Danar suggests that people in Iraq can find opportunities in different aspects of the game development sector, even in helping international and companies in the SWANA region understand the Iraqi context better. “This means you can help these companies with customising games to the Iraqi audience. That’s the great thing with games – you can educate people on your culture and traditions through the games you develop.”
There are two stages to game development too. Some companies focus on the first stage where you’re developing games and creating them. Others take what the game developers have created and work on distributing them, promoting and marketing them. “They basically know all the science behind how and where to list games and market them on app stores”, explains Danar. “They also do all the data analytics on how long people are playing the game for, when they get back to playing it, when they leave the game and so on. They then come back to the developers to get the game developed further. Some companies also do both these stages themselves”.
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One of the ways Danar developed his game development skills is through Game Jams. A sort of hackathon with a gaming twist, these events produce game developers with a number of rules and specifications for the game they should develop within a two or three day period. “I created a couple of games this way. One of them was a player who had lost their memory in the forest and a number of clues found across the forest were meant to trigger their memories”. He eventually went from participating in these Game Jams to running them.
“Game Zanga has been running for 11 years now with developers coming in from across the region to participate.” After working a few years in Jordan, Danar then moved back to Iraq and worked for a startup called Fastwares that created apps and solutions to modern problems and challenges. Here, he was part of a team that created a game with Kurdish characters based in Kurdistan and wearing Kurdish clothes. One of the startup’s products, Lezzoo, eventually became the startup’s focus and continues to be one of the leading startups in Iraq today.
Today, Danar is expanding the game development sector’s potential in Iraq by helping companies promote their products through in-game features. “This is one of the ways that game developers can also make money”, says Danar. “The psychology of gaming is hugely untapped in Iraq, where companies can market their products by featuring in the actual game rather than merely advertising”.
He also frequently creates games to experiment with different concepts. A game he developed for children helped him learn a lot about catering to children as a target audience. “You don’t want them pressing the settings button by mistake and messing up everything, so I realised you had to incorporate a maths question or something when they clicked that.” He also developed larger pieces and characters in the game’s graphics to cater for little fingers and concentration levels.
Advice for Game Development Newbies
What’s next for the gaming sector in the Arab world? “I think the upcoming and next trends in the region are strategy games. Board games are also quite popular in Iraq and are inclusive of different age groups.” Danar also believes that party and trivia games are here to stay. “Hyper casual games, that are easy to play and usually free to download are great for even people not into gaming, but because they’re ever changing, it’s difficult to predict what will happen with them”.
His advice for those interested in a game development career is to start a normal nine to five job first. “Start with something stable, but pursue game development as a serious sidekick”, Danar says. “Without a good portfolio, you can’t really go anywhere so this is the best time to build that.” With developing games, you can end up cooperating with people to do more work. “Also consider later applying for jobs in companies based outside Iraq. This was unheard of before the pandemic, but now companies are happy to take you on as a remote worker”.
Danar is currently archiving all games developed in the region, so if you have a game you’re developing, get in touch with him. The host, Jameel, ends the episode with commenting how jealous he is of Danar’s radio voice which he’s made good use of by hosting his own gaming podcast himself.