Kwalee teams with Fahy Studios to grow gaming in the Middle East

Kwalee recently teamed up with Saudi Arabia-based Fahy Studios with the support of Neom Media to beef up gaming in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Fahy Studios is a new game studio based in Riyadh, and it is using Hitseeker, Kwalee’s mobile publishing platform which has a new Arabic version coming soon to support MENA developers. This agreement will see Kwalee publish Fahy Studios’ future mobile games to a worldwide audience.

It’s an interesting partnership because it’s still rare to see Saudi studios work with Western game companies. It also offers a glimpse into how the Middle East hopes to grow its gaming business a lot faster than other countries have done.

The Saudis are the richest royal family in the world, and they want to build a financial empire in games. But they also want to create jobs in the kingdom itself in order to offset the loss of oil-related jobs over time. That’s why the Saudi Public Investment Fund has pledged to invest $37 billion in games. And it’s courting companies like Sega and Capcom in Japan to bring jobs to Riyadh. Kwalee has noticed this and it wants to join in the opportunities.

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The Esports World Cup has a $60 million prize pool and it’s drawing more people to Saudi Arabia this summer, and it’s another arm of the strategy where Saudi Arabia is trying to support the game business. The question is whether such events can temper the fears in the region and overcome inertia of the past.

The focus on MENA

Experts from Kwalee along with other industry experts at the Royal Princes Palace in Saudi Arabia 1
Kwalee team at the Royal Princes Palace in Saudi Arabia.

Kwalee was founded in the United Kingdom by David Darling, who was the founder of Codemasters. He sold the company to Electronic Arts for $1.3 billion and then Darling, who was knighted by the queen, founded Kwalee. The company is 12 years old now and it is focused on hybrid casual games, as Darling believed that mobile games would grow rapidly.

Kwalee focused on sticky games with addictive core loops and monetization via ads. That grew into a hypercasual games business with 1.5 billion installs across 100 games, said John Wright, vice president of mobile publishing at Kwalee, in an interview with GamesBeat.

Now it has grown to 400 people. But the company pivoted to hybrid casual games, which have longer gameplay cycles, because of the push by Apple to emphasize privacy over targeted ads. The company viewed that as an “apocalypse” for hypercasual games.

Now Kwalee is working with internal teams as well as third-party developers, and Fahy Studios is one of the external game studios Kwalee is working with. Wright said Fahy Studios is working on hybrid casual games, with a focus on games that work for both MENA and the world.

Kwalee moved into hypercasual games as a publisher, but it saw that the sector was going to be hit hard by Apple’s push for privacy over targeted ads, and it moved back into hybrid casual games, which are casual games with longer playing times. The company recently invested in a 3% stake in Devolver Digital, and it is also focused on the MENA region.

“My hypothesis is that, in the next one to two years, companies like Fahy Studios will start to make games that are going to be at the top of the charts,” said Wright. “That is why Kwalee is supporting them and investing in them.”

He added, “We’re also about to launch our publishing portal in Arabic. And it’s going to be the first publishing portal in the world that is supported in Arabic.”

Accelerated organic growth

Fahy Founders Fahad AlshiblHani Hashem and Kwalee Sayeed RahmanWaqas Khan
Hany Hashem and the founders of Fahy Studios.

I visited Manga Productions last year in Riyadh, and the company was training its own interns and sending them to Japan to get more skills in anime art. The team is building anime, manga and games, and more than half of its art department was women thanks to the training program. That’s the kind of novel thinking that needs to happen to generate more home-grown talent in the region.

Acquisitions can deliver speedy growth, but not necessarily in Saudi Arabia itself. Growing the business more organically also makes sense to fuel a home-grown industry. Hani Hashem, the CEO of Fahy Studios in Riyadh, is trying to build itself fast in a logical way thanks to its relationship with Kwalee and Neom, which is backing the big effort to create a linear city in Saudi Arabia.

Fahy Studios 10 full-time and part-time people, and it is growing deliberately. Hashem hopes to get his first game out in the coming months. He started as a game hobbyist, and now he is going through accelerated growth thanks to the bigger partners.

Hani Hashem 1
Hani Hashem is CEO of Fahy Studios.

“For Saudi Arabia and the MENA region, gaming has not been really serious or had real success stories in the past,” Hashem said. “Nonetheless, I would say that we have a massive number consumers of gaming. We love it and we’re passionate about it. And suddenly, as as we saw the government placed a strategic bet on gaming, this has opened many doors for people who used to build things as a hobby.”

The work at Fahy started around 14 months ago. Hashem said that his studio is in the early stages of working on a roguelite/survivor genre game. The company is being careful about how it balances the gameplay and design. And it is working with Kwalee on things like designing in-app purchases. And the team is doing a lot of iteration on gameplay and adjusting as needed.

“The game is meant to be global, though we will work on localizing it as soon as we have confidence in what we are delivering,” Hashem said.

There are many startups getting off the ground in the region and Hashem got to know many of the creators through building games as a hobby. Since deciding to create a real business, he has been able to get funding to build a proper team.

“We realized that the fastest way to grow is to actually land direct partnerships and work with people who can teach us and help us accelerate,” Hashem said. “This is how we ended up working with Kwalee. We have spoken to a lot of publishers, both locally and globally. And honestly, dealing with Kwalee was amazing as they’ve been more than willing to work as teachers, mentors and more.”

The Hitseeker publishing portal

Hitseeker%20Creative%20 %20press%20release

The Hitseeker publishing portal offers whatever a developer needs to test, publish, learn and earn from mobile games. It includes a suite of features designed to streamline the development process, access expert feedback and optimize game metrics. Kwalee believes it’s a tool that could help a lot of studios, now that it has been translated into Arabic.

At the heart of Hitseeker is its seamless SDK integration, allowing developers to effortlessly incorporate Kwalee’s advanced tools into their games without the need for manual intervention. This integration not only streamlines the development process but also unlocks access to valuable game analytics directly through the platform.

Developers can now autonomously monitor their game’s performance, including retention rates, daily active users (DAU), session times, and other critical metrics, enabling data-driven decisions to optimize game success.

Hitseeker by Kwalee is designed as a collaborative ecosystem where developers can easily manage their game files, access learning materials, and engage in constructive dialogue with Kwalee’s team of experts. The platform facilitates a two-way communication channel through a sophisticated comment system, ensuring continuous support and feedback. This dynamic interaction aims to foster a community where developers can grow, learn, and succeed.

A collective effort at growing gaming

John Wright Headshot 1
John Wright is a VP at Kwalee.

Neom Media Industries is also supporting the partnership between Fahy Studios and Kwalee, facilitated by the Level Up Accelerator, a key initiative of Neom, which is building a linear city in Saudi Arabia called The Line. The Line is one of the most ambitious construction projects in the world, aiming at attracting nine million people to the linear city anchored on one end by the Red Sea. The city is designed to have no cars, streets or carbon emissions.

This agreement marks a milestone for the Saudi games sector, showcasing its potential on the global stage, while Neom Media Industries drives the acceleration and development of the games sector as part of Neom’s strategic plan to establish itself as the regional epicenter for content creation across gaming, film, television, and digital publishing.

As part of its partnership with Fahy and wider strategy, Kwalee is expanding rapidly in the MENA region, and plans to offer an Arabic language version of its mobile publishing platform Hitseeker. Developers can learn useful skills, test their prototypes and release hit games.

Hashem said, “They have a very nice technology that is in Arabic. They know how to support us. The talent here might not have the right experience. But we need to partner with global players to learn and really make use of access to funding and the talent pool we have. Within a few years, we will have a few success stories and companies will show what MENA has to offer.”

Neom Media Industries facilitated the publishing deal between Fahy Studios and global publisher Kwalee.

Building on this success, Neom’s second cohort of the Level Up Accelerator has now launched, enabling similar opportunities for the next generation of regional game developers. The 12-month program operated in collaboration with DigiPen, a U.S. educational institute specializing in video game technology and development. The accelerator is designed to empower and nurture innovative Saudi gaming startups through comprehensive resources, personalized mentorship, and funding.

Bridging the world and MENA

For its inaugural 2023 cohort, Level Up selected four gaming startups from an array of applicants, with female CEOs leading 75% of those selected. This year the program has more than doubled in size – accepting an intake of up to 16 studios which are reduced to six to eight via an internal pitch day.

Hashem said, “We’re thrilled to be working alongside Kwalee on developing global games right here in Saudi. The Neom Level Up Accelerator was imperative in our journey towards the publishing deal. With Neom’s mentorship and support, we were able to aim high and chart an ambitious course ahead of us.”

Wright sees the trend toward building a Saudi game industry as a massive shift. He has been going to Saudi Arabia and has seen a lot of change. He observed that one accelerator gathered 12 startup studios and gave $500,000 to eight of the members to get started. The accelerators are also providing mentorship.

“There is this world of new talent coming up that doesn’t have exposure to game businesses, and so there will be differences in the way they operate and are structured,” he said.

Having funding available makes a big difference, but it’s not everything. The Saudis want more people to have offices in Riyadh and work in Saudi Arabia, or in the other MENA countries. That’s not an easy thing to achieve. But it’s key to building an ecosystem where there is the right mix of technical, creative and business talent.

A big mission

Hitseeker demo by Sayeed Rahman, Publishing Manager @Kwalee
Hitseeker demo by Sayeed Rahman, Publishing Manager @Kwalee

Kwalee’s mission statement is to make the most fun games in the world for players, and Wright said that the statement resonates with him and Hashem.

“We want to make global games, but the real uniqueness will come from how to support that game from within the region,” Wright said. “I would wager that the biggest games in the world are not developed with the Arab world in mind, like reading right to left.”

Wright added, “These cultural understandings are things that we understand because we know the region. Other developers will not develop with that in mind. And that means you’re sort of ostracizing or alienating in some way hundreds of millions of Arab speakers. It’s a growing region.”

Wright said he is seeing a generational shift where gaming is something that more and more people are interested in passionately.

“Look at what happened in Turkey over the last 10 years,” he said. “This is what I think will happen in Saudi. I think Saudi Arabia will be the next Turkiye. All you need is one hit, and you have a monster company, like what Rovio became in Finland. And then all of these companies splinter off and create these ecosystems. I think Saudi Arabia is going to be the next Finland or the next Turkiye.”

Hashem added, “I would add that we want games to cater to us. At the same time, we think the media industry in our region was not developed for the longest time. We did not have creative medium where we could really express and showcase our creative talents and our culture for the world. It’s both sides. We want games for us, but we also want the world to experience what we have to offer.”

He noted that cinemas have taken off in Saudi Arabia in the past decade. Weight said that the changes are dramatic.

“The rate of acceleration of culture in gaming and other entertainment as a whole is moving at lightspeed compared to other mostly developed markets,” Wright said. “I really believe that in the next one to two years, this is going to be a huge place for games. The royal family members are going out to Japan to meet with Sega. The doubling down is happening. This is fascinating.”

Wright said that if you don’t start investing in studios and markets while they’re in their infancy, they will grow up and eclipse your own company. He noted that your word is your bond in such markets and going out to get business done in person is important.

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