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Thu 10 Mar 2011 12:45 PM

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The game of life

The pace of regional development in the content creation field has been relentless over the last couple of years. Digital Studio visited the latest addition to the growing Abu Dhabi stable when we headed to the new studios of games developer, Karkadann Games

The game of life
David Ortiz (left) and Ricky Ghai

Karkadann Games, part of the Abu Dhabi Media Company and currently, if temporarily, based at ADMC’s Al-Ittihad Building HQ, may have only been officially live since the turn of the year, but this came following an ‘incubation period’ of some months, as a result of which, its first title, ICC Cricket Power, was launched on February 1st. Not bad for a company that had only existed for three weeks.

This first game was actually developed by Mindstorm, an experienced Pakistani developer, with Karkadann publishing and distributing the finished product. Moving forwards, however, Karkadann will both licence games from external developers in the role of publisher, and develop its own content from its Abu Dhabi studio. Karkadann general manager David Ortiz explains further: “This a total start up from scratch. Currently, we have specialists in all the major disciplines on board, from technical experts to creative and artistic direction. As time goes on, we will increase the staffing levels and begin in-house development.

“We’ve chosen to licence our first release because, quite simply, it’s the quickest way of getting initial content out there. We don’t feel compelled to produce everything in house, and as we’re currently working from a temporary office publishing was the best start. We had a good licencing deal with the ICC, Mindstorm is an experienced developer that was working on a cricket game, and the two came together nicely. In fact, we feel that part of our remit should be to publish other people’s games from the region, whether or not the creators were hired by us for that specific purpose. We want to bring regional talent to the market regardless of whether that’s done in house or through publishing deals.”

Hardware-wise, Karkadann’s  is a fairly simple set up. PCs are the main tool, although Ortiz concedes that if, for example, motion capture is needed, Karkadann’s links with ADMC, as well as its close relationship with twofour54, do not leave it short of options in terms of facilities or specialists.

Karkaddan has certainly hit the ground running. With one release already on the market, it plans at least one more this year, a still-under -development game based on the exploits of Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao. With major licencing deals in place with the world’s major cricket body and the Phillipines’ biggest export, it seems that Karkaddan has identified some very specific demographic needs within the region’s multicultural population, and I ask Ortiz if the company is intentionally targeting some of the region’s biggest expat populations: “Of course there are massive multicultural populations in the region and we want to reflect that. We have a local mindset, we know there are all different breakdowns in region and we acknowledge that. But at the same time, these games are released all over world and aimed at a global audience so we don’t want to be restrictive either.

“With Manny Pacquiao, for example, he’s a massive global name, not just with one specific nationality, or indeed just with boxing fans. In fact, although we can’t release too many details yet, we can tell you that the game will not be a boxing game. Manny’s fanbase goes far beyond boxing fans, and we want to speak to that whole audience, not just those who would buy a boxing game. Manny will be the hero, but it won’t be a boxing simulation.”

To this end, Karkadann is prepared to come to regional agreements with strong international partners who may be able to increase its contents reach in other markets, while the online age means Karkadann is also able to distribute its own content globally through the internet.

Ortiz adds: “Gaming is a massively growing market – you just have to go to the mall and see how many stores are selling games content. There’s also a huge internet café gaming culture in the Middle East which crosses age and national boundaries. There are a lot of female customers these days too, and they drive a huge section of the online market. Facebook and social networking sites have helped move gaming very much into the mainstream of entertainment culture, and gaming has shaken off that anti-social, geeky tag.”

It’s not only the geeky tag that gaming seems to have shaken off. Whereas in the past, games may have been seen as the poor relation of films or TV entertainment, the production values of some of the most successful games of recent times are impressive, and the sector has now become a respected one within the broader content creation field.

Ricky Ghai, ADMC’s executive director of digital media is keen to emphasise the importance of the gaming sector as a creator of content: “There have been attempts previously at adapting existing games for the Arab market, and I can understand why this has been done, but we’re keen to go further than this. We believe we can make a difference to the local market by creating content that is both locally created and relevant, not an adaption of Western content.

“We firmly believe that creating content that has regional relevance is not only a creatively desirable ambition, but a commercial one too. People will naturally take more of an interest if the product is created in the region because something created here will always be more ‘real’ than something shipped in.

“There’s a lot of talent out there. There are film makers, game developers, all of them in the UAE, in Jordan, in Egypt, but previously they maybe didn’t know what to do with their talents. There are so many stories going untold. The likes of twofour54 have already proved this and now David’s job is to get everybody in the right place to do something similar with gaming.

“Our biggest value asset is the IP we wouldn’t normally get to commercialise. The ability we have to use the existing expertise of the ADMC’s mechanisms puts us in a very strong position – we’re almost fulfilling a public service. Of course, we’re still commercially minded, but is about much more than bottom line. That will come but within that there has to be a level of responsibility.

“There are all sorts of great ideas out here. Look at how American companies can take a story like Aladdin or Arabian Nights and turn it into an American dream. Now we owe it to ourselves to do the same thing here.”

Karkodann may only be one game into what promises to be a very long journey, but the signs are already promising. ICC Cricket Power had only been on the market for a matter of days old when we spoke to Ortiz and Ghai, but the pair insisted that traffic was promising, doubtless helped by the online support of Karkadann’s partners at the ICC, which is linking to the game from the front page of its website.

With a growing team at Karkadann, and strong links with its neighbours in ADMC and twofour54, the skills at Karkadann could even be used in the wider content creation sector, such as animation, although Ghai says that this is not a particular goal: “Ultimately it’s all about talent, and of course one day we could potentially be used in the wider ecosystem, but our initial intention is to succeed in gaming sector. None the less, at the end of the day, talent is talent and we do have links and partnerships with organisations like Imagenation and twofour54 that could potentially see us working together. There’s a lot of expertise on the team that could be used in related areas.”

He concludes: “Really, though, it’s all about content. If we produce good content, and we have the ability to put it out to market, which we do, then the other pieces should fall into place.”