If naming all PAL territories were a pub quiz question, the Middle East would be the answer everyone would be kicking themselves for forgetting come the pint'n'pig snacks break.
With piracy and typically harsh censorship rife, it's little wonder that the region has never won status as a particular priority at first or third party headquarters in the West.
But the market has shown real resurgence this generation, growing to be worth $750 million; exactly why every major company in games came together to celebrate at GAMES ‘08 in sunny Dubai at the end of last month.
The burgeoning Middle East industry wasn't going to go unnoticed for long, and GAMES ‘08 was the moment everything changed.
Platform holders Sony and Microsoft outlined plans for upgrades to their existing hardware, whilst publishers including Activision, EA, Midway, Sega, THQ and Ubisoft rolled our their respective game line-ups for the coming months to local retailers, distributors and press.
With GAMES ‘08 we were trying to create a local version of Leipzig or E3 for the Middle East,” Sony's sales and marketing director Tim Stokes explains to MCV.
We delivered key information ahead of the market's peak season, without the expense, time and Visa problems of travelling to Europe or the US.
GAMES ‘08 was the first attempt at holding a consolidated trade and consumer event [in the Middle East] – and has been deemed a success in terms of achieving its objectives.”
And how. A keynote from development legend Ian Livingstone pinpointed how important the region is becoming – whilst, of course, the man himself served as a handy, press-friendly coup for the event.
GAMES ‘08 was the first of its kind and was judged a big success,” says Livingstone. It was the first time the industry demonstrated that the region has a real, credible, sustainable and profitable entertainment industry.
There is already a gaming culture and the industry in the Middle East is growing very quickly. The video games market there is worth $750m, of which $600m is made up of hardware. The important statistic is that sales are growing 30 per cent year-on-year.”
Sony dominates the market, with installed bases in the Gulf Co-operation Council (an area including UAE and Saudi Arabia) of over four million PS2s, one million PSPs and 200,000 PS3s.
But there's good news for Microsoft ahoy. Livingstone points to 360's growth in our interview – but says it suffers from the real blight on the area's prospects: piracy.
According to some sources, piracy is so widespread that over 99 per cent of PS2 software sales in Saudi Arabia are illegal: and the subject certainly got a good airing at GAMES ‘08.
Piracy is still a major issue in many markets including Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC,” explains Stokes.
Generally, a lack of strategic importance and transparency are the two main reasons local governments have not made further progress. However, given the absence of piracy on PlayStation 3 software, we are finally starting to see the true potential of the Middle East gaming market.”
So in order to have a fighting chance, Xbox 360 must deal with the pirates. And that's exactly what it intends to do.
Armagan Demir, head of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division in the region says:
The projections for the whole are very impressive. The only problem we all have to tackle is piracy.
We have come together with Sony and local companies to tackle the issue, and EA has invested through its agency.
The real challenge for us all, particularly in Saudi Arabia, is monetising the sale of software. We can do that best with all the third-party publishers having more of a presence in the region – and standalone offices would help. We want to see more publishers come into the region.”
With GAMES ‘08 doing a fine job of promoting the region to the world's biggest games companies, that's much more of a realistic prospect than it was even a month ago.