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Levelling Up: What We Learned After Building a Studio From Scratch

In 2021, we started building one of Saudi Arabia’s first-ever dedicated games studios, aiming to create ground-breaking titles for PC, console, and mobile that the region could call its own.

Yannick Theler

December 15, 2023

5 Min Read

Driven by an immense passion for mobile gaming and colossal investment over the past few years, the MENA region is on track to become the largest games and esports market in the world. Recent statistics estimate the region is home to around 377 million players, putting it almost on par with Europe and significantly higher than North America. By 2026, MENA is expected to generate $2.8 billion in games revenue – a 56% increase from the end of 2022, according to NIKO Partners.

However, the region still needs one piece of the puzzle: blockbuster games. So, in 2021, we started building one of Saudi Arabia’s first-ever dedicated games studios, aiming to create ground-breaking titles for PC, console, and mobile that the region could call its own. That idea grew to become Steer Studios, home to a team of over 85 talented developers hard at work on our first titles. And that’s just the beginning; we aspire to keep growing and nurture a new generation of local talent who will lead us into the future.

By sharing some of the lessons we learned below, we hope to help other aspiring developers overcome the barriers they might face establishing their own studios, while also providing specific advice on navigating the opportunities and challenges of the MENA market.

Bridging the Skills Gap: Nurturing Local Talent

One of the first things we realised when setting up Steer Studios is that competition for strong candidates in the video game industry is at an all-time high. Tech talent has been in high demand after the pandemic, meaning that studios are competing with one another, and a wide range of other tech sectors. This is leading to a shortage of qualified candidates in the MENA market and across the globe.

When establishing Steer, we realised we’d have to find ways to unlock the hidden potential of our existing talent pool. That way, we’d address the skills gaps among our local game developers long-term. Fortunately for us, we have access to a young and tech-savvy population.

Approximately 63% of the population in Saudi Arabia is under 30 years old, according to the Kingdom’s 2022 census, the vast majority of whom are ‘digital natives’ who have grown up with video games and other technology. We found there was a clear interest in game development careers, highlighting an opportunity to provide young people with the necessary skills and education to break into the industry, and fill the many vacancies for designers, software engineers and other roles.

To address the skills gap, we established several initiatives designed to upskill local talent, such as game development academies, training workshops and mentorship programs, while also inviting international experts through our doors to inspire the team. 

We also recently launched our six-month Elite Internship Program, which gives experienced senior colleagues across art, programming, game design, UI, project management, and marketing the chance to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. It has also helped to streamline our onboarding process (we’re currently hiring interns in all roles) and enhanced collaboration across the studio, leading to new ideas and, ultimately, better games in the future.

MENA is one of the fastest-growing regions for games. The number of players in the three largest markets alone – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt – is predicted to hit 86 million by 2025. But what many developers don’t realise when deciding to build up their studio is the importance of getting to grips with the regulatory considerations involved for the markets they are targeting.

Understanding and protecting intellectual property rights anywhere – such as trademarking, copywriting and dealing with potential patent issues – is essential to avoid costly legal problems. Adhering to industry standards, such as age ratings and data protection laws, is just as crucial.

When establishing Steer Studios, in addition to the above, we had many other complexities to contend with. Launching games from Riyadh to the world requires consideration of the laws and regulations of each country. As our studio is made up of 17 different nationalities so far, we were positioned well to meet this challenge.

Drawing unique creative inspiration from cultural heritage

We also had to give our team the space to innovate and ensure they were designing games they felt would be fun to play. A lot of creative inspiration came from drawing on the rich cultural heritage of the region. For example, we found that infusing local stories and folklore into narratives can create distinctive storylines that appeal to local and international audiences. 

There are many other developers who’ve done an equally astounding job of demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach. Just take a look at Venba, a simple cooking puzzle game that has been heaped with praise for its heartfelt narrative that follows two Tamil immigrants who move to Canada. Players who had gone through a similar cultural shift felt a huge amount of empathy for the game’s characters, while many others appreciated its authentic focus on traditional cuisine and ingredients.

Recap – Top Things to Bear in Mind

Building up a new game studio isn’t easy, and it requires a huge amount of time, dedication, and vision to succeed. However, it’s also an immensely enjoyable experience with significant potential rewards waiting at the end of the process, such as the freedom to shape the creative direction of projects, autonomy over a studio’s overall vision and processes, and the many financial benefits that come with launching successful games.

If you’re feeling up to the challenge of building your own studio, here are the key things we’ve learned so far from going through the experience ourselves:

  • Recruitment in the video game industry is more competitive than it’s ever been before. You’re not going to just be competing with other studios, but the wider tech industry. Rather than focusing on trying to hire experienced colleagues, which can take time and be costly, think about how you can enhance the skillset of your existing candidate pool through enhanced training, mentorship programs and other initiatives.

  • Make sure you have a strong understanding of the many regulatory and legal challenges that can impact game development, such as adhering to age ratings and copyright laws, across different regions.

  • Look for creative inspiration in your home market. Embracing local culture can result in innovative and engaging gameplay that appeals to audiences all over the world.

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