Pimply Teenagers and Indie Gaming in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

11 years ago, when Nour Khrais quit his job to start developing games on mobile platforms, people thought he was crazy.

“Everyone assumed I had lost my job, that’s the only reason you would create a start-up.”

In truth, Nour was pursuing his passion for video games. He is animated, bursting with knowledge, and infectiously optimistic. A family man (he has two daughters), he has moved all around the world chasing his dream, but has since returned to Jordan.

Now he shares his expertise with the Jordan Gaming Lab, which resides in the King Hussain Business Park. 3 years ago, The King Abdullah II Fund for Development made it all possible; as Nour points out, “This is the future, and we need to take care of it.”

Gaming Lab is run by the King Abdullah II funding team, who collaborate in its management with Nour’s own private game developer — Maysalward, who have just released a game that garnered celebrity endorsements from the likes of Jet Li and Shaquille o’Neal.

Gaming Lab has a fresh, egalitarian feel to it. “Nobody has an assigned desk,” not even Nour, who we find sitting side-by-side with young developers in an open-plan office.

This equality lends itself to their business model; Gaming Lab offer a wealth of opportunities for any aspiring developer. “We get everyone from students to taxi drivers coming in; anyone who has an idea for a game.”

Membership is free, and would-be creators get access to an array of computers and gaming systems, use of the office space, and training if they require it.

Members at Gaming Lab have complete autonomy. “We don’t take any stake in the games people make, we just supervise,” Nour says. Developers get help at the beginning of their project, to programming, publishing, and marketing. “We give them the complete package.”

Although Jordan is home to a variety of video game companies, not to mention the numerous institutes and events that operate out of the wider MENA area — such as as the Iran Computer and Video Games Fund, and the Dubai World Gaming Expo, the fact that Gaming Lab provides their space to the community for free, without asking for an equity share of projects or commission seems to makes them unique in the region.

When focusing on Jordan, Nour wants developers to first understand how the local gaming industry works before moving further afield; but the international market is proving hard to crack. The country has a gaming culture, talent, and will, but “the [independent video game] market is unimaginably small.”

The reason for this he says, is bureaucracy; the government puts up obstructions for start-ups,making it impossible to compete on an international level.

“The ecosystem is weak […] The government is just not ready to understand the creative scene.”

Affordable equipment is hard to acquire, imports are highly taxed to deter resellers. “If I buy a graphics tablet for $100–200, I pay 65% VAT? Why?” he laments.

General administration is hard, too. “The best gaming ideas come from two pimply teenagers sitting in their bedroom. It’s always been the case.” If those two teenagers operate in Jordan, they have to register as a company before they take their first step.

“Technology moves fast, and you will get left behind […] who could have predicted that [Farmville creators] Zynga, or Rovio [Angry Birds] would be this successful?” Nour hopes that the government will learn this lesson and quickly.

His favourite example is Leamington Spa, a small town in England. To fight the recession, community leaders created important dispensations for game developers, a move that has seen them become a significant global centre for the UK games industry — it became known as Silicon Spa.

Nour believes local conditions are why many games companies in Jordan close. “If you want to push success, you have to make it easier for entrepreneurs.” But he doesn’t see it as his job to educate the government on these matters; his focus lies on the young learners.

Gaming Lab is currently in the middle of its 6th “App Challenge” — where young people create, develop, and market apps. They also ran “Green Light For Girls”, which allowed girls aged 13 to learn programming. “After, they told me they want to be developers,” Nour says with pride.

His teaching even covers dietary requirements — what you should eat during a 48-hour coding stretch. Crucially, he tells them that success is never immediate, and mistakes are necessary.

“When I was younger, I would say, ‘Dad, my computer is broken’, and he would say, ‘Okay, we will fix it. Do you know why it is broken? Do you know what you did?’ We make mistakes, and we learn from them.”

Nour’s positivity shines through. Most importantly he gets to share his passion with his children. “When I come home, I get to play my games with them.” Are they following in his footsteps? “I don’t push them, [but] my eldest is already developing games, and my youngest has written a story for one.”

Article by Chris Yeoh.

For more information on Gaming Lab, go to: http://gaminglab.jo/jo/

You can now read this article in Arabic

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