Interview With Game Cook's Lebnan Nader: Developing For Peace
Aspiring developer seeks to unite the Middle East, one iOS game at a time.
Numerous first-person shooters feature levels inspired by Middle Eastern cities and plots involving terrorist masterminds. What you see on TV, though, doesn't necessarily apply to everything. Yes, many parts of the region are in turmoil. It won't take long to find grim news updates on CNN and Reuters, but they don't paint the whole picture. Not everyone's bent on violence and condemning the U.S. Some, as we learned in a recent interview, are more interested in promoting change in a more positive way.
That said, we had the privilege of speaking with Lebnan Nader, co-founder of a small studio called Game Cooks. Located in Beirut, Lebanon, Nader and his team hope to spread goodwill with a new iPhone title called Run For Peace, a running game where players guide a fictional character named Salim past a variety of hazards, where the longer he survives, the more Middle Eastern countries embrace peace, eventually forming the familiar symbol. As we learned, developing in Beirut comes with a very unique set of challenges, one Lebnan is more than willing to overcome.
What brought you to the decision to create games?
I was with my brother at the time, and we came up with the idea of creating a game in Arabic, because to us, the Arabic language in games or in technology is really funny. I don't know why. So we developed a game called Birdy Nam Nam. In a couple of weeks, it had half a million downloads, and in six months, 1.5 million downloads. We said "wow", there's a huge market for that, to develop something really small and not very professional and get a good vibe for it. A couple of months later, we got a small investment and opened our company. We employ five people. We wanted to make games part time, but it turned out to be something really good, so we focused on that.
What inspired you to create Run For Peace?
The Middle East is a region that's really hectic. We had the Arab Spring, which is still going on. We had many demonstrations, people blocking roads, going on strikes and overthrowing governments. There is no Arabic country talking about peace. They're all fighting with each other. We wanted to spread peace without taking sides, because the youth is really cool. They all want to be tech oriented, continue their studies and live happy lives, but this isn't happening. Since everyone uses iPhones in this region, we want thousands of people playing a game for one noble cause.
How long did Run For Peace take to develop?
It took us about five months with a team of five, because we didn't have the expertise and know-how to do it. We had nobody to ask. If we were based in San Francisco, we could have developed two games in that time. Because of the slow Internet over here, it took us a week just to download the exe code. That said, we learned a lot. Eventually, we pulled it off.
Let's talk about Beirut. What is the situation like over there?
It's not really bad, but we have different politics and small things that happen. For example, one night we were coding in the office and heard gunshots roughly 200 meters next to us. We couldn't leave, and had to do an overnight and continue working. Someone attacked someone else, the army and police came and then we heard nothing about it.
I don't walk around everywhere. A lot of places we don't go, but it's relatively safe.
One weekend you're fine, then the second weekend something happens. They'll close the road to the airport or burn tires. The country's unstable, but isn't dangerous at the same time. Everyone wants to grab the authority over here.
When you tell people you develop games, what is their reaction?
How do you make money out of it? The youngsters are really proud, but older people say go get a decent job.
How is the video game development culture?
In general, it doesn't really exist. When was the last time you heard of an Arabic game being famous? People aren't encouraged to do this because there aren't many investments, so they look for a decent job and that's it. You have a couple of companies that develop web games. In terms of mobile, there are very few. There isn't a huge market. A lot of people have iPhones, but very few have credit cards linked to those smartphones, so they can't purchase games. We only received 3G a short while back and it's not very good, so people tend to avoid downloading large files. This is one of the reasons why developing games in this region is difficult.
Can you go to stores to purchase games?
Yes, of course. In Beirut, we can go to any shop and buy an Xbox, and you can buy a lot of cracked CDs, so games for $2 each that normally cost $60. They are the original games, but pirated and burned onto CDs.
What are the popular games in Beirut?
Pretty much everything from the U.S. and the French App Store, because half of the Lebanese speak French, the other half speak English. Temple Run, Angry Birds, Where's My Water?, the normal ones. On consoles, a lot of people play MMOs, and EA Sports, like FIFA. We have a few people that are really good gamers, but they're shy.
If people don't have credit cards, how do you intend to get the word out for this game?
It's a vicious cycle. I want to get some revenue out of this game to cover expenses, so I intend to target people with credit cards, which are the minority. I'm pretty sure the game will get cracked on CD or installers and everyone will get to download it. We are developing an HTML5 version of it that will be live on Facebook very soon. Eventually, we want to make the game free for a couple of days.
What do you want people outside the Middle East to take away from this game?
That in Lebanon and the Arabic world, we can develop games. We cannot maybe develop as good as people in the U.S. and Europe because they have better capabilities and know-how than we have here, but we can create something to put our region on the map. Then again, you want to show them the Middle East is about peace. When you see the nightlife in Beirut, the people having fun, you understand we don't want war. Enough war. We really want to play, have fun and dance. Yes, we can do games for mobile, and yes, we are peaceful people. When you play the game, think about peace. Don't think about anything else.