The games industry can no longer ignore the MENA region, encompassing markets like Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and more. With approximately 800 million people, a young and growing audience of gamers, expanding wealth, rising ARPUs, and emerging talent, it’s abundantly clear that MENA will be much more important to the games industry’s future than it was in the past.

To tell us more about what’s going on here, host Aaron Bush sat down with David Fernandez, CEO of Sandsoft Games. We dig into emerging trends in MENA, how global teams can maximize their success in the region, how better developing talent could change the entrepreneurial landscape, and how Sandsoft is positioning itself to become a Saudi-based global leader as a publisher and developer.


We’d also like to thank Overwolf for making this episode possible! Whether you're a gamer, creator, or game studio, Overwolf is the ultimate destination for integrating UGC in games! You can check out all Overwolf has to offer at

This transcript is machine-generated, and we apologize for any errors.

Aaron: Hi everyone, I'm your host Aaron Bush and today I am delighted to be joined by David Fernandez, who is the CEO of Sandsoft Games, an emerging publisher in the MENA region. Obviously the Middle East, especially with countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, this region is not just becoming a growing hotbed for new gamer activity, but due to both governmental support and entrepreneurial tax, more legitimate gaming companies than ever before are now setting up shop with big dreams for the region and beyond.

So today we'll dive into what MENA's gaming scene is shaping into. Discuss what publishing is starting to look like in the region. And of course, learn more about Sandsoft itself. So, with all of that said, David, welcome to the pod.

David: Thanks so much, Aaron. Glad to be here. Glad to be engaging with your audience and happy to provide some insights as well.

Aaron: Yeah, so this is going to be a really fun conversation that I think will be insightful for a lot of people who might not breathe, live and breathe this region like you do. But before we dive into the region and Sandsoft itself, David, I think it would be great to start with you. Could you just catch us up to speed on the highlights of your games industry journey so far.

David: That's maybe an easy question, but I don't really know where to start. So maybe let's think about how we start as a gamer, which is usually the first experience that you have before you become an experienced person in the industry. So I think that started somehow in 1985. When I got an Attari 2600 and that was maybe my first proper gaming device that I had at home.

And that created some special moments in my life, particularly with my brother when we're playing together and enjoying that intimate moment for us being immersed in a more kind of interactive experience. If I pass that on, I think after that, the other milestone I will share is I started to code somehow early.

So I start coding when I was 10 years old, and I would start coding basic. which was maybe one of these basic languages that you start to learn when you code, particularly at these ages. And that was really an inspiring moment for me to understand what I wanted to be doing in the industry. I would like to be participating on something that was a passion for me, which was the games industry.

However, as you may know, almost 35 years ago, when There was not so much education for game makers. So that was more entrepreneurial. Some people that was self taught, and eventually you didn't have the opportunity to go back to university. So I took maybe a more serious route. So I did engineering as a proper kind of major in the university, but this game support didn't came early.

So I needed to work a few, a few jobs before I actually came to do that in industry. That happened in 2004, when I go and joined THQ, which was, I would say, old publisher and developer in the U S Toys headquarter, the former company, nothing to do with THQ Nordic. Yes. They bought some assets, but that was a different company.

And I joined the company to what it was by then a new industry, which was mobile gaming. They were setting up THQ Wireless, which was maybe one of the first Party game developers that were coming into the mobile and I started with them as a product marketing manager, which is nothing to do with my engineering background, nothing to do with my actual knowledge and skills, but that was my entry point into the games industry.

After that, I had the chance and the ability to work with other game companies that included Digital Chocolate. But I've had the fabulous pleasure to work with really revealing and inspiring people like Fred Hawkins or Ilka Pananen. After that, I spent some time working with Nokia, where I helped them in their app store and games business, including Engage.

And then it took maybe a kind of a free time to do something different, which was more in the mobile marketing and advertising. Try to learn some of these new things to go to market. And eventually a new opportunity came in to join King. So I came into King in 2016 to join them to support Spargelwood Street team.

That was a game that I work as a lead team in Barcelona studio. And eventually I spent with King roughly five years and had also the pleasure to go ahead. King's London Studio support Candy Crush friends. Over there in my tenure, I'm really happy about these moments, but eventually pandemic came, you reconsider yourself and something new pop up and that was Sandsoft.

And I had the pleasure and the opportunity to leave this team here in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh to create something which I feel is somehow unique. So that's maybe a quick summary brief on my experience and eventually, as for many of us, this is started as a gamer and eventually turned into a profession.

Aaron: No, that was great. Sounds like a really fun career timeline too. Before we get into Sandsoft, I do want to double click into maybe a couple pieces of what you've been involved in. The first of which, more recently, is King. You mentioned you spent five years there, you helped spearhead their most important games.

And so, I'm just curious, as you look back, were there any notable lessons learned? From that time that help inform how you lead at Sandsoft today,

David: Maybe on the soft skill side. Definitely. I think that King has really a strong culture that is people centric people focus. And eventually everything that we were doing at King was with that consideration, trying to make sure that.

We're involving people in the decision making, trying to make sure what the impact on people was, and eventually making sure that there was not just the internal people that we were looking after, which was our employees, but also our external partners, which was our players. So that was really something that was maybe really striking to me.

And after I left King, something else. You'll feel that is the good thing to approach businesses, thinking on people first being these, your employees being these, your players, and eventually think business after pursuing. The other one is about how sophisticated against, as I said, this business. And I think when you work, maybe in a smaller scale organization, when you work, maybe in a smaller game, there is a few things that you can be doing.

And eventually it's a few things that you can test and go to market. But when you work in a company that have games with. Millions of DAOs, some tens of millions of miles. Eventually the skill that you have is insane. And that means that you can test multiple things at the same time. You can run any test in a scale to get meaningful insights.

That means as well that you can do subsegments of your audience to make sure that you can target specific player motivations, player needs. So everything that a marketeer will be excited about, everything that our kind of game designer or product manager will be doing, that's really a perfect space for you to run in games at a scale, and that's what And eventually that giving us some foundations as well to try to understand how we can optimize how we can make the most about the player experience to make sure that we don't just engage and interact and entertain people, but they're willing to create a commercial business that kind of scale and can be optimized as part of that experience as well.

So having this combination in between data and science. And eventually between creativity and engineering is something that in King was truly unique. And that was something that you can definitely, you know the style from any particular aspect of the organization. So really excited about our journey, really happy about the teams that I've worked working in there and eventually really happy about the success they are having lately and managing to keep growing Candy Crush and eventually growing as a company as well.

Aaron: That's very well said. Thanks for sharing all of that. So obviously you learned a lot at Kang. You mentioned as well how the COVID pandemic happened. It changed, forced you to rethink some things in life. Could you tell us more about why you decided to make the leap to Sandstorped? Because from my perspective, that's a pretty big James, you live in Saudi Arabia now working in a completely different region.

Tell us the story of how that came to be.

David: Sure. I presume that first and foremost one of these leaders that like to showcase by doing, and eventually once you tell people you need to come out from your comfort zone, that's definitely, I'll try to do myself and make sure that I'm exploring the wider and broader opportunity space.

Being this on career progression, being this on product decisions, being this on any particular business opportunities that you find in your professional lives. And that's something I truly believe in. Make sure that you think out of the box and come out from your comfort zone. In this particular opportunity, there was certain form of lack.

that opportunities need to appear before you actually can definitely decide if that makes sense for you. But that's as well something that needs to come at the right time. And I feel for that specific dimension, I was ready to maybe explore another opportunity. And reason being was mostly about, I would say, two major factors.

One, and it's something that is not new, is really hard to innovate in large organizations. I think to create something really new, something really unique, something that is really different to what you have been doing before is somehow hard. I think commercially viable, successful organizations tend to be more risk averse and tend to focus on incremental value, trying to focus on opportunity cost to do X versus doing Y, and eventually that's stiffening innovation.

So we have seen maybe not so many companies that have success in the market in the free to play space, being able to innovate again, being able to do that with a larger scale again, or even the same scale that they have a success before. So that was maybe one thing. Second one, I presume as many people in the industry, you have this entrepreneurial spirit.

You have this spirit. I would like to start doing something from scratch. I would like to be doing something that I can shape in a given way from the very beginning. And though both things combined, I feel in this opportunity and maybe a 1st side effect into this decision was more an altruistic perspective, which is more about the notion of giving back.

I think that if we are somehow successful, if we are in our journey in terms of creating the impact we wanted to be doing, eventually, we'll be helping us support the growth of an industry in a country in a region. that is not major in the game development in the games industry, generally speaking. So eventually, by us being successful, we can provide opportunities for people that wanted to do games in this country, in Saudi Arabia, but maybe they don't have enough opportunities to do games in this part of the world, and eventually they need to leave their country to do that in other parts of the world.

This give back component is also important, but I will be not honest to you if I will tell you that was the main decision point. Thanks. No, I'm altruistic for sure, but maybe that was not the main core pillar for my decision making.

Aaron: Yeah, it sounds really exciting and we'll spend a big chunk of the conversation a bit later diving into all the details of Sansoft, how you're leading, what you're working on, all of that.

But before we zoom in, I think it would be smart to zoom out and focus on the MENA region, Saudi Arabia. A little bit just to help everyone better understand what is really going on there and what it's like to work there. And so most of our listeners probably know that this region is growing, it's catching more attention, but maybe we can start with the consumer gamer side of things.

What type of growth are you seeing? What type of trends are you seeing? What's that foundational view of the market looking like for you these days?

David: Perfect. So let me maybe elevate a bit and try to make a few considerations first from how the games market look like here. Eventually taking a small portion of that to diagnose their behavior and eventually get maybe more deeper into specific market needs.

First and foremost, the MENA definition is somehow broad, and it depends on different definitions on what countries are part of MENA and what countries are not. Generally speaking, I would say that there are three major regions within MENA. One is North Africa, Which covers from Morocco to Egypt, all of the countries in North Africa that are Arabic speakers, I'm speaking, right?

Then we have Levant, which is a region which covers things like Lebanon, Israel, that are somehow in the Mediterranean Sea. And then we have You know, the core part that we talk about, which is GCC, which is the Gulf Cooperation Council, and that includes countries like Saudi Arabia, that includes countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE.

And there are some other countries that are not in this region and more in the central Asia, which are Iraq, Iran, and other ones that are part of the country. So eventually we are talking about our population, which is around 800 million people. Which is quite sizable is at least, I would say combined Europe and North America does maybe a sizable number, but it's comparable to that one still below India still below China, but somehow a sizable audience that we can have in the market.

Second component is that in many of these countries, Arabic is the main language. In many of these countries, you have different dialects, and definitely it is not the same Arabic that you speak in Egypt and the one that you speak in Saudi Arabia, and there are some connotations that you need to take into account when designing a game, and particularly localizing games.

But maybe rather than focus on the differences, we need to focus on the cultural, let's say, similarities. And when you think Arabic as a language, Is if I remember well, and maybe excuse me by my I'm precision on this one is the fifth spoken language in the world. You have people in London, you have people in New York, you have people in Paris, speaking Arabic as well.

When we take the wider opportunity about Arabic population, then thinking about that as a proper segment of the total is market makes sense. Coming back to the geographical coverage, if we focus about that specific market, and maybe it's expanding into Africa as a whole, that's one of the regions in the world that is growing the fastest.

And in that, they are growing double digits in the last years, similarly with some countries in Latin America, like Brazil. This is really growing, and that's mostly driven because of, in my mind, three major verticals, or three major reasons about that. One is about The actual age of the population.

Population in this part of the world is younger compared to the rest of the world. So the average age, for example, in Saudi Arabia is 29 years old. Where most countries in Europe are about 42 years old. So definitely there is an appetite from that perspective in terms of consumer habits for younger generations to play games.

And eventually that's thriving as well in this particular case, the growth. Second is about the increase in purchasing power. And that might be not relevant for GCC, for Kuwait, for UAE, and for Saudi Arabia, but this is relevant for North Africa. So the economic situations we have seen maybe in the first part of the decade was driving that growth now has been stagnating a bit based on the economic crisis, but eventually the increased purchasing power from this part of the world is really helping us supporting the growth.

The third component is access to devices, access to gaming devices, that being maybe a smartphone penetration that may be consoles as well, penetration in the market, and that's also growing as well. All of these combined, I think, make the MENA games market a potential sweet spot for people looking into leveraging opportunities within that market, not to just say on the full Arabic world.

Maybe trying to diagnose a bit on the audience, on the gamers perspective. It's true as well that this market is mostly mobile driven. I think if you focus on North Africa, that's true for sure. If you focus on more wealthy countries, this is still the primary platform. And it's the primary platform not because of, in this particular case, the opportunities for them to own multiple gaming devices because they own.

It's more about a more accessible device to play on the go. I think that is following you is accessible is will be close so you can play anytime and that's making the device as a preferred platform as well for gamers in other parts of the world. It's true that the game experiences will be different.

If you play on console PC versus mobile, and definitely the player habits may differ if you tackle maybe more casual, lighter, shorter session experiences on mobile versus PC and console, but that's maybe not unique. From this region that happens everywhere. I presume as well. Another important factor is that particularly focusing now, maybe on mobile free to play, which is the industry.

I know the most I know less about PC and console this region thinking on GCC is maybe 1 of the regions with the largest output. The largest average revenue per user is happening, I would say, in between United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait. It depends on the actual game. But based on the spending power that you have, that's a nature for, or a kind of natural environment for these wealthy spenders to engage in gaming communities and eventually find value in the investment they do in games, and eventually increase the average revenue per user.

It's true as well that maybe compare this region with other, maybe more Western countries, being this Europe or North America or even South America. I think here people like to compete. They are quite competitive and they play games sometimes to just show off. And for that given perspective, they don't mind things like pay to win.

Also, they are quite maybe interested in social status, so they don't mind to pay just to get this unique thing that you have in the game because you are. A heavy spender or a wealthy person. So these are things that you see, and that's maybe more similar to China as a market where some of these concepts like vanity items to pay to weak components is something that people don't mind.

And you actually welcome as opposed to things that you see in other markets where you might be frightened about showcasing your wealth. You might be frightened about thinking that you are cheating the game because you are paying here. I think is the opposite way. So people feel. I wouldn't say proud, but if they just pay to advance quicker, or pay to get an extra power, or pay to just get this vanity item that is rare and unique, and that can make them more visible in the social space.

Maybe taking now a different angle, which is the games industry, how the games industry is shaping up here. I think it's still nascent. And I think when you compare this to more developed markets, it's definitely not or to the extent that this could be based on talent availability and based on as well the passion that we have here for games, and eventually that will take time to develop.

However, I think that there are differences between the different regions as well. I think Egypt and North Africa is much more evolved. That was maybe a home for some. Outsourcing companies for console PCB for countries like Morocco, have we self implants that were helping them on certain parts of the game.

We have Egypt as well. That happened to be the same and have some kind of a smaller site satellite studios that were working on development opportunities and maybe closer to Saudi Arabia, closer to the core of the. Middle East region. We have Jordan. I think Jordan might be maybe the more mature ecosystem that we have here.

They have started 10 years ago in most of the cases. And we had companies that actually did an exit. So we had companies like for example, Jack Walker or Bobby games that were acquired by steel from group. We have another company called Tamaten and that was invested by Krafton. So eventually they were more mature.

They have a combination in between publishers like Tamaten and Krafton. Or maybe game developers, game maker as a Walker or Bible games, but eventually from the game development ecosystem, they were more developed than the rest of the region becoming maybe more neutral about Saudi Arabia. I think 1 of the uniqueness that we have in Saudi Arabia, and I see something similar in the Emirates.

is that the government, the public officials are making a commitment to the games industry. They are having the games industry as a plan to support the diversification efforts. And from that perspective, that's part of the national plans. And that's what it makes unique, Saudi Arabia. That there is a policy support that is effective funds, deployed into the actual ecosystem because there is the willingness to create a sizeable games industry in this part of the world.

And they understand that in an organic way, it takes much more time that incentivizing this with. Some public support is true as well that this program called vision 2030. It's not just about games. It's about other parts of the economy, other parts of the society. And that's a full fledged program to diversify the economy, but also to the more modernize the society and trying to move away from oil and petrochemicals and eventually build a knowledge economy that can make them a more prosperous and sustainable country in the future for the younger generations.

We may be slightly more precise about one of these topics, which is, this is driven by the government, but they are not the only agents in the industry here. There are a lot of private companies, including ours, that are trying to support definitely the national plans, but eventually we have a more commercial attitude towards game making.

And if you're working on for profit in organization, try to make sure that we leverage, not just the opportunity as its own, but eventually global games market as well. Hopefully that gives you an overview, not sure if a small or big, but eventually covering some aspects of the mini markets.

Aaron: No, that was great.

That was all really fascinating. And there was a lot in there. So I have a couple follow ups that maybe will help us double click into a couple zones. We can unpack a bit more. The first one is you did a great job laying out how these gamers in the region and in different countries in the region operate their mobile first, they're competitive, they're maybe more willing to spend for pay to win or cosmetic type of items.

I'm curious though, from the perspective of Western studios, publishers, whoever looking in, if they want to succeed in this region, enter the region and succeed, what else should they know to not only best localize games, but also best culturalize? their games to set them most up to succeed based on all of the factors that you mentioned?

David: Sure. For some one of the basic things is language. And I think that's a no surprise to everyone that if you speak to the actual players in their own language, That's a more engaging opportunity rather than speaking in a foreign language that they may know, but they may not master, and they may not get the flavors that the language richness can provide.

Making sure that you translate the game into Arabic, in my mind, is something relevant. If you have accessible play audience that you can target in this particular market, because I presume as well, we can come into the gender space in a minute. That's something you'd like to explore. But eventually, maybe not all games can grow in the same way here.

And maybe from that perspective, they need to take a different approach. So language first, particularly with Arabic language, this comes with certain design challenges. And I think that could be similar to things that happen in Asia with Chinese or Japanese or Korean, where the UI of the game change. I think in the Western world, we write from left to here, we write from right to left.

And that comes not just with the writing aspect, it's more about when you expect the UI to be. So from a Western eye perspective, when you look into something which is new in a screen, you tend to start looking into the top left corner. Here you look into the top right corner. So definitely you need to make sure that the flow, the UX of your game is conceiving that particular nuance.

That is driven by the language, but eventually it's more than the language. So making sure that your game experience flows with that mindset and following that particular perspective from how people see the world here from right to left. Second one is about. Content, and I think here we have two dimensions into it.

One is true as well that some content might be not appropriate because I think in this part of the world, Islam is really important. It's really relevant for people here to be respectful about Islam as a religion. And from that perspective, there are certain specific considerations you need to take to make sure that, for example, you don't expose nudity or do there are certain content types that for the time being are not really appropriate for the region.

So making sure that you tackle this with respect and eventually considering what your audience like from that setting perspective. The thing that is maybe not unique and could be applicable to any regions is if you have reportedly created. Local content that feels more close to that particular audience here in the region.

That's something they will welcome. So if you are playing a shooter game and you are playing, I don't know, in, in the Western Europe, that may not relate well with people here. People will relate better if you have maybe an environment that they mimic what we see here. Eventually, we have a racing game that you are playing, I don't know, in a circuit in North America, in North America.

That could look well, but if you don't have a circuit that is in Abu Dhabi or other Bahrain, other parts of the world that they went to other parts of the region that eventually will resonate better. So we talk about language localization. We talk a bit about UX design consideration. We talk a bit about content.

I presume the third component is about community and eventually here people are maybe much more social and competitive. On these communities and eventually you need to incentivize that environment where you can create healthy competitions for people to participate and to eventually get together as a community, but in a way that they feel they are engaged.

It's not a passive community where you are just listeners. People like to contribute, like to create, like to compete, like to participate. The fourth component is about user acquisition, right? And here I will maybe tell you that most of the channels that we use in the West still work here. I think if you go to the Facebook, to the Metas, if you go to the Instagrams, if you go to Google's, that will work here to a certain extent, but eventually there are other channels that you need to consider.

And eventually these local channels is something that might be relevant on a kind of country by country perspective. And there are gaming communities, for example, here in the Middle East, like Wiso or CC Play or other ones. That if you are in this particular case, a mobile game developer, you may consider as an opportunity for you to explore new challenges.

There are definitely other App Store ecosystems that are more relevant here than other parts of the world. So I think Samsung and Huawei might be stronger here that are in the West. And eventually that's other OEMs, App Store opportunities you can consider as part of your rollout into the Middle East and North Africa region.

And maybe the last one is about payments. I think that's maybe a topic for a proper full, let's say, session to discuss together with you, Aaron. But eventually, if we think about the consumers, about the players, particularly in North Africa, but could be applicable to other countries in Levant and GCC and the core Middle East, they are unbanked.

Pretending that they have a credit card to input that in the Google Play account or in the Apple App Store account is not working. Okay. You need to find ways to interact with these consumers and then eventually make them monetize through other payment systems. Exploring alternative payment methods for some of these consumers is relevant on top of this potential integrations that app stores may have with operator billing and so forth.

But in some countries, things like scratch cards or still work. So some of these nuances. You need to be on the market to try to understand. And definitely I'm not expecting a kind of a indie developer in the West, trying to disentangle all of these things together by themselves, but eventually exploring this with the support of a publisher being this us or others.

Aaron: Yeah, and I'm sure Sandsoft can help with a bunch of this. So we'll get to that in a moment. My, my second follow up is really just an observation that in most emerging markets, I think what we've seen is the talent forms first, you get great successes, and then the capital follows in some way, successful exits lead to great venture environments and such.

But region. I know that still is the case in some places, but it's almost like the equation has been flipped where now there's tremendous capital available and now the region is working hard to Develop and scale up talent to, to be able to deploy into more interesting projects than before. Could you share more about what is going on in terms of developing talent in the region, what you expect that to look like over the next few years?

And then of course if Sandsoft is involved in any initiatives. That'd be interesting to hear about as well.

David: Sure. Perfect. So I presume if you think about raw talent and what I mean by raw talent is people that have certain core skills to develop a game making job, these raw talents exist here. I think you get people from universities that have these basic foundations for you to convert them into game makers.

What it doesn't happen here yet is we don't have a full green university where you can graduate as a game designer. You can graduate as a game developer. You can graduate as a game artist. This doesn't exist here, but let's be also honest. This was not existing either in the West. 10 years ago. So, as I was telling in my own story, right?

This is something that is not happening. What is happening is that the government is trying to support some of the knowledge transfer and eventually train up and level up these developers by creating specific programs in partnership with the industry. For example, Unity is providing support and creating programs with Saudi Digital Academy to support in this particular case, computer science engineers developers.

to become somehow Unity developers and that kind of bootcamp is helping them to become more knowledgeable about the tools that you use on game making versus being that raw as mentioned before as a potential programmer or a computer science engineer. Presumably as well, there are specific opportunities, not just on this upskilling programs, but also we are now working on trying to understand what a full fledged program could look like, but we know that this will take time and eventually we need to make sure that we have these people that have been entering to this.

First leveling up training programs to eventually being employable before we can roll out a proper full fledged university curriculum for talent to develop in our case, as you were describing, we had an initiative that we did in partnership with the Ministry of communication information technology, which was called present start.

And in our case, this started in January 2022. Sorry, 2023, last year, where we just created a program for enthusiasts, for people that have certain game making experience, for graduates, where some of these core skillsets were already in place, meaning that we were not teaching Unity, we were not teaching Mavia, we were supposing that these core skills were there.

But eventually hire a team of eight people for the internship program for them with an unique objective to create a game due to this small scope. So they have the opportunity to interact and to work in a professional gaming environment to understand how games are made. Eventually we have as well the opportunity to harness talent and that's why we are setting up this program.

But for those ones that are not staying in Sandsoft, we help them in developing their skill set, not just on hard skills, but also on soft skills. Because if you have been involved in game making in some form, yourself, Aaron, or people in the audience, you know that soft skill is really modern in game development.

Being able to work as a team player, being able to support the creative thinking, being able to challenge your team, being able to celebrate the wins and celebrate the learnings is really important. And that's something that, maybe paraphrasing my dear friend Elke van Anem here, good games are made by great teams.

Not by great individuals. Great individuals can compose great teams, but sometimes it's not the same situation, right? So definitely talent development is really important. And maybe coming back to your former question, that's as well one of the natures of the full company, sorry, full contribution. How we can train this new talent generation to make sure that we are ready to cope that transformation as a country, being this in games or in wider industries that we are tackling here.

Aaron: Awesome. That's fantastic. And I have one last question for you here before we really spend the rest of the episode talking about what you're building at Sandsopt, which is that, as you mentioned, this region, and maybe we can just drill in on Saudi Arabia here too, has very heavy governmental support and ownership, but it also has teams like yours that are private companies.

have strong entrepreneurial spirit behind it, don't have that government backing. I'm curious to hear your take on where that trend will go over the next few years. When you look at Saudi Arabia and its games industry, do you think that it will become more or less Governmental versus private market run, or how do you see that shaping out in the next few years?

David: Sure, I think in the end, and it happens in every country in the world and across all of the industries, there is expectation that the private sector will drive this in the future. And I think the role of this case, the government or regulators and speaking is how they can create the right environment for this private sector to lean in to take the space that they are now taking.

And eventually that's as well true here in Saudi Arabia. It's true that PAF, the public investment fund, have been present in games since a long time. They used to own part of Activision, they still own part of Electronic Arts, they own part of Nintendo, they own some sizeable share as well in other games companies.

So definitely that's something that as an investment and trying to look for financial returns. PIF, the public investment fund, have been doing in games in the same way they have been doing in other parts of the financial, let's say, investment support in this, they are following. What is unique is that there is a country plan that where games is the focus, or it's part of the focus, right?

And eventually, I think the government here thought about a good way to incentivize that is what's creating Savvy Games Group, which in that particular case is a PIF owned company. That can help to accelerate the growth. As Savvy Games Group, I think here they have two different missions. One is about how they can acquire the scale to compete in the global games market.

And hence, we have their acquisitions through ESPL, FACEIT, or Elias Copley. But eventually as well, creating local value, and you have, for example, a steel studios, which is one of the local companies they have to make that happen. But as I was coming to you before, that's maybe a way to accelerate the growth and making sure that they can transfer knowledge that can transfer talent to support the growth of the ecosystem.

But it's equally important that are other private organizations in the country, in Saudi Arabia that are willing to do the same. So in our particular case at Sands oft we are part of a large family owned business that wanted to as well diversify their group as part of the country vision.

But in our case as well, that was coming with a new generation, coming to the corporation and eventually. Then creating their own businesses and we have a person in the group that was really passionate and the family was really passionate about games and decided to create that venture and we eventually came in support that vision that he has and eventually landing this into a potential global game business together.

But coming back, maybe to your former question. It's maybe started by the government is incentivized by the government, but the expectation is that is private written on a private growth is driving by the private companies in future. The last consideration is like, that is specific incentives for private companies to set up here as they have in Canada, or they have in Malta, or they have in France.

They feel they are trying to support companies willing to enter the market. So operate from here and that's where they can propose some specific support for companies to operate and do the risk of the operation if they do that from Saudi Arabia.

Aaron: Awesome. I'm really excited to see where all of this shapes.

Out, but for now let's go ahead and talk about Sandsoft. And so I guess the best lead in question is just, you told us a little bit of the story of Sandsoft right there, but if there's more to it, we'd love to hear that, but also what is Sandsoft today? What are all the different pieces that you have that you're working on?

Tell us a bit about what the company is like these days too.

David: I think Sandsoft in a nutshell is a first Game developer and publisher that has global aspirations. I think definitely we are born in Saudi Arabia and we are owned by a Saudi corporation, but we are aspiring to be a leader in the global market.

And that counts with global games, not games that are in this particular case. Local regional games, even though that might be opportunities for some people as well to explore that local nuances and that regional opportunities a person as well. What it makes us unique is that we have really the determination and the mission and the resources to make sure that we can.

Play maybe in a different scale. I'm just now being humble about Tavi and PIF, but eventually creating a sizable organization with a global impact. We have at the moment presence in 4 major locations. So we have presence in Saudi Arabia, which our headquarter is. We have also a studio here in Saudi Arabia and some corporate functions here.

We have a growing team in Barcelona in Spain as well, where we have just announced a studio a few months ago, and we have some publishing activities from that team over there. We have a couple of smaller business development publishing teams in Helsinki, Finland, and in Shanghai, in China, and I presume we are also having on.

An investment operation in Lyon, in France, where we invested in Tiny Little Factory, which is a racing mobile first game developer over there. So that's in a nutshell what we are doing. And definitely we are trying to focus on a specific set of the market. We are trying to maybe summarize our product strategy.

We are trying to create socially innovative, accessible core games for the global games market. on the free to play space. So eventually we will see more about that in future. Not sure how much I can unveil in our conversation today, but I try to do my best to provide some color to the extent I can.

Aaron: No, that's great.

And yeah, you guys are everywhere now. It seems working on all sorts of interesting stuff. Tell me more about your publishing business. What makes publishing or working with Sansoft unique or different or especially tailored to succeed in this region?

David: At present, that was maybe the starting part of our business, meaning that when we think about short term, the capabilities we had when we started the organization, the opportunities we saw a few years ago, we felt that there was a space in the publishing environment where we were Definitely this local knowledge could matter this particular experience on how you can leverage them in a market or something that we truly believe in.

And eventually we saw the opportunity that there was maybe not enough publishers in the region that can help and support companies to penetrate the market. So that was really the short and play or the kind of go to market for us to start building capabilities as an organization, making sure that we can have our UA teams in place.

Making sure that we have our product management function in place, making sure that we can build a. customer support, making sure that we have all of these things that eventually, once you have your own studios and you can have your own games, you're also required to make sure that you can be a proper self publisher.

So that's maybe how we started and eventually we are really happy with our publishing partners so far for the trust they have given us, but I will not deny something which is maybe a market reality, which is scaling games is not easy. And we have tested many games. We have tried to support many different developers, but in the end, with many cases, we face the market reality and some of these materialize improper games.

We could have a scale, still trying, still having a few projects that I cannot unveil yet, but are still on testing phases. We are really bullish about those opportunities. But still, as mentioned before, KPIs will tell and market will prove if we can scale these games or not. Maybe coming back to the part which is about internal game development.

I think here, most of us, we are game makers. As I was saying with you before, have the pleasure and the privilege to lead the Bumblebee Street team in Barcelona. When I was at King, I had the pleasure to lead the Candy Crush Friends team when I was in London, working at King as well. And we have passion for game creation.

And from that perspective for us was really meaningful to create our own game teams. And there are other commercial considerations by you owning your own IP and eventually some opportunities that in this kind of more challenged UA growth market by you owning your own content will make you will create economies of scale because you have, let's say more opportunity to spend more in UA.

But leaving this kind of maybe commercial considerations aside, you have more creative freedom. You have more opportunities to. Do what you dream rather than trying to advise a game developer on your experience, what things work and what things don't. And eventually when you work on your own IP as well versus licensed IP, you have more creative freedom and you don't need to attach to a specific world, attach to a specific narrative or to attach to a specific character setting.

And particularly in that context I feel that for us was really important to build long lasting IPs that I mentioned before. We have the aspirations to be a global games company, and that IP ownership is really a relevant asset for us to be able to expand. And I would say maybe a primer for you. I said mobile first, not mobile only.

So eventually with this. IPs you have more opportunities to become available in wider platforms without the need to renegotiate these platforms after with the licensors to make sure you have enough space to operate this not just on mobile but also on PC and console. So that was we wanted to enter into the game making eventually based on, as I mentioned to you in the very beginning, we wanted to create some capacity, some capability here in Saudi Arabia, but also we understood that you.

Make the rhythm to get the right talent in place locally will take us more time. Eventually decided as well to open up an operation in Europe, in Barcelona, where we can maybe fast track some of our internal game development. While we also nurture talent here and we have the talent ready in our studio as well.

Aaron: Yeah. I was going to say, you mentioned you have aspirations to be a global games company, but in a sense you already are, you walk through how you have. People in teams all over the world. I'm just curious what you've learned about best managing teams that are not just in diverse time zones and the logistics that come with that, but also just the cultural differences and bringing them together under one.

Umbrella and working together. What have you learned about doing that?

David: Sure. I think that maybe from that perspective, I'm thinking retrospectively as well here. I think. Particularly mobile free to play game development in the West. Is somehow similar, no matter which company you look into. I don't mind if this is Rovio, if this is King, if this is Miniclip.

Some of the settings about how people work together to play games is somehow similar. And that was coming to something I mentioned to you before, which is the team is more important than a person. And making sure that creativity is something that everyone can practice is something that is really relevant in the game industry, in the creative industry, generally speaking, right?

But maybe coming back to your specific question, which is, which are the learnings from? Working with multiple culturally different teams, I think it's really enriching, but it's really enriching in the way that you can have different and multiple perspectives into the same topic. There are different experiences based on different cultural backgrounds based on different experiences is also quite revealing, but it comes with certain complexity when you need to make a decision.

And I think that's where you need to get together with the team and make sure that everyone can build on top of what we think is best, rather than you just building on your own idea. And my idea is the only one that matters. No, I think that the generosity we see in game making is when people is able to.

On top of something that someone mentioned and maybe that's a good recipe for, I would say, mostly game designers. In all honesty, I think that capturing that feedback and making sure that your game design team is embracing that cultural diversity is really important because first and foremost. They may mimic your audience is diverse.

So eventually if you listen to multiple viewpoints, that might be a better player voice than if you have just white men in the room, right? So that may not be maybe the right way to explore a global audience. Similarly, a thing that I was mentioning to you before, sometimes best ideas come from unexpected places.

Places, right? Sometimes it's a person in QA. Sometimes it's your artist. Sometimes it's your product manager. Sometimes it's the actual CEO of the company that happens. I presume less, but ideas are welcome no matter where they're coming from. And I think the beauty of the game designers that are able to craft these ideas into something that matters into the game.

And maybe I like to share here an illustration of what I mean by that. I had some fellow colleagues at Blizzard when I was part of King, as you remember Activision Blizzard King was part of Activision as a whole group. And when you see a game developed by Blizzard and you check the credits and you see the design team, it says Blizzard.

It literally means everyone in the company has contributed toward the design of the game. So that generosity is something that maybe was a good learning, been working in such large teams, such diverse setting. And eventually that's something that I will try to, incentivize people to think about how they can embrace creativity, how they can embrace different opinions.

But to the extent this is manageable and you can have action. And that means easily. making concessions and eventually being able to build on top of something that you feel is relevant for this particular case of player's audience.

Aaron: That's very thoughtful and well said. You also mentioned how this region is more mobile dominant, but, and how you're thinking, it's not, you're not just thinking about mobile only games, you're thinking about mobile first games, which implies some level of increased cross platform activity in the future.

Talk a bit more about what you expect that to look like in the region and how that ties into how you're thinking about building your own games at Zansoft.

David: I think that when we think about mobile first, it doesn't necessarily mean a cross platform multiplayer. I think that one of the challenges that we have seen when games have approached different platforms is that maybe the game experience is not Exactly the same, and maybe I can refer to this into a specific game, a specific franchise.

I hope my friends at other companies won't be judging me because of using this example, but let's take League of Legends, for example, which is a tremendous IP, tremendous game in PC. The way they approach mobile is different. Wild Rift is definitely different from a traditional League of Legends on PC.

Despite of the commercial success, and that's definitely something that we can mention, tackle in other kind of podcasts in future, I think that they try to create a more compelling experience on mobile for that particular audience, which basically means you need to reduce your session length, you need to make sure that controls are more accessible, you may need to support with certain auto functions because the controls are different.

Does it mean that you are competing head to head versus a kind of person playing mobile? Sorry League of Legends on PC? Not, actually not. It's a different experience. If we think about maybe another game, and that could be maybe Fortnite, as an example. So Fortnite tried to do cross platform play.

And that comes really hard. That comes hard because in a competitive game environment, you are prioritizing certain platforms because this experience, or maybe let's phrase it, the mastery of certain platforms is providing you unique advantages when you play in a competitive setting. So if you play Fortnite, take Call of Duty as an example as well here, or PUBG, you play better as a shooter if you have more experience.

My keyboard, no matter what other platform you use, being these or pads or a touch device on your phone, it's not compatible, the performance you can get. So that's where things become more challenging because the communities make particularly in competitive environments will be eventually thrashing because eventually the game is not fair.

And if you are playing on your mobile and you're just playing with PC players, you don't last. More than a few seconds. So I think it's where this particular cross platform opportunity becomes more relevant to us. I think in our case, we are trying to make first compelling mobile first experiences.

And then once this has been done, try to understand how we can transfer them this into other platforms. In some cases could be just, if I can say it in this way, an upscale port. of the experience that we have on mobile. In some cases, it would be an enriched game version. In some other cases, it would be just the world, the IP, the theme, and eventually some core game mechanics that make sense, but maybe the actual game experience is somehow different.

So our approach would be more kind of platform specific, thinking on how we can leverage the platform once we have a core game, core IP that makes sense for mobile, and the eventual form of that specific game in PC on mobile. Console needs to be seen because it's gender dependent.

Aaron: Okay. Yeah, that's fair.

I, it's a very nuanced conversation. I think we're going to see a bunch of companies all over the world take different approaches. So it'll be interesting to see what those look like in the next few years. You also talked about how clearly mobile gaming as a whole has been challenged. We've seen slowing growth and the post ATT world, as you mentioned, and scaling games.

Today is challenging sometimes. Could you maybe talk about other, when you look at the mobile market, what are you optimistic about beyond the scaling challenges? What are the zones or the pieces that opportunity and you're excited to build around or. Push toward, or is it all challenging?

David: I presume that, coming back to the go to market is challenging and I will not deny that and eventually go into market with mobile games on the free to play space. If you'd like to grow that particular game to a certain scale, it's going to be challenging no matter what, even if I share with you my optimism, it's important that you acknowledge that from the very beginning, I presume what's the route for you to mitigate that challenge.

Is what is driving my optimism. And I see things that are more thinking on innovative ways to create game experiences. I've seen maybe at this stage, smaller teams trying to become more innovative about specific experiences that they felt unique. In a mobile setting, eventually bring in some experience on other platforms where these game experiences might be more relevant and have them adapted better to mobile that used to be before.

I think there is a blue ocean for that particular space. I can maybe frame one of those, which is racing. I think racing games have not had the potential yet in mobile. Compared to what we have seen on console and PC. Is our port from mobile, sorry, from PC to mobile working? Maybe not. I think that we have incredible games and I think for example, Asphalt is a good driving simulation racing game, but the ones that are topping up the racing category in mobile are not racing simulation games are.

Top drives or are . So I think there is an opportunity, for example, if that space and some innovation that could help to create a compelling experience on mobile in some of these genders that might not be still leveraged or supported well enough in the mobile space will be still opportunities. Space definitely is still a space for some disruption in combining business models.

And I think that there is eventual learnings we are taking from the web free crypto world that we are still to be seen if that's going to be an eventual go to market and business model that is viable. But eventually having a multiple options for you to combine in just more business model could be bringing opportunities.

You may remember as well, a game called Fastlane from my friends in SpaceApe. That was a game that was specifically designed based on in app advertising. Not a casual game, something completely different. I think when you tailor and design a game that can support multiple business models, it feels more unique.

And I think that we are still seeing games on a siloed perspective that players will convert only with one viewpoint. It's true, for example, in that vein as well, that you see Battle Pass as a monetization in many games now. That's a subscription based mechanic, right? I think when you. Integrate some of these options in the games and try to transform how the value generation is for the consumers and they find value for money eventually does a sustainable business opportunity as well.

The thing that I may be more skeptic is about technology. I think there is disruption that can maybe drive growth for mobile games still to be proven. I think that maybe 5G, something that is over there, like maybe an eventual opportunity to disrupt the mobile games ecosystem. Cloud gaming as well, something that is still to be seen, but eventually having your mobile device to Play a kind of console like experience still to be proven.

I think AI have certain angles into mobile games and to what extent that could be a way to create better games still to be seen from not just productivity perspective, but in terms of game experience. I'm talking not here about how you can fast track your game development by leveraging AI tools. But more about how you can have a more enriched game experience by leveraging AI in a different way.

Being these NPCs, being these more liveable worlds, whatever it is that you are passionate about. Maybe that's some kind of thoughts about how I see optimism. Maybe the last bullet will be more about I know that this hard days for the industry. I know that there's a fully some layoffs happening in the industry, but that's as well.

A good opportunity for game makers to think differently and try to come up with these ideas that they were not able to do before because they have certain constraints being able to do that in a different setting, being this by them creating their own teams that are companies on being able to join companies that have more appetite for innovation.

So eventually, I think that This unfortunate situation where you have major layoffs in the industry will generate eventual growth opportunity through innovation the next three to five years.

Aaron: Great. That's all well said. We are about getting to time to wrap this up. So I just wanted to ask you, David, is there anything else about Sandsoft we haven't talked about that you'd be excited to share or we should be?

Looking forward to learning more about in the future.

David: I can be talking hours about that, but it's not about us. It's about trying to make sure we are doing a small contribution towards the audience. And I presume here in our mind is stay tuned. I think these are really important to us. We have had some developments, particularly in the last part of last year, but we are hopefully announcing a few big things coming up in Q2 stay tuned.

That includes not just games that we are working on, but eventual partnerships that are, we are really excited about.

Aaron: Awesome. And I guess two final questions. One. Beyond Sandsoft, beyond the MENA region we've talked about, and maybe even beyond some of the challenges in mobile that you've discussed well, what else in the industry are you excited about?

Like where, what's piquing your interest these days?

David: As a player, maybe here, I'm excited about VR. I think that's maybe a niche market opportunity and might be always be niche. Maybe it might not be mass market. And I think Apple has not made this even more popular with their new device, considering the price point.

But I think now we are getting into hardware and software that is providing a unique experience. Definitely is immersive. That's something that you need to plan for, something that maybe you don't want to be consuming in a day to day perspective. But if you have the chance to experience VR with the new Apple device or with a new Quest device, I'd really encourage you to do so because that's really unique.

So maybe that's something from player perspective. Maybe from industry perspective, I'm really excited about the new regions coming in. I think that Latin America, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Middle East, and MENA regions I think we are paving the way for a new generation of gamers and eventually the growth for the industry will come with this new generation of gamers that we are seeing in these parts of the world.

And eventually that will be the people that will be playing the future Candy Crushes, right? So I think we need to make sure that we have healthy game experiences for these players. A younger play audience that can be designed in a way that is healthy from player habits perspective but in a way that is entertaining and that could be a sustainable habit for these future gamers that we are now embracing into the games industry.

Aaron: Great. And last question for you. If anyone who enjoyed this episode wants to learn more or connect with you or Sandsoft, Where's the best place for them to do so.

David: Old guy here. I'm not using Instagram, not user Twitter, not using one of these more mass market social media. I barely use Facebook. So I think LinkedIn will be maybe the best platform to get in touch.

And eventually just ping me over there. And just, I will just. Give you a small advice. Tell me a bit about you. Don't send me just a kind of empty, invites. I tend to qualify a bit. The invites I get to make sure that I just bring meaningful connections where I can help you. You can help me rather than get spam.

Aaron: Great advice. And I'll link your LinkedIn in the show notes so everybody can find it there. But awesome. I think that's a great place to wrap things up. David, it's been a real pleasure to have you on and to learn from you today. And best wishes to you and everyone at Sandsoft going forward.

David: Thanks so much, Aaron, for the opportunity and a big hello to your audience. Hopefully we can talk soon.

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