Last Tuesday, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet up with Jimmy Ghazal, head of digital operations at Mercury, to discuss the recent success of the Facebook phenomenon of Lebanon Games which include the highly addictive BadYear, Takkit and 3aja2it. Check out the page and the games here.
Hani Farah: Hello Mr. Jimmy, please tell us more about yourself and what it is you do here?
Jimmy Ghazal: Firstly, I’m the head of digital in Mercury and Quantum Group. Mercury is a company specialized in creating digital content and it is a part of Quantum Group that also has companies in the communication industries. Three main sub-groups: Saatchi Group, Quantum Communications and the third is Mercury. Saatchi Group contains companies in communication which is M&C Saatchi in advertising, Brand Central in branding and Vertical in media. Quantum communications is a consultancy and Mercury is the content and digital arm; we specialize in creating our own content so we’re driven by our own product rather than commercial product.
HF: As for Lebanon Games, is it the most recent project under the Mercury umbrella?
JG: Actually, LG is a really fun initiative that became really popular. It started as more of an initiative and wasn’t really a project so it was some kind of social interactive caricature on certain situations that were happening at that particular time. For example, the tire-burning and closing of roads or the extreme electricity cut-offs and of course the traffic jams that are unbearable. It started off with the closing of the roads which caused us to be extremely upset for a big amount of time since people couldn’t get to work or were stuck on the road so we decided to do something fast and fun to make a statement and we got extremely great feedback on that. It also happened that shortly afterwards, we had major problems with the electricity in the country [Lebanon] last summer where we’d only get it for 2 hours a day. Everyone would come sleepy to the office since they couldn’t sleep because of a lack of AC so we decided to make another one about the electricity and so started the small trend to make these games and we’re getting really great feedback so we’re trying to find the time to make them because pulling a game together takes some time. And you have to put it in a decent artwork and presentation which demands time to package it with regards to art and development and the whole game experience. These are simple and fun flash games which have to be simple and light because of another small problem we have here called the Internet so we can’t make a 3D game and expect everyone to be able to play it smoothly.
HF: So is that the reason you picked Facebook as a platform rather than iOS or Android devices? Have you ever considered branching out?
JG: You have to choose your platform correctly. We could have put them on iOS devices but it’s not a platform race, it’s about choosing a platform that best fits your needs. We had social issues [in the country] and these are social games so the best platform is the most popular social platform in Lebanon which is Facebook. Compared to Internet penetration in the country, we have 140% of online users on Facebook which makes it the best platform. Second, they’re games that are score-driven with sharing scores and posting scores on walls and it’s an easy process for users as it does not require you to register. All you have to do is click ‘yes’ and it’s there so the whole experience is really fast.
HF: As you said, the games are based on social events that occurred in Lebanon and do contain the Lebanese language/dialect. Aren’t you afraid that this might make the games a bit too local and prevent you from expanding outside of the region if they’re too Lebanese based?
JG: These particular games target Lebanon and other games might target other issues and topics but these games have to be so Lebanese in order to appeal to you as a Lebanese. It’s hard to find a US resident that can connect to ‘takkit’ for example but the funny thing is that we had some comments from fans in Eastern Europe asking for customization for their countries because apparently they have the same problem. For now, our objective was to create for the Lebanese market and to create for the pure Lebanese. Whether it can grow and become something else, that’s a different story but in the end these games met their objectives.
HF: You make it sound like this initiative started off as an inside joke or a hobby. Did the team already have people who knew how to develop games or did you have to find people from the outside?
JG: No, this is our core competency. We have great people on board; half of our team is composed of gamers, from artists to game developers and this is really a walk in the park for the guys. It doesn’t require that much effort to create a flash game. It started out as a side project as a ‘fashit khili2′ [venting out].
HF: There are a lot of people studying Computer Science in local universities who want to go into game development. As you know, however, there aren’t that many gaming schools in the region. Were the guys working here self-taught or did they have to go abroad?
JG: Some of the guys were lucky to have been part of the DigiPen experience. DigiPen is a gaming school in the US which has partnerships with Nintendo and they established for a good amount of time a partnership with a local university in Kaslik, here in Lebanon, but due to the July war in 2006 war this was stopped. So the team were a part of that experience with them and travelled to the States and also worked and studied there so they have a really good and solid foundation.
HF: As you said, Lebanon Games is part of Mercury so did you get funding from Mercury or did you have to independently fund these projects?
JG: No. Lebanon Games is a project… actually, each game is a project and we just put them under an umbrella called ‘Lebanon Games’. So they are products that Mercury is producing on the side as a content-producing project.
HF: In Lebanon, did you have to get licenses or anything of that sort before producing and publishing these games?
JG: No, no. As long as the idea is innovative and has unique content, you’re safe. Because of our experience in game-making, we know our lines and limits. If you need to get a license, it means that you are using some kind of behaviour or something that is trademarked.
HF: Have you heard of Where’s Waldo?
JG: Yeah, it’s an old game right?
HF: Yeah. When I was playing some of your games, I came up with a potential idea for your next game. You could make a Lebanese version of Where’s Waldo and call it ‘Wayni il Dawli?!’ [where is the country?… a phrase popular in Lebanon used when citizens ask where the government/country is when something goes wrong]
JG: That would be great! Part of Mercury is the ability to open up to ideas and recommendations from people who may have a great idea but lack creative or technical resources to do it and we could help them with it.
HF: In that case, I’ll be there to help out in the next game.
JG: If we do decide to make a game based on your idea, you would be called. Usually for each of our projects, we have some kind of guardian, the initial conceptualizer, to oversee the project.
HF: Alright then, I’ll be waiting for your call… Back to prospective game developers here in the region, would you be willing to hold workshops here for gaming?
JG: We’re actually taking a lot of people applying for internships. We’d love to help as much as we can because we really do have a lot of expertise and if we don’t share this expertise, I don’t think we’d be doing a good job with community service. So we’d definitely be up for this.
HF: Around how long does the game cycle take for each game to be made?
JG: These, again, aren’t very complex games. What gives these games that added value is the beautiful art but in terms of development, it’s flash so it’s not very hard. It’s all about the experience created. These games take around 3-4 weeks to produce which is rather fast but not too long otherwise they’d become more complex. It usually requires 1 developer and 1 or 2 artists, depending on the details. For example, if you look at Bad Year, it’s very simple without a lot of details. And the guys are such perfectionists.
HF: Yeah, after all, these games are very accessible and just a few clicks away on Facebook. I usually have some fun with them while on a study break, for example. A funny thing happened while playing Takkit once… the electricity did actually cut which I found very ironic… I honestly found ‘3aja2it’ to be the hardest one and frustrated me but in a good way.
JG: ‘3aja2it’ is actually the simplest and hardest one. We’re now working on a little surprise which we’ll hopefully reveal in the coming month… we’re kind of enjoying these, it’s fun.
HF: So that’s it for questions. Anything you’d like to add?
JG: Just that we’d definitely be up for helping out potential game developers and try to organize a gaming workshop with them to share our expertise. And also for those interested, we usually try to take as many internships as we can during the year.
HF: Thank you for having me Mr. Jimmy.
JG: No problem, it was my pleasure.
Thank you for tuning in, I hope you enjoyed reading up on my interview with Mr. Ghazal and gave you some insight on what it takes to develop a game here in the region. We, at Tech-Ticker, should hopefully be getting an exclusive preview of Lebanon Games’ next game so keep your eyes peeled for that.