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My life in Syria as a game developer (embargo, war, economic level)
Syria many years ago was not such a beautiful place to live in because she was in a time of war, embargo, and a lot of economic repressions. Growing up came with a lot of challenges, and a lot of ambitions were cut short. We all had to struggle to make something out of life. It was not a comfortable journey, but I am grateful for how far I have gone. My name is Ramez Al Tabbaa. I am thirty-three years old, and I am from Damascus, Syria. This is my story on how I made my first game AvoCuddle and overcame the difficulties Syrians faced.
* Umayyad Square, Damascus, Syria
It had always been my dream since I was a child to study IT in school and develop video games (knowing that there are no institution that provide education about game development). But unfortunately, in Syria, you cannot just study whatsoever you wish to study because your success and progress depended on your grades in school. Therefore, your grades determined your future rather than your capacity to perform. Syria was not a place where goals could be achieved. The war, the embargo and economic repression had a terrible effect on the people of Syria and even a more shocking effect on the younger generation, who were supposed to be the future of the Country.
*Damascus University Economics Collage
I was one of the unfortunate ones as I was not strong in my academics, so I could not study the course meets my ambition. I opted for another course that my grades could allow. I, therefore, went to the Damascus University to study Economics where I got my Bachelor of Science degree in economics. I proceeded to do my master’s in auditing, where I achieved success. I got a CMA (Certified Management Accountant) certificate from the Institute of Management Accountants in the USA after my masters and then became a certified public accountant in Syria.
Syrian Game-scene, from a player point of view.
While making all the achievements and all the degrees, I still held my childhood dreams to heart because I knew deep down that I wanted those aspirations to come to pass. I knew I could not reach my goals until I obtained an acceptable financial situation especially during the war where the Syrian pound value decreased twelve times even till now. It was at this stage of my life that I met my best friend who encouraged me, made me believe in myself, and reassured me that I could make my plans come true.
The first challenge I faced was the challenges I knew I would face in the Syrian game scenes. I knew I was going to face the challenge of access to Steam which is the most famous platform to release video games on PC, I was not sure how to surmount these obstacles.
The reason why any video game developed in Syria would not be widely accepted is that Syria at that time was not a good market for gaming, due to the current war and embargo experienced by Syria. Syrian players could not afford to buy games because online banking was banned for Syrian banks, so the players were unable to use a credit card to purchase games online. Also, many companies and websites prevented accessing Syrians due to sanctions. Additionally, the economic situation of Syria prevented a Syrian gamer from buying a game since the price of a game was as high as 25% of an average Syrian’s salary.
Syrians were forced to buy only cracked and pirated versions of games since there are no copy rights here and also no official distributors for video games. So the only resort was the pirated games which are sold on CDs or DVDs in the scattered shops on streets.
I needed to overcome this stage so however, these challenges were, I tried to help Syrian gamers to enjoy original games and buy games from Steam or any other platform through creating a Facebook page Syrian Gamer Digital Store to sell original games keys, which was supported by the bank account of a friend from Saudi Arabia. That was somehow successful and reached around 8.5 k followers who I kept servicing them regarding purchasing video games.
Syrian Game-scene, from a game development point of view (studies, difficulties to distribute)
After many years of struggles and ups and downs here and there, I finally decided to take a real step toward developing my first video game with a push from my friend, I must say. So, on the 1st of January, 2017, I started to study Unity and do experiments, in addition to my ambition of creating and developing video games. My current financial situation was also a good push for me as I did not have enough money then to move from Syria to another country officially. I was financially stable, but it was not enough for me to travel abroad and start a business in another country. So, I needed to create a video game to generate enough money that I could use to start a business in another country. My best friend was a great contributor during my development stage as she always would encourage me and make me believe in my self.
One day, I was experimenting with Unity to create mini-games, games like Angry Birds and Flappy Bird. So, I decided that I needed to start with the main character. Later, I was chatting on KiK application, and I saw a sticker called Guacamole which inspired my main character, AvoRa. This brings me to the story that inspired my whole game. I, therefore, went ahead to redraw Guacamole totally on Adobe Illustrator and animated that on Adobe after effects. Then I found a sub-engine in Unity store called Corgi Engine which helps creating 2D-platformer games easily.
After experimenting with that, I found out that I can build whole levels using it, so I thought to myself that it was better to make a full game instead of a mini-game. However, I didn’t know how to start on a complete game, so I researched some full games and about the points the contribute to a successful game. and I found put that the story played a significant part in the game success. So, I started by searching for game story writers and found a good one on Fiverr who wrote for me the outlines of my Game story and started to convert that story to a video game, with some additions and modifications from my side during the game development, and since I’m not an artist, I bought some assets from Unity store, in addition to licensing some sound tracks to be used in the game.
Also, it is worthy to mention that nearly everything is banned in Syria even Unity engine itself was banned, so I forced to pay and use VPNs in order develop game and even play some restricted games and I was using friend’s credit cards from other countries to be able to buy development tools and assets.
AVOCUDDLE IS BORN
After receiving the main story plot from a writer on Fiverr I did some adjustments to it and imagined the story of my game AvoCuddle as follows: AvoRa and Avoln, who lived on AvoPlanet, a peaceful garden planet. They loved each other so much, but sometimes they could not help but argue or do stupid things that would end up hurting each other. The game would, therefore, start with a peaceful view of the world and then break when we see the two Avos angry at each other. AvoRa would then walk away to be alone which is very sad. Avoln would, unfortunately, get kidnapped by strangers in a spaceship where Avora would start his journey to search and free his true love.
Since I got inspired by space love to create the game mechanics, the levels were therefore represented by planets, and you can travel between these planets in space using a spaceship. I concluded with the game consisting of five planets. The first planet is AvoPlanet where the avocados live, and the last planet is Loneliness, which represents the final level where the Lonely man who kidnapped Avoln. The other three plants were named based on the triangular theory of love (Passion, Intimacy, and Commitment). Each plant is created with a unique atmosphere, with special enemies and different obstacles to overcome.
All these weren’t easy to come by because I did not have any previous background nor experience in coding nor game development. So, it took me around two and a half years to Study unity, study animation, C#, develop the game, quality assurance and bugs fixes. These years were the most tedious periods I had ever had in my lifetime, but I did not give up because I had a target I needed to meet. At the end of these years, my game was finally ready, and I was happy with what I had achieved, but that was not the end of the struggle. Creating and developing a game was one step. The next step was actually to get the game out there to the world for people to use and enjoy. So, I needed to formulate a way to distribute the game.
Publishing AvoCuddle on Steam:
Yes, it wasn’t only hard to develop a video game, but I faced many difficulties with publishing the game due to the sanctions on Syria. The Syrian banks were isolated from the world that it was impossible to receive or send money. So, the only solution was to find a trusted friend outside Syria who would handle the matter for me. Luckily, my best friend was willing to help me in that regard. She did everything within her power to help my game thrive, and she facilitated the publishing process through another country. We went ahead to use the Steam platform to distribute the game globally since it is currently the most popular platform on PC.
In the end, I discovered that nothing is impossible when you put your mind to it and work toward your goals. Hard work surely did pay me as I managed to create the first video game that I named AvoCuddle, which has been available on Steam since the 13th of July 2019. The struggles that I went through over the years and my final success in creating this game have been an excellent experience for me, and deep down, I feel it would be an inspiration for someone out there. I believe that someone would read my story and be challenged not to give up. It is with my journey so far that I want to convey a message that when you want something badly, with hard work, great will, never giving up, persistence, and by learning from your mistakes, you can reach what you want or be who you want to be not minding the challenges or obstacles that may come your way.
Marketing, Game Sales and after Lunch situation:
Unfortunately, AvoCuddle was not a success financially, and that was as I believe for many reasons or mistakes you can say:
I only created Steam page 1 month before releasing the game
I didn’t write a developer log nor created a Facebook page nor Twitter account during the 2 years of development to have an audience who follow the game.
I released the game after Steam summer sales and that was bad thing to do.
AvoCuddle was in English language only while based on Steam statistics English users are only around 40% of Steam users.
The price was high for a game release by a new developer which was 15$ in the US market and changes based on country to reach around 6 USD in Turkey and Russia.
Marketing started only 1 month before releasing the game and tried to contact as much game critics and reviewers such as IGN, Game Spot and many indie games website such as IndieGamesPlus, in addition to massaging a hundred of youtubers or twitches to write about my game or review it but nearly non replied nor show interest in my game.
Only 1 website did a review about my game which is christcenteredgamer.com
Also found that there is a feature in Steam called Curators who represents the influencers for game choices where you can send them free copies of the game to do review, I sent the game to 100 curator which is the max limit in Steam but only around 25% of them wrote reviews about the game.
And one of the curators called ZeePond has his own website and helped with doing detailed review about the game.
The game on lunch had around 1k gamers who whislisted it and was selling on average 5 copies per day in the first week then the sales started to decreased till it stopped. After that I upgraded the game engine for localization and posted on some Facebook game development groups that I’m looking for volunteers to translate the game and luckily a lot of people helped me in translating the game into 9 languages:
French language thanks to Rappeneau Stéphane and Mohamed-Ali Meftah.
Chinese language thanks to Moupflowers.
Turkish language thanks to AvoLn and Hande Shiri.
Hungarian language thanks to Seweryn Balog.
Greek language thanks to Sakis Mpalatsoukas.
Italian language thanks to Gianmarco Palma.
Spanish language thanks to Rodrigo Nuricumbo.
Russian language thanks to Marina Ogorodnaia.
Portuguese language thanks to Rene Ballesteros.
During September 2019 I reduced the base price to 10 USD and did discount 33% that boosted that sales again then stopped selling once again after the discount ended.
However, in total the game revenues till 15/10/2019 was only 1000 USD with 121 units sold. That only covered around 10% of the game development costs.
*Table shows the game sales in units.
Those facts were unfortunate but they won’t stop me from learning from my mistakes and giving another try by developing another game in hope that I manage leave the accounting and auditing works and open a game development studio outside Syria once my games succeeded. In the end, I am grateful for the growth so far.
AvoCuddle Demo is available to try in the official game page on steam.