This article is part of a series on pioneering entrepreneurs in Kuwait that Entrepreneur Middle East has built in collaboration with Kuwait Finance House. Kuwait Finance House is considered a pioneer in Islamic finance or Sharia’a compliant banking, with it being the first Islamic bank established in 1977 in the State of Kuwait, and is today one of the foremost Islamic financial institutions in the world.
Founded in 2018 with the help of the Kuwait National Fund for SME Development, Khaled Alroumi and Josep Maria Calull launched Sand Forge Games, a mobile game development company which aims to create unforgettable game experiences by offering accessible strategy games that focus on deep strategic play. Alroumi and his team are passionate about surging Sand Forge Games’ global outreach in the free-to-play mobile game market. “I believe this country is really going to need these new, homegrown companies as the world’s thirst for oil wanes.”
The co-founder and CEO explains that the gaming industry is a fiercely competitive field, “Google Play Store and iOS App Store are a Darwinian / Hunger Games-style hunting ground! We learnt this the hard way when we made our first tentative steps into the world of free-to-play games… and got eaten alive,” says Alroumi on the soft launch of their first game ‘WarFronts: Battle for Toria!’ As a saturated market, players have a high standard for products, and will not tolerate inferior products. He states, “Players, perhaps inundated by badly-made games, seem to want to separate the good from the bad, and will do so ruthlessly through the democracy of reviewing systems on gaming platforms like Stream or Google Play Store.” User feedback is crucial in their industry: “You game lives or dies by player reviews.
Your budget, the time you may have sunk into your masterpiece, the fact that this might be your first, fledgling effort as a developer: these things won’t matter to a player.” With these in mind, Alroumi says they learnt quickly that to be a serious competitor, delivering outmost quality was needed. “We focused on producing the best content we could, spending time and money getting the art, game mechanics and storytelling perfect. We only started our soft launch when we thought we had something special to share.”
For now, their game has soft launched in Google Play Store, with initial feedback and KPIs that looks promising. The team is now in the process of adding more features to game, which will they will push to reach KPI benchmarks and will then release the game globally. However, releasing the game requires significant budget. “We are therefore also seeking funding, using our promising soft launch metrics to entice potential investors,” says Alroumi.
As for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to the startup, Alroumi notes that digital industries have been best place to be able to adapt and even thrive, pointing out how companies can take crucial steps to minimize the pandemic negative repercussions. “Investing in infrastructure that allows your team to work flexibly –including from home– gives you a huge advantage,” says Alroumi, pointing out how Sand Forge Games fortunately already had systems in place as a company with a workforce working remotely. Its artists and programmers were able to continue so it was business as usual. Besides prioritizing employees’ health and safety, moving tentatively is also important, says Alroumi. The company kept its expenditure low and curbed their plans for aggressive growth, in anticipation for a more stable future. Looking further ahead, the team is planning for other games in the same world -Toria- to develop a recognizable franchise.
To aspiring entrepreneurs in Kuwait, Alroumi says, “My advice would be to select an industry in which you are willing to put in the time and hard work to become an expert in- specialization is key. Patience, perseverance and potentially many years of hard work and meagre profits, can see the Kuwaiti entrepreneur win out in the end.”
What are the main pillars of the profit model of your business? How has that changed over time?
The free-to-play mobile game business boils down to one simple equation: “Profit = average sales per install – average marketing cost per install.” Once you manage to tip this equation into the positive, theoretically you will have a money printing machine and you can grow your game into the millions of monthly installs in no time. There are three main areas developers like us at Sand Forge Games spend all our time thinking about to push this equation into the positive. The first is user retention and loyalty. If you can get players coming back to your game for months or even years on end, you have a heavily invested audience which means more daily views on your in-app purchasable items.
The second factor is monetization. It’s no good having a crowd of loyal customers if none of them ever buy any in-game content! You need to make each download have as high a yield as possible, without putting undue pressure on players, which always annoys them and often results in them quitting all together. Players call these ‘Pay to Win’ games, and a special kind of rage is reserved for any games with even a whiff of this. There is a careful balance to strike. The game has to be fun, but it also has to general sales.
The third pillar is marketability. Ultimately, how attractive is your game to potential players? What is it offering that others aren’t? In the end, if you have something unique, that’s going to make it a whole lot easier to market- you’ll get more organic downloads and it’ll be cheaper to acquire users through performance marketing channels such as Facebook ads and Google ads.
What are some of the main considerations that entrepreneurs should keep when starting up a business in Kuwait and why?
There are a few things to consider if you’re thinking of starting up a business in Kuwait. I have experience of starting multiple businesses across the GCC countries, and I must admit that Kuwait is somewhat hampered by government bureaucracy. This criticism springs from nothing but my support and ambition for Kuwait, and from my belief that the business environment here can and will improve.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of perks to starting a business here. There is generous government funding available to small businesses, through the Kuwait National Fund and the Industrial Bank of Kuwait which both provide funding for entrepreneurs, for no equity stakes, minimal interest and generous payback periods. Kuwait Government also offers monthly monetary support that can amount to as much as US$ 2,500 for any locals working in the private sector or anyone who owns a business. On top of this, Kuwait companies do not pay business taxes. Commercial rent is relatively cheap when compared to other GCC cities, such as Dubai. Utility expenses, like water and electricity, are almost non-existent, because they are subsidized by the government here. With all these advantages, Kuwait starts to look like a very attractive place for startups. Admittedly, it is hard to find some skills here. We lack homegrown artists and developers. For Sand Forge Games, this has not been a problem, since we have been able to easily recruit employees and contractors remotely. In time, I hope Kuwait can foster its own local talent too.
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