Saudi Arabia has made no secret of its passion for gaming and e-sports, so there was no shortage of young Saudis to take in a museum of video game history stretching from the original Pac-Man to PlayStation 5.
It is part of Gamers8, an eight-week festival of e-sports tournaments in the capital, Riyadh, with a $45m prize pool – a project to inspire young people to create their own blockbuster titles.
The passion is believed to come from the very top, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) said to be an avid Call of Duty player.
Last year, the 38-year-old de facto ruler announced a $38bn investment strategy for the Savvy Games Group, owned by the Public Investment Fund.
As it gathers momentum, the national gaming and e-sports strategy emphasises local game production, promising to turn the kingdom into “an Eden for game developers” that can produce new titles “promoting Saudi and Arabic culture”.
That is where the museum and adjacent “game labs” come in – some 3,000 people, the majority of them Saudis, have flocked to Gamers8 for crash courses in skills like coding and animation.
“In the past, Arabs were only buying games, not developing games,” said developer Mohammed al-Fakih.
Saudi Arabia seems ripe for the video game market but, so far, no one has solved the riddle of how to design a breakout gaming hit that also showcases Saudi culture, acknowledged Faisal bin Homran, chief e-sports officer at the Saudi Esports Federation.
There are 25,000 Saudi and foreign developers currently grappling with the challenge, he said.
“With the expertise coming from outside and the knowledge being transferred, we will notice some games that can really go internationally,” he said.
One source of inspiration, he noted, comes from Saudi characters already featured in global franchises, like Shaheen in the Tekken fighting games or Rashid in Street Fighter. Rashid is said to be from an unspecified Middle Eastern country, possibly the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia.
Officials like Homran, though, are dreaming big: The national strategy targets 30 globally competitive games produced in domestic studios by 2030.
Already, some unpolished Saudi-made games have resonated with Saudi fans, among them Khaled Alghaith, a Rocket League enthusiast who spent his summer vacation at the Gamers8 labs learning to code.
The 14-year-old said he had particularly fond memories of a game titled Khashem, or Nose in Saudi Arabic, about a character who lost his memory and had to complete a series of challenges drawing on his sense of smell to get it back.
“Every game that is made by a Saudi, I always play it and really enjoy it,” Alghaith said.
“I say, ‘Wow, this is the work of a Saudi,’ and I get so proud.”
A new path
Despite its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has not always been welcomed with open arms on the global gaming scene.
In 2020, backlash from LGBTQ gamers who condemned Saudi Arabia’s prohibition of same-sex sexual acts led Riot Games and the Danish tournament organiser BLAST to scuttle deals with NEOM, a $500bn futuristic megacity on the Red Sea.
But Riyadh’s gaming push has continued unabated.
This year, Savvy completed a $4.9bn purchase of Scopely, a California-based mobile games company, and the Public Investment Fund now owns more than 8 percent of Nintendo.