Pakistan's gaming industry breaks culture barriers

Mar 07, 2014 by Issam Ahmed
Game designers work at their studio 'We R Play', in Islamabad, on January 21, 2014

It's a city better known for its history and culture, but a new generation of mobile game developers is bringing a slice of Silicon Valley to Pakistan's Lahore.

With open plan offices, mixed gender teams, gourmet catering and an emphasis on a fun atmosphere, the small but growing IT industry worth an estimated $2.8 billion is being led by young entrepreneurs like Babar Ahmed.

Ahmed, 33, left a career as a circuit engineer in Austin, Texas to found Mindstorm Studios in the eastern Pakistani city in 2006 with his brother Faraz.

Today their studio employs 47 people thanks to hits like 2010's "Whacksy Taxi", which shot to number one on Apple's AppStore in over 25 countries; "Mafia Farm" in 2012 and "Cricket Power", the official game of the 2011 World Cup.

"The idea was to put Pakistan on the gaming world," said Ahmed, explaining he was tired of "drawing room talk" among expatriates in the US about how something should be done for their homeland.

Smartphone revolution

Mindstorm is one of several games development studios in Pakistan— mainly based in Lahore but also in the capital Islamabad and Karachi— to have prospered with the spread of the smartphone.

"After the iPhone was launched, the definition of what a game is changed overnight. The definition of what a gamer is changed overnight," said Ahmed.

While traditional "hardcore" games—typically played on home console systems or PCs—need multi-million dollar budgets and teams of dozens of developers, games designed for smartphones need far less start-up capital.

That has allowed countries in eastern Europe, Pakistan, and the Philippines to become prime destinations for software outsourcing, said Jazib Zahir, chief operations officer at Tintash, another Lahore-based studio that provided the back-office for "Fishing Frenzy", another top-ten hit.

According to the government, some 24,000 people are now employed in software exports - though the figure also includes more traditional areas like financial software and healthcare.

Game designer Mohsin Ali Afzal speaks to AFP at his offices in Islamabad, on January 21, 2014

"One of the advantages that Pakistan brings is we do have a critical mass of people with training and aptitude, an interest in developing software and art and combining them," adds Zahir, who is also a part-time tech journalist.

Breaking boundaries

At We R Play, an Islamabad-based studio based in a converted warehouse on the outskirts of the city, rows of twentysomethings busy themselves on their computers surrounded by colourful posters, plush toys and action figures.

The company was founded in 2010 by Mohsin Ali Afzal and Waqar Azim, with a major emphasis placed on a modern office space.

"We were sure from when we started that we didn't want cubicles and I wouldn't have a big office," said Afzal, who returned from UC Berkeley in 2010.

"We wanted to make sure we're sitting with everyone. We encouraged everyone to take ownership of their spaces and gave them (money) to get stuff for their tables."

Workspace and play is also seen as key at CaramelTech, a Lahore studio founded in 2011 by brothers Saad and Ammar Zaeem which is responsible for coding global 2011 mega-hit Fruit Ninja (which had over 500 million downloads) for an Australian studio.

The office has a designated play room complete with pool table, table football, and X-box.

"Every day at 4pm they're forced to leave their work and go play upstairs. We want that culture where people aren't only working but also enjoy themselves," he said.

Also notable in the games studios is near gender-parity, a striking fact in a country where female participation in the workforce has lagged behind for decades.

A general view of the game studio 'We R Play', in Islamabad, Pakistan, pictured on January 21, 2014

People are dressed in everything from Western jeans and t-shirts to hijabs. For some, convincing their family they are working in a "real job" wasn't easy.

"Basically my parents think I play all day and don't work," joked Saadia Zia, We R Play's 24-year-old head of quality assurance department which is tasked with teasing out bugs.

In addition to gaining the trust of employees' families, the game studios have to contend with a host of issues ranging from frequent power outages to insecurity and civil unrest.

"Electricity does not work. You have to come to terms with that," said Ahmed of Mindstorm, who plans to move his studio off-the-grid using solar panels.

They also have to contend with faulty telephone lines, security threats and the ubiquitous corruption that dogs life in Pakistan.

"Right outside our gate we had a car being gunned down. That affects you."

However, the rewards outweigh the risks, he said.

"It's somewhat like the Wild West. It's not for everybody. If you expect a level of service from the environment around you, that's not going to happen. If you can fend for yourself, it's great."

Explore further: Amazon buys videogame studio Double Helix

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Amazon buys videogame studio Double Helix

Feb 06, 2014

Amazon said Thursday it was buying a California-based videogame studio, fueling speculation that the online retail titan plans to release its own console for home entertainment.

Dengue outbreak kills 23 in Pakistan

Sep 26, 2013

An outbreak of dengue fever in northwest Pakistan's Swat valley has killed 23 people in the past month, but health officials said Thursday it was likely to subside as the weather cools in the coming weeks.

Beating cancer through gaming

Feb 10, 2014

Current City University London students and alumni have been instrumental in producing a new smartphone game in which players analyse real cancer data with the aim of finding new treatments.

Videogame console icon turns mobile play god

May 26, 2013

Videogame industry legend Peter Molyneux says the time is right for people to play God on smartphones. The former Lionhead Studio chief and Microsoft Game Studios executive has teamed with Japan-based DeNA ...

Not all fun and (video) games for developers

Apr 11, 2013

Big Huge Games in Timonium, Md., closed last May, taking nearly 100 jobs with it. Nine months later, a local studio that was launched from the ashes of the video game-maker shut down, too. And Zynga, which created "FarmVille" ...

Recommended for you

Facebook's Internet.org expands in Zambia

10 hours ago

(AP)—Facebook's Internet.org project is taking another step toward its goal of bringing the Internet to people who are not yet online with an app launching Thursday in Zambia.

Body by smartphone

Jul 30, 2014

We love our smartphones. Since they marched out of the corporate world and into the hands of consumers about 10 years ago, we've relied more and more on our iPhone and Android devices to organize our schedules, ...

Breakthrough elastic cloud-to cloud networking

Jul 30, 2014

Scientists from AT&T, IBM and Applied Communication Sciences (ACS) announced a proof-of-concept technology that reduces set up times for cloud-to-cloud connectivity from days to seconds. This advance is a major step forward ...

Security CTO to detail Android Fake ID flaw at Black Hat

Jul 29, 2014

Where have you heard this before: A team of security researchers discover a security flaw in Android devices. This is, however, news. This time, experts are talking about a flaw that involves a widespread ...

User comments : 0