Localizing Games for Arabic-Speaking Countries

Localization Article
Time to read: 8 minutes

Localizing Games for Arabic-Speaking Countries

Arabic is spoken by over 400 million people and is the official language of two dozen countries. Breaking into the markets of these countries is no simple matter – while they share a common language, they each have their own unique culture, with their own taboos and approaches to censorship. This is why video game companies shied away from Arabic for a long time – the first game to be fully localized into Arabic was FIFA 2009 (which was extremely late by the market’s standards). A lot has changed since then, however, and Arabic is now part of the standard set of localization target languages used by major game publishers.

Is localizing games into Arabic worth it?

Arabic is one of the most widespread languages online (#4 according to Internet World Stats for 2020 – 237,418,349 internet users are Arabic speakers, which means that over half of all native speakers use the internet). Moreover, the level of English fluency among the Arabic-speaking population leaves something to be desired. According to the portal ef.com, most Arabic-speaking countries fall into the category of “low proficiency” or “very low proficiency.” In other words, you can’t assume that if you release your game in English, you’re going to cover most of the population. That just isn’t true in every region.

When it comes to the video game industry’s potential in these countries, we can confidently state that games are an in-demand form of entertainment among Arabic speakers. According to data from Statista, the number of players across all platforms in the Middle East and North Africa (where most Arabic-speaking countries are) was 67.4 million in 2022. Analysts expect this number to reach 80 million by 2027.

In the early 2000s, residents of Arabic-speaking countries primarily gamed on PC - consoles weren’t common there yet due to a lack of technical support. However, the popularity of mobile games has increased over the last decade.

Popular genres in Arabic-speaking countries include shooters, strategy games, soccer games, and racing games.

Gamer culture in Saudi Arabia

The main example of the potential of the Arabic-speaking video game market is Saudi Arabia. In an attempt to diversify its sources of revenue and reduce its reliance on oil, the country has begun actively investing in the video game industry and esports. According to data from Newzoo from 2023, Saudi Arabia spent almost USD $8 billion on video game company stock, and even purchased entire studios. The largest investor was Savvy Games Group, led by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and prime minister of Saudi Arabia and a “part-time” hardcore gamer. Savvy Games Group has access to a solid fund worth $38 billion. Savvy’s major purchases include stock in Chinese company VSPO and Swedish Embracer Group, as well as the purchase of American mobile developer Scopely and esports platform ESL FaceIt.

The country’s interest in the video game industry is perfectly sensible if we look at its demographics: 70% of its population is under 35, and just as many consider themselves gamers.

According to data from 2021, 84% of the adult Saudi population plays games on mobile devices (both men and women, although the percentage is slightly higher among men). Moreover, Saudis are willing to spend money on games and in-game purchases – the percentage of players spending an average amount in the mobile segment in 2021 was 32%, and the percentage of those spending a large amount was 12% (the games in this segment are primarily distributed according to the free-to-play model, i.e. free games with in-app purchases). In terms of genre, according to Newzoo’s data for 2021, the most-played mobile genre in Saudi Arabia was puzzle games (31%), with a close second shared by shooters, strategy games, and battle royale games (27% each).

Distribution of Saudi players by money spent on video games

Distribution of Saudi players by money spent on video games (left to right: statistics for mobile devices, consoles, and PC). The percentage of players spending an insignificant amount of money is shown in green, those spending an average amount are shown in dark blue, and those spending a large amount are shown in light blue. Source: Newzoo

Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is one of the countries that falls into the category of “very low English proficiency.” Foreign games have a pretty slim chance of making it onto Saudi players’ devices unless they’re localized.

Language and culture

Video game localization is a complex process that includes the translation and cultural adaptation of game content. The unique characteristics of the Arabic language and Arab culture make this a far from trivial endeavor.

There are five main groups of vernacular Arabic dialects: Peninsular, Mesopotamian, Levantine, Egyptian, and Maghrebi. They’re all significantly different from each other – in fact, they’re actually mutually incomprehensible. However, there is a unified literary language, Modern Standard Arabic, which residents of Arabic-speaking countries call “eloquent Arabic” (al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥā) – it’s essentially a modernized version of the classical language of the Koran. MSA is considered the standard form of the language not only in literature, but also in the media, business, and education. Speaking and writing MSA is a sign of refinement and elevated social status. This variety of Arabic is considered one of the world’s international languages.

The vernacular dialects may not enjoy such a lofty status, but they coexist peacefully alongside the literary language, frequently mixing with it in varying proportions to form the face of the modern language. All of this must be considered if a game has a lot of dialogs, especially if it requires full localization, including Arabic voice over.

The culture of Arabic-speaking countries is inextricably intertwined with religion. Most Arabic-speakers practice Islam, a religion known for its strict discipline and moral code. This is reflected in the way Arabic-speaking countries handle censorship, so if you’re planning to release your game in these markets, get ready to make some changes to your game’s content. For example, there’s a well-known case where a certain country’s censors prohibited a level where the player had to choose whether to accept to reject Islam. There are also some requirements that might seem mysterious, like deleting background music. The censors might not like the main character’s name, for example.

Another tricky issue for these censors is politics – in many Arabic-speaking countries, content the censors find politically dubious might be more likely to be prohibited than content related to violence or profanity.

Understanding these nuances will help you not only avoid trouble with censorship, but also take advantage of certain cultural characteristics to benefit your business. For example, you could time your marketing campaign or special event to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan. School students get this month off, and adults have a reduced work schedule. Many people dedicate their extra free time to video games, which can lead to an increase in sales in in-game stores. If you have an online game, it might also benefit you to know that the weekend in most Arab countries is Friday and Saturday, since Friday is the Muslim holy day.

The Mobile Legends translated into Arabic

The Mobile Legends: Bang Bang translated into Arabic

Technical details

Arabic has several features that are important for partial localization (i.e. translating only the interface and subtitles):

  1. It has its own alphabet.
  2. Arabic is written from right to left – this is a vital distinction that sets Arabic apart from most other languages. It can lead to problems with the way text is displayed, since an in-game interface designed for European languages will frequently only support the “left-to-right” format.
  3. Text tends to take up more space in Arabic than in English, so if a game was developed in English, there’s a risk its text won’t fit onto the interface once it’s translated into Arabic. This issue is especially relevant for mobile games, where space is very limited.
  4. It’s important to keep an eye on how the Arabic text will look on graphical interface elements such as emblems, buttons, etc.

In order to predict all these details and still communicate the meaning of the source text, translators need to be clever and creative. Because of this, Arabic game localizations also require more rigorous testing.

The translation of The Division’s interface into Arabic

The Division’s interface translated into Arabic

Localizing your game

Have you decided to add an Arabic localization to your project list, but it seems intimidatingly complex, and you don’t even know where to begin?

Your best bet is to bring in the professionals. Logrus IT’s specialists love video games and know them inside and out. We’ve got extensive experience working with Arabic, and our translations are performed by native speakers, so you can be confident we’ll factor in all relevant cultural nuances, we can even give you advice on content such as images if necessary. In addition, our translations all undergo a mandatory quality assurance process. If you need a full localization with dialog, we offer professional voice over, and we partner with recording studios in Arab countries. You can also hire us to localize your game into several languages at once, which will save you a lot of time and money.

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