Walid Sultan Midani is a man on a mission: prove that video games can be successfully developed in post-revolution Tunisia.
Tunisia is a North African country widely considered the only success story of the Arab Spring. Although the country has experienced isolated incidents of post-revolution violence, it is known for having a relatively peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to a government elected by the people.
It would have been impossible to start a video game studio before the revolution in January 2011 due to the corruption and regulations of the former regime. But in October 2011, Midani took out a $100,000 bank loan and founded Digitalmania, which operates out of a simple but well-decorated three story house in the Tunis, Tunisia suburb of Lac. The company has created 47 different games and is valued at $1.5 million after two Tunisian investors made recent investments.
Midani's studio currently employs a staff of 14 but he says he hopes to grow to a staff of 24 Tunisians by the end of September. Midani travels widely, finding foreign video game companies looking to subcontract work to Digitalmania for fees that keep Digitalmania financially viable. At the same time, Digitalmania has developed eight of its own games, mostly for the Tunisian market. Midani said that he has reached the point where 1 million unique gamers have played Digitalmania games.
"The lady who won the grand prize of a car played the game 17 hours a day for two months."
As Digitalmania will be celebrating the fourth year of business in October, Midani looks at the many failures of other video game companies before their successes as inspiration for his own business. "Rovio went for 13 years without making a single hit game and they went through two bankruptcies before they developed Angry Birds," he said.
So far, the most popular games have been designed for the Tunisian market. One smartphone game, Boga Bubbles was a game where players need to make rows or columns of similar color soda bubbles. The game was made in partnership with STBG, the Tunisian distributor of Coca-Cola and owner of Boga, a local soft-drink. STBG offered weekly prizes to the best players and codes that gave players advantages in the game were put on cans of Boga during the promotion in the summer of 2014. "The lady who won the grand prize of a car played the game 17 hours a day for two months," Midani said.
Many games have brought awareness of pressing Tunisian social issues. In one game, Malla Jaala, players must find the space monster of corruption and stop him. The game was developed in partnership with a Tunisian non-governmental organization, Tunisia For All. "We feel it is our corporate social responsibility to develop games that make people aware of pressing issues in our society," said Midani. Digitalmania also developed an app called Sawtek during the Tunisian elections to rate politicians who were running for office.
Being in Tunisia gives Midani many challenges that video game developers located elsewhere may not have to face. Since Tunisia is not one of the countries where Google and Facebook allow developers to set up merchant accounts, Digitalmania cannot charge for apps the company develops. The company can only generate revenues from advertisements on free apps on those platforms (Apple recently changed its policy to allow for payments in Tunisia). Midani is working to set up a subsidiary in London so that he can charge for more app downloads.
Despite all the challenges of developing a video game studio in post-revolution Tunisia, Digitalmania's games demonstrate that a video game business can emerge in the country where just a few years ago developing a similar business would have been impossible.