A giant map of the world covers nearly an entire wall in the office of Tamatem, an Amman-based gaming startup. Hussam Hammo, the company’s founder and CEO, uses it as a reminder of his company’s progress.
“We’ve launched games from the U.S., Brazil, India, China, Indonesia, [and] a lot of countries in Europe,” says Hammo, glancing at the map across the room from his desk in Tamatem’s Silicon Valley-style communal workspace.
As a mobile games publisher, Tamatem partners with game developers from around the world to bring their titles to the Middle East and North Africa in exchange for a slice of the resulting revenues. Tamatem translates games into Arabic and localizes the gameplay to appeal to Arab audiences, such as setting them in regional locations and adding cultural themes.
Tamatem then publishes the games as apps for Android and iOS and markets them around the Arab world on behalf of the studios.
A former Maktoob employee, 34-year-old Hammo formed Tamatem in 2013 following the demise of his previous company, which focused on web browser games. Since then, his latest venture has released a total of 50 games—25 of which it published on behalf of foreign companies.
The rest the startup developed in-house. Its titles are generally a mixture of car racing, strategy or puzzle games. Most of these are free to download and generate revenue through advertising or in-app purchases.
Collectively, Tamatem’s games have been downloaded more than 40 million times and are played by an average of 500,000 users per day—which Hammo claims makes his company the leading publisher of Arabic games.
It’s an appealing time to be in the mobile games industry. In recent years gaming apps for smartphones and tablets have become increasingly popular worldwide, particularly in the U.S. and China, spurred by hits like Angry Birds, Candy Crush and the recent sensation Pokémon GO.
Global revenues from mobile games reached $39 billion last year, according to U.K.-based venture capital firm Atomico.
Like the rest of the world, mobile games are popular in the Middle East too. Yet, the global gaming industry has produced very few games—if any—with the Arab world specifically in mind. Into that void have sprung a handful of regional companies and startups like Tamatem that produce games in Arabic designed to appeal directly to local audiences.
“Hussam has been able to successfully identify a clear gap in the mobile gaming industry, and has achieved notable success so far in localizing games and making them culturally relevant,” says Ellen Hindeleh, of Endeavor Jordan, a non-profit organization providing entrepreneurs with support and mentoring. Earlier this year Endeavor Jordan selected Hammo to join its network.
Tamatem originally began by developing its own games in-house, and found success with titles like the car drifting game Shake the Metal, a hit that has attracted more than five million downloads and spawned a series of sequels.
In general, car racing and drifting games have proved popular for Tamatem; one reason Shake the Metal resonated with local audiences is that Tamatem populated it with common vehicles from the region, like Toyotas and Kias. But last year Hammo decided to shift gears into primarily publishing games on behalf of foreign studios—he thinks this strategy could take Tamatem to the next level.
Publishing games is faster and usually cheaper than creating them in-house, and it insulates Tamatem from wasting time on unpopular games. It usually takes at least six months to create a game from scratch—and there’s no guarantee that games developed in-house will be successful.
By partnering with foreign game developers, Tamatem takes titles that have already proven to be popular elsewhere and quickly releases them into the Arab market. The startup can localize and release a game in under two months, and sometimes in as little as two weeks. If it doesn’t perform well, they can quickly move on.
The new direction has been a boon for Tamatem. Hammo reports that since December 2016, when he formalized the new strategy, Tamatem’s revenues have grown 20% month-over-month. His startup reached expects revenues to reach $3 million in 2017.
Now, Hammo is trying to expand Tamatem further. The company is currently raising a series A round of funding, which will add to the total of $1.2 million it has already obtained from investors in seed rounds, such as 500 Startups, Arzan Venture Capital and MENA Venture Investments.
“The industry has grown by many folds since we invested and we believe Tamatem continues to be in a good position to take advantage of that,” says Anurag Agrawal, Arzan’s investment manager.
For Hammo, Tamatem’s progress is the culmination of a long saga. “I’m not a real gamer myself but I saw the business opportunity in it,” he says.
He didn’t grow up envisioning himself as an entrepreneur. The youngest of ten siblings, as a teenager he spent much of his time at an internet cafe near his house in Amman. “I didn’t have any internet at my house. I didn’t even have a computer,” he recalls. There, he became interested in web design.
The internet cafe’s owner noticed, and asked Hammo to teach other patrons a course in web design. He offered Hammo $20 to lead 10 sessions. “That was like the best day of my life,” he says, with a laugh.
He later majored in computer science at Amman’s Princess Sumaya University for Technology. Although Hammo was interested in turning his hobby into a career, it wasn’t until he joined an entrepreneurship club in college that he considered starting a company.
However, upon graduating in 2006, Hammo joined a Jordanian company running an Arabic website modeled on Yahoo. There, he hatched a plan to create an Arabic social network (this being before Facebook). “I was trying to do something similar to Myspace,” he says. His manager wasn’t impressed.
Undeterred, Hammo enlisted a friend to help him. They submitted the idea to an entrepreneurship competition held by his old university and it ended up winning first prize. “That was a big change in my life,” he says.