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.
He entered the idea into another competition, this time in Taiwan, and won another award. The pioneering Jordanian internet company Maktoob spotted Hammo’s idea. “They offered to buy or acquire our project,” Hammo says. He joined Maktoob in 2007 and integrated his social network with the company’s platform. The network went on to attract more than 1 million users.
However, within two years Hammo was again tinkering with new ideas. He had encountered a German video game company called Travian that was translating games into different languages—including Arabic. That got Hammo wondering if there was a larger opportunity to develop games in Arabic.
In 2009, he and two friends who worked at Maktoob quit to start the gaming company Wizards, which focused on developing web browser-based games. Things started well, with Wizards quickly receiving investment from a Jordanian venture capitalist.
However, Hammo still had little experience with entrepreneurship. “I had no clue what a term sheet is. What an investment means. What ownership means,” he recalls.
Wizards was soon plagued by problems. It took nearly a year to receive the funds they had raised. Later, the startup began developing an ambitious web browser game that was beyond their abilities. During the long development process, they weren’t generating revenue, and things began to deteriorate. “Everything collapsed,” says Hammo.
Wizards folded in 2012. It was a low-point for Hammo. Although the founders went their separate ways, he wasn’t ready to abandon gaming.
By then demand for mobile gaming apps was rising globally. That inspired Hammo to consider publishing mobile games adapted for the Arab world. He shopped the idea around to regional investors.
“Absolutely no one was interested,” he says. One reason why was because his previous company failed. Investors scoffed at the idea, telling him to get a job in Dubai instead.
He didn’t listen. Instead, he applied to the 500 Startups program in the U.S. and was accepted. Exactly one week before boarding a plane for California to join the program, Hammo officially registered Tamatem as a company.
He spent six months in the U.S., where 500 Startups taught him new ways to develop and operate a business. “The concepts that I learned defied everything that I believed in the past,” says Hammo.
He also managed to raise a small amount of funding from American investors. That gave his fledgling business some credibility, convincing investors back in the Middle East to take him seriously.
Upon finishing the program in 2013, Hammo returned to Amman and assembled a team by hiring back several of his old employees from Wizards. Although he aspired to position Tamatem as a publisher, at the beginning that wasn’t realistic.
It was just too difficult to convince foreign game studios to partner with an unknown company. Hammo decided to bide his time and focused on developing Tamatem’s games in-house.
The first title Tamatem released was a puzzle game called Moron Test. It proved successful, spawning several sequels. Gradually, Tamatem’s profile rose. “The first year we got maybe six million downloads,” says Hammo. “The second year we got 17 million.”
Eventually Tamatem began to publish games for small foreign game developers here and there, but still had to focus mostly on creating its own titles. By 2016, Tamatem had produced more than 20 games in-house, including hits like Shake the Metal.
With that track record, Hammo felt the company was ready to transition into publishing. Today, the only games the company develops itself are the sequels to Shake the Metal. The rest it localizes for foreign gaming companies. An example is a card game from the Bulgarian developer Casualino.
The original game was based on the French card game Belote; Tamatem took it and altered it to resemble the regional card game known as Baloot.
Now, marketing is increasingly important for Tamatem. Getting games to the top of the download charts for iOS and Android is crucial for its strategy to work. The charts are where many users go to find new games.
To get games to chart, Tamatem has become creative. Instead of relying on basic digital advertising through Facebook or Google alone, the company’s marketing team strikes deals with regional social media influencers such as Abdullah Al Sabe, who has more than 3 million followers on Instagram.
These popular personalities promote Tamatem’s games to their followers on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. This allows word of Tamatem’s games to potentially reach hundreds of thousands of people, which can catapult a game into the trending search bar in the region—and hopefully onto the charts. “This really lowers the cost per acquisition,” says Hammo.
He reports that for several of its games Tamatem spends less than $0.01 to acquire new users, which he uses as a selling point to lure foreign games studios to partner with his company. That, combined with its localization and translation assistance, has convinced game developers including China’s EZ Fun, Romania’s Transylgamia and U.S.-based Tapinator to sign deals with Tamatem.
In addition to reaching profitability, Tamatem has grown to 26 employees—a mixture of developers, designers, marketeers, translators and product managers. Tamatem has also opened another office in Cairo. Now Hammo is busy solidifying Tamaten’s progress as a games publisher, and hopes to someday expand his startup into other emerging markets.
Just like the games it publishes, Tamatem is expanding across the map.