Complex Made Simple

This Lebanese startup beat 100+ int’l companies in a VR dev competition for a AED 500k prize

An up and coming Lebanese game developer bested more than 100 international rivals in a VR development competition for Burj Khalifa.

Their winning VR experience, "Dubai - A Rising Falcon," earned them a AED 500,000 prize AMEinfo had the opportunity to try the experience, and it was quite the ride! Game Cooks develops mobile and PC games too

It’s not everyday you hear of such an accomplishment. 

Game Cooks, an independent (indie) Lebanese video game developer with 30+ employees, recently competed in a competition against over 100 game developers to create and submit a VR experience for the “VR and Beyond” challenge organized by Dubai Future Accelerators in partnership with Burj Khalifa and HTC Vive Middle East. The competition sought to produce a VR experience for visitors of Burj Khalifa that would perfectly encapsulate the culture and heritage of Dubai with the modernity and breathtaking views of the Burj. The result, a VR experience titled “Dubai – A Rising Falcon,” earned Game Cooks first place, and the grand prize of AED 500k. 

AMEinfo had the opportunity to speak to Lebnan Nader, co-founder and CEO of Game Cooks, about their experience during the competition, as well as finding more about their history making games.

“Dubai – A Rising Falcon” will be available across 2-3 VR stations among the top floors of the Burj, where visitors and tourists can experience what’s like to stand on top of the Burj and take flight. That’s right: The falcon namesake is not used only as the symbol of Dubai, but literally figures into the experience. 

Trying the experience out for myself at Game Cooks’ expansive studio, I was reminded of the power of VR in delivering pseudo-real life experiences. After the program boots up, you find yourself in a helicopter, where you’re tasked with basic actions that immerse you into the experience. You fasten your seatbelt, and off you go to the Burj. You are asked to open the passenger door mid flight for a view of the Burj as the helicopter approaches. It was equally dazzling and terrifying, but this was nothing compared to what awaited. 

Read: Meet Volta VR, the app that allows you to create music in VR

Once you land on top of the Burj, you find yourself faced with a protruding metal beam that you must scale, like a pirate walking the plank. This was not what you’d expect from your run of the mill touristic attraction, that was for certain. 

Mustering the courage, I walk onto the thin beam. To the delight of my nerves, you’re not asked to jump to take flight. Once you reach the edge, you’re teleported into the falcon’s body, controlling it through the air through hologram rings, not different from a flight simulator game, while skydivers circle around. That wraps up what thousands of visitors to the Burj will be able to experience starting this month, available for the next year and a half or so. As an extra feature, the final set up on the Burj will also include large fans that simulate the wind brushing against the falcon’s body. 

When asked what he believed gave them the edge to surpass their rivals, Nader said: “I think because we’re Lebanese, we can relate a little bit more to the Arabic culture than a company coming from the States or from Asia.” 

He highlights that they sought to combine the thrill of VR with the symbol and heritage of Dubai. 

But Game Cooks didn’t start their company making VR games. Instead, Nader co-founded the company with his brother in 2011, venturing into the world of mobile games first. Their first game, Birdy Nam Nam, was a very big success in the Middle East. 

It was “the first game in Arabic created by people in the Middle East, catering to the Middle East,” he said. “The main characters are Arabic, the game design is Arabic[-inspired], the music is Arabic – everything was in Arabic.”

“I think this was the true aspect of success for our game, as opposed to a success of game mechanics or game design, to be very honest.”

Read: VR and AR: Use Cases and Potential in the Gulf region

But their focus on the Middle East wouldn’t last for long. The company tried the formula again with a few more games, but didn’t find the same success they had with their first title. 

“We couldn’t understand exactly how to create games for the Middle East. This is why we decided to shift more to the international market as opposed to regional.”

Still, their games garnered over 3 million downloads in the first 2 years. This, Nader says, was their first milestone. Their second milestone was when they launched an office in San Francisco near the end of 2015, to be closer to the US market and to be able to gather marketing intelligence from there.

Eventually, however, they would have to shift their focus away from the ever-so-crowded mobile gaming market.

“[Mobile games] became more [about] marketing and user acquisition [rather] than just game quality,” Nader said. “The marketing itself became super expensive – you’re talking millions of dollars.”

At 2016’s Game Developers’ Conference (GDC), a new game medium would grab their attention: VR.

In part 2 of this feature interview, Nader reveals some of the major obstacles holding back VR from mainstream success, as well as providing advice to investors looking to venture in the business of virtual reality.