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Looking for Games in the Muslim World
By Adrian Hall     |   Posted on May 02, 2008   |   Episode 147 (Show Archive)  

   

These people are all lining up to buy Halo 3, something you just don't see when buying new games in Qatar!
Purchasing video games is a fairly straight-forward affair in North America. There are a wealth of stores that all have the same basic stock and prices. Used games can be a little more complicated, but prices will rarely reach a difference of more than five or ten dollars. Games are guaranteed to run on the consoles that they are designed for and no matter where you buy your system it will have the same warranty and features.

Buying a video game in the Middle East is not nearly so simple.

Console games sold in North America are all encoded with the same region; NTSC-U. In the rest of the world there are 2 other kinds of region encoding, known as PAL (for European countries) and NTSC-J (which is used in some parts of Asia, including Japan). Originally there was a good reason to have multiple regions. PAL televisions output at a lower frame rate (25 FPS vs. 30 FPS) but

With all this confusion about PAL and NTSC, how am I supposed to figure out what this old Russian arcade machine is supposed to play?
at a higher resolution (625 lines of pixels vs. 525 lines). For this reason, games ported to Europe would usually be slowed down to about 90% the original speed, as opposed to re-writing the original rendering engine. However, modern PAL televisions will quite happily display NTSC signals and the reverse is also true (though to a lesser extent). Any TV bought in Qatar will play both NTSC and PAL signals. (Note: There are far more video signal types still used around the world than there are game regions, but almost all TVs will play NTSC.)

In the Middle East there is no standard as to what region games should be sold in. PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox and Xbox 360 games are sold in PAL format, while the Wii can be found in both PAL and NTSC-U forms (NTSC seems to be more common in Qatar). Good luck finding

The shops in Qatar are packed full of colorful boxes and games, unfortunately the quality isn't always what you expect!
a GameCube here. Just to make things a bit more confusing, in Qatar there is an American military base. Those with connections can get pretty much anything they want in NTSC-U format through the base. Failing that, people come and go all the time and it is common for people on trips to have a list of things to buy for others. As an example, we got Super Smash Bros. Brawl this way, only 2 or 3 days after it came out.

There are more benefits to this kind of importing than simple region encoding. Game prices in Qatar are similar to those in the U.K. (albeit still cheaper most of the time). A Wii or PlayStation 3 game will usually run you around 75 dollars, while the consoles themselves often cost 100 dollars (in the PS3s case 300 dollars) more than normally expected. A few months after the Wii came out I saw one going for over a

Say what you will about game prices in the Middle East at least you don't have to put up with Paris Hilton pretending to be excited about the newest guitar game!
thousand dollars. On the other hand, Xbox 360s have somehow managed to maintain their pricing, or at least something similar. So there is now an odd situation in which Wiis sometimes cost almost as much as Xbox 360s. Curiously, Rock Band doesn't cost a huge amount more here than it does in North America.

Pricing and region coding are further complicated (or one could say simplified) by an additional factor: modding. Most consoles sold in the Middle East, even at mainstream vendors such as the French "Carrefour" (our version of Wal-Mart), are modded. While this does account for the price difference, it also adds a new dimension to video-game buying. These modded consoles do not go unsupported in stores.

In the Middle-East there is something called a "souqe," roughly translated as "shop." While there is nothing remarkable about a single souqe (they are usually quite small), the way they are organized is very unusual. For example, there is a place near my house called Sofitel. In this two story building there are about 30 souqes which all sell computers. Each store might specialize in

They may look real, but this is yet another example of a store trying to sell fake Pokemon games!
certain things, but even if someone doesn't have what you want, they will know which store to go to get it. Because of this, you could quite easily go to one store but walk out with products from 5 different ones, all of which were collected by the salesperson. This is actually advisable, because haggling is method of choice for souqe pricing.

Buying a video game is usually a similar experience to the one described above. There is a street which is made up of souqes selling toys, clothes, phones, DVDs and video games. You would be hard pressed to find a legal DVD on this street, and while it is possible to find a few legit games (mostly for the PSP) in the end if you buy a game here, you're probably going to need a modded console to run it. The exception to that rule is Game Boy and Game Boy Advance games. (It is also worth noting the DS games which are a combination of legal carts and ones with combinations of 5 or 6 games on them.) The illegal

Like the games found in Qatar, this SUPER HUGE Game Boy is also not made by Nintendo!
games are mostly 25 riyals each (about $6.50) and are some of the most hilarious fakes ever. According to Ismail at "Dreamworld Trading" (seriously, they all have names like this) these games come from somewhere in china and a company called Dubai Telecom. Unfortunately Dubai Telecom doesn't have a website so it looks as though for now this company will remain a mystery.

While Ismail was helpful and knowledgeable about his product, not everyone I talked to was as forthcoming. I tried to explain to someone in another store, "These games, we know that they are not made by Nintendo. Where do they come from?" To which he replied, "No, no. This is Game Boy, not Nintendo". That conversation went one for about 45 seconds and was quite frustrating. At another store I tried to buy a copy of FarCry Instincts for my original Xbox, but the salesman refused to let me take a picture of the binder containing the fake game labels. This is a shame

I don't know about you, but I love the idea of being able to play Gunstar Heroes and Thunder Force III on my PlayStation 3!
because it was really quite impressive. It's also worth noting that he went next door to get the game from his neighbor, only to find that they didn't have it anymore.

On top of all the insanity that buying new games involves there is one hanger-on from the 1980s that you can still buy in the Middle East - The Sega Mega Drive. It can be found in a number of different forms ranging from an actual box with Mega Drive 2 written on it (new for 2006) to ones that look like small PlayStation 3s (you'll be happy to know that I asked, and no one has ever thought that they were buying a real PS3 and wound up with a Genesis). The boxes for these are pure comedic gold and feature such classic lines as "High end 8-bit technology".

Not all countries I have visited are created equal in the eyes of fake game sellers. When I was in Jordan I found stack of PC games for $1.50 a disc, but console sales were limited to a few

No, seriously, at least you don't have to put up with stupid photo ops in Qatar!
PlayStation 2 games. On the other hand, I have yet to encounter ANY fake PC games in Qatar. This is especially strange considering that PC gaming is considerably more expensive than console gaming, yet Jordan is far poorer than Qatar. Regardless, those fake Mega Drives seem to be present everywhere.

The primary reason that fake games are so widely available in the Middle East is lack of copyright enforcement. However, I believe that there is a less obvious reason that it has become so prevalent. There is a huge immigrant workforce, especially in the rapidly growing Qatar (the population is 20% Qatari, 80% ex-patriot). These workers are rarely paid more than 600 dollars a month and send most of that off to their families in India, Nepal or the Philippines. They have virtually no disposable income, but since it is common for 20 of them to live in a single small building, with no entertainment but a single television, it seems quite likely that workers will pool their money and purchase cheap games to pass the time. This is all speculation, but it is almost certainly a factor in explaining why fake gaming has grown so rapidly.

So next time you walk into EB Games and buy a copy of Dead Rising, remember that some of us aren't so lucky and have to rely on (very) cheap knock-offs for our gaming fix. By the way, next time you come to Qatar could you bring me a copy of No More Heroes? It costs way to much here.
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