I’m sitting rather comfortably in what might possibly be one of the coolest, most down-to-earth workplaces that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. People are walking in and out of their offices into the kitchen next door. It’s lunchtime and I’m wondering what it is that smells really good. I’m also wondering if anyone will notice if the red Playstation 3 on the glass table in front of me goes missing. They probably will.

I’m here to interview Lara Noujaim, a bright, cheerful, soft-spoken young woman who is the marketing manager at Game Cooks – one of Lebanon’s most promising mobile game development companies.

At one point during our interview, Noujaim brings in an iPad, and I know that now, I will probably be here all day. It’s fine. I never want to leave.

She taps the iPad a few times and shows me Escape from Paradise, a game which later ends up keeping me awake until 2 a.m. on a Saturday night. It’s a platform about a little red devil, aptly named Devi. He eats a magic mushroom and goes on a trip of a lifetime – to Paradise – and he’s trying to get out of it, because he obviously doesn’t belong there. The funny thing is, Devi just keeps eating those mushrooms. You want him to because you need to keep collecting them – like Pokemon. The game is beautiful to look at, and its gameplay is just challenging enough to be addictive as hell. The sound effects and music are very pleasant – kind of like taking hallucinogens.

It’s their Game Room that I’m sitting in, and Lara later confirms my suspicions – it is the room where the magic of casual games like Escape from Paradise, Cubama (over 120,000 downloads), Run for Peace (over 1.6 million downloads) and the newly launched Planet Nam Nam  happens.

Tell me a little bit about how Game Cooks got started.

In 2011, you had Lebnan and Arz Nader, who have been hardcore gamers since they can remember. They noticed that the mobile gaming scene in the Middle East lacked localized content, and they saw an opportunity there. They thought it would be interesting to see how people would react to the use of the Arabic language in a well-made game. They both had day jobs, so it was a side project that they’d work on after hours. Seven months later, they launched Birdy Nam Nam. There were no expectations. They just knew that they had released something that they also enjoyed playing themselves. And it was a big hit.

How big?

In a week, Birdy Nam Nam exceeded a quarter of a million downloads. That was a sign for them. Shortly after that, around the beginning of 2012, they founded Game Cooks.

Why mobile games?

Just because Lebnan and Arz were huge fans of mobile gaming. Their first project was personal, but they also noticed that mobile games industry was picking up all over the world. They really enjoyed playing all these games which were developed by international companies and that would reach Lebanon. They just thought, “Why are there no games from the region that have international reach?” They set out to do something about it.

And that was Run for Peace?

Run for Peace was a huge hit – it’s our flagship game. It’s about a character named Salim who goes on a run for peace throughout several Arab countries. It’s an endless runner game in both English and Arabic. It created a huge buzz because we launched it around the time of the Arab Spring. Peace was a hot topic and to have released a game that was based on the idea of peace – everyone was interested. The game received over a million downloads.

Are all your games like Run for Peace?

Well, we don’t just do endless runners. All our games are casual games, but we try to create original variations of different types of games. Déjà vu is a card matching game, but it’s got a darker feel to it than most of the card matching games out there. Cubama is based on Tetris, but at the same time, it’s nothing like it.

We always try to add a little twist. If it’s not in the story, it’s in the character.

Escape From Paradise 1
Escape From Paradise 2

How long does it take to complete a game from start to finish?

Well, we were doing around two to three games a year up until 2014. Last year, our team grew and we’ve really been pressing hard to develop more quality games and set the bar higher. Escape was launched in January, then after that it was Cubama, a mini-game that we came up with on a whim. It’s hard to keep the momentum, because we don’t really pay for any marketing. It’s all through a close network of contacts on social media, word of mouth and participation in as many events as we can. We don’t have an enormous budget, but we try. We’re trying for that game that is going to make it for us.

Is that happening somewhere in a secret room you haven’t shown me?

Laughter . Yes. There are things in the works, but that’s all I can say right now. We’ll have more to announce throughout the year. But let’s just say, it feels like things are going the right way.

So, what’s the team’s process like? How do you come up with your ideas?

Well, we sit around and play games. Sometimes we have competitions to see who can come up with the craziest ideas. We end up with some really outrageous concepts sometimes. Then we shape those ideas into something that is doable and acceptable for the app stores. We do market research and we look into what people like to play – but we’d never create a game that we wouldn’t like to play ourselves just because it's the next trend.

What’s the market like in the Middle East? Where do you see Game Cooks and the mobile gaming industry in the region going in the next five years?

You have huge gaming worlds in the Middle East. Especially in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates because the interpenetration of smartphones in general. More people have access to devices, and so you have more people gaming. But there just isn’t enough supply. Sure, you have Arabic games, but there aren’t enough. There is so much room for people to enter the market. It’s an opportunity to turn your passion into a career and this generation is starting to see that. International companies have had years of experience ahead of us, but we’re catching up. And there is so much potential in the region.

What would you tell someone who is just starting out in mobile game development?

You’re in for a really fun ride.

What was your first introduction into gaming? And what are you and the team playing right now?

Probably Sonic. And Alex the Kid on the Sega system. Then there was Aladdin and Mortal Kombat. Right now, I’m playing Crossy Road by Australian developer Hipster Whale. Arz is addicted to Far Cry 4. He plays it every day. And the team plays FIFA every night. That’s how they resolve arguments.


About Planet Nam Nam:

The world's most significant monuments have been stolen by invading birds and brought back to Planet Nam Nam. The fate of our landmarks rest solely on our hero - P1W! His mission is far from easy - he has to travel to Planet Nam Nam to retrieve our monuments and teach those crazy birds a lesson!

Check out Planet Nam Nam and other Game Cooks games on iTunes and Google Play .