CAIRO: “We make a killer cappuccino, boasted Ahmed Metwally, CEO of Timeline Interactive. Seeing that his guest didn’t have an interest, Metwally pushed the lemonade, hustling out of the room to place the order.
If it’s cappuccinos and lemonades (not Turkish coffee – no sugar – and tea with mint), it’s got to be a startup.
The energy and informality that runs through Timeline’s small Nasr City office suite, seems appropriate for the first Middle Eastern company to design and produce a mass distributed video game.
And now, having just been released for Xbox and PlayStation 3, it’s one of the top 10 most downloaded games.
Credit for the game, which is called Cell Factor Psychokinetic Wars, goes primarily to Mostafa Hafez and a few of his friends who, from a young age, got into gaming and programming.
After designing several games, Hafez took a prototype of one of his games to a business plan competition, where it caught the attention of Ahmad Gomaa and his company, Ideavelopers, which is a subsidiary of, and the venture capital arm for, EFG-Hermes.
After consulting with a handful of gamers, Gomaa saw, through the game, that Hafez and his crew had potential. Expressing a willingness to invest in their talent, Gomaa encouraged Hafez to bring on a business savvy CEO.
But after a drawn-out back-and-forth, Hafez came on board and the hunt for a CEO began.
“It took a couple of years to actually find a CEO that could run the company. Eventually, we found the right match for these guys, Gomaa said.
Enter Ahmed Metwally.
Metwally had been working for Microsoft in Canada when, as he describes it, he got the “itch to return to work for a startup.
He was supposed to be the sober business mind in an office full of gamers, which he is – but his passion for gaming seeps through in each sentence he speaks.
Nonetheless, Metwally has had to serve as a manager, on call day and night, coordinating a project that has included 300 people across eight time zones.
“We started with just three or four people working on the game, said Hafez, noting the growth of involvement over the past couple of years.
Cell Factor, which is co-owned by Timeline and Immersion Games in Colombia, is a first person shooter game that allows players to play alone, with friends, or with other gamers on the internet.
When Gomaa’s Ideavelopers invested $1 million, half of which it delivered up front, in the game and the new company over the summer of 2007, the project demanded a broad team – graphic designers, marketers, translators, and more – to create the game.
After a rigorous design and manufacturing process, that meant an intense certification process from Microsoft and Sony, the game was widely released this month in five languages and has quickly climbed up the list of most downloaded games, recently finding a spot in the top 10.
And the team has been largely satisfied with the feedback, though they worry that comparisons to big name games like Halo may hurt Cell Factor s ratings, which are critical to sales in the gaming world.
“They’re comparing games that were developed for $50 million to one that took half a million to create! said Metwally, half boasting.
“We’re being compared to full titles, Gomaa echoed.
The road ahead for Timeline looks bright as, like any startup, it looks to undergo significant growth in the coming years.
The office whiteboards are filled with designs for the newest game, tentatively titled Heroic. The team is also committed to releasing the next generation of Cell Factor, which will be imbued with a storyline that doesn’t emerge in the game’s current form.
Timeline is also looking to grow its ranks and cut down on the amount of outsourcing it was obliged to do to make Cell Factor.
For starters, the team is adding around eight graphic designers.
“Last year, said Gomaa, “we only had the programming level. But now we’re going to be doing our own artwork here.
Between the business savvy investor, the technically adept gamer, and the CEO that looks to straddle both worlds, Timeline hosts an unlikely team that’s gunning for success.
Forget that Timeline made it big with its latest game. In everything they say, it’s clear that the team runs on the idea that it’s breaking ground as a Middle East gaming company.
“You’ve never seen anything like this in the Middle East, Metwally said, watching as Hafez and a colleague battle on the TV screen. “We’ve set the precedent!