How Istanbul became the Silicon Valley of the mobile gaming industry


PHOTO/Nicole Tung

Overworked and underpaid developers are helping fuel Istanbul’s mobile gaming bonanza.

On February 18, 2019, just after 9 30 p.m., the Turkish video game giant Peak broadcast a TV ad that felt more like a military recruitment video: bird droppings dapple an unsuspecting driver’s window, and when he brakes and looks ahead, he notices a rhinoceros blocking the road. 

“You never know what surprises life will place in your way,” a voice says. The scene cuts to black, and over the next three minutes, a message is slowly typed out across the screen: “Wake up… We’ll change the world. But first, we should introduce ourselves. If you think we’re joking, just change the channel and see how serious we are.” 

Anyone who flipped the channel would have realized that the same commercial was playing across all of the national broadcasters simultaneously. For Peak, and by extension Turkey’s gaming sector, it was a bold, and expensive, show of force. 

Over the last decade, Peak and other Turkish gaming studios have transformed Istanbul into the world capital of the “casual game” (otherwise known as free-to-play games) industry. Unlike AAA games, like Halo, Assassin’s Creed, or Final Fantasy, casual games are mobile-native, easy to learn, shorter to play and target the broadest audience possible. According to 2020 statistics, around 58.86% of all mobile game players are casual gamers. It’s estimated that the global market for casual gaming is worth more than $8 billion. 

In March 2021, six of the Apple App Store’s top ten mobile games in the U.S. came from Turkish studios, including Basketball Arena,which asks players to steal the ball from opponents in head-to-head matches and go for slam dunks; the self-styled “super fun running game” Bounce Big,where players run around, collect items, improve the size of their backsides, and launch off pads (the winning player twerks at the end of each level); Deep Clean Inc. 3D,in which users scrub crusty iPhones and toilets; and Jelly Dye,in which players, well, inject dye into a jelly. And Istanbul has become a magnet for up-and-coming game developers. 

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