With the youth element a sizeable component of the region's demographics, it is no wonder the Middle East's gaming market has been recording such impressive growth rates.

Year-on-year growth has been pegged at 20 per cent and over, and looks likely to sustain itself for some time.

Fresh impetus has been added with new entrants coming into the market, while others are waiting in the wings.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News during his recent trip to Dubai for Gitex 2003, Chris Deering, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, throws light on how the gaming business is shaping up for his company.

In his capacity, Deering has his hands on the Playstation business.

Gulf News: How do you rate the menace of piracy in the year-to-date in the Middle East?
Chris Deering: The rampant piracy of gaming titles in the region is one of our biggest concerns. To give you an idea about the extent of the menace, consider these figures: the average software to console ratio in Europe for PlayStation 2 is around 6:1. This takes into consideration the titles published by us as well as various third parties.

In the Middle East, the ratio is now an average of approximately 1:1 and varies from country to country – around 2:1 in UAE, to less than 0.5:1 in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Using a forecast-installed base of 265,000 PlayStation 2's in Saudi Arabia by next March, and 300,000 in the rest of the Gulf, this equates to a loss of around 2.8 million units or a street level value of around $140 million.

Now, the earlier versions of the console, namely PS and PSOne, still have an extremely high uptake in the Middle East. The European average here is now around 5:1 – while in the Middle East it is less than 0.5. The forecast installed base by end of next March is 3.5 million, so again using the same calculation, the estimated loss on PS/PSone is 16 million units or $480 million.

So you could say that piracy has cost us a whopping $620 million these past few years.

The situation is not altogether so grim. We have a close working relationship with the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance and have had some success in lobbying authorities and conducting raids.

Authorities in the region are fast realising that piracy is a menace that has an extremely adverse impact.

So far the programme has had the most success in Dubai and is now expanding to Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, with raids totalling over two million disks. We are extremely upbeat about the future and will hopefully see this threat diminish substantially.

Tell us something about your efforts in the area of Arabisation of software titles.
We are committed to developing and introducing Arabised titles in the region. In fact, the first of these is scheduled for release next year.

However, the issue you raised earlier about piracy is closely linked to our Arabisation efforts. Creating a software title in any language needs a minimum threshold level in terms of the number of copies produced and sold. Unfortunately the menace of piracy raises that threshold level substantially.

I can say with a certain amount of confidence that if piracy were not such a big issue here we would have introduced Arabised titles much earlier.

Will you see the launch cycle of software titles being cut drastically?
Let me first put into perspective the way new software titles are introduced in the market. Apart from manufacturing the PlayStation console, Sony Computer Entertainment itself publishes around 25 to 30 per cent of all PlayStation gaming titles.

The rest are developed and distributed by other publishers, for example, Electronics Arts, UBISOFT, Sega, etc. The vast majority of titles published by us are launched in the region simultaneous to their introduction in other parts of the world. For example, in the next two-three months, around 100 new PlayStation 2 titles will be launched here, of which 25 will be exclusive to PlayStation 2.

How does the company plan to tackle threats from new entrants into the gaming sector in the region – Nokia and Xbox?
We welcome increased competition within the regional gaming sector as this will only serve to expand the gaming market here, which is our prime objective. Having said that I must also mention here that Sony PlayStation has been extremely successful in building long-standing consumer relationships in the region, and currently enjoys a regional market share of around 78 per cent.

This does not mean that we can afford to be complacent. With the success of the recently concluded Middle East PlayStation, the largest gaming exposition in the region, we will continue to develop consumer forums across the region in our effort to bring gaming to the masses.

Finally, please tell us more about the launch date for PS3?
Before we even come to that, we have the launch of PSX, an upgraded version of the PlayStation 2 console which is also a DVD recorder and broadband enabled, as well as the portable PlayStation which will be called PSP.

We think that PlayStation 2 still has a long way to go before we even consider a newer platform. If you correspond the market cycle that PSOne went through prior to the introduction of PS2, we think that PS2 has just about reached that life-cycle.

But yes, as you are perhaps aware, Sony recently entered into a four-year agreement with IBM and Toshiba to co-develop an advanced chip process. The agreement complements the "Cell" computing partnership signed on March 12, 2001, that focuses on computer architecture and chip design issues for the next generation gaming, and other "post-PC" platforms.

So all I can confirm is that we are working in that direction. As to when and what will be launched, your guess is as good as mine.