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Gentlemen! Or, how our most successful game is also our least profitable.
by Yann Seznec on 08/20/13 07:15:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Three weeks ago my little studio, Lucky Frame, released Gentlemen! for iPad and Android. If you aren’t aware of it, it's a 2-player head-to-head Victorian dueling game for tablets. Two players required, local multiplayer only.

We've also just released the desktop version for Mac and PC, which is still local multiplayer but is 2-4 players and has a bunch of new features. 

Go buy it if you like, or there's a free demo of the desktop version.

So this seems like a good time to talk about our tablet release, how it went and why. Selling a tablet-only game that requires two players was always going to be a challenge, but there were definitely some surprising outcomes and it's always fun to try and analyze them. Let's go!

Without a doubt, Gentlemen! was one of the best-reviewed projects we have ever produced. We received a coveted 8/10 on Edge, 4.5 stars on Touch Arcade, and a 9/10 Gold Award on PocketGamer. This was totally brilliant, and we are so proud. It’s interesting to think about why we got such great reviews. Obviously it’s a game that we’re super proud of, and we think it’s amazing, but that’s not always enough to secure great critical acclaim.

At one point, during the development process, we were planning to make a single player mode in the game. We got as far as mocking up some concepts and even designing a few challenge levels before deciding that it wasn’t a good idea. Gentlemen! was designed from the very first prototype to be a local multiplayer game - the gravity flipping, the level layout, it was all created with two players in mind. Any single player mode would have been superfluous and probably not very fun.

Gentlemen! single player concept art

I think the positive reviews were an unanticipated outcome from this decision. If Gentlemen! had a half-baked single player mode, then reviewers would probably have only played that and not enjoyed it very much. Instead, the reviewers had to find someone to play with, and play a game together for enough time to make an educated assessment. As it turns out, playing games with other people is super fun, and I think it’s harder to be negative or cynical about a game when you’re sitting across from someone who is having a blast throwing pigeons at you.
The downside, of course, is that not all reviewers were able to find someone to play with. Reviewing games tends to be a fairly solitary activity, and more than one reviewer really wanted to test the game but was unable to find people to play with. We are lucky to have really great support from a number of different media outlets, and several of them made the extra effort to review Gentlemen! - though our overall number of reviews was far lower than Bad Hotel or Wave Trip.

Another interesting result of our multiplayer design was that we have gotten some user reviews, almost exclusively on iTunes, saying that we should make a single player version, or network multiplayer. Partially this is my fault, because the marketing copy said “Two Players Required!” and many people didn't realize that meant “two players in the same place”. But there is also a funny logical thing going on, where many of the reviews say something like “Good game, could be so much better with online multiplayer or ai”. This is strange to me, because it admits that it is a good game, but then goes on to say that it should be different. My argument would be that the whole reason this is a good game is because you play it with a friend!
AHHH PIGEON!

So! Great reviews? Check. How does this translate into sales? So far we have sold 1,114 copies on iPad, and 144 copies on Android. Whether this is a ‘good’ result is up for debate. Certainly, many many games are released every day that don’t sell anything close to these numbers. We knew very well that we were making a pretty esoteric game, in the sense that it is limited to iPads and tablets bigger than 7 inches and requires two players, so we didn’t exactly have high expectations. We also set the price relatively high - starting at $5, and currently on sale for $3.

So far the number of sales is a bit lower than we hoped - my personal target was to sell 2000 copies, but with a little luck we will get there! As a side note, amateur mathemagicians out there will realize that selling 2000 copies, even at our high price point, is not exactly good business for a 3-person studio working on a game for 5 months. Well, that’s because for this project we were really lucky to be supported by the Prototype Fund, a brilliant support grant run by the University of Abertay in Dundee. They give money to studios who want to make something great without the crushing weight of commercial expectations. We certainly couldn’t have made the game without them, and we are extremely privileged to live and work in a society where this exists.

One problem we definitely had was that just as we were releasing our game, a lovable little scamp named Psy happened to release a song named "Gentleman". The deep irony of all of this was that we had a really hard time naming our game, and for the longest time it had the terribly uncatchy title of “Martin vs. Monty”. We finally settled on “Gentlemen!” (other ideas: ‘Scoundrels’, ‘East Stabwich’, ‘The Panic of 1857’, ‘Crumpet Clash’, etc) and sent out all of the promo material accordingly, blissfully unaware of this pop song. You wouldn’t think a pop song would cause problems for an app, but we quickly learned about the seedy world of games and apps piggybacking on other entertainment media. What a strange time we live in. Also, how depressing that people spend their time making Jetpack Joyride ripoffs using graphics referencing pop songs. So unfortunately, discovery was and remains a major problem.


We also didn’t really get any featuring from Apple for this release, which was too bad, but then they have really supported our previous releases so we can’t complain!

Anyway, pricing a game is always an interesting question, and there were a few eyebrows raised at our initial $5 price. Part of our thinking was that a two-player game has a higher value than a single player game, because it is being shared with friends. Tablet games can sometimes command a higher price as well, I suppose just because the bigger screen size conveys greater value. But most importantly we believe that Gentlemen! gives you way more than $5 worth of fun. We’ve watched people play game after game, and we get feedback from users who say they play with their child/partner/parent for an hour or more at a time. It’s a bit of a tired argument, but the fact remains that this is pretty great value entertainment. Finally, there’s a bit of a trend in the indie game world for raising prices on games, and we’re in favor of that and wanted to fit into the cool kids club.

A few days after release, we started noticing some pretty strange statistics on the Android version. At the last minute we had included an analytics package into the game that told us how many unique users there were playing around the world. After two days we had sold a total of 8 copies on Google Play, but we were getting significantly more players. The numbers surprised us so much that we actually contacted the analytics company to confirm that we were interpreting them correctly. Once we had done that I posted on the Lucky Frame twitter feed, asking people to guess how many pirated copies were being played. Nobody got anywhere near:

If you’re interested, after three weeks those numbers are now 144 copies sold, 50,030 copies pirated. So, as you can tell the piracy rate has not really slowed down at all - if anything it has gotten even stronger!

Anyway, this tweet set off a firestorm of social media activity - basically, I spent the next three days responding to tweets and facebook messages (844 retweets!). It resulted in a definitely jump in Android sales (we sold about 25 the next day - woo marketing!) and generated some interesting discussion around the interwebs. This taught me several things...

People love hating on specific technology companies.

This experience was very similar (though much larger scale) to our whole experience with the unVerse rejection. Whilst that story provided fodder to Apple haters, releasing this data was a great example of confirmation bias. One narrative that kept appearing was “this is why you shouldn’t develop for Android”, or more bluntly “this is why Android sucks”. I find this attitude pretty silly. Let’s face it, all of these devices are just computers. Some of them have nice UI, some of them have nice product design, and they all certainly have downsides. It’s pretty sad when people associate electronics products with lifestyle choices, and judge others accordingly. These devices and companies are loaded with moral and ethical dilemmas, there is very little critical thought devoted to their place in the world, and the differences between them are negligible at best. Instead of saying “Product X is so much better than Product Y” or “Fans of Product X are blind/idiots/fanboys”, we should really be saying “How can we use this technology in a positive way?” On a more technical note, the idea that we “shouldn’t develop for Android” is kind of ridiculous. We made Gentlemen! in the Unity game engine, which makes building an Android version extremely easy. It probably took us an extra two or three days to make the android version (out of a 5 month develop cycle), so even if we only sell 200 copies total it’s still just about worth it.

We made an awesome game

Many people assumed that we were really upset about this statistic. In retrospect, talking about the piracy numbers on twitter probably implies that we were unhappy, but in reality the number of pirates just confirmed to us that we made a game that people love to play! The people who are pirating our game are also playing a surprising amount, with really great engagement - these are no casual pirates just downloading because they can. So this confirmed to us that our game design is solid, and that we’ve made a super fun game that people enjoy. To be honest, that is really great. It’s unlikely that any of these pirates would have bought the game anyway, so we’re just glad that people are playing. Android makes piracy very easy, and thanks to that Gentlemen! is being played by more people around the world than all of our previous games combined.

Devices are complicated

A lot of talk has been devoted to the insane amount of Android phones and tablets on the market, and how this poses a challenge to developers. We were very wary of this, and our strategy was to release only for devices that we were able to test on. This was a pretty limited number of mostly Google Nexus and Samsung devices. Our thinking was that we didn’t want anyone to buy the game and then have a negative experience with it. We got a fair amount of criticism for this, with people saying that the game wasn’t available for purchase on their specific device. We’re still undecided on how to approach this, because it is very scary to allow people to buy our game on a tablet or phone on which it won’t run well. We thought that releasing on the most popular devices would be fine, but it probably wasn't. On the other hand, I don’t think that this was responsible for our piracy rate. It seems unlikely to me that people tried to buy it on Google Play, found it wouldn’t run on their device, and then tracked down a torrent instead. It’s far more likely that the people who pirated the game have only one method of finding and installing apps, and that is through pirate sites.

Predictable locations

One thing that helped me reach that conclusion was the location statistics for the pirated copies. About 95% of the pirated copies are being installed in Russia and China (and of those, mostly China). We didn’t even translate our Google Play store into Russian or Chinese, so it’s almost certain that the pirates just found our app on localized pirate sites. On the other hand, I’m glad our menu design is intuitive enough that you can play the game without speaking English!

We have a lot to learn

This was our first Android release. We probably could have done more to avoid the massive piracy of our game - or, even better, convert pirate users into paid users. I think that Android apps are definitely going to get pirated no matter what...I can only dimly imagine the level of piracy that a truly successful paid app has. However if we had anticipated this situation we probably would have included some sort of in app purchase, perhaps to unlock extra levels or game modes. At least then the pirates would have the opportunity to pay us a little something if they were enjoying it so much - the main problem is that most of these pirates probably exist in a commercial ecosystem where the Google Play store does not even exist, and it doesn’t occur to them to buy any games from there at all.

User reviews

One small thing that really surprised us - Google Play users are far more likely to leave reviews in the store...and very positive ones at that! Nearly 10% of the people who bought the game on Google Play have left reviews, averaging 4.8 stars. On iTunes, it’s more like 0.01%, and we’re only averaging 3.3 stars. Awww! So there you go. 
--

I don't have much of a conclusion here, I'm afraid. This has been a really interesting experience, and we've certainly learned a lot. I just thought it might be useful to get this all out in the open - let me know if you have any questions or comments!


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Comments


David Paris
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Sigh. "144 copies sold, 50,030 copies pirated".

That is wrong in so very many ways, and just says a world of ill about our current distribution mechanics.

Clearly a great many people value your time, effort, and artistic contribution. It is hugely wrong that you don't get the fairly-earned benefit for it.

Maurício Gomes
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In our company we make free and paid versions of our games, and we get similar rates.

Ie: something that got 50k free downloads has about 150 paid downloads on Android.

John Flush
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95% were pirated in China and Russia, which means 2501 were pirated outside of Russia and China.

Maybe include a donate button on the pirated copy that pops up and begs for .25 or something... Better than nothing.

Ramin Shokrizade
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This is not just consumer propensity for piracy. It is also a developed infrastructure and culture that promotes this behavior. Are any games sold under this business model in China? F2P rules there because you can sell a crippled or restricted product and then charge the consumer to improve that product. On the other hand, if you WANT a lot of exposure in China, raise the price to like $50 and pretend you don't want it pirated. Include big warning banners in English that say not to pirate the game. Your game might go viral. The banners themselves might be half the entertainment value.

Yann Seznec
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Ooh that's an interesting approach! It hadn't occurred to me that perhaps we were attracting users because of our (relatively) high price. Taking that even further, with an even higher price, would be an interesting strategy for trying to build awareness in those markets.

And I agree that the infrastructure and buying culture is really the issue. I doubt that many of the pirates have any sort of account with a store, Google Play or otherwise, which we could use to solicit payments or anything. For them, they get apps from pirate sites, and nowhere else.

Vincent Pride
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People don't buy it simply because they can't afford it.
3/4 of worlds population are living on <$500 per month, and for China it's more like $200, anyway. With such state of affairs, expecting them to buy a game for $10 is insane. To put it in perspective, would somebody here with a salary of $5000 buy a simple 2D game for $200? Those 50k aren't lost customers - they simply have no money at all.

Dane MacMahon
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I lived in an ex-Soviet state for a year and I can tell you people there love their PC games and cheap imported tablets, but they really don't have the income or infrastructure to buy software. Copyright is a joke there too, they have large stores set up that just sell burned discs of everything ever imagined. It's a completely different culture in relation to this stuff.

We can talk about how unfair it is, but at the end of the day we can't ascribe US business styles, ethics and incomes to transfer directly across the digital ocean because we say so. The fact 95% of their piracy was from such countries makes me feel good: it says US piracy is more limited than people act like it is (for Android anyway).

Yann Seznec
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Yes I generally agree - we actually felt pretty happy about the fact that the majority of pirate copies were in Russia/China as well. In a way it just showed that we had good market penetration, using the standard distribution methods of the regions!

By publicizing these stats I never wanted to imply that we were hard done by, or that it was unfair. It's just super interesting and worth analyzing!

Nooh Ha
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This is a somewhat dated view of China, Vincent. Its GDP/C was around $5000 in 2011 and is growing rapidly but this hides major socio-economic stratification with a large and growing middle class that has been at the heart of the gaming boom in the country over the last decade. In the first half of this year, Chinese spent $5.5bn on games, $5.1bn of which was on online games. These figures are growing fast and will put China's games market on a par with EU and USA for 2013 overall. As someone else has pointed out, to access this massive spending power, games developers need to understand the Chinese games market better: its cultural interests, its preferred distribution models and business models. Fail to do this and you are simply providing excuses for piracy.
http://www.techinasia.com/chinas-online-game-market-raked-51-bill
ion-year/

Dane MacMahon
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@ Yann

It says to me that if the game can succeed in that market it just needs exposure in this one to take off.

Sean Sang
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@ Vincent Pride: Not to be harsh but if you can't afford something usually means you go without that thing or item. I really want a Ferrari but I can't afford it doesn't mean I have the justification to then take one without paying for it. The problem lies in the ease of which games can be pirated and the face less nature of it all. Surely if these people looked at Yann in the eyes before clicking on the download button would think twice. The next task would be to convert those who pirate into paying customers even if it's in small amounts.

Kevin Bender
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I don't buy this argument at all... If people can afford the devices and internet needed to pirate these games, they can afford 5$.

Not to belittle the problem of world poverty, but using as it an excuse for pirating a 5$ game? don't think so

Dane MacMahon
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@ Kevin

You are very wrong. The hardware is mostly ancient, passed down from other countries to theirs and sold like a greasy old car part in a small shop. Also, how are you selling this stuff? Online with a Visa card? The very idea would make 99% of the people I met over there laugh, they pay their bills in cash at the bank or grocery store, the vast majority have no internet at home.

It's a different world. It might be a world where they have 8 year old PC hardware pumping out 10fps in Assassin's Creed with everything set to low, but it is not a world where that translates to having $50 US dollars to buy the game on Steam, or even $5. There aren't even shops to buy the stuff legally, they're all burned discs that cost the equivalent of like $2.50 US.

It's a different world. Adjust your expectations.

Denys Medianyk
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Well thats not that bad, but in general you are true. Im talking with my friends from some small city in ukraine about piracy - Buyng game? Are you nuts?
We dont have gamespot or big shops to buy games legaly and for majority of gamers steam or other platforms are enigma.

Maurício Gomes
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Your numbers are... depressing to me.

I already released a bunch of stuff, the reviewers that reviewed our stuff so far rarely give us something lower than 4 (of 5) or 8 (of 10) across all our titles.

And we never sold stuff (or even got "free downloads" if I compared to your piracy) at your speed.

It is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY depressing that no matter how good your games are, you WON'T profit unless you spend boatloads in marketing.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I've never really seriously considered making games for mobile that do not require connectivity (and authentication) to play. Considering how crowded that market is already, and the infrastructure in place to pirate IP, it seems like it only serves as a way to build a resume for when you apply to teams making real games. SuperCell is an example of a small team that is doing really well with mobile games that require connectivity and authentication. Clearly this is also a big part of what is driving F2P with microtransactions.

It's not a very effective model, imo, and even the few mobile games that I gush over for being really good at Dark Side monetization have humongous marketing costs to keep the consumer conveyor belt moving.

Michael Joseph
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The local two player requirement might make what appears to me to be a very average looking game into one that has above average game play, but that same requirement is going to destroy your sales.

Yann Seznec
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Certainly, we knew very well that making a local multiplayer game was never going to be a best seller!
However, what is surprising is how many people are pirating and playing the game. So it is clearly a type of game that people like to play. It would be interesting to figure out whether there is an effective and ethical way to monetize it!

Dane MacMahon
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China and Russia are more social countries. It makes sense they would be more into local multiplayer than the US might be. Though of course the Wii proves there is a huge market here for that as well.

Yann Seznec
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I never thought about it like that, thanks for the insight.

Andy Wallace
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When we launched Worm Run on iOS, we had pretty similar piracy rates. About 98% of all copies of the game were pirated, almost entirely in China. So far there have been about 40 genuine purchases in China compared to thousands and thousands of pirate downloads.

Those 40 folks are pretty rad, though, for actually paying for the game when it's obviously pretty easy to get for free.

Igor Makaruks
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Do you collect gameplay statistics? How many of people who pirated the game played it for more than, let's say, 20 minutes?

Andrew Wallace
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"The people who are pirating our game are also playing a surprising amount, with really great engagement - these are no casual pirates just downloading because they can. "

Igor Makaruks
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Thanks for pointing this out, Andy.
It would be nice for a more detailed info from Yann, though. This could help other developers who are working on local multiplayer games to implement right monetization scheme.
What I'm trying to say is that a correct f2p approach for this game would be better suited. Also, online multiplayer would help a lot.

Ralf Knoesel
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We're seeing similar stats with our latest paid game Riptide GP2: 98% piracy on Android, 75% piracy on iOS. Piracy is mostly in Asia. But remember that these are not lost sales, it's just the nature of the business. If piracy didn't exist, just about none of these people would actually buy the game.

Yann Seznec
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Yeah I agree. It's definitely not lost sales, it's just interesting stats. We don't usually get that level of iOS piracy though - you must be doing something right :)

Sean Sang
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Very interesting article and thanks for writing this. I especially appreciated you releasing actual numbers. The naming of the app is something I never realized could be an issue. So the obvious question, with the sales numbers you have what is the likely hood of being able to continue with making more games?

Yann Seznec
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We do a lot of different projects, some of them sell well, or are funded in a number of different ways, so we're not going anywhere!

Haiko Gerkema
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How about a free version with limited gameplay? I can imagine users want to try something first, before spending money on it. Pirated Android apps are easy to find, these people can just "Google" the app name and find a pirated full version to try. Perhaps a free-to-try version, with in-app upgrade possibility can up the sales?

Stephanie Rieger
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@Yann

To your point about traffic from China. Part of the problem may be that many Android devices in China don't have access to Google Play. Many devices by small manufacturers either don't qualify to use Google apps or choose not to install them in favour of local variants. App downloads in China are quite high, but are often from China-specific app stores such as the one provided by popular Chinese Android MOD MIUI.

I'm not suggesting that placing your game on some of these sites would solve the problem entirely but if the Play store isn't accessible to people, and they really like the game, piracy ends up being their only choice. Android is the top smartphone OS in China by far and there's an awful lot of people who may not have access to Google Play.

This article provides a list of popular stores http://appflood.com/blog/top-10-alternative-app-stores-from-china
-2013

Nicholas Lovell
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Have you considered adding a cosmetic upgrade into the game (with IAPs) as an experiment to monetise the pirated copies? I haven't played the game - it may seem odd but $5 is a big barrier for me to try out a game that may turn out just to be a gimmick - but you mention pigeons, so could you sell, say, sparrows or crows or American robins or something, just to see if some people pay money once they realise they like it?

Yann Seznec
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Yes, we've considered a few approaches like that. We're hopefully going to be releasing soon on the Ouya console, which will provide an interesting test bed - to release on there you need to have a freely-playable version. So we've made a special version which is free to download and has an in-app purchase to upgrade to the full game. We'll see how it goes, if it's good we may bring it to Android.

Milind Rao
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I'll keep an eye out for it. I was just thinking that this would perfect for the Ouya since it's a local multiplayer game. If my kids like it, I'll buy it.

Paul Louis
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One thing that nobody has mentioned yet that's highly relevant: it's actually impossible to purchase Android apps via Chinese networks through Google Play, due to the ongoing tensions between Google and the Chinese government. Any paid for game/app simply comes up as "not available in your county" or "not compatible with your phone".

To make matters even worse, any phone legally purchased in China (as opposed to grey imports which, admittedly, make up a large portion of the market) cannot, by law, include Google software. Including Google Play. Oh, and most people don't have foreign credit cards.

There's actually a huge market ready to be exploited in China, though. A lot of domestic companies have made a lot of money through Chinese mobile users. It seems there's 3 possible approaches:

1)Aim at rich businessmen who have international credit cards. This works for prestige or productivity apps, but is limited to the iTunes store.

2) Go for the in-app purchase route. The biggest Chinese companies have made their money this way. You need to accept Alipay (the Chinese version of PayPal) though.

3) Adverts. Lots of obnoxious, unavoidable adverts. Chinese users have much higher tolerances for these than Western users.


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