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Interview: PopCap Games On Expanding To The East

Interview: PopCap Games On Expanding To The East

April 7, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

[Looking into PopCap's expansion into Eastern markets, Gamasutra speaks to VP of Asia/Pacific James Gwertzman about why the company needs to surpass the "expectations set by [its] single-player PC games" to succeed overseas.]

Bejeweled and Peggle developer PopCap Games has seen massive success in the West across its line of casual titles, and the company has now set its sights on moving into Eastern markets.

In 2008, PopCap set up an office in Shanghai to bring its popular games into Asia, while adapting the games to best suit the business trends of the local regions.

Among the company's efforts for Eastern expansion is PopCap World, a games platform that will include altered versions of a number of PopCap's most popular titles, including Plants Vs. Zombies and Zuma.

Gamasutra spoke with PopCap's vice president of Asia/Pacific James Gwertzman to discuss the company's upcoming projects, and how the company needs to compete with itself if it hopes to succeed overseas.

Could you please give me a quick overview of what your studio represents to the company?

At PopCap, I made my first trip to China in 2005. Even on my very first trip, I was impressed by how many people in China were playing PopCap games. Granted, a lot of them were pirated, so we weren't having any business at that point, but we were impressed with just how popular the brands were even then with no localization, no marketing, and no attempts to do anything to reach out to the market here.

We realized pretty quickly the only way to build a business here in China is to take advantage of free-to-play online game models. Especially in the casual game space, those are really the only models that make sense. We decided that to be successful here, we were going to have to open our own studio in Asia in order to build free-to-play versions to go after the Asia market.

So, starting in early 2008, we opened an office here. We began building a studio from scratch. Now we've got about 80 people here in Shanghai total. We also have a small office in Tokyo, some people at Tokyo, and we have a large team in Korea. Both of those are primarily sales and marketing offices, to reach out to those markets.

Have you launched a product that's been under development in the China office?

No. With the exception of very simple localization projects, taking a game from the U.S., revising it and releasing it through kind of traditional business models like, you know, none of the projects in development in Shanghai have yet launched. However, 2011 is really our big year because all of the projects we've been working on the past couple of years are all kind of shifting into this year.

We announced a couple months ago a partnership with NCSoft to launch something called PopCap World in Korea. PopCap World is probably the biggest project that we've been working on here. It's an attempt to bring a lot of our existing single-player games together into an online community that allows us to modify the games with virtual item sales models.

So, for the first time, you can play a game like Plants Vs. Zombies, but all of our saved game information is saved in a cloud as opposed to onto your local hard drive. You can almost think of PopCap World as kind of a PopCap version of Steam or Xbox Live Arcade in that they bring community services to our existing traditional single-player games.

On top of that, we're now building multiplayer versions of existing PopCap games. We've announced the first of those. It's called Super Zuma Online, which is a four-person multiplayer version of Zuma with very competitive head-to-head action. That's the first project that we're building out here now. Our partner in Korea is NCSoft. They will be operating that on our behalf, and that should be launching some time in first quarter of this year. And if that does well in Korea, we'll look at bringing that to other markets in Asia as well.

The other thing we're working on here is we're doing a social game from scratch. So, it's a new social game. We've already signed a partnership with RenRen, which is one of the largest social networks here in China. We have not yet announced what the title is, but it's a new social game based on one of our more popular IP here in China. Those are really the two big kind of new projects that we're building from scratch here in China.

Will PopCap World launch outside of Asia at some point?

Part of the charter for our office here is, "In Asia, for Asia." The problem is if you start to think too much about the global market from the beginning, you can lose focus and distract yourself from being successful. So, we don't think about markets like North America or Europe when building things like PopCap World. We're just focused on making it successful here in Asia.

Of course, if it's super successful and it does well and we're happy with this performance in Asia, of course we'll look at whether we can bring that to other markets like North America. For now, we're kind of laser-focused on the markets here.

PopCap is well-known for taking its time to make sure its games are correct and proper before launching them. However, you and others have alluded to the fact that the Asian market moves very quickly. How do you balance those two forces?

That was one of the questions we asked ourselves early on. We needed to figure out how important quality would be here in Asia compared to a lot of our competitors, who move very quickly and for whom often quality is maybe not so important.

We decided that was our biggest competition coming into Asia with the online games was not going to be other companies. Our biggest competitors were going to be the expectations set by our single-player PC games that people already played via piracy channels.

In other words, if we were going to build online versions of Plants Vs. Zombies, our competition was going to be the expectations people had from playing the original Plants Vs. Zombies. If our game built here in Shanghai was not as much fun and as creative and as high quality, then players are going to be upset. So, we decided we were going to have to maintain the same quality bar here that we try to maintain globally.

We're not cutting corners. In fact, one of the reasons it's taken us a couple of years to launch a game since we first set up our office is because we weren't willing to launch prematurely. In North America, we only ship games that we're proud of, and we're taking the same attitude here in Shanghai.

You said a number of your projects are coming to fruition and launching this year. Are you thinking about what you will do moving forward? Things have changed since you started those projects, I'm sure.

Well, yeah. It's kind of our make-or-break year, because now all our stuff is finally coming to market. We have an opportunity to finally see the results from a lot of decisions we made a couple years ago, and for sure, we take stock where we are every year, and this year's going to be no exception.

I think probably at the end of this year, we will start to look at how we're doing and assuming we're doing well start to consider what are we going to do for the next project and when are we going to start off. Certainly, when we set up the office here, we expected we would eventually create new IP here in Shanghai; we would not be exclusively developing projects based on existing IP. So, we would love start to work on new projects, but we're not going to do that until we're sure that the stuff we're doing is already kind of off to a good start and we've really understood how it's going.

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