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Interview: PopCap On Finding Fortune In The East 2

After announcing PopCap's expansion into Korea with 'PopCap World', Gamasutra speaks to VP James Gwertzman about the Peggle creator's plans to become "a leader in casual and social games" in Asia.

Simon Parkin, Contributor

September 23, 2010

6 Min Read

[After announcing PopCap's expansion into Korea with 'PopCap World', Gamasutra speaks to VP James Gwertzman about the Peggle creator's plans to become "a leader in casual and social games" in Asia.] Seattle-based PopCap Games has found much success in Western territories selling games like Plants vs. Zombies, Zuma and Bejeweled on multiple platforms, to "casual" and "core" gamers alike. But the game maker, which has sold over 50 million units in its Bejeweled franchise alone, has its eyes set on global expansion, now targeting Asian territories. With a newly-announced partnership with South Korea-based online game publisher NCsoft, PopCap is launching a free-to-play games service that targets Asia's reported 800 million internet users. Here, Gamasutra speaks with James Gwertzman, the China-based VP of PopCap's Asia Pacific operations about the challenges facing the casual game-maker in the region as it tries to "succeed where so many other companies have failed." What has inspired PopCap to enter the Korean market? We realized several years ago that we could never achieve our goal of being the #1 casual and social game company worldwide without looking to Asia. With over 800 million internet users, Asia is much larger than either Europe or North America, but historically it’s been much harder for Western companies to succeed there. We began building PopCap World back in 2008 as a free-to-play product specifically for the Asian market, and we decided to launch it first in Korea because Korea is arguably the world’s most dynamic online game market. Typically, if a game can succeed it in Korea it will also succeed in other key markets such as China or Southeast Asia. What are the primary challenges to releasing games in the region? Making sure our games are fun for Korean gamers. The game market in Korea is very different than the market in North America: Korean players like PopCap games, but they also expect online features and services that we have never offered online before. They also tend to be far more competitive than our typical audience, which means we need to build new multiplayer experiences which are also a first for us. So our biggest challenge is to build a custom PopCap gaming experience specifically for Korean gamers. In what ways does publishing games in East differ from doing so in the West? When PopCap first established our office in Shanghai, we were very clear that our mission was to make games IN Asia FOR Asia – and there are myriad market differences to consider. For example, on our first visits to China four years ago, we were somewhat surprised to realize how well-known some of our games such as Zuma had become there. The primary reason is piracy, which is good for brand awareness, but not so good for business. To counter this, we realized quickly that we would need to adapt to local business models. If gamers expect games to be free, then you need to make them free – and make your money selling virtual items instead. It’s a very different way of thinking, and we realized that building new free-to-play products would take time. Setting up a local studio in Shanghai was the first step, finding partners like NCsoft in Korea was the second step, and now launching our first local products here in Korea this year will be the third step --- but we have always been a very patient company, and we see this as a long-term opportunity. Can you talk a little about the title that has been made exclusively for Korea? Why did you decide to do this hen you have such a rich back catalog already? Korean gamers, even casual gamers, are very competitive and like to play against each other. Super Zuma is our first online PC head-to-head multiplayer game made by PopCap, allowing four players to play against each other. What makes it different from a “Blitz” style game is that the multiplayer experience is synchronous – and while the game is designed to be fun for first-time gamers, it is also designed to be far more deep strategically than any previous PopCap game. On the whole, PopCap World really is our first step into a whole new frontier. Instead of relying exclusively on a 60-minute “try-and-buy” downloadable sales model, we now support a flexible, free-to-play model that will enable us to monetize our games in lots of new ways. We believe that PopCap World will allow us to build a successful business here in Korea and redefine how casual games are played generally. Are there any differences in the way in which you approach game design for a Korean audience (other than, say, visuals)? Korean players expect even casual games to still be pretty hard-core. Leveling up, for example, is a really key part of the experience, as is customizing an avatar and being able to purchase virtual items to customize your experience and show off your personality. Korean players also spend much more time playing in internet cafes than in North America, so we need to be sure that your entire experience is saved online as opposed to on your hard drive. Do you have any plans to expand further afield, say to Japan? Absolutely. We already have an office in Tokyo and have some very exciting plans for projects in Japan where the mobile sector especially is booming. I can’t say much at this point but I will say that whatever we do - much like, PopCap World – we will work hard to tailor the PopCap experience for Japanese gamers. Similarly in China, we are working on how best to bring our games there. We recently announced a strategic partnership with Chinese social networking giant, RenRen so you should see some exciting PopCap announcements around that in the months to come also. What is the primary role of PopCap’s Shanghai office at the moment? What is your five year plan for the region? Our Shanghai office anchors our overall presence in Asia/Pacific, and includes an online game studio, an online game operations team, and sales & marketing functions. The mission of that studio is quite simply to make games in Asia for Asia. We are often asked whether products like PopCap World will make their way to other markets in North America and Europe and the truth is it’s too early to tell. However we can say with certainty that many of the ideas from projects arising from the Shanghai office will make their way to other markets and this makes it a very exciting time for PopCap globally. Our five year plan for Asia is to become just as much as a leader in casual and social games there as we are in North America. It won’t be easy, but I didn’t move out here to accept this challenge because I thought it would be easy. With the exception of Blizzard, no Western game company has made much of a dent in the Asian game market. That’s reason enough for me to try. We’d love to succeed where so many other companies have failed.

About the Author(s)

Simon Parkin

Contributor

Simon Parkin is a freelance writer and journalist from England. He primarily writes about video games, the people who make them and the weird stories that happen in and around them for a variety of specialist and mainstream outlets including The Guardian and the New Yorker.

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