As Gamasutra explored the growing Chinese game market in Shanghai last week, it was clear that a number of Western-headquartered players are jostling with the locally-owned firms such as Netease and Tencent to gain market share in the rapidly expanding space.
Not least among these is Electronic Arts, the largest game publisher in the world, and we had a chance to listen to Erick Hachenburg, manager of EA's China operations, as he delivered a speech on the business day of last week's ChinaJoy conference. Following that, we caught up with him in the Electronic Arts booth on the first day of the show to chat in more detail about the game giant's move to make games for the Chinese market.
Local Games, For Local People
As part of his ChinaJoy speech, Hachenburg outlined the bottom line for EA's wholly own China operation, to "build a local team to deliver local online games" for the Chinese market. The company has over 100 developers in a production studio in Shanghai, and an operator partnership with local firm Tian Yue, and is looking to "learn and understand the market" as it goes along.
One of the company's main thrusts is in a Chinese launch for its popular Western casual game service Pogo, and when Gamasutra asked Hachenburg about what he thought was going to endear the Chinese to Pogo's Chinese version, he quipped: "We'll know a lot better when we launch the games!" The service has not yet officially debuted, though some very quirky Chinese-specific Pogo characters were dancing around onstage at the ChinaJoy EA booth, and a Beta test for the game is due this summer.
However, Hachenburg did stress more than once that Pogo isn't just a localized version of the Western service - it includes some of the same titles, but also "games that we've created just for the Chinese market", and enables EA to "bring a lot of different games to the market", effectively testing which ones are particularly popular in China.
As for how this will make money, the monthly subscription model used by Pogo in the West doesn't make much sense in China, since only Chinese MMOs have hourly subscription rates - casual titles are generally free to play with some kind of upsell. Hachenburg commented: "We'll look at a mix of business models... advertising, free games, microtransactions", noting: "Advertising [alongside casual games] is a relatively new innovation for China."
Welcome To Football
Another major thrust for EA in China is FIFA Online
, an online version of EA's officially licensed soccer franchise. The Korean open beta of the title, which was produced with South Korean developer Neowiz, launched in May. It has reached a peak of 180,000 users playing simultaneously in less than 2 months since its debut, with 1 million users in total signing up.
The company intends to commercialize the South Korean version of FIFA Online
with microtransactions in July, and it is "looking seriously" at bringing the game to China. When I asked Hachenburg about the schedule for this, he commented that the company is "very happy" with respect to FIFA Online
in Korea, but also suggested: "We haven't made any announcements" about when the game will launch in China.
One final, if lower-profile title for EA is a Korean casual game license, Tales Runner
, which is a free game with microtransaction capability, and which EA will also be launching in China in the near future. Hachenburg simply commented of this title : "We think it's a great game [and] it translates very well" to the Chinese market - South Korean online titles have historically done well in China.
License To Play
In the case of both Pogo and FIFA Online
, it's easy to suspect that Electronic Arts may be waiting for official Chinese government operating licenses for its online titles before they can launch the games in the market, a tricky and lengthy approval process at times.
When I asked Hachenburg how the often labyrinthine folds of Chinese bureaucracy affect the firm, if there were any frustrations under the surface, they were carefully hidden: "As an American company coming into China, we're always working out how to work more closely with the government. As much as there are requirements we have to comply with, there are also lots of ways that the government help with."
In fact, he suggests of EA's relationship to the Chinese government: "We want to help grow the China market, and they want to help us." It's difficult to disagree with this sentiment in principle, and one hopes that the pair will continue to get on as well as this statement implies.
One of the most interesting things about the EA booth at ChinaJoy was that it was showcasing all of EA's titles, including a multitude of console titles such as Fight Night Round 3
and Burnout Revenge
for Xbox 360. These console games will have no opportunity to make money for EA in the Chinese market, thanks to lower-priced pirate versions and the inability to even source the hardware officially.
But Hachenburg explains: "For us, ChinaJoy is a place to demonstrate EA's abilities as a game production organization." He notes in China: "Clearly our focus is the online market, and first and foremost the PC market."
In the future, EA may eventually also emulate Ubisoft Shanghai model of building AAA console titles for everyone in China, Hachenburg comments: "We'll start to build supporting functions, and eventually complete games for the global market." But for now, Chinese games for Chinese gamers are EA's top priority.