James Gwertzman talks about PopCap’s wild card in their plan to capture the Korean market
Localising their products for markets in Asia and the Far East has always been a challenge for Western companies. Now casual gaming giant PopCap is launching an offensive on the Korean market.
With the help of MMO developer NCsoft, they will be releasing PopCap World, the company’s first free-to-play online service, in Korea. Overseeing the project is James Gwertzman, PopCap’s vice president for Asia/Pacific. CasualGaming.biz asked him to elaborate on how PopCap plan to take their catalogue of popular titles to this tricky market.
For those that don’t know, can you please explain what PopCap World is and how it differs to PopCap’s Western offerings?
PopCap World is the first ever free-to-play online multiplayer game service from PopCap Games.
Initially available exclusively in Korea through partnership with NCsoft, PopCap World delivers a whole new way for consumers to experience PopCap’s popular casual games through community, competition and most of all FUN. There are a lot of really cool things in there - a collection of some of our best single-player games, some brand new multiplayer games developed exclusively for PopCap World, the first ever PopCap avatar system, achievements across everything, leaderboards, online game save so you can start at the internet cafe and then resume at home, and more.
What sort of differences would a Western game player notice? Well, for one thing, it’s all in Korean! For another, the free-to-play business model means that all the games are free - no more 60 minute try-and-buy. But of course, we will have other premium content options, such as selling game items, avatar items, boosts in our multiplayer games, and more.
The launch version of PopCap World appears to be a collective of your most popular titles, along with the Korean-only Super Zuma. Why has it been necessary to approach the Korean market in this fashion?
Korea is widely seen as one of the most dynamic online game markets in the world but it’s very different from Western game markets. We learned that back in 2005 when we first started trying to sell try-and-buy games like Zuma into Korea. We immediately realised that player expectations were different - in Korea, users expect games to be free, and they expect a whole range of online features that we had never needed to support before. And Korea is not alone - most other countries in Asia, such as China, Taiwan, and Singapore work the same way. Even Japan, traditional land of the console, is changing rapidly. And so in 2008 we set up a studio in Shanghai and got to work on developing in Asia for Asian gamers. And now, two years later, the fruit of that labour is finally about to hit the market.
All of the titles in PopCap World are free-to-play, with optional paid content to be added later. What made you settle on free-to-play as a base offering?
First, and quite simply, gamers in Korea expect games to be free. Korea is the birthplace of the free-to-play business model. Any other business model, outside of the most hardcore MMORPG games, is practically doomed to failure. But there’s more to it than that.
Strategically speaking, figuring out a free-to-play offering in Korea is really important for PopCap on a global basis, as more and more channels seem to be going that way. Look at social games on Facebook, look at free games on iPhone, look at the race-to-the-bottom in pricing on traditional game portals. Free is the new $19.95, and so PopCap World is also partly our first stab in that direction with our premium PC content.
Why did you choose to partner with MMO specialists NCsoft for this social game?
We knew that we would need a great partner to be successful here in Korea and we are very excited about our partnership with NCsoft. We know a lot about building great casual games, but this is the first time that we have ever tried to build a collection of fully free-to-play online games, and we knew that we would be able to learn a lot from the right partner.
At the same time, NCsoft, one of the top online game companies in the world, was looking for a good partner to help it enter the casual game space and broaden its audience. That laid the groundwork for a mutually beneficial, strategic relationship between our two companies.
The experience of actually working together these past few months has validated our decision. They’re a great partner and we work well together.
Can you clarify what it is that PopCap Shanghai is doing and what assistance NCsoft is providing?
We have a fairly typical developer/operator relationship with them. We are building the service, including the games, the client, the servers, etc., and they are operating it - which means hosting the service, handling marketing and promotions, managing the in-game economy, and so on.
Beyond that, however, we are also collaborating very closely on the design itself. They are giving us a lot of feedback, and we’re happy to learn from their experience. They’ve been great to work with.
What are PopCap’s expectations for the Asia/Pacific market?
We already know that our games are super popular across much of Asia. The challenge has always been building a business model that works. Many western game companies have come to countries like Korea or China over the past decade, PopCap included, and tried to do the same things that worked for them in North America, and you know what? It simply doesn’t work.
Luckily, as a small and nimble company we can afford to take some risks, and so rather than simply repeat the mistakes of the past we’re doing some pretty cool things here. For one thing, when we opened our Shanghai studio back in 2008, we decided to give our team here complete local autonomy to do the right things for the business. They’re not shackled with the need to go back to Seattle every five minutes to seek approval from some Star Chamber that doesn’t know what’s happening on the ground.
Also, as we’ve opened offices in China, Korea, and Japan, we’ve hired almost exclusively local talent. So the guy making decisions about what to do in China or Korea or Japan for PopCap already has a really good feeling for the local market because he’s from that market, and has been working in that market for many years before joining PopCap.
So hopefully, with this strategy, we’re going to be able to try out cool new projects like PopCap World in Korea, or new social games in China, or social mobile projects in Japan, and figure out some ways to crack what are otherwise pretty tough markets.
Some countries in Asia, such as China, have strict web access policies. How do you plan to localise your titles for other regions in and around Asia?
We will take a similar approach in as we have in Korea: build local products with local teams, and partner closely with best-of-breed operators who are experts in their local markets.
It is true that the regulatory environment in China is more complex than in Korea, but that just means you need to be a little more patient and a little more careful.
What will PopCap bring to the casual gaming market in Korea that its consumers haven’t experienced before?
Apart from being PopCap’s first ever free-to-play online multiplayer game service, it also gives us a direct and ongoing relationship with all of our players - even those who choose to play for free. Through that ongoing relationship we can learn more, add new features and improve the service accordingly over time. This ‘game as service’ model is part of what makes the whole social game space on Facebook so exciting right now, and now through PopCap World we’re bringing that same service model right to the desktop, and with a much higher level of game experience and quality.
Walt Disney once said that Disneyland is “something that will never be finished. Something I can keep developing, keep plussing and adding to.” That’s how we feel about PopCap World and our vision is to redefine how casual games are played - in the same way that Disneyland revolutionised ‘the amusement park’.