Gaming firms must sail past China's pirates to cash in

PopCap Games, Rovio and others are finding new revenue models to profit despite rampant piracy

Although the game was developed in the U.S., the concept behind Plants vs. Zombies knows no cultural bounds for Chinese fans like 27-year-old Sai Na.

"One man using plants to fight off a zombie attack, it's a really interesting idea," he said. "I played this game all the time."

Plants vs. Zombies, a PC and mobile game, has resonated so much in China that the country has become home to the product's largest user base, according to its developer PopCap Games. The only problem is that most of those downloads have been of free bootleg companies circulating on the Internet.

"I play the pirated copies," Sai said. "Some marketplaces say they have official versions, but after looking at the way the game is packaged and the price, it seems like it's probably not an official version."

China's rampant piracy is one challenge foreign gaming firms must face as they try to sell their products in the country. But this hasn't stopped companies like PopCap and others from plunging into a market they say has major potential to generate big returns.

Currently, China has nearly 900 million mobile phone users, and 457 million Web users, according to official estimates in the country. But reaching those consumers means adapting to local user habits, and making the games free, according to industry executives.

With Plants vs. Zombies, PopCap's only official channel to China has been through Apple's App Store, as a paid download. The platform has been successful enough that China has become Plants vs. Zombies' second largest revenue generator on the store.

But driving much of the popularity for the game in China has been the presence of free bootleg versions, which make up most of its 100 million downloads in the country, according to PopCap's estimates.

China's piracy reflects how many consumers in the country expect to play games for free, said James Gwertzman, CEO of PopCap Games Asia/Pacific office. PopCap sees this in a positive light.

"We are proud to be one of the most pirated games in China," Gwertzman said. "I don't really see piracy as a challenge, if anything it presents an opportunity."

Now the company is releasing new versions of Plants vs. Zombies in order to try to better cash in on its popularity. One of those versions is free, and will be first released as a closed beta on the Chinese Facebook-like site Renren, making it the first time the game will be available on a social networking site. The catch is that PopCap will be able to generate revenue from the game by offering virtual goods that users can buy. It's a model other Chinese companies like Tencent have used to become major online gaming firms in the country.

This new version of Plants vs. Zombies is the result of PopCap's efforts to build a team in the country. The company established an office in Shanghai two years ago, which now has 100 employees, many of them local Chinese.

Gaming companies wanting to enter the Chinese market, can't expect to simply "fly in and have a week of meetings and be done," Gwertzman said. He noted the company has its taken its time to build a team that understands the local market and has the right partners to promote its games. "We never had a question that we could build a business here. The question was the business model," he added.

PopCap is even selling Plants vs. Zombie-themed clothing solely for China, adding another potential revenue stream for the company.

Other gaming companies are also looking at following a similar path. Rovio Mobile, the developer of the hit iPhone and Android game Angry Birds, wants to build a local team to develop products for the Chinese market.

The company's goal is to get 100 million downloads of Angry Birds in China by the end of this year. At the end of April, China so far only had 10 million downloads. But the game has been popular enough that stores in Beijing sell knock-offs of Angry Birds stuffed animals. Rovio has taken notice and wants to sells its own official merchandise in the country.

"We want to be the leading entertainment brand," Rovio's chief marketing officer Peter Vesterbacka said at an event in Beijing last month.

The Finnish company is also actively searching for partners in China. One of those is Chinese mobile game provider Downjoy, which started offering an ad-supported free version of Angry Birds for mobile devices earlier this month. Downjoy has 43 million users.

After Angry Birds was launched on the site, the game has been reaching 100,000 downloads each day, said Xiao Yongquan, the CEO of Downjoy. That's despite the fact that Angry Birds is not yet available in the Chinese language.

Downjoy has increasingly been holding more talks with foreign gaming companies on partnering as interest in the Chinese market grows. Xiao added that foreign mobile games are becoming the most popular in the country, since many of them are designed for casual play. "There's a common language with these games. Everyone can play them. There's no cultural barrier," he said.

The rise of smartphone sales in China will only fuel the growth of mobile games here, Xiao added. Android devices have become Downjoy's fastest growing user group, with the figure now at 4 million. Downjoy believes it can serve a need for these foreign gaming firms, given that Google's Android Market is currently not available in the country.

But for these foreign-developed games to succeed in China, they must be free, and instead rely on virtual goods or in-game advertisements to generate revenues. Xiao said. "That's how these official game versions will be able to attract users away from the pirated versions," he added.

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Tags smartphonesiPhonePhonesgamesconsumer electronicsgame softwarePopcap GamesPhone-based gamesRovioDownjoySilverTree Media

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