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PopCap Games CEO: Android still too fragmented, China helping company innovate

PopCap is preparing to launch two new Plants vs. Zombies games for China

Android's increased fragmentation across hardware devices and OS versions, and its lack of a central app store, have left game developers disappointed with the OS, according to the CEO of "Plants vs. Zombies" publisher PopCap Games.

"Android is not a very good business for most game companies, no matter what anyone tells you," PopCap CEO David Roberts said in interview Thursday. "I'm sure there are some people making money on it, but based on the amount of hardware it sells it hasn't turned into the game business I think a lot of folks hoped"

Roberts made the comment as other developers have complained of Android's fragmentation and the difficulties in building apps for the OS. PopCap, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, has developed hit mobile games, which are available for both Apple's iOS, along with Android. The iOS platform, however, has been far easier to develop for, given that all apps are sold through Apple's App Store, and that there is little variation among the company's iPhone and iPad devices, Roberts said.

The opposite is true for the Android OS, he added. At the same time, iOS users generally buy far more apps than Android users because Apple's App Store offers a better buying experience.

"We game developers can't fix it. That's the problem, we always wish we could. But you can't sign up with every payment system, and every carrier and do marketing with all of them," he said referring to the different channels through which Android apps can be bought. "Without a single storefront like Apple has, (Android is) even less appealing."

Roberts, however, said the fragmentation could be gradually fixed in "big pockets," with the establishment of more unified Android app stores with large customer bases. On Thursday, PopCap announced it would launch two new exclusive "Plants vs. Zombies" games for China, through a service provided by Tencent, the country's major online gaming operator. Tencent's QQ Game Center currently has more than 220 million registered users.

PopCap announced its new "Plants vs. Zombies" games as the company has been working to localize its hit franchise for the country. "Plants vs. Zombies Great Wall Edition" will be released May 18 as an Android app. Later this year, the company will launch a multiplayer title called "Plants vs. Zombies Kingdoms," which is inspired by popular Chinese games set in the country's historical Three Kingdoms era.

China ranks as one of "Plants vs. Zombies" largest markets. But the China downloads, which number between 120 million to 150 million, largely come from pirated versions of the game. Currently, the publisher has about 15 million China downloads for "Plants vs. Zombies" that have come via Apple's App store and deals made with Android device makers.

PopCap's Shanghai office, which was established in 2008, has sought to navigate past the piracy by designing its newest games to be freemium, meaning users can play the games for free, but have to pay to access for advanced feature or services. The business model has worked especially well in China, but contrasts with the way PopCap and other western game publishers have sold their games as priced products in the past, Roberts said.

"Here [in China] we're going to learn about business model innovation," he said, while attending the Global Mobile Internet Conference being held in Beijing. "We're going to find new ways to design our great games for freemium markets."

PopCap intends to take those lessons to other countries including the U.S, as markets move away from paid games. Roberts pointed to the fact that the most popular version of its "Bejeweled" game is the free one available for Apple's iPhone.

"The burden is on us to make the game a game service, and not just a stand-alone game," he said. "Not just in Asia, but really globally, now we have shifted our thinking to game services, and not just buy-it-once."

Along with innovating new business models, China has also helped PopCap jump-start the developer's merchandising business, which first began a year ago as deal for a local clothing vendor to sell "Plants vs. Zombies" apparel in the country. Last month, PopCap announced it had finalized several merchandising deals for North America and Europe to sell products based on its hit gaming franchises.

"That notion of making money from our brands is something we've exported to the rest of the world," Robert said. In China, the company has also sold "Plants vs. Zombies" children books. "They don't really seem like innovations, but they're big steps for a little company like ours."


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