Social games in the US and Asia: Why looks deceive

By Giordano Bruno Contestabile | Mar 24, 2010 |

Sit any Restaurant City player in front of RenRen Restaurant, one of the most popular games on the eponymous Chinese social network, and he or she will likely start decorating their eatery without hesitation: the game is, by all accounts, extremely similar to the one available on Facebook and beloved by bored office workers worldwide. At the same time, plop a FarmVille addict in front of its Chinese equivalent Happy Farm, and the familiar patterns of fledgling corn fields, lost cows and wayward tractors will play out on the screen.

Never mind that Happy Farm was actually launched before its Facebook counterpart and was possibly the inspiration for the record-busting farming hit game: similar themes, game mechanics and content are found across social networks around the world, and people are farming eagerly everywhere, no matter if on FarmVille (US ), Happy Farm (China), Sunshine Ranch (Japan) or even Cheerful Peasant (Russia).

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Restaurant City (left) vs RenRen Restaurant (right)

But below the surface, are those games completely identical? And, more interestingly, are people drawn to the same kind of interaction, no matter where in the real world they are located? Can a global understanding and worldwide peace be achieved by building on the shared love for cute virtual pets? The mind boggles, but it turns out that this is not the case, and in fact the way social games build traffic and engagement in Asia are quite different from how it’s done in the West.

As everyone that has spent any time in Asia knows, the region is far from being a monolith and hosts cultures with fundamentally different worldviews and habits. The differences between Japan and China for example, are not less significant in many ways than the differences between them and any Western country. Let’s then take Japan and China as examples and look at some of the fundamental ways in which the social games played there are not the ones you know and are addicted to. In fact, let’s look at China first, as that's where some of the most glaring, and funny, examples can be found.

Western social games are all about cooperation, friendship, rainbows and cute puppies: I help you fertilize your crops, and you gift me the cow that was found wandering your farm. Gifting vegetables is fine and dandy when your audience is made of middle-aged "non-gamers" whose primary reason to be online is to kill time and be social with their existing circle of friends, but what happens when the audience is younger, skews male and lives in mega-cities rather than suburbia? Apparently, they steal the virtual crops.

No, seriously. Before the Chinese government put a stop to it with an official decree, people were setting their alarms in the middle of the night to be able to steal cabbages from each others’ farms, bound by a clever game mechanic that rewarded regular play and penalized any player that neglected logging in for more than a few hours. If the idea of a government stepping in to regulate whether being the Arsene Lupin of cauliflowers is acceptable behavior sounds weird to you, please suspend your disbelief: in this part of the world, stranger things have happened.

Back to the game itself, it turns out that Asian gamers, and Chinese gamers in particular, raised on a diet of MMORPG and multiplayer games, have developed a taste for competition much greater than their Western counterparts, made placid and harmless by a penchant for puzzles and hidden object games. As such, an outsider trying Chinese social games might marvel at a game called Slave Manor which, like a S&M version of Friends For Sale, allows users to purchase other users to which they are connected and engage them in degrading tasks, or gape at an hospital-themed game where, to prevail on other players, gamers can cause mischief by clicking on an icon in the shape of a bomb. Let me rephrase this: worried about your cousin overtaking you on the leader-board? Bomb his hospital. Can you imagine the media storm this would cause if the game was launched in the US?

For sure, those are extreme cases, and there are plenty of games that follow more traditional patterns. Additionally, as mentioned, the Chinese government cracked down on those practices in the past, banning activities such as vegetable stealing and mafia-related themes, and urging developers to make more “harmonious” games. Nevertheless, it’s intriguing how diverging gaming backgrounds, a younger audience and cultural factors have led to different paths in game design.

Regarding Japan, it should not come as a surprise that the main differentiating factor is in the media utilized to enjoy social games: the Japanese have long used mobile phones as ATMs/credit cards, ticketing systems, book readers, music players and game consoles. In the last couple of years, though, the social gaming phenomenon has exploded, and now counts three major platforms and thousands of games accessible through any cell phone, ranging in genre from the usual (farming games, fishing games) to the esoteric (train conductor simulator, anyone?...Anyone?!). Delving into the peculiarities of the Japanese mobile social game space would surely comprise an article of its own, and we’ll surely have occasion to do so in the future; for now, let’s just say that if a game is cute, social, frantic and unusual, it’s probably available on a mobile social network in Japan.

In fact, each Asian market, from Japan to China, from Korea to the Philippines, has a lively social gaming scene, specific characteristics and different tastes that need to be catered to. At PopCap, we believe that great gameplay is universal, but that a social game needs to be adapted for different platforms, audiences and cultures. Our flagship social game, Bejeweled Blitz, is now live in China, Japan and Korea, and there is exciting stuff cooking in our secret lab. Watch your favorite social network for new exciting PopCap games!

Giordano Bruno Contestabile is PopCap Games' senior director of business development - Asia Pacific, a position he's held for the last two and a half years. In that role he oversees business development, marketing and sales in the APAC region and is responsible for revenues in all channels: Online, Social, Mobile, Retail, Console, Advertising and New Platforms.

He is also involved in shaping the company's strategy in Asia Pacific, with particular regard to the development and licensing of online and multiplayer products built in our Shanghai studio, and to the development and operations of social games.

Contestabile has more than 10 years of experience in management, business development and strategy, having worked in the Internet, media, mobile and games industries. Follow Giordano Bruno Contestabile on Twitter.

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