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Piracy and plush counterfeits key to Plants vs. Zombies' surprise success in China

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

PopCap found success in China with Plants vs. Zombies in part thanks to software piracy and counterfeit goods, according to developer James Gwertzman, who said that piracy, copycats and clones — frequently viewed as negatives of doing business in China — can be a boon to innovation (and profit) worldwide.

Gwertzman, head of strategic development at PopCap Games, said at the Game Developers Conference this week that China can be a "sandbox of innovation" for companies looking to bring their business to the country's potential billion customers. While high piracy rates should be a deterrent for game makers, it's also an incredibly efficient way to distribute intellectual property, Gwertzman said.

When PopCap released Plants vs. Zombies in China, it quickly became one of the top pirated PC games and spawned a flood of counterfeit merchandise, like toys, stuffed animals and books. Gwertzman said China's reaction to the game was the market telling PopCap that it should go after that market itself, and manufacture those goods officially.

Merchandise, Gwertzman said, now represents 30 percent of Plants vs. Zombies' profit in China, with more than 8 million books based on the game sold to date. PopCap has since copied its overseas merchandising model to bring officially licensed goods to North America.

While it's seeing success in merchandising efforts now, PopCap stumbled in its efforts to thwart counterfeiters in China, Gwertzman said. It went after manufacturers of unlicensed PvZ goods by sending lawyers, then police, after counterfeiters, confiscating some 400,000 plush toys. Eventually, those pirated goods stopped appearing in stores, but ultimately hurt the brand's perception. PopCap's licensees said the lack of PvZ goods in stores hurt the brand's reputation and some sought to drop their contracts with the developer.

"Our own attempt to do the right thing backfired," Gwertzman said, and the drying up of Plants vs. Zombies toys "made us seem less cool than we are."

Most people think about China's piracy, copycats and clones — they don't think of it as a giant opportunity to innovate.

The mobile China-only version of Plants vs. Zombies, the Great Wall Edition, launched officially in May of 2012. The game is now the fourth highest source of microtransaction revenue at EA, Gwertzman said, even though it's only available in China. He says PopCap has experimented with ways to keep the game's audience growing and microtransaction purchases flowing.

Plants vs. Zombies: Great Wall Edition makes its money by implementing a pay wall, locking out levels beyond level 1-6 and selling consumables like screen-clearing bombs and upgrades. Those consumable items, Gwertzman said, represent up to 81 percent of the game's entire revenue stream as of February.

One surprising way they've grown the game's audience, he said, is by making Plants vs. Zombies a progressively smaller download. The game, which runs at sub-HD resolution, has seen its download footprint decrease from 72 MB to 8 MB by stripping out images, eliminating all but one song from the game's soundtrack and changing sound effects to OGG files. The smaller-sized game, now accessible to more mobile phone owners who are often limited by bandwidth caps, continues to expands its user base as it continues to shrink.

But giving more of Plants vs. Zombies away for free, Gwertzman said, seems to do more harm than good. Moving the pay wall up earlier, to level 1-3, saw revenue increase by 32 percent. And a free app promotion through Apple in China saw revenue dip as downloads went up.

Gwertzman, who recently left Shanghai to return to PopCap in North America, says the Great Wall Edition will continue to be updated. Since launch, PopCap has shipped a handful of updates, with pay-to-play add-ons that add an Endless Mode and Last Stand mode, as well as an update based on Journey to the West that reskinned more zombie types, turning the Zamboni driver into a Chinese zombie farmer riding a wooden tractor.

Those updates, for both iOS and Android, have helped keep Plants vs. Zombies relevant and growing in a market tough to crack.

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