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How Plants vs. Zombies 2 overcame the hurdles of China

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Before PopCap's plant-based strategy game Plants vs. Zombies 2 became one of the biggest mobile hits in China, the studio first had to deal with piracy, a fragmented mobile market and attacks from rating manipulators, according to the general manager of EA Mobile in China, Kun (Leo) Liu.

Speaking at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco today, Liu said China is a very large and powerful mobile market, but it also has its own challenges. One such challenge is that of competitors manipulating the game's star rating on app stores in an attempt to discourage people from buying it.

Plants vs. Zombies 2 launched on the iTunes App Store in China at number one, but within weeks of its launch its five star rating dropped to two, despite it still being the second top-grossing game in the country. Liu said PopCap had not anticipated that competitors would coordinate a rating attack on the game. On closer inspection, the top three best-selling apps in the app store all suffered from rating manipulation.

"Sometimes you have to shoot, then aim."

The studio was able to remedy this by communicating with Apple and the media to raise awareness about what was happening, and he encouraged independent developers entering the Chinese market to do the same should a similar thing happen to them.

Other challenges PopCap faced involved piracy. According to Liu, Plants vs. Zombies 2 soft-launched in Australia and New Zealand before its global launch. Within two hours of the ANZ soft launch, the first pirated version of the game appeared in China. Within the first 24 hours, a cracked version was available in China. And within five days, the game had been downloaded more than six million times in China on jailbroken Apple devices. And before PopCap had even developed an Android version, someone in China had already ported the iOS version of the game to the Android platform.

To overcome users pirating the game from other territories, PopCap decided to "culturalize" the game for its official Chinese launch. The developers modified the game by introducing three star levels, plants that can only be unlocked by collecting puzzle pieces and changing the game's economy.

Unlike the Western version of the game, the Chinese version requires the use of hard currency to buy sun, coins, plant pieces, star gates, plant food and gestures. As a result of this, Plants vs. Zombies 2 became the top download and top grossing mobile game in China.

In culturalizing the game, PopCap also introduced the peach plant, which is iconic in Chinese culture, the kung fu master zombie and the drunken monk zombie.

"We know local content is very attractive to local users," Liu said. "The kung fu master zombie and drunken zombie master are such popular images in China. Every Chinese person can recognize it in a second."

The local content was so popular that, behind the Egypt-themed levels, which had to be played in order to unlock other levels, the Chinese kung fu levels were the most played.

Liu said PopCap learned "millions of lessons" from launching Plants vs. Zombies 2 in China. Many of the lessons were gleaned from its understanding of the market and what Chinese players want, but a lot of it it learned along the way. "The Chinese market is so different, you have to be prepared for anything unusual from the Western perspective," he said. "Sometimes you have to shoot, then aim."

Polygon's previous coverage of Plants vs. Zombies' success in China can be read here.