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Branded watermelons: Phil Larson, Christopher Kassulke, and Kim-Mai Cutler discuss mobile gaming in China

Have you seen Fruit Ninja branded watermelons for sale in China? News to Phil Larson if you have–they’re not being offered. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen–one day.

Fruit-themed merchandizing wasn’t the only thing on topic when Phil Larson, CMO of Halfbrick, and Christopher Kassulke, CEO of HandyGames, came to the GMIC main stage Tuesday afternoon. Moderating was TechCrunch writer Kim-Mai Cutler, as the group discussed mobile gaming.

Different game developers will always have their differences of opinion on how to run their companies, whether its maintaining a certain company culture or pursuing different revenues. Even with the successes of Halfbrick (known for Fruit Ninja) and HandyGames (Clouds and Sheep), Rovio felt like the 500-pound gorilla in the room, especially when it came to that touchy subject of merchandizing. I mean, after all, how many mobile game-based theme parks have you been to?

Takeaways: 1) At the end of the day, the game is the most important, 2) …but partnering with a local partner is crucial to a developer’s success in the country. 3) Treat aforementioned partner well. 4) Merchandizing is only part of the equation; it should probably not overshadow the game.

Cutler asked about China’s importance in market share for mobile games as it recently overtook the United States in active iOS and android devices. Larson responded that while the USA is still its largest market, driving band recognition and paid downloads, China had at least at least thirty-percent of market share with Fruit Ninja. He included

Has the Chinese market changed much in the past five years? But he also highlighted a welcome change in the China market from five years ago, the technology is now at a level where they can respond and become more agile in development.

Kassulke highlighted the desire of HandyGames to focus on the games side of the development business, as opposed to opening offices all over the world. He emphasized the importance of local publishers and partners to help localize their games.

“We want to develop games,” Kassulke emphasizing his core desire as a developer, as opposed to opening offices in numerous cities around the world.

That’s not to say publishers and local partners aren’t important–last year, HandyGames met their partners at GMIC. How did they help them localize?

“It’s more than just clouds and sheep,” said Kassulke, stressing the importance of localized themes, characters, and music. “It’s like a taste of China at the end of the day.”

Larson gave his insight on HalfBrick’s localizing strategy, “We do want to keep core business relatively small. We develop games, we find the right partners to help us execute those visions. We want to be able to localize from China to USA, as well.”

Of course the talk turned to merchandizing and the possibility of extreme and creative initiatives, like opening a theme park.

“We’ve had those talks, we’d be foolish not to,” said Larson, when asked about leveraging the thirty-percent that represents the China market. “Comes down to what we want to manage.”

He said that although they’ve explored additional revenue sources, like plush watermelons or even branded watermelons (There is so much fruit in China, said Larson), that games are the heart of what they do.

That’s not to say they don’t appreciate fan-art.

One night out in Beijing, Larson saw a Fruit Ninja-themed list of cocktails with cartoons to match. Larson was excited, “How can we can in on this?”

Cutler referred to both companies as “boot-strapped,” and asked the two with gaming companies raising progressively higher rounds and higher competition, about the role of indy-grown games.

“The game itself is the most important thing. We want to keep that spirit. You can’t do that when you’re just a huge company around the world,” Kassulke.

“Where our strength lies is seeing where the next phase of the market is going to be. That’s what we’ve identified, and why would we change that?” said Larson.

Monetization and fragmentation are the hot topics for developers as they grow and expand. Both say the key to success is not only having a good local publisher, but treating that local publisher well and sharing revenue.

“It’s not only about rev share, its do you want to make a long-time partner? If you want a partner, they have to make money. You can’t squeeze them. I understand that they need to make money as well,” said Kassulke.

Missing out on attending GMIC Beijing? Register now a Free Expo Pass for GMIC SV (full price: $100). Moscone Center, San Francisco. October 21-23, 2013.

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