Ahead of the Curve: An Interview with Gameloft's Eric Tan
I decided to leave the logo big. It looks good big.
Recently I visited Gameloft Beijing to meet Country Manager, Eric Tan. He gives me the grand tour of the office, a full floor of a large Zhongguancun office building. The space is organized into several groups of people, divided by the project they're working on, I'm told. I notice the Heroes of Order and Chaos team is particularly big. The office itself definitely gives the impression of a gaming atmosphere. As we pass rows of developers, Eric remarks, “It sometimes feels more like an internet cafe than an office in here.” I look over at the oversized Prince of Persia cutout on the wall and nod in agreement. We sit down in a conference room and start chatting. Let's find out about Eric Tan.
Born in Hong Kong, Eric Tan grew up United States until his teenage years, when he returned to Hong Kong. In 1997, he travelled to the UK for university, and there found his first job as a Warner music executive. He would spend 7 more years in Hong Kong in the music industry.
While the music business was going well, he felt that it was time for a change, either in geographical location or product line. When he found out that EA Mobile China's business division was looking for a new Head of Sales, his response was an unambiguous “Hell yeah!” He was happy to get back in touch with gaming, as he's always had a soft spot for a good race sim or RPG.
Before long, Gameloft headhunters made him an offer he couldn't refuse, and after a few months of courtship, Eric moved in as the Gameloft Country Manager.
At the risk of coming off less than savvy, this journalist nonetheless had to ask: What exactly does the title “Country Manager” mean?
“My definition of Country Manager in this context is that I'm in charge of everything publishing-related to Gameloft China. That means being responsible for all of the business development, marketing and operations that are involved in growing the Android and iOS business lines.”
Makes sense. Voice of Game asks the naive-sounding questions so you don't have to.
Gameloft China has 3 studios: Beijing, Shenzhen and Chengdu, and they've all got their own story.
Beijing is well-rounded between business and developing and serves as the headquarters for Eric. They not only develop games, but also manage the publishing aspect and run existing games like their “Order and Chaos” franchise. They also help Gameloft's other studios make the games more palatable for the Chinese market.
When the Shenzhen studio started, it used to be responsible mostly for porting games, but now it's also responsible for some projects of its own. The recent tower defense game “Kingdoms and Lords” is a product of the Shenzhen studio, and they are also responsible for the UCWeb version of Order and Chaos.
Last but not least, the Chengdu studio is a real powerhouse. The team there has brought to life many a top-shelf game like the Let's Golf series, the Amazing Spiderman, and the brand-new endless runner, Iron Man 3, all of which have been not only successful in China, but also internationally.
Another thing that Eric's teams work on is localizing games for the Chinese market. Easier said than done, they approach the problem in two ways, which Eric described using real life examples. I love real life examples.
With Dungeon Hunter, Gameloft China plays a consulting role for the lead studio in Montreal, telling them what it will take to drive sales in China. Gameloft normally has a global mindset for its releases—as in one game, one build, but Gameloft China has already made breakthroughs culturalizing Dungeon Hunter, such as integrating Sina Weibo instead of Twitter or Facebook. There are also plans to incorporate elements tailored for Chinese players like arenas, weapons or even classes.
The other approach is to cooperate with Chinese distributors, like UCWeb. For example, with the new Order and Chaos MMO game, Gameloft gave UCWeb the exclusive distribution rights which allows them to do alot more with localization by listening to the thoughts of the Chinese distributor. They did the same thing a few months ago when they gave Tencent the exclusive distribution rights for their Ice Age Village game. Gameloft is making big steps to get roots into the Chinese market, and Eric is looking to have more of these projects rolled out during the year.
There are now more Asphalt 7 drivers than real drivers in major Chinese cities 
The Big Question: Premium of Freemium?
The Chinese market has also been a big motivation for Gameloft to reconsider the premium model, that is, pay a relatively high price up-front then play to your heart's content. However, the advanced monetization culture in China has led to Chinese players to be quite sensitive to premium content, so you almost need to go free-to-play, or freemium, to get any traction.
Going freemium has been a big move for Gameloft, and Eric thinks it's a good thing:
“We're proud of that. Not alot of companies can just switch formats or business models in such a short amount of time, and I think the success of Ice Age Village and Iron Man 3 shows that we have the capability to maneuver in such a fast-moving, volatile market as mobile gaming,” he says.
In downloads, Iron Man 3 exceeded the last Gameloft game by double. Looks like they're doing something right.
At this rate, Stark Credits will soon out-value the Euro within 5 years
So what does the road ahead look like for premium model games? Will Gameloft go full freemium in the future? Eric answers:
“I think one of the benefits of having the premium business model is that from a cash-flow standpoint, you get the money quickly from a fixed fan base, so it's very attractive in that sense. But looking at the overall picture, as there is more and more competition with more and more games, I think the freemium model makes alot of sense– it takes off that initial barrier for gamers to come and check out the game. My prediction is that in maybe about 2 years time, we will phase out premium completely. And I can say that we can do that simply because we already have successes on the freemium model. That makes it easier for us to make the transition. We're no longer at the exploration phase.”
Gameloft has a pretty good idea at the moment of what works, but they are not in a rush to jump into anything recklessly.
A Different Hat
Eric's background is in the music industry, which has also seen dramatic change over the years. He “puts on a different hat,” his record executive hat, to give a unique perspective:
“I think the gaming industry has done it right. Compared to music and film, we should praise the gaming industry for moving so fast. As soon as the gaming industry saw a drop-off in premium, it was really quick to invent these new business models, whether they are freemium or advertising and sponsorships. Even with things like OEM and social networks like WeChat, gaming has adapted much faster.”
“With the music industry, it took awhile from depressing low sales days for them to go to the iTunes pay-per-download model, and then for them to come to services like Spotify, a streaming subscription service. It took them something like ten years to figure that out. The gaming industry has done all that in only 1-2 years.”
Pictured: Eric Tan; Not Pictured: Hat
The game industry is quick, so a publisher can't get lazy, and can't hold still. So in such a fast industry, how does Gameloft stay ahead of the curve?
“One thing is the branding,” Eric tells me, “Triple-A titles like the Asphalt series, Modern Combat and Dungeon Hunter are all games where we have a certain degree of brand recognition. If we keep focusing on developing these good games, keep focusing on our core competency, we will always have this fixed fan base. Second, in order for us to stay ahead of the competition, it's important for us to invest in new games.”
For example, this year Gameloft is going to release about 30 games, but maybe only one third of those are going to be from their well-established brands. The company takes the initiative to invest in the industry, and help get gamers closer to tomorrow's gaming experience.
To go a step further than that, Gameloft has a very diligent method where they will compare the pros and cons of what is out there right now.
“Whether we want to do a first-person shooter game or a tower defense game, we will look at the subject, and then look at the pros and cons of what's out there. From that, we will find a way to find a unique selling point based on the gameplay, monetization or social aspects, and hopefully it becomes something that is unique.”
Eric admits that this is nothing new, but Gameloft has been pure mobile gaming for 10 years, so they know their industry better than anyone else. That's why Gameloft is the best candidate to not just stay ahead of the curve, but to continue leading the pack in the mobile realm.
Thank you Eric for an informative look under Gameloft's hood.