Interview: Mentez On Publishing, Localizing Social Games In South America
In order to help bring the growing social games market into other regions, game publisher Mentez focuses on localizing and distributing pre-existing titles for Latin American audiences.
While most popular social games in North America end up on Facebook, Mentez releases its games on the Google-owned Orkut, the leading social networking service in nations such as Brazil.
games developed by tailoring content to suit the expectations of South American players. The company might make specific holiday-themed items, for example, that fit the cultural framework of a game’s audience.
Across all its titles, Mentez sees roughly 22 million active users each week, and has signed deals with a number of Chinese development studios, as well as U.S. developers like Playdom.
Gamasutra sat down with Mentez’s vice president of content and business development Juan Roldan to discuss the company’s approach to localization, its relationships with overseas developers, and why Chinese game mechanics appeal to South American audiences.
Your company has primarily been involved in bringing games that previously existed in South America and the social space. That’s still the focus of your business, correct?
Yes, that’s the focus. We initially started in Brazil because that’s where we saw the most opportunity. At the time, everybody was focusing on Facebook. We decided to focus on Orkut, which is owned by Google. So, we saw our opportunity there. We brought our applications, which were like first generation social apps — not games, but social apps.
We built up this base in Orkut. That allowed us to launch social games from other companies and from other places, such as China. That’s where we started developing that industry. We basically built it, and now it’s all South America. So, Mentez is coming out to all the Spanish-speaking countries in South America, or essentially for Mexico, Columbia, Chile, and Argentina.
Between those four, there’s about almost 60 million users, and it’s growing, still growing. It’s a top region. That’s why it’s so interesting; there’s nobody there doing anything. You see that, the Zyngas, Playdoms, and the big ones publishing games there, and they maybe have translated games, but they didn’t do any localization. A lot of people use their games, I think mostly the English versions, so there’s nobody there that’s really localizing games for the region.
But you guys haven’t worked with developers to create games specifically targeted for the region?
No. We went that route once. (laughs) It didn’t work. It was a Chinese partner, but it didn’t really work out well, so we decided to focus on publishing. The thing is there are so many things you can do in this area that you can get unfocused. So we decided to just focus on what we’re doing, because we’re doing it well. Let’s just consolidate ourselves in that industry, and maybe just diversify afterwards.
This is a question that has been answered a lot by the traditional game industry, but I have a feeling the answer may be a little different for you guys. How do you contrast translation with localization in the social space?
Well, translation is just getting the text translated, right? You can easily have that outsourced. Now, one of the things that people mostly don’t get right, they just do translation. For us, localization is not just text. It’s just like talk to the audience in a way that they would talk to, you know, in the social space.
So, if you’re launching a game for girls, for teenage girls, talk to them with the slang that they use. Don’t be formal about it. That’s one of the things that we would do. We would analyze that target, and we would actually use that language.
It’s not only about language or translating the text; it’s also looking at the design, looking at the feel, looking at the items that are available for monetization — eventually that’s the source of our income — stopping to local events. If there’s, for example, a carnival in Brazil, you would expect a lot of games doing a lot of carnival content. That sells amazingly well. It brings a lot of new users, and that also retains users. It’s not only that; it’s also local payments. So, local payments include the likes of Paypal and all these international gateways or payment providers.
These local payments don’t work in Brazil or specific countries in Latin America because they only work with international credit cards. So, unless they have a presence in each of those countries, they would be able to localize, to make the most of it. But they’re not, so what happens is in each of those countries, there are local payment providers. What we do is create a relationship with those local payment providers.
We want to get a lot of those payment providers on board with us to create a network, and get people who can pay online with a credit card, or bank account, or debit card. But also people distribute game point cards offline, game through internet cafes and such. So, that’s all localization. That’s what we do, and this is where we add value.
Now, when a developer works with you to get their game localized for your markets, you discussed making sure there is content that is culturally appropriate. Do the developers end up building that content? What is that process like?
No, we build it for them. Initially they were building it, and when we started. Most of our relationships are with the Chinese, so it was quite difficult to have a Chinese developer create something for Brazil. And we tried that route, but it didn’t work that well. (laughs) So, we hired a designer about two and a half years ago to design items for the games. And it worked so well because we hit this spot.
What we do is we design according to the specs of the game, and we push them into the game for the local market. Now, that team has grown to more than 13 people, and they’re illustrators from different backgrounds, with different capabilities.
When you say the specs, do you mean both in terms of the gameplay design and the visual design?
Yes. I mean, you obviously have file sizes and everything, but you also have to follow the art director’s guidelines. Sometimes they don’t like something, and we say, “What do you like? How can we improve it?” They emphasize quality a lot, saying, “Oh, this is not good because of this or that.” So, we tend to work with their high-quality standards.
It’s the same here, but with hit games, it’s more about making sure you have the right game, the best game available. You guys are in an interesting position where you’re going after those games rather than trying to create them. How does that affect things for you?
Well, the business model is quite interesting because it’s somewhat flexible from one point of view. It gives us the flexibility to develop a pipeline, and then just plug in games. If a game doesn’t work, then we know that there’s more content coming through. In terms of experience, we have had a bit over 20 games. I think six of them are actually top, top games. And we get potentially 80 percent of our revenue comes from those top five or six games.
From that side, it’s quite a flexible model, but obviously it has its disadvantages as well. You have to work with a lot of studios, with a lot of requirements and different ways of working, and you have to develop and maintain so many relationships to work well, especially when you have the Chinese studios 12 hours or 13 hours ahead of you.
When you have a developer model, it’s also a good model in a sense that you can actually go faster with things to the market. So if you see something developing, you can launch a promotion on top of that. For us, it’s a little more difficult, but we have developed processes. With the partners we have, we have developed these processes where we can actually reduce time it takes to get to market. But I think the business model of a publisher is quite an interesting one because you learn a lot from many different publishers, and you can see a lot of what is happening in many different parts of the world.
It’s interesting. I think with digital platforms, we thought we were moving into a post-publisher age, but it’s not really happening, right?
And as a publisher, how do you feel about that?
Here in the United States, I don’t think that model is very strong. I think in the United States that model hasn’t worked precisely because the social game industry was born out of developers, and they became publishers. Now you see people like Playdom are also taking that role of publishing other games. I don’t know if they have been successful or not, but they are doing it. But it has worked really well outside of the United States.
When we started growing, we saw two other companies that were also growing up at the same time, one in Russia, and one in Taiwan and Hong Kong. We all used similar models. We did know from the beginning, since we founded the company, that we were going to be publishers. What we wanted to do was take developers from emerging countries and use those skills to get a network, and then us come in and monetize that network in some ways.
That was initially the idea, and the idea has been kept. We just changed the products. It’s not about advertising and monetizing, it’s more social gaming, microtransactions. I think it’s because of how the industry has evolved in the United States compared to the outside world, that the conditions were different.
You work primarily with Chinese developers, or you have thus far. Is that because of cost, or expertise, or quality of games? What draws you to those relationships?
It’s two things. One is expertise, the other one is financial opportunity. I mean, we had expertise already before we met the Chinese developers. We had a network of 200 developers in South America, all across South America, South Africa, and Turkey. So, expertise was not a problem. It was more about time to market. And we heard China was booming in terms of social gaming, and not many people knew about it. We went to China, we developed relationships, and we saw this incredible market booming, and it was because of the local network there.
The copy of Facebook was called Xiaonei; it’s now called Renren. And this network was providing a lot of developers with a way to monetize social games. When I was there, I met with Xiaonei, and I asked them, “Would you be interested in making a deal with me for bringing games to Brazil?” They said, “Yeah, good idea. I’ll introduce you to some developers.”
I met with some developers, and they were eager to make money. They knew that in China they were not making much money because already the competition was really hard, so they said they were hungry to make money outside. They saw the opportunity, and they didn’t think about it. They didn’t think, “How are we going to do it? How much money is it going to bring me? How am I going to invest?” So, we kind of did the same.
It was a lot of pain in the beginning, but it paid off because those guys made a huge amount of money, not only with us, but with companies in Russia, and those companies in Taiwan and Hong Kong that I mentioned. And then after that, other Chinese developers followed. They saw the opportunities, so now you see a lot of those people followed. Now you see the American guys like Playdom or Zynga or CrowdStar, putting international teams for business development.
In the South American market, who are your competitors as publishers?
There’s Vostu, which is a developer, not a publisher. They’re kind of the Zynga model. They develop their own games. There aren’t any publishers like us, that I’m aware of. Or if there are any, they’re very small. But the two of us, Vostu and Mentez, are kind of head to head in the race.
At GDC China, a number of developers noted that a number of mechanics that appeal to Chinese audiences didn’t appeal as much to American audiences, and it’s interesting to see what kind of gameplay mechanics appeal to different audiences culturally. So, it seems like maybe there’s a fit between South America and China.
There’s a fit, absolutely. What works in China is very likely to work down in South America.
Is that something you would have predicted, that for some reason Chinese gameplay mechanics would work the best?
No, never. We were actually going after the American developers for a time, but it was very difficult, because they were growing amazingly back then, and they had not even thought about going abroad. It was difficult to get them, and perhaps it still is. The difference I see from convincing a Chinese developer versus an American developer is huge.
You know, the Chinese don’t need a business case. They don’t need to think for six months before they go with you, and they do not need so many visits and pampering. With the Americans actually, you need to do a business case, you need to do a forecast, and things like that.
Is that for small companies as well as large ones? I can see why Zynga and Playdom and the like would be that way at this point.
You’d be surprised. It is. I mean, perhaps not with studios of 10 or 20 people, but with studios of 100 people, which is still small. I mean, it goes to show that the industries are getting more advanced. You know, quality is very different. The difference is in the detail now. It’s less about the first-move advantage.
I mean Zynga takes a game, CityVille, that is already a proven model all over the place with a lot of competition, and they just slap everybody in the face. So, it’s about the difference in the detail, and I think a lot of those smaller companies are actually becoming more professional, hiring people who come from the industry and can bring that professionalism, and that’s what we’re also doing.
Are you still eager to work with American partners?
I am really eager. And one of the reasons is because of quality. There’s really good content here. You see there’s differences in the way they build up a code, the way they develop things. They have certain practices that are different from a lot of, let’s say, other companies abroad. For overseas developers, you would see that their practices for developing code are — I wouldn’t say poor — but they are in need of improvement. Games get released with a lot of bugs, and then there are a lot of problems for you as a publisher because your help just gets swamped with calls. So, yeah, I’m quite eager. （Source：Gamasutra）