How to culturalize a hit mobile game | Good Pizza, Great Pizza interview

TapBlaze is a mobile game company with a team of a dozen and a long reach. The company has published over 30 games, but its flagship title is Good Pizza, Great Pizza.

The pizza cooking simulation game has been downloaded more than 300 million times and it is played daily by over a million players. At our GamesBeat Summit 2024 event, Amy Jo Kim of Game Thinking interviewed Anthony Lai, CEO of Tapblaze, and community marketing manager Yuni Cho about their success.

They pointed to their efforts in localization and culturalization in helping the game spread across the globe and stay relevant in the daily lives of players. That effort has helped the game climb the charts in China, Egypt, Brazil, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

The award-winning game is profitable with a mix of 40% in-app purchases and 60% ad revenue, and Tapblaze has never needed to raise venture capital funding, Lai said. Cho said that the game’s efforts to include famous local shows, local jokes, targeted events and targeted items has paid off over time. Working with streamers — and engaging on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and Reddit — has also been important. Most of all, staying authentic to the game and giving the players a positive experience matters, Cho and Lai said.

Lil Snack & GamesBeat

GamesBeat is excited to partner with Lil Snack to have customized games just for our audience! We know as gamers ourselves, this is an exciting way to engage through play with the GamesBeat content you have already come to love. Start playing games now!

Here’s an edited transcript of the fireside chat.

Yuni Cho of Tapblaze speaks on a panel with Anthony Lai and Amy Jo Kim.

Amy Jo Kim: I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. We’re going to talk about what it’s like to build a successful game without raising venture money, without a lot of paid advertising. Is it possible? It’s so very possible. You’re going to learn some of the secrets and tactics of how to do that today. We’re going to start by doing some introductions. Please introduce yourselves briefly and then we’ll get into the background of the game.

Anthony Lai: I’m the founder and CEO of Tapblaze. We’re based in west Los Angeles. I started the studio 12 years ago. It’s been great. We’re having a lot of fun doing it.

Yuni Cho: I’m the community marketing manager at Tapblaze. I’ve been with Tapblaze for four years. My role is to leverage community feedback to do marketing and incorporate community feedback into the development process of the game.

Kim: How did you first come to build the studio? What sparked it and how did you pull it together?

Lai: I used to be an electrical engineer. It was fun and challenging. We worked on very creative and challenging projects. But it was only for one client. I missed getting feedback from more than one person. This was 2011, and I saw that mobile games were getting big. There were these huge distribution platforms. If you had a good game and you could get it out there and market it, you could get a lot of feedback from players.

pizza 5
Good Pizza, Great Pizza has been downloaded more than 300 million times.

It was a simple idea. I liked gaming. I wanted to learn how to run a business and scale a business. Finally, I really loved food. I was a huge Food Network fun. In grad school I had it on 24 hours a day. The first game the studio made was a cake-making game, and it did pretty well. I wanted to make sure I could run a real business, which meant using the profits to make the next game. I started slowly. That first game made some profits and I invested that back into making the next game, and so on and so on.

Kim: How did you figure out how to make that first game? You didn’t have a background in game design.

Lai: No. That was another thing when I started the studio, why I wanted to do gaming. I was a hardware engineer. To run a business, I knew that you needed to find people who were better than you. I didn’t know how to program or make art. The only thing I knew, that I think I was good at, was marketing, and maybe coming up with the initial idea. For artists and programmers, I found contractors to start.

Kim: You made the cake game. Moderate success, invest the profits. How did you get from there to Good Pizza, Great Pizza? How did that come to be?

Lai: To understand that, you have to understand where I grew up. I grew up in Queens, New York. If you’re not familiar with Queens, it’s super diverse. Different religions, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds. But one thing I noticed growing up was that no matter who you were, pizza was the universal food.

The main mission for me when I made the company was I wanted to make products that were used by people worldwide, globally. I thought, “Hey, let’s try to make a pizza game.” I made three pizza games. The third one was Good Pizza. Juni can talk a bit about that and what it was.

Cho: Good Pizza, Great Pizza is a story-rich restaurant simulation game. It’s really a feel-good casual game for anyone that loves food and wants to try their hands at making it. It’s a game where you learn everything about pizza: how to make it, how to serve it, how to run a pizza shop, even playing events about pizza, or finding out some stories that are related to pizza. Like the guy in front of your shop that also runs a pizza restaurant who thinks you’re a rival. If you search “pizza” on the App Store we’re the first result.

Kim: Has anybody here played Good Pizza, Great Pizza? All right, we got some players. Am I correct that this game has been downloaded more than 300 million times?

pizza 4
Good Pizza, Great Pizza is one of 30 titles from Tapblaze.

Lai: Yes. Believe it or not, it’s 10 years old.

Kim: Let’s talk about that, because that’s amazing. It became a global hit. You just said you had an ambition to do something big that would reach a lot of people. You grew up in a very international city. We could talk all day about how this became a hit, but let’s talk about culturalization and how you figured out, one, how to tune the game so people would continue to like it, and how you reached other territories.

Lai: For us the main focus, our north star, was actually DAU. When I first interviewed Yuni she asked, “What’s your goal?” For me, the main metric was just to grow DAU regardless of anything else. Having said that, we would just pick regions. Hey, there’s a huge player base here. Then we’d try to understand that player base. That was the main thing.

Cho: A good example is when we decided to localize our game in Arabic back in 2020. We did this not looking at revenue, but purely based on the potential player base we could gain. Arabic is the fifth most spoken language around the globe. It’s the 19th biggest gaming market out there. We thought, “Hey, maybe we should try to localize the game in Arabic.” We picked Egyptian Arabic in particular because when we did market research, we found that Egypt is the hub of entertainment for the MENA regions. Whatever makes it big in Egypt is almost surely going to cause a ripple effect in neighboring nations. That’s why we decided to translate the game into Egyptian Arabic first.

When we did that, one of the first things we looked at was to find a great translator. We wanted someone that grew up in that culture, someone who really understood the demographic there. Also, we needed someone who’d played our game a bit, so they could give us feedback on what kind of game design needed to change to better fit our audiences in Arabic-speaking regions.

It was kind of a long shot. It took us three years to become popular in Egypt. Back in 2023 we did become very popular in Egypt. We saw our DAU spike to 1.5 million. We also became the number one game in Egypt, as well as the number one overall app for about a month straight. Then we started to see that ripple effect happen. We became the number one game in Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. All these countries that surrounded Egypt. That was really cool to see.

Kim: The way in which you’ve grown your studio and player base is amazing. You didn’t go the VC route to raise money. You haven’t gone really heavily into paid acquisition, either. You do a lot of different kinds of organic acquisition. Today, when the game industry is really squeezed, how someone does that is really valuable for all of us. I’d like both of you to talk about how you managed to do that as a studio.

Lai: It wasn’t easy. The main reason–I just had to do it. I had this goal. I didn’t raise money. I don’t know how to raise money. Really, I just don’t. I’ve talked to VCs. I don’t get them and they don’t get me. I’m not the type that wants to embellish stuff. I just call it as it is. I really believe–I wanted to run a business. Running a business means you have to make revenue and you have to make profit. You need to balance that. You have to make products, make games that your players like. At the same time, you also need to support the studio. You have to find talent and pay them to make things better. That’s why I went this route.

pizza 6
Good Pizza, Great Pizza has a million daily players.

We didn’t do paid UA for the longest time. There was just no cash to do it. There’s a saying that the obstacle is the way. That forced us to think outside the box. Ideas like focusing on MENA and other regions and different legions. We would plant the seeds and we didn’t know when it would pay off. But we had this idea that–we know the game has potential. We just have to let someone in those countries, those regions play it. Eventually the game will do the rest.

Kim: What about organic acquisition? Can you share a bit about the experiments you’ve done and how the community fits into it?

Cho: One other example I can give is the 2018 theory we had. Back in 2018, mobile streaming wasn’t really a big thing. A lot of streamers were streaming games, but only PC games, because they’re easier to stream. We had this idea that as a mobile game–what if we port the game, just the backbone of the game, to PC and the Steam platform, targeted at streamers? We weren’t trying to get PC users, but we were trying to increase our DAU using streamers and their audiences. If they watched on their mobile devices, then they could get the game.

The way this paid off for us was in Korea. After we localized the game in Korean, about three months after the game launched on Steam, it was picked up by a small streamer. It grew bit by bit from there. It was picked up by bigger and bigger streamers. Eventually we had a spike of about 300,000 DAU in a month. You won’t usually see that kind of effect from paid UA, not unless you spend a lot of money.

Lai: That goes back to culturalization. What we mean by that, it’s not just countries and regions. It’s understanding players. We understood that, around 2018, all these streamers were only streaming PC games. Streaming mobile was really hard at the time. But we also understood that their audience was watching them on their phones. We had this theory. If we could get a streamer to stream the game via Steam, their players watching on mobile, if they found out the game was free on mobile they would download it. It had a huge effect.

We wanted to target the U.S., but it ended up happening in South Korea. It still proved the theory. It just happened to hit a different target market. We’re happy either way.

Kim: Designing specifically for streamers is a smart move in terms of distribution and getting in front of eyeballs. Now you have this game running in a bunch of different markets. There are different languages. How do you deal with community management in that kind of ecosystem?

Cho: For community management, the one thing that’s hard is you can’t just buy a community. A community is full of people that want to support your game, and even you as a developer. Since our audiences are more global, I tend to gravitate more toward UGC events for our communities. I’ll pick a topic that’s mostly wide-hitting.

One thing we tried was painting your own country’s flag using pizza ingredients. Another one was making your own version of the pizza box, or designing a character that represents you. Something that’s different. Where the development process starts to come in is we run it in a competitive format. The winners of these design contests actually get added to the game. Their characters are permanent, even in the game today. The same goes for the pizza boxes.

What this shows players is that they also have the power to change the course of the game. It’s not just, “Hey, we make something and that’s what you get.” It’s, “How can we better communicate with you and figure out what you like? Based on your feedback, how can we improve the game for you?”

Another example I can give is a bigger feature. When we decided to add our garden feature back in 2020, it came from a couple of very fleshed-out suggestions we got from our communities, especially Reddit and Discord. They have our most hardcore fanbases. We decided to flesh this idea out, really design it, put in art and UI, and then test it out in a summer event. We saw that it helped increase our KPIs for retention, especially for near-lapsed players or endgame players who were only retaining part-time. The garden gave them another reason to come back to our game and check up on it. Hey, you have a new plant growing. Can you water it and harvest it? Just another reason for them to love the game.

Lai: We get a lot of feedback. There are lots of ideas. As a team we look at those ideas and see what makes sense for the game and for the players.

Kim: You mentioned Reddit and Discord. Are those fan-run communities?

Cho: When I first joined Tapblaze four years ago, we made the subreddit. But the Discord was pretty much fan-made and fan-run. We try to keep our hands off it as much as we can. They want to communicate among themselves, which is the beauty of a community. It’s players who communicate amongst themselves about the game.

Lai: We started the subreddit. I still remember starting it when Yuni first joined. There were just one or two users. We tried posting there ourselves to build it up more. But our posts never got much feedback. Once we let go and just let the redditors take it over, that’s when we started growing there. It’s been four years and now we have about 55,000, 57,000 redditors. It’s very active.

pizza 3
Tapblaze has a team of 13.

Cho: I try to do as little moderation on Reddit as possible now. The most you’ll see is, “Hey, we have a new UGC event,” or “Check out this new update.” That’s about it.

Kim: How do you run those UGC events? How do you let people know about them and collect feedback?

Cho: I go about just making posts for these. And then I create rules for them. No weird stuff, no NSFW stuff. This goes to all of our communities. We have Reddit, Discord, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. It goes on all those communities. It’s kind of a separate competition. We have one competition per community. We have the winners in those communities, and then they compete against each other. We try to do one per quarter, since it’s a bigger event. The development team needs to be a part of it. Art needs to be tweaked a bit. Things need to be coded into the game. It’s a bit more work.

It doesn’t have to be creating something in-game. It could be as simple as pitching us an idea. It’ll go on the blackboard we have, and then maybe in the future, if it seems like a plausible idea, it could come to fruition. But it’s more like, “What do you want to see in the game? How can we better serve that?”

Kim: One thing we talked about earlier was that you designed a character for the Arabic-speaking countries. That was part of your role. Can you talk about that? There are so many assumptions around culturalization. You look at FarmVille characters and see that they all look a certain way. Can you talk about how that came to be and the design process behind that character?

Lai: The initial Arabic character, it wasn’t that we started by saying, “Let’s make an Arabic character.” The artists in-house, we told them, “Go visit your pizza shops, your coffee shops, and draw who you see.” We never want to force an idea of diversity in the game. One good example, I wanted to put a character who used American Sign Language in the game. But I wanted that to be hidden, in a sense. She signs to you, and either you get it or you don’t. You might care and you might not. Someone might think, “Huh, a customer came in, moved their hands, and left.” They might not think anything of it. But someone else might think, “Wow, they’re speaking in ASL!” And someone else might not understand it, but they’ll look it up and realize what’s happening. We want to add that kind of diversity, but add it in a natural way, like what you would see in real life.

Cho: When the Muslim character really started to see the light was when the game was localized, or culturalized, into Arabic. We tried to even change the UI. Normally the text would read from left to right, but Arabic reads right to left. We made that change. We also switched out a lot of our images of pork to beef, or pigs to cows, things that better fit that context. About 92 percent of Egyptians are Muslim. That was another way we culturalized it. Once we did that, and the game picked up in Egypt, that’s when the Muslim character saw the light. We didn’t win any popularity just because we had a Muslim character in the game. But we took those extra steps to nail the culturalization of the game targeting the MENA region.

Kim: I feel like there’s a thread through this whole story about being able to target and then really closely listen to underserved markets.

Lai: It goes back to understanding your players. Eventually they’ll pay that back to you. That’s the main lesson that we’ve learned.

[A question from the audience, presumably about how the game monetizes, but the guy in the audience isn’t mic’d.]

Lai: There’s in-app purchases, and there’s also ad revenue. Over the course of 10 years the core game hasn’t changed. The core game is just customers come in, you serve pizza, you make money, you use the money to upgrade the shop. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that we’ve had to add a lot more content. Every year, year and a half, our players want to know: when is the next chapter? They wait every year or two years for a chapter.

These days, every month we do two events, at least. We need these events, because mobile gaming is so competitive right now. I’m not sure what’s the chicken and what’s the egg. Was it the players who wanted these live events, or the app stores that wanted them? But you need live events. Players have so many other games they can play. If you’re able to keep serving them good content, they’ll come back.

[Similarly, a question about KPIs or revenue from expanding into a new region.]

pizza 7
You can grow your own veggies in Good Pizza, Great Pizza.

Lai: Again, revenue was never the metric. We knew that even if the game became popular in MENA, there wouldn’t be much revenue. We didn’t change anything once we became popular in MENA. We were just happy that we did it. Again, for us internally, it proved a point. Pick a region, pick a country, and we’ll figure out how to get to the top there. To me, that’s true success.

Cho: It’s also about building an IP, plain and simple. The cool thing we saw when we did become popular in the MENA region, especially in Egypt, was that all these famous celebrities that are Egyptian started making videos about our game. We saw communities popping up, fully Arabic Good Pizza, Great Pizza communities. It was really cool to see. It’s great to have success, but just as a person, this is something I worked on. To see it become this popular was very interesting, something I’d make note of.

Lai: What we do is what keeps driving us. Knowing that players really love what we’re giving to them. Every day we come to the office and ask, “What can we do next?”

Cho: Something he tells me all the time is, “How can we make the game better? How can we make this game good?” It’s all about making a good game. Not a game that’s super valuable in terms of revenue. It’s making a fun, good game.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top