Episode 11 of this highly successful series brings James Sun back to China, Shanghai. In this episode, he meets up with entrepreneur Lan Hai Wen, who heads a video-gaming company called Ultizen Games. Ultizen is in charge of producing and marketing games for adults and children, but the Company recently was awarded a contract (thanks to the CEO’s networks and contacts) to produce and develop a children’s game, for the Chinese mass market. As can be imagined, the potential is huge as China has a very large child population, and if the game takes off it could elevate Ultizen to a whole new level.
However, as with all businesses, it is prudent to check out the competition first. The video gaming industry is large and fragmented and there are many companies which are muscling in to grab a piece of the lucrative pie. Ultizen is purportedly one of the larger gaming companies in Shanghai, but it is difficult to grab the leadership position as people’s tastes keep changing and the industry has to continually churn out new games and software to keep consumers interested. There is also not much product and brand differentiation as people usually just buy the game without bothering much about the company behind it (as well as the legions of developers who helped produce it). I can safely say this because I used to be a gamer too, and seriously I cared more about the content and graphics than the actual gaming company (OK, maybe except Blizzard which produced Diablo II)!
James checks out the Ultizen office where the programmers, software engineers and developers are busy at work. Most of them reported experiencing quite a bit of stress as this was Ultizen’s first major project and everyone as under pressure to deliver an excellent product on time. Some of the staff also complained of not having enough guidance to work on a child’s game and some had no clue as to where or how to begin. Ultizen made the software engineers watch hours and hours of Chinese cartoons to better understand what children look for in a computer game, but James finds it strange that no children were consulted or interviews done with kids during the game development phase. Hai Wen mentions that this would not be feasible as the game was targeted at children, and so had to be worked on by adults. James looks rather sceptical when he hears this.
Eventually, James again enlists the help of Cha Li, who together with James advises Hai Wen in the War Room to enlist the assistance of kids in a focus-group interview setting to enable the software engineers and developers to understand better what children look for in a game. Hai Wen agrees to this as he finally begins to understand that one needs to involve the consumer if one is to be successful in developing something FOR them. By going through several iterations without involving children, the developers were essentially groping around in the dark, and it was a case of the blind leading the blind as even those watching the cartoons could not fully comprehend what the final consumer would find appealing or enticing.
Finally, a batch of kids are selected to take part in a “controlled” focus-group study, but chaos soon reigns as the kids are excited and hard to control! Most of them do give feedback on the game designs, characters and other aspects of what the developers had come up with thus far, but all this information had to be carefully sieved through and collated and made sense of later. Still, it turned out to be an eye-opener for Ultizen’s team who managed to incorporate the new insights into their design and enhanced their final product.
There are interesting lessons to be learnt from this episode:-
1) Involve feedback from the consumer when developing a new product – This also applies to any product which involves repeated usage or even food products. If possible, do blind testing or conduct interviews with the intended target consumer segment to garner feedback and/or opinions. Pay a fee or give away some freebies if need be, but such money is usually well-spent as he feedback can be invaluable.
2) Use Focus-Group Interviews – Focus groups are very effective for getting feedback on a product or service to be launched, and it also has a captive audience who can give constant information. However, that said, such interviews should be properly structured and organized to maximize the utility, otherwise it would be a waste of everyone’s time and resources.
3) Be aware of staff welfare – I noted in the episode that not much was done to alleviate the staff’s stress and concerns about the project deadline and the difficulties encountered. More could have been done to ease the frazzled state of mind and calm nerves. Staff turnover could result if this aspect is not managed properly.
4) Channel resources productively – In the episode, the team at Ultizen were told to watch many hours of Chinese cartoons, which did not assist much in the creative process as the developers had no inkling of what the final consumer would have wanted. Therefore, it is important to prioritise resources and ensure time is not wasted on such activities which generate no value-added to the organization. For example, the team could have been tasked to find out more about the children’s gaming industry in other countries instead (to get a more holistic view).
Overall, the episode explored a very interesting industry, gaming, in which I myself have experience and intimate knowledge of. It was interesting to note how designers and developers went about creating a game, and how they factored in many inputs and tweaked the images to obtain the final product. Of course, a lot of extensive beta testing is also involved and the whole process can be mind-numbingly tedious! But as an ex-gamer, I can appreciate the hard work put in by these people. My previous favourite games used to be Heroes of Might and Magic III as well as Diablo II. I am currently sporadically playing Heroes of Might and Magic V......oh well it's a lifelong "addiction"!
For the next episode (incidentally, the second-last), James is back in China again (Suzhou this time) and will meet up with Yvonne Huang, who runs a company called Diploma dealing with food and laundry outsourcing services.
Check out the website for Ultizen Games over here:-