Plants vs. Zombies 2 developers accused of discrimination in China

A special edition of the game has been found to be so tough that users are forced to pay for in-game items

A Chinese edition of Plants vs. Zombies 2 has been criticized for being too tough, forcing users to buy in-game items to get to the next level.

PopCap Games, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, released a special edition of the iOS game last week that's specifically targeted for the Chinese market. But days after its release, the game has received overwhelmingly bad reviews on Apple's iTunes store. As of Wednesday, the game had collected over 35,000 one-star reviews, out of a total of 49,000, awarding it an aggregate of two-stars.

The poor reviews are a departure from the previous Plants vs. Zombie games, which received strong praise in China. The game was so popular that last year PopCap estimated downloads of official and pirated versions of it had reached between 120 million and 150 million in China alone.

PopCap's new Chinese edition of Plants vs. Zombies 2, however, is facing a harsh reception, despite being free-to-play. This is because the game is significantly harder than the English edition, giving users little choice but to resort to buying in-game items in order to advance, said Xue Yongfeng, an analyst with research firm Analysys International.

"If you don't buy them, then it's very hard to get through the stage," he said. "In China, users need to pay more in order to pass. But Chinese users feel this is unfair."

Others have been more critical. Zheng Huafeng, who tracks China's Internet and games industry, said PopCap's latest product for the country was trying to enslave its users.

"Everybody is equal. So why is this game then not equal?" Zheng asked. "Everyone can see the Chinese edition is a slave treatment system, like a leech sucking hard-earned cash."

He added that PopCap should have released both the Chinese and English editions in the country, giving users a choice to use which edition they wanted. Currently, only the Chinese edition can be downloaded from the iTunes store in the country.

PopCap declined to comment on the game, and said the company wants to hear users' feedback. "PopCap is always a humble game company, we would spend more time to make the things right rather than standing out and joining the discussion that has no conclusion," it said in an email.

Some local reviewers of the game have defended the product, stating that the English edition was too easy for Chinese gamers. Despite poor reviews, the product still ranks as one of the top games on China's iTunes store.

PopCap set up its office in Shanghai in 2008, which has helped create localized versions of its games that are free, but also offer virtual goods as a way to generate revenue in a market known for its piracy.

This so-called "freemium" business model is commonly used by game developers in China and the U.S. But PopCap may have taken it too far with its new local Plants vs. Zombie product, said analyst Xue Yongfeng.

"In China, it's online games that charge fees. That's how you get these dedicated gamers to pay," Xue said. But players of casual mobile games are less likely to pay for virtual goods, he added.

"The way PopCap has implemented this game, I don't think they totally understand the Chinese market that deeply," he said.

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