“Success depends on the quality of the game and its fit for the market” Interview with Emma Bullen, Director of New Global Markets at Hyper Hippo

Entering new markets is a big step for any project. But how to do it correctly so that the audience in another country really loves your product?

The Inlingo team talked to Emma Bullen, Director of New Global Markets at Hyper Hippo. We learned the reasons behind the success of their key projects, what metrics are important to consider before entering a new market, and how to gain the trust of players from all over the world.

“We publish all languages at once to take advantage of that marketing lift”

— Emma, you’re the Director of New Global Markets at Hyper Hippo. What does that involve? Is it any different from being a Marketing Director?

— The New Global Markets group at Hyper Hippo leads the expansion of Hyper Hippo games into new markets. Essentially, we accelerate the efforts of our current games into new regions that have the potential to perform. I partner with different discipline leads, including Mark Polcyn, our Marketing Director. Our day-to-day work involves localizing our existing portfolio and marketing campaigns, as well as experimenting with transcreated marketing efforts, running optimizing global pricing programs, and looking for global partners.  We’re a small group that has been operating for just over a year, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. Now that we’ve set up the groundwork (the processes that didn’t exist this time last year), we can get started on global expansion in earnest.

— How does the experience you gained working at Disney help with your current role?

— Disney Club Penguin initially hired me to culturalize the game for the British audience (a strategy that shifted during the first week I joined the team), so you might say I’ve come full circle. When I led Club Penguin’s Editorial Department, part of my role was to work closely with the internal localization teams, making sure that the voice and tone were consistent across all languages. I worked closely with the internal localization team to deliver content in five different languages and built up a good understanding of the children’s market in Brazil, France, Germany, Russia, and Argentina and how each team marketed and sold memberships in each region. My biggest takeaway from my time at Disney was the ability to work with remote teams and the importance of building relationships from a distance. That’s become a very useful skill now that I work in a distributed workforce. 

At Disney, Emma worked on Club Penguin – the first ever MMO experience for many people 

— How much has the process of analyzing potential markets changed over the course of your career? Are there more evaluation criteria these days?

— The fundamentals are the same; you go where the audience is. At Club Penguin, the first market we entered was Brazil because we had a huge audience there who asked us to localize the game for them. Today, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. I want to know much more about the audience – do they respond to the game’s theme and mechanics? How might we monetize in their region? How much transcreation or culturalization work might be expected both for in-game and marketing efforts? Thanks to companies like Statista and SensorTower, we have a wealth of statistical data to project growth in target markets and competitive research. That sort of data didn’t exist when I first started my career, and it has become a vital part of our market selection process. 

— Let’s say that I’ve made a game. How can I find the market where it will be most successful? Generally speaking, what does this success depend on?

— Generally speaking, success depends on the quality of the game and its fit for the market. That comes before any effort you put into researching market entry and putting marketing effort behind it. Does your audience want to play your game, are they responding well to it, and is the team excited? Once you’re sure of this, then you can start looking for markets where your genre performs particularly well and consider what you might need to do to enter that market. For some audiences, like Japan and South Korea, to be successful, you may need to find partnerships to help you culturalize your game and reach the right people on the right platforms. 

— Okay, suppose we did our evaluations and chose a specific market. What steps need to be taken before new players can finally see our project?

— When it’s a case of simple localization/transcreation, our team will work to ensure that a localization system exists within a game from day one, that a content management system is implemented to house our localization strings, and that fonts are chosen and special characters work within the game. We will open up small markets for KPI testing before we start on any localization work to see how the audience responds to the game. 

Before we send any copy to a localization vendor, we make sure that we have style guides, design documentation, and anything else that will add context. There’s often some back-and-forth between the vendor and the studio at this point. If a game’s title needs to be changed for the market, there is some work done at this stage to decide on a regional title and secure it for use. 

Once a project has been localized, and that localization has been implemented, we’ll send it through localization quality assurance (LQA) testing, and this typically happens during our Soft Launch period. Meanwhile, we’ll be working on getting all of our Marketing assets ready. We start with the same User Acquisition and App Marketplace assets as our North American products, localized for our target markets. Once we launch, we go through a process of creating transcreated assets for certain markets, where the store assets vary. When it’s time for global launch, we publish all languages at once to take advantage of that marketing lift. 

— How do you choose which markets to focus on? Do you evaluate a given project’s prospects by metrics, or do you listen to players who are requesting, for instance, an Italian localization?

— One of Hyper Hippo’s values is being player first, so yes, we do listen to players who are requesting localization, particularly when a lot of them are asking for it. Metrics are really important to consider too. We typically start by looking at projected downloads and revenue generation for the genre of game we’re targeting and then take into account factors such as ease of localization, political stability, smartphone usage, and data consumption. 

“We aim to include and celebrate all our players”

— One of Hyper Hippo’s most popular projects is AdVenture Capitalist. It’s a capitalism simulator in which players develop their own businesses and earn millions. What’s the secret to this project’s success?

— AdVenture Capitalist has a universal theme that’s aspirational – who doesn’t want to be filthy rich? The game itself has an easy-to-win idle mechanic, with engaging graphics and a ridiculously catchy theme tune. One of the things that I think Hyper Hippo does differently is extending the experience outside of the game with community support and narrative. Our Player Experience team and our Social and Content teams are always working to serve and engage the player. It’s not one element but all of these things working together that make it successful. 

— The settings of Hyper Hippo games are very different from one another, and players find themselves in satirical communist, capitalist, and fantasy worlds. Is the choice of the setting in your projects more of a creative decision, or is it tied to globalization, and each market gets its own setting?

— With AdVenture Capitalist and AdVenture Communist, our game settings were primarily creative decisions, but as the studio grows, we’re starting to make choices based on universal themes. We still have a lot to learn, but we aim to include and celebrate all our players, no matter what culture they hail from. 

Popular clicker games by Hyper Hippo

— Are there any plans at Hyper Hippo to branch out into new genres that you haven’t tried yet? If yes, then why those ones specifically? If not, then why? Is it because you have found your niche?

— Throughout Hyper Hippo’s history, many of our most successful ideas have come from people working on those “what if” and “I don’t know why, but this is fun” ideas. We’ve recently set up Innovate Out Loud – a program that runs once a quarter within the studio for a week at a time. This is a chance for the team to work on their creative passion projects, which includes branching out into new genres. I wouldn’t describe idle as a genre, it’s more of a mechanic, but we do set genres and market objects for our innovation projects based on market/competitive research, and provide that information to people, should they choose to use their Innovation Week time to explore new game options.  

“One reported issue can represent a lot of players”

— What criteria do you use to evaluate the quality of localization at Hyper Hippo?

— Our localization goes through thorough quality assurance testing to ensure that it serves its target audience. Our team makes sure that the content is localized and no strings are missing, that the localization has the same meaning as the original text, that it is consistent and grammatically accurate, that any potential cultural issues are caught – such as humor fails, that the layout is right, the font is appropriate, and special characters are working. 

We’re extremely lucky to have an international team working at Hyper Hippo, so we can ask for an internal review of localization quality. We also work with our partners at Google who provide excellent and actionable feedback. 

Do your criteria match up with those of your players? How can you tell whether players are getting the best possible experience?

— One thing I love about our players is that they will generally tell us if they’re not getting the best experience. Our amazing Player Experience team has built a high level of trust with our players by responding promptly and personally to player feedback, and so our players trust that their perspectives will be listened to and considered. We’ve recently launched a new game, Vacation Tycoon, and our Player Experience team is keeping a very close eye on reviews and community channels, like Discord and Reddit. The development team prioritizes bug fixes that impact the experience and uses player feedback to make improvements over time, such as making the language select easier to find or tweaking the balance of the game. We know that not everyone will write a review, so one reported issue can represent a lot of players. 

— What’s the best way to work with players’ feedback in local markets? How do you isolate the necessary information in fans’ reviews?

— We use Sensor Tower to review App Store and Google Play feedback. The tool uses Google Translate to help us quickly review player feedback and tags terms to help us quickly see what players like and dislike, which helps identify how many users are reporting similar issues. I always really appreciate it when someone leaves a review – it brings us much closer to our audience. 

— Some mobile game studios often completely overhaul the entire setting of a project for a new market, and the end result is a totally different game. Do you like that approach, or is it better to try to stick as close to the original idea as possible?

— It really depends on which market you’re entering. Sticking to the original idea is an approach that I’d favor for complementary cultures, but I would consider a complete overhaul for markets such as Asia. India for example is a market with high potential for mobile games, but the themes of our portfolio may not resonate with that market. Not only that, but we’d need to consider how the region makes their payments – if they favor in-app purchases or watching ads, what the minimum/maximum specs of phones are available, if they’re used to playing the game, etc.

— People have been saying for a long time that machine translation is the future. Have there been any new trends or tricks that help simplify the translation process within the gaming industry?

— When I first started working at Hyper Hippo, we used spreadsheets to house our localization, which meant the risk for manual error was high. It also meant that we really didn’t reuse our translations across projects, so we lost editorial consistency across projects. We recently chose to implement a content management system called Gridly, which has made our processes much more efficient. Gridly allows us to move away from using spreadsheets to manage our localization and centralize it in one place. Our designers input their copy in the tool from day one, so almost everything we need is there when it’s time to localize. I think the future is about focusing on tricks to make the translation process easier. There’s still a great deal of value in creative localization that requires a human touch. 

“I’m learning to speak up for myself and to keep pushing for what I think is right”

— You’re an ambassador for Women in Games. What does the organization do?

— Women in Games (WIG) is a not-for-profit  organization that encourages women to join the games industry. Approximately 50% of gamers are women, but we only make up 22% of the games industry workforce and only 16% of women are represented in executive teams. We have a long way to go to achieving parity. 

— Tell us your story — how did you become a part of Women in Games?

— I’ve worked in the games industry for the larger part of my career and I remember one day seeing a tweet that asked people to tag amazing women they knew in the games industry. I realized a lot of the women I’d worked with at the BBC and Disney were now in different job sectors and that realization shocked and disappointed me. I think I signed up on their website that evening. 

Learn more at womeningames.org

— What difficulties have you faced working in the gaming industry, and how did they impact you?

— Like most women, I’ve experienced being spoken over in a meeting or being underestimated in terms of my capabilities. In the past, I’ve changed roles when I hit what I’d describe as a glass ceiling. In my current role, I’m learning to speak up for myself and to keep pushing for what I think is right. I’m also learning to ask for help and support, and resting rather than quitting. It’s making a huge difference.  

— How does Women in Games help women in the industry feel more comfortable and confident on an everyday basis?

— Comfort and confidence are built through the Women in Games social media channels and events. The WIG Facebook and Discord groups are great places to network with other women in the games industry and get details about in-person events and virtual events. There are different parts of the Women in Games group that put on events to help you overcome challenges such as applying for different jobs, focusing on your mental health, sharing different roles that they’re hiring for in their studio, and what games they’re currently playing. 

— Abortion rights for women have been struck down in the USA. Not all gaming companies have expressed support for women, and some didn’t comment on this issue at all. Given the new circumstances, what, in your opinion, should game studios do to help women feel safe?

— In my personal opinion, Abortion Rights impact your employees no matter what gender they are. Often trans, queer, and intersex people are missed from the conversation, so I think the first step is inclusivity. I think it’s less important that gaming companies express support publicly than it is for them to support their teams internally. 

Creating a feeling of psychological safety in the workplace involves talking about challenging issues and listening to your team. I think it’s especially important to prioritize mental health during these challenging times, so we need to be raising the profile of employee assistance programs. It’s okay to get angry, but we need to put on our oxygen masks first.