Profitable in eight months, a friendly panda from central China attempts to become Angry Birds for kids
When you hear about foreign-led tech companies in China, you expect them to be based in either Beijing or Shanghai – perhaps even the southern cities of Shenzhen or Guangzhou – but the city of Chengdu is certainly not what immediately springs to mind. The capital of the central province of Sichuan has 14 million people, but it is not known as a magnet for foreigners. The Western companies that are there are mainly service outposts for other companies in China, and they are largely staffed by locals. Tech companies, meanwhile, tend to gravitate towards Beijing or Shanghai because those are China’s most modern, metropolitan cities, and they’re also home to fledgling startup ecosystems.
Thijs Bosma, however, left Shanghai in 2008 after a couple years working in marketing for the Dutch social games company Spil Games Asia, because he heard Chengdu was booming. The city was developing a reputation as a gaming center, with companies like Ubisoft and Microsoft setting up office there, and it had a wealth of IT and engineering talent. It is also a great deal cheaper than those two giant cities. Bosma had a hunch that it would be a good place to build a business.
Bosma’s new gaming company, TribePlay, spent its first couple of years building games for other clients, specializing in virtual worlds for kids. After three years of doing that, however, he was ready to push the company into original games built for smartphones and tablets. He raised $750,000 for his 25-person company and set about building a for-kids franchise called Dr Panda. The company, which is split down the middle between Chinese workers and staffers from Europe and North America, launched its first game in March of last year. By December, TribePlay was profitable.
In the last year, TribePlay has released seven Dr Panda games, all of which sell in the App Store, Google Play, or Amazon’s app store for $1.99 (some are discounted). Bosma says the company’s games have been downloaded 5 million times, about half of which come from Europe, a third from the US, and the rest from Asia. Its newest game, the just-released “Dr Panda’s Beauty Salon,” has made the top 5 apps for kids in 33 countries for iPad, according to App Annie.
Because the games are targeted at the 2–6-year-old age group, they don’t need to include much in the way of text, which makes them easily translatable for an international audience. TribePlay strives to make the games educational “beyond the alphabet and math.” The Dr Panda games thus teach life skills, such as working in a restaurant, maintaining a vege garden, and running a hospital. You know, the stuff even a panda can do.
Bosma’s intent appears to be to build a franchise in the mold of “Angry Birds,” with cutesy, identifiable cartoon characters led by the iconic Dr Panda. The games are set to tinkly muzak and the characters don’t speak – instead they let out little laughs, wheezes of delight, and murmurs of approval. It’s a pretty goddamn happy world these creatures live in. And why the focus on the panda? Well, that comes back to the company’s presence in Chengdu, which is home to the giant panda.
Despite its promising early traction, TribePlay is still just a bit player in the kids gaming market. Sweden’s Toca Boca has surpassed 22 million downloads across 16 games on iOS alone, while Duck Duck Moose and PlaySquare have each raised large venture rounds, of $7 million and about $2 million respectively (that latter’s investment will be spread out over two years).
For now, Bosma has no plans to raise extra funding. The company is now shifting its focus to marketing, which is why it is about to open a new office in Shanghai. After all, for all its advantages, Chengdu does have one drawback: When you’re holed up in the middle of China, it can sometimes be hard to get people to pay attention to you – even if you’re a cute giant panda with medical skills.