Fact or Fiction? What Western Devs Need to Know About Launching Mobile Games in China

The following story originally appeared in Chartboost’s quarterly Power-Up Report. This edition decodes how mobile game developers can build successful businesses in China.

westward_journey_ahe rapidly maturing state of China’s mobile game market is an exciting prospect for many devs in the West. Mobile game revenue will grow to $10 billion by 2016’s end, a 41 percent increase from 2015, according to data from Newzoo. It’s expected to continue at this rate and reach $28.9 billion by 2019.

As the market grows, it changes. Many preconceptions or expectations developers in North America or Europe have about the market are now out-of-date. What’s more, most in the industry who have any experience with China’s mobile game market advise finding a partner to help with everything from designing a game to resonate with Chinese users, to localizing marketing and distribution. Not to mention navigating the new regulations announced in China earlier this year that are complicating the process to submit an app even more.

But before mobile game developers begin seeking such a partner, they must be aware of what’s fact and what’s fiction about launching a mobile game in China.

Fact: The Android market is fragmentedchinese_android_app_stores

Android is the dominant force in China, thanks to its open nature—a contrast to the iOS walled garden. But a feud over censorship between the Chinese government and Google resulted in the downfall of the Android Market (former name of Google Play), opening the door for a string of alternatives to crop up. The sheer number of Android app stores and distribution platforms that exist have long been a thorn in the sides of foreign devs. And according to Vincent Diao, vice president at Chinese publishing company Yodo1, the number of viable distribution platforms on Android is going up, not down.

“To launch a game in China, if you want to reach the majority of Chinese Android users, publishing on 40 to 60 Android markets at launch is pretty standard, with more to come over time,” Diao says. Each marketplace has its own verification processes, rules and regulations, which can post a major hurdle for devs in the West used to submitting their games to three or four marketplaces at most.


Fiction: Monetization is low in China

It’s a common misconception that Chinese gamers don’t monetize. Fortunately for devs, it’s simply not true—monetization numbers are rising.

“This view is outdated from years back when Chinese users were accessing pirated or scraped binaries of their games and had no way to spend money in-app even if they wanted,” says industry consultant Josh Burns. Piracy is actually falling, he adds.

Traditionally, most Android marketplaces in China banned in-app ads in their stores due to the country’s strict advertising laws, making in-app purchases the only monetization model for free-to-play games. But that’s changing. Android marketplaces have begun to allow in-app ads. This will give struggling games that lack IAP function a fighting chance as in-app ads evolve in the Chinese market.

“We will start seeing more casual games with an ad-based model,” predicts Burns, good news for popular western genres like arcade and puzzle games.

0Fact: User acquisition is challenging

Once games are successfully in China’s plethora of app stores, UA remains a challenge. According to Eric Wang, vice president of U.S. operations at China-based mobile internet company Zenjoy, UA in China is a different ball game, particularly on Android. The dominant method of UA is based on store placement. In Android marketplaces, that tends to favor big sellers, while Apple tends promote a variety of critically acclaimed games—not just the top names.

Since UA isn’t a major feature on Android in China, many devs report the amount they have spent in the past hasn’t delivered the number of users one would expect in the West.

0-1Fiction: Successful western games translate well to China

The Chinese market’s reputation for copycat games may lead devs to believe games that perform well in the West can be just as big of a hit in China. But Burns and Diao agree that’s just not the case. The market today is incredibly competitive.

Though monetization methods may be converging with those utilized in the West, thematic differences remain stark. According to Burns, some games just won’t work. Titles based on western IP or celebrities often fall flat in China. Gambling and casino games are outright illegal. Diao adds that the western games on either end of the complexity spectrum struggle in China: light games have difficulty monetizing because they lack IAP and heavy games are often inaccessible to Chinese gamers.

Fact: Localization matters

Chinese gamers do enjoy many of the genres popular in the West, such as RPGs. But, says Wang, they prefer content that is much more localized to their culture, such as being centered around the popular novel Three Kingdoms or Chinese medieval fantasy themes. Western devs should infuse Chinese culture into their games.

Diao calls this culturalization, “which means not only localizing the copy, but also localizing in-game content like graphics, voice overs, and even character designs.” While working with western partners, Yodo1 will often help rewrite the game text in a fully local way rather than simply translating.

 Sleepy Z Studios’s Ski Safari 2

Fact: It’s possible with a partner

The complicated nature of the Chinese mobile game market may put devs off from considering China—but it shouldn’t.

“More and more Western developers that are seeing China as a top two to three grossing market for their games—versus two to three years ago when China was a much less significant piece of their revenue,” Diao says. While winning over the Chinese audience will certainly be a challenge, devs with the right game have the potential for success.

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