China’s mobile gaming market has been experiencing explosive growth and and is projected to soon overtake the US market by as early as next year in 2015. Independent research firm Niko Partners estimates China’s mobile game market to grow 93% to $2.9B in 2014 with compound annual growth of 37.6% from 2013 to 2018.
Source: Niko Partners
Today, most US game developers focus on Western and “World-wide” markets without having a deep enough understanding of China and the potential opportunities there.
I spoke with three Chinese mobile game publishing companies to get the latest perspective on the Chinese mobile game market and the opportunity for Western developers to publish in China.
Following are excerpts from interviews with key representatives from three Chinese mobile game publishers:
How would you describe the main differences between the Chinese mobile gaming market and the U.S. market?
Eric: “I think there are 3 areas that stand out right away and that is: 1. Distribution channels, 2. Billing partners, and 3. Marketing & promotion channels.
In China you have to cover at least the Top 30 stores to give you 80% coverage and on top, you need to work with the carriers to get hold of their billing codes as carrier billing is still the most efficient solution of billing especially with casual type of games. When the team published Despicable Me 2, a large chunk of the revenue came from instant revive, which was powered by carrier billing.
Last but not least is the marketing & promotions. In the West you can use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. All of these services are banned in China so you need to use the local equivalent services such as Sina Weibo, WeChat and Youku.”
Greg: “From the perspective of the game itself I would add another 3 areas.
- Art Style – Art based on Chinese history and folk tale is obviously different. Asian gamers, in general, like cute looking character features while US gamers like tough and realistic looks.
- Game Play – US gamers like to be challenged and skills are heavily involved; Chinese gamers do not want to spend as much effort in the game but have patience to grind endlessly.
- Monetization – Chinese gamers have been playing free-to-play games a lot longer than US gamers. Games that make Chinese gamers pay have very complex and deep economic systems.”
May: “One other key difference is the rate of organic installs. Here in China 30% is very small. It’s common to see 200-300% organics per install.
Ideas in China spread very quickly; people are more interconnected. WeChat moments is a powerful influence in this, but so is population density and culture. It’s really easy to share here.
The power of IP is very strong. Chinese are very brand sensitive consumers. Users are not as adventurous as western gamers, and are less trusting of brands they do not know. Plants vs. Zombies 2 became an instant hit in China.”
What kinds of games do well in the Chinese market? Are there specific genres or mechanics that are more popular than others?
Greg: “Since the market is so big, multiple genres can be successful in China. Nevertheless, most of them have the following functions/mechanics:
- RPG character/castle/home growth
- Upgrade system
- Service oriented is a must. Just launching the game without talking to the Chinese customers will not generate big success.”
Eric: “A few year’s back, the charts were dominated by local MMORPG but that has changed. On the top grossing charts now, you can see more Western products such as Despicable Me 2, Fruit Ninja, Ski Safari, Temple Run, etc.
But the caveat is that you need to localize & culturalize your game and that means optimizing the file size, the economy, the UI and monetization to make it more suitable for the Chinese market.”
May: “Other examples of games that have come from the US and done well here include the Supercell games like Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, and Hay Day, Candy Crush, Disney’s Frozen Freefall, Hearthstone, Injustice, Megapolis, and CSR Racing.
A quick list of things that seem to work here:
- Action RPG games,called ACT here, are very popular. All control schemes have been doing well, from auto-battle to full movement and attack control.
- SLG (city builder) style games are a bit out of style right now, and never gained the same popularity as they did on the web, but there are still a few doing very well.
- RPG games are very popular, and now larger more PC style MMORPGs are gaining popularity
- Simple games with an innovative mechanic like 2048 spread like wildfire
- Games with strong social mechanics will have a general advantage
- Chinese users prefer body ratios of 3:1 or 4:1, less realistic and cuter. Japanese style cute graphics are more widely accepted.
- Realistic style games can and do work, but will not appeal to a wider audience. When appealing to the more hardcore male audience with a realistic style, most games tend to use many over-the-top sexy female characters.
- Manga, 3 Kingdoms, Kung Fu themes work the best here. Western fantasy is not very popular outside of the influence DOTA and WoW IPs.”
How much money can a developer expect to make from the Chinese mobile market relative to the US market?
Greg: “Chinese mobile gaming market is still slightly smaller than the US market. In addition, developers need to share a hefty percentage to channels on Android. Therefore, a top grossing game in China will make less money net than a top grossing game in the US.”
Eric: “Purely speaking from experience, China revenues are still in the single digit % when we looked at the titles that we had published before. The good news is that the growth rate of the China market is still going very strong, ahead of the U.S and Europe. There are about 300 million mobile gamers now which is equivalent to the U.S. population already. That is destined to grow to about 800 million by 2018. I would definitely encourage game developers to at least have China as its #2 strategy.”
May: “The top 3-5 best games on IOS + Android are making revenues of over 100 million RMB [~$16.5M USD] per month. There are over 30 games making over 10 million RMB [~$1.65M USD] per month, and the range is quite large.
The Chinese market focuses on operations strategy, so daily revenue varies greatly from day to day, with some games making 10 million RMB on single days.”
Can you talk about Chinese monetization and retention and how it differs from the US?
Greg: “A lot of top grossing US games still structure monetization based on content acquisition and saving time. Frequent content updates would satisfy retention. Chinese monetization require multiple systems with heavy live ops to keep users. Events need to happen every day and Chinese game companies all have a sizable live ops team.”
Eric: “My viewpoint maybe skewed towards more single player casual games but I find that the monetization tends to be more aggressive here in China. In the case of Despicable Me 2 again, instant revive was a big portion of the revenues. I’m not sure how this method would be received in the West. Having a pop up and asking for $1 to revive may come across as “offensive” in the West but it is acceptable here.
Retention wise, I feel that having an event at least every week seems to be the norm here in China but operationally this would for sure be challenging for any developers. Furthermore, I feel that being bombarded by the welcoming screen or noticeboard everyday here is also quite the norm.
This is only a personal observation but I think Chinese gamer are generally more ADD when compared to their western counterparts and hence game developers need to do everything that they can to keep users (because they can just easily delete your game and go to the next free-to-play game).”
What about differences in game mechanics of popular games in the US vs. China?
Eric: China has been the pioneer of the free to play model and I’m really impressed that mechanics such as starter packs, VIP packs, subscription rebates are already quite the norm here in China. That is interesting because this behavior is actually quite capitalistic for a communist society. It’s really competitive!
Greg: “Because of the console game history, US gamers lean towards more of a skill based game play for a sense of achievement. Chinese game play is more passive and a lot of things can be done in the game if users pay.
One of the biggest differences between China and US seems to be the strength of Android and the power of distribution channels here relative to App Stores in the U.S. Can you talk a little bit more about this?
Eric: “Yes I believe the main bulk or at least 80% or so of the mobile gaming revenues come from the Android stores and of this, the Top 30 stores should contribute to 80% of the Android market. I think a main factor is price. China is still a price sensitive market and the current price of the iPhone is just not enticing enough for the Chinese consumers especially for the ones who live in 2nd tier or 3rd tier cities.”
Greg: “The fragmented China Android market is not as bad as it seems. While a game needs to spend large sum of marketing dollars to stand out from competitors on Google Play US, it can partner with the Android channels in China and do well. Due to intense competition, all the Android channels are hungry for games. The key is still down to making a quality game.”
How does marketing of mobile games differ between China and the US? What are the primary marketing channels for China? How does it differ from the US?
Greg: “Precision marketing is now big in the US since marketing costs are so high. However, creating the hype is still the dominant way to do game marketing in China. This means maximum coverage in media, channels, and even offline is required to make the game successful.”
Eric: “In the West, your digital marketing mix = Facebook+Twitter+YouTube but all of these services are banned in China. In China, you need to use the local equivalent of Sina Weibo, WeChat and Youku
User acquisition wise, it is still cheaper here in China than in the U.S. so users are mainly still acquired through channel marketing.
Above the line marketing of course will be welcomed regardless of whether you’re in U.S. or China. It’s hard to track eyeballs from an ROI perspective, but it keeps the channels warm & fuzzy if you invest your marketing dollars into these activities.”
Do US developers have a chance in the Chinese market? Should they think about publishing in China?
Greg: “Yes, I think Glu is doing OK in China.
Becoming very successful in China, just like going into any large Asian markets, requires significant commitment in terms of personnel and investment. If a Chinese publisher tries to launch a Three Kingdoms game in the US while having the whole operation in China, the publisher will fail. Same mentality applies to publishing in China.”
Eric: As we can see, the market is going to double in size by 2018 so yes the pie is still getting bigger. Sure there are its own set of problems & challenges but the growth rate is still ahead of Europe and the U.S.
What is the best way for a foreign mobile game developer to enter the Chinese market?
Eric: “The best way to hedge the risks is to work with a local partner. Published one or two titles, learn what works, what doesn’t and go from there.”
Greg: “There are several publishers that specialize in helping developers enter China. Channels are also aggressively seeking games directly as well. For those with a deep war-chest and patience, having brand recognition in the top 3 gaming markets in the world will definitely be beneficial.”
May: “Most developers should not try to enter the market by themselves unless you have a global brand name game like Supercell/CoC. Choose the right publisher based on the type of game they have experience with.For my company, we publish mostly casual, match-3, card battle, and SLG games.
As far as deal structure, be prepared for a 50/50 rev share after channel costs which includes marketing budget to push the game.
In China, the publisher will help you set up all of the channel relationships which may include 30+ App Stores and over 300+ channels like getting pre-installed on phones, free daily apps, and other types of UA marketing. PR and marketing can also often involve buses and taxis, local stores, posters and video in elevators and more.”
How much should US companies expect to localize for the Chinese market in order to be successful?
Greg: “Localization should be the minimum to enter the market. Since most successful games are service oriented, making the game more dynamic and deep is required.”
Eric: “A lot! China is a high risk, high reward market so choosing the right partner is important. Find someone who knows the local market but at the same time have respect for the design and product identity of your company.”
May: “For games where characters are central to the game, changes in character design will be important, especially making the characters cuter, or including more Chinese features.
First time user experience and game controls are also critical. Chinese new users require a high level of hand-holding in the early stages of their games, and instructions must be simple and clear. Many western games do a decent job, but Chinese users need longer before letting them go.
Also with monetization, Chinese users are used to different (and often more) monetization than western gamers. New prices will need to be set.
Finally, there will be a lot of SDK Integration. Just to start on Android, developers will need to integrate around 10 different billing systems.”
Many thanks to Eric, Greg, and May for the great insights. If you are interested in the China mobile gaming market I strongly recommend talking to one of their companies for publishing. Knowing each personally I can attest that they are all really great.
If you would like to follow up for more information about an opportunity in China. Contact information is provided below.
CEO, Fifth Journey. Former GM Publishing, GameLoft.
For Further Inquiry, Email: eric.tan at fifthjourney.com
VP of Asia, Glu Mobile
For Further Inquiry, Email: greg.chang at glu.com
CEO, White Orange
For Further Inquiry, Email: gaowanli at baijuzi.com
great article Joseph. Many insightful notes that are useful right off the bat!
Joseph Kim says