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Ski Safari Post-Mortem: How an Australian Mobile Game Became a Chinese Hit
by Henry Fong on 07/17/13 05:05:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 


Henry Fong is CEO of Yodo1, a Beijing-based mobile game publisher

One of the biggest mobile games in China nowadays is actually from Australia: The Chinese version of Ski Safari from Defiant Development in Brisbane is currently attracting about 250,000 downloads a day from iOS and Android owners here. That’s a pretty good rate for a game that’s been on the market for over six months – especially since the original, international version of the game only got 35,000 downloads in China after being on the market here for almost a year.

What changed to make it so popular in China? Thanks to our friends at Defiant Development for allowing us to disclose a lot of detailed data, we’re able to share our strategy, and all the key revenue and download numbers from the game’s short history on the Chinese market. To be sure, most Western games are unlikely to get as big in China as Ski Safari, but I can pretty much guarantee you something like the approach we took is essential to maximizing the odds at success here.

That said, let’s start by talking about Defiant Development’s original game, and then move on to how we evolved it to work on the China market:

Original Ski Safari: Great Game... Just Not Great in China (Yet)

When we partnered up with Defiant as their Chinese publisher in August of last year, we saw Ski Safari as a perfect experimental vehicle for us -- it’s an extremely well-made casual mobile game with a lot of charm and an endlessly enjoyable core gameplay loop. Unfortunately, the original international version also had several elements which pretty much insured it would fail in China:

- Paid download with limited in-game monetization options: The original English-language version of Ski Safari launched in February 2012 as a 99 cent paid download. For reasons I’ve explained on Gamasutra before, paid downloads rarely do well in China. The Chinese market by far prefers games with free-to-play mechanics and purchasable IAP items, but Ski Safari was very thin on both.

- Large client: The build size for the original Ski Safari is 48 megs, which is way too large for China, where most gamers are still stuck on slow 2G networks, or on 3G networks with limited data plans and spotty service. This is especially important in the Android market where a large proportion of gamers are playing with cheap (i.e., less than $50) handsets in the more rural areas of the country where wi-fi is not prevalent and mobile data connections are unreliable at best.

- No Chinese culturalization: Not only was the original Ski Safari in English and not language-localized for the Chinese market, it’s set on a Swiss Alps-like mountain, features a hero named Sven, and lacked any cultural elements that would tend to attract Chinese players.

With all those issues, it’s no surprise the original version didn’t exactly set the Chinese market on fire. From its launch in February to December 2012, the game was downloaded all of 35,000 times, and revenue was just as marginal -- on average, only USD$69 a day. This despite the fact that Ski Safari is a truly kickass game, and is quite popular in the US, Canada, Australia and beyond. So we were fairly confident it could find an audience in China too, and worked with Defiant Development through the course of several updates to implement numerous changes to the Chinese version.

Here’s what we’ve done over the course of the last six months, along with the results we got:

December 2012: Ski Safari Chinese Edition, Ver 1.0

We took about five months working on the Chinese version with Defiant Development, giving it full Chinese language translation, and building out the free-to-play framework and game mechanics. Part of that process included adding new in-app payment options that were culturalized for the local audience, such as traditional Chinese outfits for Sven. This version went live to the iOS App Store on December 13. (We hadn’t released the Android version just yet.)

Results: 51,000+ average downloads a day and $1351 average revenue a day -- basically a 20x increase from its original international version. Not bad, but we had a lot more plans to keep growing -- read on:

 

January 2013: Ski Safari Chinese Edition, Ver 1.1 (iOS)

This update added a lot more Chinese-themed content, including a new China-themed map with Buddhist temples, and dramatic, Yellow Mountain-style trees, along with new Chinese creatures for Sven to hitch a ride on, such as pandas (of course), and Chinese turtles. We also added a new soundtrack with Chinese instrumentation that added a distinctly Chinese rhythm to the core Ski Safari soundtrack.

To give you a sense of how these subtle but important additions changed the game, take a look at gameplay footage from Defiant Development’s original, international version, and compare them to Defiant Development/Yodo1’s Chinese versions -- watch the comparison video here.

Results: 62,000+ average downloads a day and $4200 average revenue a day (iOS only). Another gratifying leap in playing and paying users. But we were still convinced another update could improve those numbers even more:

March 2013: Ski Safari Chinese Edition, Ver 1.2 (iOS) and 1.0 (Android)

For our next update, we also optimized the Android version, incorporating all the lessons and Chinese cultural elements we’d put into the version for iOS. To optimize the game for distribution to the lower-end Android devices and poorer data networks in rural China, we also compressed it from its original 48 megabyte size down to 13 megs -- small enough for even 2G users to easily download. Here's another crucial difference with the Android version: Unlike Apple, China’s three mobile carriers allow one-click carrier billing for in-app purchases. In other words, when a Chinese gamer wants to buy an item in an Android game they’re playing, they just tap the Purchase button, and it's instantly billed on their carrier plan. This feature has led to a major disruption in the Chinese app market, a subject I wrote about in my previous Gamasutra post, and plan to cover further. But for the purpose of this post, you can see how dramatic Android carrier billing has been to Ski Safari’s income:

Results: 68,000 average downloads a day (both iOS and Android). Average daily revenue:$7000 a day on iOS and $7500 a day on Android. Overall, this represents a 100x revenue increase from the original international version of Ski Safari in China, which again, was earning just $69 in average daily revenue.


Ski Safari Chinese Edition Performance to Date

As the time of writing this article (mid-July 2013), the Chinese version of Ski Safari has been downloaded over 25 million times since first launching in December 2012, with roughly 60% of downloads from iOS and 40% from Android. Currently it averages around 250,000 daily downloads (factoring in weekend spikes), and is distributed on hundreds of app stores in the China market. We’re planning to keep that momentum going as we continue to expand distribution channels such as handset manufacturer pre-loads, and keep adding more content to re-engage the existing install base.

Current average daily revenue, as of June 21: $6000 a day on iOS and $9500 a day on Android. It's notable that Android revenue has significantly increased since its version launched in March, while the iOS version has somewhat decreased. I attribute Ski Safarai's great performance on Android to IAP carrier billing, while in contrast, a large portion of our iOS revenue comes from in-game advertising. (And unfortunately, Chinese ad network CPM has been going down in recent months.)

Final Takeaways and Future Updates

What's the key reason an Australian game featuring a Norwegian skier has become so big in China? I’d credit a combination of factors. Yes, adding Chinese cultural elements to Ski Safari helped quite a bit, but if we had published it to China's app stores without compressing the client as well, it would have been downloaded a lot less. Yes, optimizing in-app purchases greatly increased revenue, but even with Android carrier billing, most players do not make a single IAP, so we still need advertising and offer walls to monetize the rest. And of course, a comprehensive distribution network and promotion strategy that can cover China’s hundreds of app stores is always essential.

So to summarize Ski Safari's core lesson, I’d put it this way:

To maximize your odds of getting a hit game in China, make sure you culturalize the content for the Chinese audience while also making it a free-to-play game with in-app purchases while also compressing the download file as much as possible. (Not to mention having a fun, easy-to-play game to begin with.)

On June 28, we launched a new update to Ski Safari which adds more Journey to the West-inspired elements, including new creatures (a monkey and monster pig, lead characters from the classic Chinese story) and a new map that evokes locations from the tale. Along with new content/buyable items, we’re still optimizing in-app payment conversions, to see if that will increase daily revenue. Because the game has so many players already, even just a 1% bump in conversion rates or an extra ten cents in ARPU can have a huge impact.

Finally, we’ve integrated Kryptanium, our community SDK (which Gamasutra covered during last GDC). We’re pretty confident this will help us grow the game’s viral mechanics and organic growth. But anyone who’s tried to sustain downloads over a long period of time knows how hard it can be, and it’ll be a fun challenge to keep the Ski Safari party going into 2014. Either way, I’ll post an update later this year. Hopefully by then I’ll be able to report Ski Safari has over 50 million players in China -- and we’ll have to invite our Aussie friends from Defiant over to China to celebrate. :)


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Comments


Roberto Caldas
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How, after updating the game, do you tell them that "hey, now this runs on your low cost phone"?

Henry Fong
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Roberto, many of the Chinese app stores, (particular the carriers) actually require the game to be compatible with a range of designated low end devices before they approve the app. Hence the apk optimization process needs to happen before app submission. We typically test and optimize on a matrix of about 40 Android devices as part of our QA/compatibility testing.

Jeremy Billow
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This is more directed towards your "5 Things Every Mobile Developer Should Know about Chinese Players" article, but I didn't want to necro that thread. In the article you stated that Chinese players actually embrace IAPs as a way to show status, my question is: does this extend only to aesthetic IAPs or to equipment/boosters that Westerners may criticize as "pay to win" as well?

Henry Fong
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Jeremy, I think it's both. We're seeing that the mobile market is moving increasing towards F2P and a lot of developers in Western markets are also now experimenting with what works and what doesn't. If you look at most of the top grossing games on the iOS/Gplay charts, most of them invariably have a pretty heavy element of F2P (aka. read pay 2 win) inside. The biggest challenge for game designers is how to do this in a way that makes the game still "fun to play" for the individual gamer whether they choose to pay or not AND does not imbalance the overall game economy/social dynamics. This is something that many western developers are learning to do and I'm sure that over time, many will master.

In China, we grew up with F2P since this has been the business norm for over a decade, starting on the PC, then web and now mobile. This has forced us to learn how to design F2P games that monetize well through some pay to win elements but still is fun to play for the non-paying or low-paying gamers.

Stephen Chow
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Top grossing apps in Chinese is similar to JP. Mainly content driven, RPG and live operation. Example I'M MT, Sanguo Nizhuan (P&D clone). I am honest not big fan of endless ruining kind game. Even with high peak and trend in a short period 1-3 months, but the terrible retention rate in 30 days and dry content makes it not visible product for long term.


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