As Western app stores grow crowded and competition for users heats up, top mobile developers are searching for ways to increase their revenues, and many studios are looking to capitalize on booming mobile markets overseas, especially in China. Succeeding internationally, however, is not just a question of letting your game loose abroad and picking up a check. To be successful, games need to be designed with a foreign audience in mind: platform, publishing partners, and player preference all play a crucial role in determining whether a game will be a hit.
Tip 1: Build for Android
While iOS has outpaced Android in the western app market by key monetization and revenue metrics, in China the script is very much flipped. Android is estimated to hold close to 80 percent of revenue in the Chinese mobile gaming market, which is expected to be worth a total of nearly $1.2 billion in 2013. Due to the wide availability of low-cost Android devices, some reports indicate that Apple devices account for less than 10 percent of Chinese smartphones, but more importantly in China the Android platform offers a more frictionless payment process for users compared to iOS.
In the West, the iTunes music business prompted many users to associate their credit cards with Apple accounts years ago, making gaming purchases much easier today. In China, Apple was not able to enter the music business, and few consumers have credit cards in the first place. These factors make the iOS payment process tricky, while seamless payment on Android devices via carrier billing is much easier for Chinese consumers. Users have been accustomed to purchasing mobile content like ringtones, wallpapers, and virtual goods via SMS payment gateways from services including China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom for some time. With this precedent set, developers can more easily prompt Chinese consumers to purchase new level packs from Where’s My Water or coins for Fishing Joy through their phone carriers.
Furthermore, in games we publish at CocoaChina, Android provides a payment conversion rate that is 10 times higher across the board compared to iOS. It is true that the ARPPU (Average Revenue Per Paying User) can be greater from iOS users who, in general, have higher incomes. However, looking at the bigger picture, the Android platform offers 5 times the ARPDAU (Average Revenue Per Daily Active User) to iOS for the same game in China.
For developers looking to succeed overseas, Android compatibility is therefore essential. While mid-core and hardcore iOS games can also do very well in China, the Android market’s complete dominance makes it a far more lucrative proposition, especially for casual titles.
Tip 2: Find the right partner
Though Android has proved profitable for developers, the Android marketplace is not easy to navigate in China. Compared to the neatly defined and well-regulated Apple App Store, Google Play store, and Amazon Appstore that dominate the American and European markets, more than 500 Android app stores service China (in addition to Apple’s mobile storefront). Also, as mentioned above, payment in the U.S. is done with credit cards, but almost all app monetization in China goes through carrier billing.
As a result, developers generally rely on local publishing partners to place their games in the various stores and liaise with phone carriers. In a way, these relationships mirror how publisher relationships with Apple’s editorial team are in demand to increase the chances of being featured on different countries’ App Stores.
Of course, a good partnership will go far beyond publishing alone and will also assist in localization, culture adaptation, and operation of the game. In certain cases, developers do not need to localize their games to gain a decent user base in China because Chinese audiences traditionally have an appetite for a wide variety of Western entertainment. However, the reality is that localization isn’t as difficult as it appears and requires a small fraction of development budgets, making the benefits outweigh the costs. To break from the middle to the top of the charts, the most successful games in the country integrate high-quality localization, including everything from text translation to a trendy Chinese name, and even building new avatars and non-player characters to appeal to Chinese gamers.
In terms of ongoing support for games, the local publisher must have the capability (beyond traditional game management and needed live-ops for MMORPGs) to establish a workflow allowing frequent game updates, dissemination of the updates to those 200+ Android app stores, and tools to ensure users are notified of this new content.
At the end of the day, teaming up with a great local partner is vital to make a significant impact overseas – going solo, your game simply won’t get placed in the necessary channels without prohibitive amounts of market analysis and relationship building. Still, a partner can’t change the core design of your game: to be successful in China, you must also build a game that Chinese players want to play.
Tip 3: Build to local player preferences
No matter how well your game is designed, localized, and distributed, the reality of the Chinese market – as in any market – is that your game can flop simply because people don’t want to play it. From the beginning, developers should consider Chinese preferences for genre, game style, design, and monetization before entering the market.
From a genre standpoint, the mobile MMORPGs and 2D side-scrolling RPGs that frequently fizzle out in the U.S. and Western app markets are major hits in China, while hidden object games are embraced far more in the West than in China. If breaking into the Chinese market is a major part of your business plan, consider mutually appreciated genres like puzzle or physics games.
Similarly, game style can play a huge role in a game’s acceptance in China. The growing indie games movement in the West brought with it a general appreciation of retro-style graphics for games like Minecraft – realism is less important to a game’s visual quality than interesting or unique art. Chinese players, on the other hand, prefer realism in their games and may reject games with that same stylized art direction that makes a title stand out in the U.S. and European markets.
The most significant design hurdle, however, is monetization. Monetization practices differ greatly across the Pacific and can often cause the most trouble – or the most reward – for developers entering new markets.
Western consumers generally expect free-to-play games to create a level playing field for paid and non-paid users. They assume that impatient players will to be able to advance with real currency, while thrifty players can move forward at a slower but still competitive rate. Chinese players, on the other hand, are not shy about buying their advantage, and the most popular games are often designed such that players must spend hard currency to top leaderboards. Players expect to power-up with real money, and they enjoy this type of play.
What U.S. and European consumers deride as “aggressive monetization” in games that continually prompt upgrades has been accepted as normal practice in the East. Monetization optimization by culture is important for games shipping in both directions, and just as Chinese developers need to consider Western preferences and lighten monetization schemas, so too must Western developers augment monetization for Chinese players in a way that could be unacceptable domestically.
The Road East
With all of this said, developers should build the games that they want to build and consider whether it’s worth going abroad on a title-by-title basis. Clearly, there are many moving parts to foreign publishing. It is difficult for developers to contemplate these nuances from the start when designing a game for both markets, but companies who do so will be able to move the needle in global revenue.
Ultimately, the numbers speak for themselves: we expect to see a single title gross as much as $10 million to $15 million a month this year. Everyone is looking for their own slice of this revenue, and smart developers who optimize their games for Android, find a trustworthy and capable localization partner, and design their games with Chinese players in mind will see the biggest returns.†
Lei Zhang is the U.S. General Manager of CocoaChina, an international mobile game developer based in China. Lei runs all aspects of U.S. operations for CocoaChina, including establishing developer partnerships and managing game localization.
CocoaChina/Chukong offers full service localization and publishing to North American developers, as well as builds their own titles for the Chinese and North American markets. Its flagship Fishing Joy franchise currently generates more than $6.28 million in monthly revenue.
For updates on the company and the mobile landscape in China, follow @CocoaChina on Twitter.